Can a University Be Both Great & Christian

September 1993By Craig S. Lent

Craig S. Lent is Associate Professor of Electrical Engineering at the University of Notre Dame.

Many Catholic colleges and universities presently find themselves forced to re-examine their mission and their relationship to the rest of the academy and to the Church. I offer here my reflections on some aspects of this prob­lem, which have been formed by my experi­ence as a faculty member at the University of Notre Dame.

Notre Dame today is moving rapidly to­ward becoming a major research university. I applaud this transformation. This process is not without significant peril, however. If we fail to choose our path wisely, the result will be the secularization of Notre Dame. Our predecessors in the last century were Protes­tant colleges which underwent a similar trans­formation to become the great private research universities whose ranks we now hope to join. We cannot afford to ignore the fact that for them the transformation involved a seculariza­tion that was complete and rather rapid. The central question for Notre Dame is: Are we going to follow the Protestant institutions in their path to excellence as research universi­ties, and also follow the path of secularization? Or are we called to build something new, a great Catholic university, a research university in the fullest sense, but one that is a genuinely Catholic intellectual community?

The secularization of the intellectual life of Notre Dame is not simply a matter of hiring non-Catholics or non-Christians on the faculty. If a university's vision of its intellectual life is essentially a secular vision, then it would es­sentially be a secular university, even if all its faculty are practicing and ardent Catholics. If a faculty member's commitments have no conse­quences for the life of the university, then it does not matter what those commitments are.

A university is an intellectual community, a community of learners. Faculty and students are learning. Research and scholarship are just the names we give to learning when it consti­tutes the acquisition of new knowledge in a particular field. All other aspects of the univer­sity -- residential life, moral formation, social life, even liturgical life -- complement this intellectual mission. If the intellectual life of the Catholic university is secularized, if it stands in no relation to the basic beliefs of the Catholic faith, then its heart is secular, and neither altering faculty composition nor changes in other areas will change that.

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