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Lessons from Notre Dame

Author: Arts and Letters

What drew me to Notre Dame was its Catholic identity. Numerous academics think that any university with a religious mission must be inhibiting academic freedom, marking itself as sectarian and advertising itself as intellectually narrow. Such a characterization justly applies to some religiously affiliated colleges and universities, which want to keep the wider world at bay. Not so Notre Dame. In fact, in my experience, there is greater academic freedom at Notre Dame than at leading secular universities, in ways that both derive from and reach beyond its Catholic mission.

Because of deep-rooted assumptions in our society about religion as a private, personal matter of individual opinion and feeling, the secular academy routinely excludes it from consideration as religion. Instead, religion is usually studied not as what Christians, Jews or Muslims, for example, claim that it is — a human response to the living God — but as a human construction to be explained through the secular categories of the modern social sciences and humanities. In secular institutions, even to raise questions in the classroom about whether, say, Christian claims about reality might be true or prayer might entail experience of God is to court a reprimand if not formal censure.

However, irreligious and atheistic ideas are discussed at Notre Dame — for if Catholicism is what it claims to be, it should fear no intellectual challenge (can one imagine Aquinas refusing to read Aristotle?). As a result, a wider range of ideas, religious views, and moral and political perspectives can be aired in academic settings without denigration or intimidation at Notre Dame than at leading secular universities. Similarly, because of Notre Dame’s Catholic identity, many people here understand that religion is not a part of life but rather influences the way in which all of life is understood and experienced.

This insight implies that a Catholic university can and should have scholars who raise appropriate questions about the relationship of Catholic teachings and sensibilities to their respective areas of expertise in the social sciences, natural sciences, arts and humanities, which in turn should be brought into relationship with Catholicism. For nothing in reality is outside God’s creation. There is no such intellectual enterprise at secular institutions. It is liberating to be at a University with a wider scope for academic freedom because it lets religion be religion on its own terms.

Originally published by Brad Gregory (in Commonweal) at on April 23, 2007.