Core Wars, Notre Dame, 2015

It’s no news that “core wars” have become rife at Catholic colleges and universities. As Gonzaga’s Academic Vice President Patricia Killen recently remarked in a paper given at King’s, the core curriculum has become “that project to which multiple and often conflicting desires, passions, hopes, fears, long-standing animosities, and deep commitments, both individual and organizational, cling like iron filings to a magnet.” (Core curriculum = an institution’s general education requirements, which all students must satisfy in some form or another.) The review of the core at Notre Dame, however, has become national news, thanks it seems to alumni rumbling and murmuring, expressed among other places on Twitter.

I have neither a dog in this fight, nor insider information. (And I’m not a Notre Dame alum.) My source is an article in the Washington Post claiming that the review “raises far-reaching Catholic identity questions.”

That’s probably hyperbolic. What has some faculty and alumni upset is the possibility, apparently no more than under consideration at this point, that two theology courses may no longer be required. (No word on the two philosophy courses.) Before you join the Twitter feed #loveTHEOnotredame, note that there’s no plan to eliminate theological education, or even, so far as I understand, to reduce the number of courses required under this heading. What’s under consideration is allowing other departments to offer core courses that satisfy the learning goals that theological education is supposed to serve. (The Post article suggests “a course on Catholic painters in the Renaissance period or a course on Dante.”) In other words, what’s under consideration is taking control of the core course offerings from the theology department and instead empowering a committee composed of faculty from multiple disciplines to determine what courses do and don’t satisfy whatever the learning goals of theological education are understood to be.

It’s not difficult to imagine reasons why this idea would prove controversial. There’s no question to my mind that the theology department knows best what quality theological education looks like. The interesting question raised by this contretemps is how best to educate a theologically-literate student body. If this is the goal, are theology department courses, and only theology department courses, the best means? What are the best means? But then, just what is the goal? How is to be elaborated? Difficult though it is, that’s a discussion worth having. But not in 140-character bits!

Bernard G. Prusak is associate professor of philosophy and director of the McGowan Center for Ethics and Social Responsibility at King's College in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. He is the author of Catholic Moral Philosophy in Practice and Theory: An Introduction (Paulist Press, 2016). 

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