It is not uncommon for me, when I travel outside of South Bend, to encounter people who love Notre Dame and who are ready to sing its praises, even with respect to its Catholic character.

More common among what one might call Catholic conservative circles, though—and especially among my peers who occupy those circles—is a tendency to strongly criticize Notre Dame for its effective secularity. (Such peer criticisms often come from students of schools such as Ave Maria or Franciscan University, a phenomenon that is regrettable for reasons I explore below.)

Such criticisms often bother me, coming as they do from individuals who either possess no first-hand insight into the internal dynamic of the life of the university, or whose criticisms seem to derive from a smug satisfaction with how such critiques illuminate the virtues of the critic's own Catholic college or university. In neither event am I much impressed with criticisms of Notre Dame, regardless of how accurately a particular criticism may correspond to the way things are at the university.

I have been as publicly critical of the university's actions during my four years here as has any student. Among other students, or faculty, or alums, I feel comfortable discussing Notre Dame's merits and demerits, because such discussions occur "within the family." But these conversations and criticisms are occasioned by and contextualized within an often implicit understanding of the inimitable amount of good that the university effects; goods that few, if any, other Catholic colleges or universities could ever hope to contribute to the life of the Church. 

It is certainly not lost on me that Notre Dame has its lion's share of flaws, that its administrators often act without courage or conviction, or that its enormous potential for good is only partially actualized. Even my strongest public criticisms of the university do not convey the frustration and sadness I feel towards the university I love so much.

But given Notre Dame's decision to comply with the provisions demanded by the Department of Health and Human Services insurance mandate, and the accompanying wave of public criticism that is enveloping Our Lady's University, I hope that my take on the university's character can impart some perspective to those inclined blindly or blithely to criticize Notre Dame.

Recently, the Cardinal Newman Society published a feature piece on my time at Notre Dame and my work with the Irish Rover. In that interview, I cursorily raised the concept of institutional vocation, a concept without which, I think, no informed evaluation of Notre Dame's Catholic character vis–à–vis peer Catholic institutions of higher education can be made. Below is the full text of my responses to a few questions that the Society posed me. Would that more people—and my Catholic conservative peers in particular—kept these things in mind.

How have you been able to live out your faith on campus?  Can you think of any stories that show a glimpse of what it’s like to be a faithful Catholic on campus?

Very well. The reality of the environment at Notre Dame is so much more nuanced than most of its critics realize. There exists, unquestionably, a more vibrant, intellectually-informed, robust Catholic culture at Notre Dame for students who want to live faithfully than there exists at any other Catholic college or university in America. I absolutely believe that.

The problem is that this culture is a subculture, not in that it’s “difficult” to place one’s faith at the center of one’s identity (it isn’t, at all), nor in that faithful Catholics are ridiculed for their way of living and believing (they generally are not), but in that the niche in which one can find the community support that one always needs to really embrace the faith in a radical way is just that, a niche. That may not be true of other Catholic colleges or universities. But what I’m saying is that within that niche at Notre Dame, vis-à-vis anywhere else, are more opportunities, more resources, more intellectual formation, and as much devotion as you can find anywhere.

Stories and anecdotes abound, but none of them express properly what I’m articulating here. I’ll just say that while I have often (very often) been disappointed in institutional actions that Notre Dame undertakes or fails to undertake, I have never once felt want in my own life of faith at Notre Dame. That fact is due entirely to the grace of God, and the innumerable good people—students, faculty, priests, mentors—at Notre Dame who love Our Lady deeply and are fully committed to loving the Church in every way.

What are some of Notre Dame’s strengths in terms of Catholic identity? In what ways has the university improved?
I’m really not qualified to speak to the second question, as my window of experience as a student doesn’t provide me with the perspective that, say, faculty advocates (or alums) enjoy in consideration of these developments. I will say, though, (because it is widely known), that the theology department under the chairmanship of John Cavadini flourished in more ways than one.

The sacramental life at Notre Dame is thriving. More Masses are celebrated here daily than at any other university on earth. There are many institutes and centers whose work so richly bodies forth the Church’s mission through their programming and the cultivation of community, which is really the cornerstone of any healthy faith or intellectual life.

It seems to me that in discussing “Notre Dame’s” Catholic identity, the concept of institutional subsidiarity is often forgotten. Just as the Catholic Church is not the Vatican—and, more importantly, not even the institutional Church can be reduced to the Vatican—so too is “Notre Dame” more than its administration and its administrators.

I say this only by way of emphasizing that whatever the quality of administrative efforts at Notre Dame, more “local” expressions of Catholic identity—those that I would consider to be the most authentic and the most life-giving—are myriad in the form of smaller pockets, if you will; and it must be stressed that this fact doesn’t necessarily (though it may) reflect poorly on the larger institutional structure of the university. In my opinion, that’s how it should be: not to the exclusion of an integrated institutional witness, but with an understanding of the appropriateness of various levels of ministry.

In what ways do you think Notre Dame still needs to improve?
To reference what I’ve just said, I would like to see a more integrated institutional witness, one that unites administrators, faculty, and other staff in a vision of the Catholic Church’s mission as being truly normative for the life of the university. As things stand, it often seems as if facets of that mission are viewed as fungible, when the cost of discipleship begins to run high. Again, there are faculty and alums more ably suited to speak to this dynamic. But even a student can see that the Catholic “diamond in the rough” vibrancy at Notre Dame should be not so in-the-rough.

Notre Dame’s institutional vocation is very different from what smaller Catholic universities or colleges are called to be in and for the Church. Not better or worse, but very different. The mistake that many critics of Notre Dame make is to compare it directly to other institutions of Catholic higher education and compare and contrast, often indiscriminately in my opinion, the merits and demerits of life at Notre Dame. But such analyses bespeak a worrisome blindness to institutional vocation.

Yes, there are normative magisterial expressions that ought to govern and guide the life of the university, among which expressions Ex Corde Ecclesiae is foremost. And undeniably, Notre Dame is falling short by ECE standards; that much is obvious in a vacuum.

But, fidelity to the Church qua the Catholic university that Notre Dame is—not as a quasi-institutional “parish,” or “youth group,” or catechesis program, or retreat, or even a smaller Catholic college or less prominent Catholic university—is what should inform analyses of Notre Dame’s Catholicism. Not comparisons with other institutions, the missions of which we really can’t pretend are all equal in either scope or even intent.