Within the past month, the news that Notre Dame is seriously considering the abolition of its theology requirements from the university’s core curriculum has broken. National Catholic Register published an informative essay in January, and the Washington Post, National Catholic Reporter (in two parts, here and here), and First Things, among others, have followed suit.
The articles enumerated above provide the basic contours of the situation at Notre Dame. Here I further explore but two themes invited by these articles.
Transparency, Accountability, and Narratives
The current curriculum review committee succeeds another committee, active last year, which was tasked with providing the present committee with recommended courses of action. That former committee was chaired by Father Robert Sullivan, who told me in February of last year that “the deliberations of the committee are closed to all media” and that when his committee concluded “at the end of the semester, there should be something for public consumption.”
The university never issued any such publicly available report, at semester’s end or any other time. When I contacted Fr. Sullivan this summer to inquire about the report, he informed me that there was none. The university spokesperson did not respond to information requests concerning its existence.
Alas. But has this present committee given reason to trust its transparency and accountability? Not so much.
Cyril O’Regan, who delivered a powerful defense of the theology requirements at an open discussion held on February 9 with Mark Roche, was a member of Fr. Sullivan’s committee. O’Regan said that evening:
I confess that my actual experience with the first [committee] and how I perceive the current one is being conducted gives me plenty of cause for concern. In my judgment less than one-third of the people on the original committee were for a radical overhaul of the curriculum, that is, a review that would not spare philosophy and theology. In line with a highly activist senior administration, a dean—whose declared position was for radical change—was appointed co-chair of the committee; the constitution of the committee is, arguably, not fairly representative of the more moderate voices of the original committee; the talk of learning goals (faith and reason), which can be completed outside the disciplines of philosophy and theology, gives all the appearances of being a calculated attack on the very notion of disciplines and by implication at least on the respective departments of philosophy and theology. None of this is intended to insult my conversation partner here, or to suggest a lack of open-mindedness regarding the persons appointed to the committee. Mark Roche did not appoint himself, nor did any of the others. But as a rose is a rose, a slant is a slant. And the origins and constitution of the committee cries slant.
In January 2015, the committee chairs informed all members of the central committee and all its focus groups that they were not to speak to media—even internal campus media—about the committee’s deliberations. For this reason Roche requested that the video footage of his discussion with O’Regan be restricted to those possessing university credentials.
Yet the committee chairs insist that they want to garner as much feedback as possible from the same community that they want to leave in the dark about their proceedings.
Roche admitted candidly—and I credit him for this—that the committee does not understand theology and philosophy to be “off-limits” to disciplinary reduction or elimination. He pointedly disagreed with O’Regan that the two disciplines are essential to the curriculum of a Catholic university. Rather, Roche emphasized the priority of “global learning goals” that would assume architectural primacy in the curricular schema, over and above disciplinary distinctions. He further emphasized that on his learning-goals schema, it could be zero required theology courses or four that best actualize the university’s intellectual mission. (Given the historical trend at Notre Dame and other dynamics, the chances of this committee increasing the present requirements for theology are practically none.)
As a member of the review committee and chair of the Catholic Mission focus group, Roche’s perspective is a non-negligible one. By admitting that theology and philosophy are subject to revision—including disciplinary reduction or elimination—he confirmed that one has good reason to perceive in the ongoing review a threat to theology at Notre Dame. O’Regan’s report concerning one of the committee’s chair’s self-proclaimed “radical” position confirms this suspicion.
Why, then, did university provost Tom Burish dismiss such concerns—that there is a live possibility that the theology requirements will be dropped—as “alarmist” in response to an email from a Notre Dame undergraduate inquiring into the rumors generated by the O’Regan-Roche discussion? And again at a recent town hall meeting on campus? And how to square this stance with that of John McGreevy, who recently assured students—just days after Burish adamantly insisted, “I don't think that anyone right now has an answer what the committee is going to recommend”—that theology would not be eliminated: “Everyone knows that theology is central to whatever is going to happen at Notre Dame”?
Will theology requirements be reduced or eliminated in the recommendation that this committee will make in spring 2016? Yes, uncertain, or no? If the former or latter, then why the charade of continuous open-mindedness and the call for ongoing dialogue? If undecided, why disparage concerns over its elimination as “alarmist”? One gets the sense that administrators are at pains to market sophisticated and reasoned arguments (like O’Regan’s remarks, or John Cavadini’s October Commonweal essay on theology in the curriculum) as inappropriate or premature. But this is irresponsible caricature.
The review committee’s deliberations, in spite of its chairs’ calls for dialogue and numerous open forum events, have been (Roche admirably excepted) opaque. As O’Regan suggests, its constitution and formation “cries slant.” And the narrative that administrators are employing in the face of heightened internal and external concern over the theology requirements is inconsistent and unconvincing. (Burish claimed at the town hall meeting that there “may be” an individual who wants to get rid of theology requirements. Yet according to O’Regan, one of the chairs of the committee favors radical change where theology is concerned!)
Mission Statement, Mission Courses, and “Hires for Mission”
Roche also emphasized on February 9 that he would like to see all departments at Notre Dame hire more actively for mission—meaning, hire and offer tenure-track positions to faculty who embody Notre Dame’s mission statement. This is a noble, if obvious, aspiration.
It is problematized by Notre Dame’s deep confusion over its own Catholic identity, though, and failures to witness to that mission in other respects threaten to extinguish the hope of “mission hiring” in many of the same departments (e.g., anthropology, sociology, English) that Roche would like to see share the burden, as it were, of teaching “mission courses” to undergraduates.
But Roche’s proposal invites the question: To what extent do curricular disciplines other than theology and philosophy “carry” the mission that they exist to serve? One longtime professor in attendance the evening of February 9 objected that both speakers seemed to accept the premise that theology “houses” the mission, and posited that such an assumption is deadly to Catholic institutions. When only some departments or disciplines at the Catholic university understand themselves to be contributors to—one might say “caretakers of”—that university’s Catholic mission, disintegration is soon to follow, because the mission no longer animates all departments or disciplines, but is “housed” in one, or two.
Whether O’Regan and Roche affirmed this view—and on my reading of O’Regan’s remarks, he did not—the objection is important because it is correct. All departments and disciplines existing at a given Catholic university have an institutional obligation to up-build the Catholic mission, to contribute to the integration of faith and culture, to respect basic principles of human dignity as the Church understands them, and so forth. Once present on campus, each department is essential to the mission.
But two further points can be made. The first is that not all such departments or disciplines are in principal essential to the project of the Catholic university. If they were, then one could not have a Catholic university unless all such disciplines were present; since this isn’t true of any university, no Catholic universities exist on this premise. Yet, theology is essential to the existence of the Catholic university because the presence of a theological faculty or chair signals an institutional affirmation of the validity (historicity, where appropriate) of that discipline’s first principles, i.e., the divine revelation definitively expressed in Jesus and entrusted as a deposit to the teaching office of the Catholic Church. A Catholic university without, say, gender studies, can still be a Catholic university; the same cannot be true of theology.
The second further point is that even given the presence of other disciplines—the classical liberal arts, say—theology remains more focally essential to the university’s mission, even though they too are essential, since theology’s presence is essential. The disciplines are all essential in practice but in unequal shares because different in principle: a synergism of sorts.
Finally, at stake in the current curriculum review is the question of whether Notre Dame qua Catholic university is willing to affirm its unabashed belief in the validity, including historicity where appropriate, of the divine revelation that constitutes the “data” of theological thought. As the core curriculum rationale for theology, affirmed in 2005, ably notes, “What is distinctive about theology, the ‘science of God,’ is not simply that it is directed toward the study of God, but also that this study is ultimately made possible only through a prior, divinely-initiated relationship.”
If Notre Dame chooses to discard all learning goals structured by that conviction, it simply and swiftly forfeits any (lingering) claim to institutional Catholic identity; it can continue to study, talk about, and investigate God and the Catholic Church, but in a secular—because relativized, because reduced from a theological plane to a sub- or extra-theological plane—vein, at best.
On the other hand, if Notre Dame’s curriculum is to retain any learning goals—inspired largely by and in response to Dei Verbum—explicitly concerned with the affirmation and exploration of the Catholic faith (i.e., theological learning goals), then those goals can only be fulfilled through theological investigation, whether by that name, a different name, or no name.
If that name, then theology must remain in the curriculum, since only theological courses can satisfy theological (not religious or spiritual or phenomenological or historical or cultural, even when ecclesially oriented) learning goals.
If a different name, then ostensibly theological learning goals are satisfied by non-theological disciplinary methodologies. But in this case those methodologies “trump,” through relativizing, the theological learning goals themselves, and thus distort them. If one has to learn about theological topics (“learning goals”) through an anthropological (positivist) methodology, then those goals are accidental to that methodology rather than constitutive of it (otherwise the discipline should just be called “theology”); the methodology itself remains unconnected to the goals that it purports to deliver and satisfy.
Other disciplinary forays into subjects religious, or even confessional or ecclesial, can remain agnostic about or even just deny the validity (and historicity where appropriate) of the first principles of theology—and thus vitiate theological learning goals—without violating their own methodological rigor or integrity. (That’s not to say that these disciplines are not enriched and invigorated by infusion of faith insofar as faith corresponds to reality.)
If no name: This will confuse and disorient the entire professoriate, and introduce more hurdles, in some respects, to mission hiring—e.g., where harmonizing concern for research prominence and undergraduate teaching ability are concerned—than it relieves.
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The challenges facing the review committee are legion and complex. But not every question that it faces is difficult to answer. Should Notre Dame retain its curricular disciplinary theological requirements for all undergraduate students? Yes, and not just because it’s the most feasible and practical option: It must, if it wants to serve the Catholic mission that it claims to animate this entire process.