Notre Dame Combines Research and Religion


NOTRE DAME, Ind. — At the end of a century in which the great American universities have moved from being extensions of churches to centers of secularism, the University of Notre Dame is carving itself an important niche as an institution of serious scholarship with a deeply religious environment.p. Some colleges are religious; others have vital research centers. Notre Dame is rare in combining the two.p. The religious nature of Notre Dame is felt not only in the crucifixes that hang in every class, the Roman Catholic priests who live in every dormitory, the Mass recited nightly and the forbidding of men and women from each other’s dormitory rooms after a certain hour. It comes as well in the work being fostered here.p. Political scientists are reclaiming Augustine to examine “just war” theory. Law professors are focusing on neglected church views about dying in legal debates on assisted suicide. Historians are emphasizing the role of local parishes in understanding urban race relations.p. Some of these approaches would have been dismissed as almost ridiculously retrograde a generation ago, yet scholars here and elsewhere say the American academy seems surprisingly receptive to them today because they bring new or lost perspectives to vital subjects.p. This comes at a time of newfound self-confidence for Notre Dame. Flush with cash from rich alumni and proceeds from its storied football team, the university is discovering it can lure scholars, including non-Catholics, from top institutions by promoting religion.p. “When I was a graduate student at Harvard 25 years ago, the whole idea of working in a religious framework was bizarre,” said James Turner, an intellectual historian who moved here recently from the University of Michigan. “Augustine had become a kind of museum artifact to be studied only by the appropriate curators. But now we are making the case that neglected religious sources can help reconfigure academic discussion.”p. Turner is director of the newly established Erasmus Institute here, a unique interdisciplinary effort that seeks to be a national model for the reinvigoration of Catholic and other religious intellectual traditions in contemporary scholarship.p. He is among recent catches for Notre Dame in a highly competitive academic environment. Others have been lured to the prairies of northern Indiana by the idea of turning a respectable academic institution into a truly fine one.p. Philip Quinn left an endowed chair in philosophy at Brown University for one here because, he said, “In my personal and professional life I take religion seriously. In the secular academy, they are not much concerned with religion. They look at it from the social science perspective.”p. George Marsden, a historian of religion and a devout Protestant, left Duke University for Notre Dame because, he said, only here did he feel there was the desire for a high-level scholarly discussion within a Christian context.p. While there are scores of small Christian colleges across the United States, none can lay claim to being a center of scholarship outside the Christian world. Notre Dame can.p. One of its sources of pride is its new Irish Studies Institute, financed with a gift of $13 million from Donald Keough, an alumnus who was president of Coca-Cola from 1981 to 1993.p. The donation has made it possible to attract Seamus Deane, one of the most distinguished Irish scholars and authors, as director. Deane, whose novel, “Reading in the Dark” (Knopf, 1997), was received with high praise earlier this year, says that by September 1998 there will be six full-time faculty members and one visiting professor at the institute, making it the biggest such program in the country.p. “We’re not on the scale of Johns Hopkins or MIT,” said the Rev. Edward Malloy, Notre Dame’s president," but we are increasing the intellectual resources so as to make this a great university. With the Erasmus Institute and Irish studies we have identified areas of intellectual engagement where we can make a real contribution."p. Notre Dame has long had a special place among American universities but not largely for its scholarship. Founded in 1842 by a priest of the Congregation of Holy Cross, it was to American Catholics in the mid-20th century what City College was to New York Jews, a welcoming place to study without fear of prejudice.p. The dominance of its football team under a series of legendary coaches beginning with Knute Rockne — and the public way in which teams recited Mass before each game — focused the loyalty of many American Catholics who tended to regard Notre Dame with almost Lourdes-like devotion.p. In recent decades, the university’s endowment has risen to $1.5 billion, nearly 30 times what it was in 1970.p. U.S. News and World Report ranks Notre Dame 19th of national universities and a recent book, “The Rise of American Research Universities” (Johns Hopkins, 1997), named Notre Dame as among a handful of top rising private research universities.p. It is the combination of competitiveness and tradition that attracted M. Cathleen Kaveny to join the law faculty here three years ago. Holder of a doctorate and a law degree from Yale University, Kaveny has become an expert on assisted suicide by drawing on Catholic teachings. She is planning a scholarly study of mercy, how a society should feed its hungry and comfort its sick.p. “These are areas that I could never pursue as a junior faculty member at another law school,” Kaveny said. “I would be laughed at. Here, they are excited about it.”p. There is some concern that all the talk about rediscovering Christian sources will serve as a pretext for squelching free inquiry. Michael Signer, a Reform rabbi who holds a chair here in Jewish culture, says Notre Dame is still grappling with being both Catholic and catholic. The test of the Erasmus Institute, Signer says, will be to see how it handles that tension, whether it reaches out to other traditions or barricades itself in.p. Alan Wolfe, who describes himself as a secular sociologist at Boston University, wrote recently in The Chronicle of Higher Education that the revival of religion in the academy at places like Notre Dame was welcome.p. “To study the world’s great literary works, many of which were inspired by religious questions, without full appreciation of those questions is like performing Hamlet without the prince,” Wolfe wrote. "Critics of academic specialization in the humanities often say that English departments, infatuated with contemporary works, no longer teach enough Milton or Tolstoy. It would be more correct to say that, through the lens of secularism, they are teaching them inaccurately.

TopicID: 143