An Interview with Father Bill Miscamble, CSC, author of a new book that examines the current state of the Church's flagship university, and what's in store for its future.
Rev. Wilson D. (Bill) Miscamble, C.S.C., joined the permanent faculty in the history department at the University of Notre Dame in 1988. An Australian native, he received his doctoral degree from Notre Dame in 1980, and was ordained a priest with the Congregation of the Holy Cross on April 9, 1988. He chaired the history department between 1993-1998, has served as rector and superior of Moreau Seminary, and has published a number of books. His most recent is For Notre Dame: Battling for the Heart and Soul of a Catholic University, published by St. Augustine’s Press. Fr. Miscamble recently spoke with us about the Catholic identity of the University of Notre Dame.
The University of Notre Dame appears to have two faces. There’s the public face of Our Lady’s university as a flagship for Catholic higher education, and then there’s the hidden face that visitors don’t see. Can you provide some insights into this view?
There’s the academic heart of the university, and there is what might be called “the neighborhood,” which is campus life and the Lady on the Dome and so forth. Folks who come as outsiders see the visual expression of religion and people coming to Mass – which is all terrific – and they say, “What’s your problem? Why are you worried about Catholicism at Notre Dame?” However, when you go into the classroom, is what students receive here that much different from what they would receive at any other place?
Where I see a kind of two faces is Notre Dame is a school that wants to be the preeminent Catholic university to a variety of constituencies, yet we face all the temptations to conform to all the universities with which we want to compete, and that is done often at a cost to our Catholicity. I say that we worship at the golden calf of U.S. News and World Report’s rankings, with all that implies. I hope that Cardinal Newman Society readers will understand that there is a real struggle going on for the future of Notre Dame, a struggle for what kind of place this will be. Notre Dame needs to be held accountable.
Tell us about your new book.
It represents, in a certain sense, two decades of my efforts here at Notre Dame to develop an authentic Catholic university. I joined the full-time faculty in 1988. The pieces in the book represent both written and spoken contributions on that debate over two decades. It’s broken up into two sections; one on the 1990s, and one on the most recent decade up to 2012, in which there were many more specific controversies. My hope for the book is not just that it’s a record of past engagements, but I hope that it will be an encouragement for other folks to take stock of where we are, and to encourage reflection about where we might go forward.
In the foreword of your book you write: “Notre Dame is blessed with real strengths as a Catholic university. Yet without major actions to bolster its essential institutional commitment the university’s strengths are insufficient to ward off the dangers that threaten its Catholic mission.” What do you see as Notre Dame’s greatest strengths?
We have a wonderful tradition. We have a century-and-a-half-plus commitment to Catholic education and contribution to American Catholic life. There’s an expectation for us to be Catholic. We have something to live up to.
That type of tangible sense is deeply important. We have the contribution of the religious community involved here, the Congregation of Holy Cross. While I would say that the Order could have contributed more in the past two decades, we are still deeply engaged in this institution and see it as a crucial apostolate. We have a terrific core of Catholic scholars across a range of departments, and we have attracted recently some committed Catholic scholars who believe in the mission. We have a mission statement that sets out clearly that we are to be a Catholic university. We have financial resources. We have a beautiful campus, and a vibrant liturgical life on campus. While I worry that more and more of our students come because of our ranking, many do come seeking a distinctly Catholic education. We have important and crucial strengths that should allow us to develop as truly a strong Catholic institution that has an international reputation for playing a crucial role in the future of the Church and society generally.
What are its greatest weaknesses?
Our weaknesses and limitations are that we are somewhat confused on mission. We sometimes aren’t willing to make the tough decisions in living out our mission. Faculty hiring is essential and crucial. Some faculty hired at Notre Dame have no interest in Notre Dame as a Catholic institution, and some dislike it being a Catholic university. They show no enthusiasm for hiring Catholic scholars. Who teaches and what is taught are the questions that get to the heart of the challenges and the weaknesses of Notre Dame.
The question of curriculum is key. What do our students receive in the classroom? We need some significant work to re–shape curriculum, and to prepare students for their their careers and for their role in society. We have real strengths, but we face enormous challenges.
Does the Catholic faith infuse some departments better than others?
Thanks to John Cavadini, our theology department is much stronger than it was in the 1980s. He helped refashion the department in an ecclesial sense. It’s much better at serving the Church and not at critiquing the Church. That’s been a notable accomplishment.
The law school would be the most Catholic part of Notre Dame. Our law school plays an important role on a number of public issues including in advising the bishops’ conference. In the school of business, all of the courses emphasize an ethical dimension. But the sense of faith seeking understanding could be strengthened across most departments, especially in our philosophy department. It should be one our strongest and yet it is in need of significant repair and work.
What do you see as the turning point for Notre Dame. When did it start walking down the secular path?
I think this is a tension that’s been ongoing for 30 to 40 years. Folks could hearken back to Land O’Lakes, but of course, Fr. Hesburgh was working with a faculty that was 70 to 80 percent Catholic. In his outlook, he probably couldn’t conceive of Notre Dame as anything but a Catholic university. But the hiring practices during the 1970s and ‘80s did a lot of damage. The University was hiring along the same criteria as any other school. They were not hiring for Catholic mission. That really began to be evident in the place. In some sense, that’s the circumstance that greeted me in my early years on the faculty and led some of us to begin the Conversation on the Catholic Character of Notre Dame. We saw that if these trends continued, it would be a disaster for Notre Dame. One thing I can say to The Cardinal Newman Society readers is that there has been a struggle here. People haven’t given up. We’re not willing to put up with the mere façade approach that some schools have adopted. Of course, there’s no guarantee as to what will happen here. In fact, I worry about what will happen.
The battle at Notre Dame is hardly unique to the University. It’s one the larger culture and the Church at large face as well.
The University must understand itself as part of this larger struggle. We must be an intellectual bastion where what Pope Benedict XVI called “the dictatorship of relativism” doesn’t prevail. We need to play our part. The University should be part of that larger struggle, but some here fear such commitment will upset their peers at other universities and in the elite culture.
I understand that there is hopeful news regarding the Holy Cross seminary?
I was rector for a time, between 2000 and 2004 and am familiar with our formation efforts. I think the Holy Cross order in the U.S. has a solid formation effort. We wish we had more people coming to us, but we do have about 50 in various stages of formation. Our chaps take their academic classes in the theology department at Notre Dame, so they can receive training from some excellent instructors. Our work at the seminary is that it’s a place for human formation and preparation for living authentic religious life. There’s a good quality of life here, with some able and capable young men. We would like more men to come and experience our life. We certainly have an important role and responsibility as a religious order to strengthen the Catholicity of our institutions.
Aside from increasing the number of committed Catholic faculty, are there other things that can be done?
We must increase the faculty committed to the Catholic mission. Let me note, however, that some who are most supportive of the mission are not Catholics. They have their part to play. We also have to take a hard look at the curriculum. For example, what is the content of the philosophy requirement? We require students to take philosophy and theology, but have no real sense that what they take in those courses is providing them what could be described as a Catholic education. We need to focus more attention on that going forward. The Liberal Arts are under challenge in a national context, but at a Catholic university, students should emerge with a good understanding of the Catholic intellectual tradition, social justice, teachings on human life… I don’t think that if all the recent graduates were questioned about what they were taking away from the place, that they would have that strong sense of Catholic higher learning and training that equips them for life.
Institutions like Notre Dame have been built on the backs of, and donations of, faithful Catholics, yet many have abandoned that heritage. How do we gain these institutions back?
Some are too far gone, but Notre Dame is not one of those. There is a battle over this place. How do we get them back? We have to understand what is going on within them and fight for them. We cannot be content that there’s a nice Catholic campus ministry and a nice Church on campus. We have to demand that they provide an authentic Catholic education for our students. That’s not going to be an easy fight.
Where do you see signs of hope at Notre Dame?
In the presence of an increasing number of younger committed faculty, who want to take up the fight and are willing to do it. We have faculty who have given up tenured positions elsewhere to come. They know there’s a fight going on, but they want to contribute. There’s hope in the good number of students involved in groups like our Right to Life organization. We had between 500-600 students attend the March for Life this year.
There are people here who want to engage. I don’t think our trustees get it sufficiently enough, and the administration has made a number of major mistakes, so we have a long way to go. The administration thinks it can finesse the issue by having a nice front or bringing in a good speaker – but the fundamental issues must be confronted; it can’t just be finessed or tweaked. It has to be confronted directly and soon. We need to be upfront as an Ex corde Ecclesiae university. We don’t have to invent something. Ex corde Ecclesiae gives us a fine guide to work from and towards.