"God, Country, Notre Dame," Take Three; Or, Some Thoughts about Colleges and the Common Good

It’s alumni weekend at Notre Dame. I’m not an alum, but I’m on campus for a meeting of the Catholic Social Teaching (or Thought or Traditions) Research and Learning Initiative, which involves faculty from a dozen or so Catholic colleges and universities across the country, from coast to coast. We’re here on a “writing retreat” to push some of our projects along. One project is a rubric to assess student appropriation of CST, another an oral history on student understanding of CST at various institutions, another an investigation of obstacles and opportunities for the realization of CST principles in institutional infrastructures, policies, and practices: more concretely, such matters as employment policies, the use of adjunct and other contingent faculty, responses to unionization efforts, board composition and education, and strategic planning priorities.

The intersection of our meeting with the alumni reunion has proven fortuitous. For example, I shared a cab from the airport with an alumna from the class of 1976, which includes the first cohort of undergraduate women at Notre Dame. This alumna also happens to be the CEO of a nonprofit lender or “enterprise fund” that seeks to help small, emerging businesses unable to secure normal bank financing. In other words—in CST terms, drawn from John Paul II and reiterated by Francis—her work cuts against an economy of exclusion. It says no, though in an imaginatively positive way, to “the survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless.” She joined us for discussion on Friday.

With so many alums about, I’ve also found myself thinking about the intersection of “God, Country, Notre Dame,” words inscribed in stone on the Basilica of the Sacred Heart. Not being a Notre Dame alum—and having grown up blocks from Villanova—these words have struck me, on earlier visits to Notre Dame, as something of an unholy trinity: way too rah-rah for my tastes; tainted by football fandom and an untoward assurance of divine favor. (Not only did I grow up blocks from Villanova, but my own fandom for Villanova basketball sometimes compromises my “epistemic integrity,” as the philosopher Simon Keller argues that loyalty often will do….)

A first challenge to my take on those three words came on a visit to campus a dozen years ago for a conference of the American Catholic Philosophical Association. Dan Berrigan was among the conference-goers; Ted Hesburgh said Mass for us. I witnessed what another philosopher—surely a Hegelian—explained to me was a reconciliation between Berrigan and Hesburgh: an embrace that, he told me (more or less), at once recognized and overcame, while yet preserving, decades of tensions between the two over the proper relationship between the Catholic church and American society, between institution building and prophetic critique, between mammon and manna. Maybe.

A second challenge has come this weekend through an article by the historian David O’Brien—do they make them like him any longer?—on “The United States’ Historical Engagement with Catholic Social Teaching,” the opening chapter in the book A Vision of Justice: Engaging Catholic Social Teaching on the College Campus. O’Brien, as readers of dotCommonweal might know, is an advocate of “Americanization,” which he characterizes in this article as “a pastoral as well as an intellectual imperative,” namely, to bring Catholic teaching to bear on the particulars of life in American society, which means both informing it and being open to being informed by it in turn (a rough characterization, too, of the mission of Commonweal over the last century). Now, what might “God, Country, Notre Dame” mean in this light? How might the members of this trinity cohere?

Jim Keenan has blogged a bit on this site about his work on “university ethics.” What he has to say about the lack of horizontal accountability among the various offices or “fiefdoms” (his word) organizing our academic institutions—academic affairs, student life, institutional advancement, enrollment management—is all too insightful. That accountability flows “unilaterally and singularly vertically,” as he writes in his recent book, makes it difficult to sustain a sense that the institution really is a community animated by common interests other than the bottom line. It can also stand in the way of apprehension or even realization of the institution as a common good: a good that can be enjoyed only in common, together with others who constitute it with us (compare a conversation, a party, a friendship, a family, a city, and a political society, among other examples).

Keenan further claims, in his book, that “the culture of the contemporary university” is characterized by “a decided air of privilege and self-importance,” with little concern “about how it serves the world or the common good” beyond the institution. He doesn’t draw a connection between the alleged failure of universities to understand or realize themselves as common goods with the alleged failure of universities to serve greater common goods, but the connection seems to me suggested. As I read Keenan’s book, what he calls a “culture of isolationism” in at least the so-called (and self-proclaimed) elite academy reflects and supports, far from challenging, a culture of possessive individualism in our political society.

“God, Country, Notre Dame,” read through the lens of the imperative of Americanization as O’Brien intends it, represents a summons to be countercultural in this regard, though in the service of our political society rather than in flight from it, however tempting that now is. Among the gifts that Notre Dame—standing here for all other U.S. Catholic colleges and universities—has to offer country is the experience, witness, and accordingly concept of a common good, which is increasingly foreign to American political discourse. Here’s where our humble CST project seeks to help. One of its aims is precisely to give Catholic colleges and universities means to develop and coordinate CST-grounded programs and initiatives across “fiefdoms,” thereby encouraging both accountability and community. Otherwise put, though I don’t know if all participants would agree with this language, our project is dedicated to the fostering of Catholic colleges and universities as common goods. This is hardly a cure-all, but it's a start—and God knows, anyway, our political society needs all the help it can muster.

By way of a postscript, see further, on the CST Research and Learning Initiative, both its web site and the articles by Heather Mack, Jennifer Reed-Bouley, and Margarita Rose in the latest issue of the journal Expositions (10/1 [2016]). The project's principal conveners are Jay Brandenberger of Notre Dame and Kathleen Maas Weigert of Loyola Chicago.

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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