And that’s really what motivates us at the Center for Ethics and Culture. What we’re trying to do is to help Notre Dame, both on campus for students and faculty, staff and leadership, and off campus through our partnerships with the Church and other entities all over the country. What we want to do is to help Notre Dame realize its responsibility to be a genuinely, authentically, unapologetically Catholic institution of higher learning. And I think it is that. Certainly we want to hold ourselves to a higher standard, but I think if you look around the country at other universities — now there are other small Catholic liberal arts colleges that are doing great work — but if you’re talking about a big Catholic research university, it’s not a contest. Notre Dame is genuinely and consistently committed to its Catholic faith.
Do we make mistakes? Yes, of course we do. Do we make big mistakes? Yes. But I think if you look at the people we’ve hired in recent years, people who could be anywhere. Ask yourself this question: if you are at Harvard, or Yale, or Stanford, or Johns Hopkins, or Duke, or any of these other elite institutions, why would you come to Notre Dame as a faculty member? Why would you come as a lateral move from that place to Notre Dame? If you were one of the top academics coming out of your PhD program, why would you come to Notre Dame instead of an elite university with a lot of money in, and I’m sorry to say it, but a more beautiful part of the country than South Bend, Indiana?
You come to the University of Notre Dame because of what’s distinctive about it. And what’s distinctive about Notre Dame is that you come to be at the Blessed Mother’s university.
That’s why you come. And of course, that means different things to different people, but the result is that it is ultimately going to be the pathway by which we realize our obligation as a kind of counter-cultural beacon for the Catholic Church. I’m optimistic about that, and I believe we can accomplish that goal.
What are the challenges to that?
Well, I think there’s a natural impulse to want to be accepted and embraced by the elite cultural norms. In some ways, this has been true of Catholics in America forever, that we’ve always wanted to be accepted. We’re tempted to downplay what’s distinctive about us. We’ve always wanted to be embraced by those whom we’ve regarded as our betters. This is not unique to Notre Dame, but in any context in which you’re trying to be excellent, there’s a temptation to diminish what’s distinctive about you and to try to play by the rules of your elite peers.
I don’t think that’s ever been an effective pathway to greatness. Great institutions, great people, and this is actually true of [former president] Fr. [Theodore] Hesburgh who just passed away. Fr. Hesburgh didn’t care what the elites wanted. He said, “I’m gonna build what I’m gonna build,” because I know it’s the right thing to do. And [Notre Dame founder] Fr. [Edward] Sorin was the same way. Basically great visionary people understand what they need to accomplish and they pursue it in a single minded way without regard to how others perceive them. And I think that if we’re looking around and asking how we’re being perceived, I think that’s going to be a limitation on our capacity for greatness. I think that you become great by blazing your own trail, by pursuing the pathway that you think is best, and obviously you want to be a participant with your peers who have different perspectives, and you want to join them in conversation and collaborate where possible. But the truth is we have to be comfortable with ourselves. We have to be comfortable with the fact that we do have a mission that’s different from any other university’s mission in the world, and to pursue it with energy and enthusiasm.
What are your hopes for the Center?
We want the Center to be the engine by which Notre Dame realizes its Catholic identity, both intellectually and through service, as well as through community. I think that we’ve been enormously blessed by having the support of the university, by having the support of partners in different initiatives we’re pursuing. I think that we’re going to accomplish our goals and continue full steam ahead.
Diane Montagna is Rome correspondent for Aleteia’s English edition.