Exploring Catholic Identity at Our Lady’s University
The University of Notre Dame and Catholicism go hand in hand. The majority of students self-identify as Catholic, and faith is embedded firmly into the culture of Notre Dame. But beyond the towering basilica, ubiquitous crucifixes and biblical statues on campus, what does it truly mean for an institution to inhabit both an academic and religious identity? And what does it mean for its students?
The balance of academic and spiritual life is at the forefront of conversation at Notre Dame, where intellectual freedom, diversity of opinion and free speech are all promoted. Notre Dame’s mission statement addresses these ideals.
“The university welcomes all areas of scholarly activity as consonant with its mission, subject to appropriate critical refinement. There is, however, a special obligation and opportunity, specifically as a Catholic university, to pursue the religious dimensions of all human learning.”
Searching for a singular conception of Catholicism or a definitive answer to the question of what it means to be Catholic at Notre Dame seems futile. Identity is vastly personal and each individual’s struggle with who they are is unique. Understanding that identity within the context of attending a university with such a dynamic identity of its own is only that much harder, but all the more worthwhile to pursue.
How Does Catholicism Affect Student Life?
One experience that every Notre Dame student has in common — regardless of faith — is attending a top university. For some, the rigor of Notre Dame academics can get in the way of faith.
“We are all little goal-gobbling achievers, and the campus fans the flames of that,” Leonard DeLorenzo, director of undergraduate studies of the McGrath Institute for Church Life, said. “If there is an attenuation of a rich Catholic identity, it’s because it isn’t prioritized.”
Director of Campus Ministry, Rev. Peter McCormick, C.S.C. said his work with students is directly affected by this intense, goal-oriented culture. “Notre Dame students have increasingly more pressures placed upon them, whether internally or externally. So the challenge I face now is: How do I get students to carve out any time for reflection upon their own faith?”
For non-Catholics, immersion in a largely Catholic atmosphere can be a challenging adjustment.
“I think I can speak for all Jewish students when I say that first entering into an environment where almost everyone is one religion can be slightly intimidating,” said senior Zach Zeller, co-president of the Jewish Club of Notre Dame.
But the environment can also push them to further contemplate their own faith.
“There have been many occurrences in my time at Notre Dame where I have had in-depth discussions with my friends about faith, God and religion. I believe there are very few universities where one can openly have those kinds of conversations,” Zeller said.
Even those who are Catholics at Notre Dame can have very different experiences. “There are almost two sides to the Notre Dame story and it depends if you are on the more traditional side of Catholicism or not,” said junior Matt Sahd, co- vice president of Prism — Notre Dame’s only LGBTQ student organization. At Notre Dame, there seems to be a great divide between those with opposing views of Catholicism, Sahd, who is a gay Catholic, added.
“I don’t think there is a lot of crossover between the two groups,” Sahd said, citing hook-up culture as one source of conflict between “traditional” and “non- traditional” Catholics. “I don’t think either should be stigmatized, just based on your Catholic faith or your other experiences. But it seems like an ‘us versus them’ kind of thing.”
McCormick pushed back against the tendency to label sides of Catholicism, pointing to the unity which is called for by the Church. “The moment we move into these categorizations I think on one hand it gets easier, but on the other it just gets more complex and the potential for animosity to exist between the two groups rises.”
McCormick believes these differences in opinion can generate fruitful conversations. “Can we recognize that each of these people might have something to teach each other? If you can actually stop and listen and learn — there is some real possibility there.”
The Ideal Catholicism
“Catholicism is going to look and feel a little bit different for each person,” McCormick said. “But what it calls you to is going to remain the same: a relationship with God the Father, Jesus the Son and the Holy Spirit.”
McCormick has no doubt that each person processes the call to a relationship with God in different ways. “This is the fascinating part of what faith looks like: How do all these people come together under one church, under one faith? One of the opportunities for the Catholic Church is to say we welcome the variety of perspectives and variety of people who have come to this place.”
Talia Caridi, treasurer of Notre Dame’s Right to Life club, echoed the sentiment that Catholicism does not necessarily look the same for all who practice it.
“We have a large percentage of our students that are Catholic, and yet I think if you had a conversation with 10 of them, when we share about our faith life, journeys, experiences and beliefs, there are going to be differences there,” she said.
Although Right to Life’s club mission is to “live an abundant life in Christ,” Caridi said, “Ultimately it’s up to all of us to accept or to not accept that invitation, but it’s never a condemnation for someone who doesn’t.”
She emphasized that “Notre Dame Right to Life welcomes all people into our conversations and invites all people to come to our events for this very reason.”
Sahd also stressed the inclusivity of Catholicism. “The word itself means universal,” he explained.
“Even though Prism was founded on the basis of n Catholic Social Teaching, it is always an inclusive place for everybody,” Sahd said. “There’s no community that’s more diverse.”
Sahd acknowledged, however, that not everyone is as welcoming. “Our mission is to care for those who have not historically been cared for,” he said, referring to discrimination by those non-affirming of LGBTQ members as part of the Church. “It is even more important, because we are a Catholic university, that we are caring for the dignity of all.”
Iron Sharpens Iron, a campus group for interdenominational Christian fellowship, said they also embrace an inclusive attitude. Heather Dilallo, who is Protestant and an officer for the club, said members try to emphasize this mindset at the beginning of each meeting.
“We say ‘we welcome you here, no matter who you are, no matter where you are on your faith journey. Or, if you don’t feel like you’re on any type of faith journey, we still want to make sure that you feel welcome,’” Dilallo said.
But whether or not this ideal, welcoming community is completely accessible is still up for debate. Although Dilallo has found resources to engage in interfaith dialogue, she also pointed out that she had to put effort into making that happen.
“I think it’s easy in a majority Catholic sphere to go through your experience just interacting with other Catholics — or at least almost always interacting with other Catholics — and so if you want more than that, that’s something you really have to seek out,” she said.
Has Notre Dame Lost Its Catholic Identity?
Discussions regarding the state of faith at Notre Dame aren’t confined to campus. A key player in the discussion is Sycamore Trust, an independent organization predominantly run by alumni “concerned about preserving the Catholic identity of the university.”
“Notre Dame has the façade of a Catholic university,” said William H. Dempsey, class of ’52 and the chairperson of Sycamore Trust.
Founded in 2006, Sycamore Trust cites events such as honoring President Obama as the 2009 commencement speaker and the approval of a Queer Film Festival in 2004, as evidence of Notre Dame’s secular shift.
“If Gender Studies sponsors a speaker promoting same-sex marriage, it is clear that an official university department is staking out a position contrary to Church teaching. That gives scandal and undermines the Catholic mission of the university,” Dempsey said.
However, Sycamore Trust maintains they support “academic freedom and free speech” at Notre Dame. “If the Tocqueville Forum, known for sponsoring speakers on all sides of controversial issues, were to sponsor the same speaker I think that would be perfectly all right,” Dempsey said.
While Sycamore Trust says these events and speakers undermine the Catholic mission of Notre Dame, they argue that the biggest threat to the university is the loss of a predominantly Catholic faculty.
Notre Dame recognizes the importance of Catholic faculty in its mission statement.“The Catholic identity of the university depends upon, and is nurtured by, the continuing presence of a predominant number of Catholic intellectuals on the faculty,” it reads.
Sycamore Trust claims that Notre Dame no longer prioritizes this representation, citing the drop in percentages of Catholic faculty from 85% in 2005 to 54% in 2019. Their website points to a 2008 statement by the Faculty Senate, which argued that “the university should not compromise its academic aspirations in its efforts to maintain its Catholic identity,” as evidence that secularization is in direct opposition with the university’s goal.
Dempsey compared the drop in Catholic faculty to false advertising. “As holding themselves out as a Catholic university and a mission statement that it doesn’t live up to, it can be said that it is falsely presenting itself and inducing parents and students to come or send their children to a university expecting that they will certainly receive a truly Catholic education.”
Dempsey added, however, that Notre Dame was not a place that should welcome only Catholics, mentioning that “it’s not a seminary.”
“But to be predominantly Catholic in its faculty and its student body seems to me to be essential if you want to have a Catholic university,” Dempsey said, stressing that doing so would restore Notre Dame’s Catholic bona fides. University Spokesman Dennis Brown said Sycamore Trust’s claim that the university does not have a predominantly Catholic faculty is “false and presumptuous.”
“As the vast majority of people who spend meaningful time on campus know, the university reflects Catholic teachings and supports the universal Church in many ways on a daily basis,” Brown said.
McCormick had a similar outlook on Sycamore Trust.
“I have a great respect for them, but at the same time, I can’t get too caught up with their concerns,” he said. “They are an outside group, so they don’t necessarily have a full picture of what we are trying to do internally.”
McCormick added that though Sycamore Trust might at times agree and disagree with the happenings at Notre Dame, that it is his duty to listen to all voices.
Not Everyone Feels Welcomed
Many people expressed hope to Scholastic that the university’s Catholic mission would translate into an atmosphere of inclusiveness. In reality, those whose beliefs lie outside of the Catholic mission said they face tension when trying to reconcile their identity with their place on campus.
One of the biggest faith-based divides emerges around the topic of reproductive health, and more specifically around premarital sex and the use of artificial contraceptives. Notre Dame made national news in February 2018 when Rev. John I. Jenkins, C.S.C. announced that the university’s insurance plan would no longer allow access to certain “abortion-inducing” contraceptives that were once available to those on the health care plan as part of a government- funded program.
This decision sparked backlash, and an independent organization formed: Irish 4 Reproductive Health. The group, which advocates for increased access to sexual health information and resources, was initially organized to represent graduate students negatively impacted by the change in insurance policy, but it also offers sexual health services open to anyone, including undergraduates.
“I see Irish 4 Reproductive Health as filling a hole that Notre Dame has, partly as a result of its Catholic mission,” member Jacob Naatz said. “I know at other schools there are lots of reproductive health resources that are just provided as part of ordinary university health services, but Notre Dame does far less of that and so I4RH tries to bridge the gap a little by putting out information about consent and safe sex and also distributing condoms — all things that are very normal at, like, a public university.”
Notre Dame also distinguishes itself from public universies through its policy toward sexual conduct, which is informed by Church teachings. According to the university’s community standards policies, pre-marital sex is prohibited — and students who engage in pre-marital sex are subject to referral to the University Conduct Process. Students, however, generally don’t take the threat of punishment seriously.
“The reality is that Notre Dame students are having sex and if Notre Dame is not going to do its part to ensure that sex is safe sex, well, then that makes me personally want to step up,” Naatz said.
I4RH works to provide the student body with access to condoms — which cannot be found or purchased anywhere on campus — by handing them out in front of classroom buildings and running a condom delivery service via Snapchat.
Though its mission stands in contradiction with the Catholic mission of the university, I4RH still believes its voice deserves to be heard.
“If a Catholic person has a personal opposition to contraceptive devices, then they don’t have to use them,” Naatz said.
He also stated that though Notre Dame claims they promote inclusivity, “it definitely feels like there is a preference for those speakers and opinions whose views are more in line with Catholic teaching and this manifests in a couple ways, obviously when it comes to reproductive rights, and also when it comes to some things LGBT.”
Junior Maddie Foley wrote about her personal struggle to reconcile her sexuality with her faith identity in a Letter to the Editor in Notre Dame’s student newspaper “The Observer” in September.
“One of the unique challenges about being a LGBT person who is Catholic is both communities that you belong to sees the other identity as something you can just discard if you want to, “ Foley told Scholastic. “LGBT people will say ‘well, you’re born gay, you’re not born Catholic’ and Catholic people will say ‘your fundamental identity is as a child of God,’ but they’re both fundamental and neither is easily discardable.”
Although she doesn’t regret attending Notre Dame, Foley voiced that being gay on this campus can be alienating at times.
“I know which ones of my friends and acquaintances don’t support gay marriage, and we just don’t talk about it because if we did then that would be too hard to bear as acquaintances or friends,” Foley said, “And that hurts. It always does.”
Ultimately, Foley has been able to find peace in her spiritual life and relationship with God.
“God has always been nicer to me about my sexuality than I was to me and I think, for just a long time in prayer, I just did not listen or, I didn’t believe Him; I thought that was just me trying to convince myself.”
But she recognizes this isn’t the case for all members of the LGBTQ community on campus.
“Not a lot of my LGBT friends feel welcomed by the church community unless they have some sort of preexisting reason for wanting to go to mass, like if they grew up very religious or it’s very important to their family,” Foley said.
“I think a lot of LGBT people who were ambivalent about their faith in high school or had a negative experience with their family or whatever come to campus and it’s like ‘why would I want to go to Campus Ministry or to mass?’ For them, it feels like the thing that’s making life hard.”
Foley said many LGBTQ students struggle because so many social activities have religious dimensions.
“In those spheres, an LGBT person doesn’t really see a person they want to hang out with. If you don’t know for sure if someone doesn’t disapprove of your relationship choice, then it’s like ‘why would I want to enter that space?’” In Foley’s view, visible diversity in Campus Ministry and the theology department could go a long way toward making LGBTQ students, as well as others, feel more comfortable navigating a Catholic school.
She also supports addressing the silence — and stigma — around the topic by starting conversations with non-affirming Catholics.
“I want them to realize and care and engage more,” Foley said, “But I don’t know if you can ask that of people. People don’t really up and change their views without being provoked to, but I’m sure if more LGBT people were talking to them or around them then they would have to think more about it.”
In a community with such a strong sense of tradition, much of which is rooted in faith, questions of identity will likely persist. What does it mean to be a contemporary Catholic student? What tensions might exist between the identity of student and Catholic — and can they be reconciled?
Conflicting expectations of which values Notre Dame should prioritize can create tension. Some students place more value on the university’s identity as a prestigious academic institution than its Catholic identity when deciding to attend.
Sahd said Notre Dame is a great place for education: “There are a lot of other factors that people don’t take into consideration, like being a legacy student or financial aid.”
Others, though, see Catholicism as fundamental to everything they pursue here. As Caridi sees it, to be Catholic means that “every aspect of our daily life is transformed in the light of Christ.”
No matter how fully an individual adopts the university’s Catholic mission as part of their own worldview, it is an aspect of life on campus that provokes perpetual thought.
“Everyone I know is always having to process what it means to go here,” Foley said.