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Lessons from Notre Dame

An article by Notre Dame Professor Brad Gregory explains why he left a tenured positon at Stanford to teach at Notre Dame.

What drew me to Notre Dame was its Catholic identity. Numerous academics think that any university with a religious mission must be inhibiting academic freedom, marking itself as sectarian and advertising itself as intellectually narrow. Such a characterization justly applies to some religiously affiliated colleges and universities, which want to keep the wider world at bay. Not so Notre Dame. In fact, in my experience, there is greater academic freedom at Notre Dame than at leading secular universities, in ways that both derive from and reach beyond its Catholic mission.

Because of deep-rooted assumptions in our society about religion as a private, personal matter of individual opinion and feeling, the secular academy routinely excludes it from consideration as religion. Instead, religion is usually studied not as what Christians, Jews or Muslims, for example, claim that it is -- a human response to the living God -- but as a human construction to be explained through the secular categories of the modern social sciences and humanities. In secular institutions, even to raise questions in the classroom about whether, say, Christian claims about reality might be true or prayer might entail experience of God is to court a reprimand if not formal censure.

However, irreligious and atheistic ideas are discussed at Notre Dame -- for if Catholicism is what it claims to be, it should fear no intellectual challenge (can one imagine Aquinas refusing to read Aristotle?). As a result, a wider range of ideas, religious views, and moral and political perspectives can be aired in academic settings without denigration or intimidation at Notre Dame than at leading secular universities. Similarly, because of Notre Dame's Catholic identity, many people here understand that religion is not a part of life but rather influences the way in which all of life is understood and experienced.

This insight implies that a Catholic university can and should have scholars who raise appropriate questions about the relationship of Catholic teachings and sensibilities to their respective areas of expertise in the social sciences, natural sciences, arts and humanities, which in turn should be brought into relationship with Catholicism. For nothing in reality is outside God's creation. There is no such intellectual enterprise at secular institutions. It is liberating to be at a University with a wider scope for academic freedom because it lets religion be religion on its own terms.

There is much else to ponder in Professor Gregory's short, but rich reflection.

About the Author

Rev. Robert P. Imbelli, a priest of the Archdiocese of New York, is Associate Professor of Theology Emeritus at Boston College.



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Notre Dame always loves a compliment--especially from BC!By the way, Bob, you're famous here, as is this blog. The point about John Meier not being a Jesuit was picked up by our external relations people.

I thought this was a terrific post for a number of reasons:-what is says a Catholic University should be doing-that ND (and I suspect a number of others) are doing, despite the views of local ordinaries;-what is says about the students. The usual thing I read is how little informed and how unCatholic they are, except a small minority.There is lots of hope here - a hope that Fr. Jenkins and his staff ought to receive lots more encouragement for their continued engagement with truth in tradition and across the modern world

Brad is my colleague so I'm hardly neutral on his or his article's merits. But dotCommonweal readers interested in a demonstration of some of his ideas on humanistic scholarship and the particular historical problems of the Reformation period should look at his Salvation at Stake (Harvard University Press, 1999).

Bows must always go to Hesburgh for negotiating the independence of Catholic universities from Rome. As far as Notre Dame is concerned I wonder how open a few of those theology professors there are when they could not handle the Vagina Monologues.Ex Corde Ecclesia sought to undermine that independence and Rome is still waiting for the right time to spread the Newman vigilantes all over the place.Brad Gregory's assertion is quite edifying. No question that the faith can grow in an environment that is not afraid to examine one's beliefs with God-given tools. So that one may mix in a caring environment in discipleship. One might delight in a few sisters and brothers at the same time.Some of them may even come from other faiths.

Professor Gregory's indictment of secular universities is so sweeping as to make one wish for comment by, say, Luke Timothy Johnson respecting Emory University or Robert Louis Wilken respecting the University of Virginia. Professor Johnson's Commonweal article of October 20, 2006, for example, describes a vibrant Catholic faculty presence that one would think alien to the sort of secular academy portrayed by Professor Gregory. Is it possible that Stanford and Harvard are not representative of the entire universe?

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