Vincent Birch

Sometimes subtle changes are the most dangerous ones. They do not appear drastic enough to warrant resistance, but often they have unintended consequences that extend far beyond what could have been easily predicted. And then the consequences transform thought and culture without ever really seeing it happen.

Though this sounds dramatic, this is how the current review of the truly seems. The theology faculty is crying out, recognizing the drastic consequences of the University of Notre Dame’s potential turn from the theology requirement. They are flying in the face of the change, asking not that the current requirement be maintained, but that it increase. The masses ignore the resistance, either apathetic toward the core curriculum entirely, apathetic or antithetic toward the theology requirement, or hoping to see the change carried out. Meanwhile, if the change is carried out, it will have serious ramifications on the identity of the University. The subtle change from the two-course theology requirement to the one theology and one “Catholic studies” requirement shifts, in whatever seemingly small way, the intellectual focus of the University away from the intellectual center of Catholicism. I can personally attest to the certainty of this consequence based on my own coursework.

My freshman year I took an excellent course called “Christianity, Commerce, and Consumerism over the past Thousand Years” with Professor Brad Gregory. This course fulfilled my history university requirement. Putting aside how the “Catholic studies” requirement could possibly be regulated, this course would surely qualify, as it discussed the Church’s understanding of money and wealth with the development of consumer-based societies. Despite what the course did teach me about my faith, it was most certainly a history course. It discussed Catholic thought, but primarily for the purpose of studying a historical problem. A theology course may very well address the same topics that this history course did, but a theology course would study the material for the purpose of learning about Sacred Scripture and Tradition. This touches the crux of the issue. With the elimination of one of the theology requirements, the University will be, in essence, turning its intellectual focus away from Scripture and Tradition. Courses offered by other departments that integrated “Catholic studies” would be fantastic for providing a curriculum that bolstered the Catholic education of the University. But turning away from a Scripture and Tradition based theology course in order to add a “Catholic studies” requirement would be essentially opposed to providing a Catholic-based curriculum. It is impossible for the University to replace a course with the object of studying Scripture and Tradition with one that integrates Scripture and Tradition in order to study another discipline and simultaneously maintain that it is not diminishing its Catholic intellectual focus.

I took a second-level theology course my junior year that was instrumental in my personal faith journey and that completely changed my future trajectory. I was a mathematics and philosophy major that was fully intending to get a job pertaining to my mathematics studies after graduation. My faith had been important to me, but not central. Taking “The Christian Experience: Vocation and the Theological Imagination,” with Professor Tim O’Malley taught me the significance of what it means to assert, “I believe,” in regard to my faith. It made me recognize that I was living inauthentically if I claimed to be Catholic but did not see the impact this necessarily has on every aspect of my life. I learned that everything I do has to proceed from my reception of the Body of Christ. Needless to say, it was transformational for my faith.

We read a novel in this course entitled Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson. This is a novel that could have been read in courses in a number of disciplines, and in any of them something would have been studied regarding Christianity by the mere fact that it is about a preacher. But if I had read this novel in a Christian literature English course, it would have been for the purpose of discussing the Christian influences Robinson integrates, the religious imagery she uses, and perhaps for the moral questions that it raises—a course that would have an impact on my understanding of my faith. But only a theology course could have utilized this novel in such a way as to teach me about the Catholic imagination as seeing the world through the lens of faith anchored in the Church’s Sacred Scripture and Tradition, as this particular second-level theology course did.

This course not only changed how I look at my faith, and consequently my life, but also was the beginning of my new path. I graduated last May from the College of Science with majors in mathematics and philosophy, and a minor in theology that I added after taking this course. This year I have been serving with Christian Appalachian Project in Kentucky, but have discerned that I would like to pursue graduate studies—in theology. I will begin a Master of Theological Studies program somewhere next fall. Though the school is currently undetermined, I have been accepted. First and second level theology courses cultivate faith that is intellectually focused on Scripture and Tradition and often pique an unforeseen interest. Both of these consequences can have truly life changing effects.

I offer my personal testimony both to provide an example of how meaningful first and second level theology courses can be and to make a more general point about how important theology is to the core curriculum and University. If the theology requirement is reduced then the curriculum turns away from the intellectual heart of the Church, Sacred Scripture and Tradition. As a Catholic University, why ever sacrifice contributors to the Catholic identity?  Perhaps this is a minor shift, but what other seemingly small concessions will be subsequently made? This is why the theology faculty has cried out. They see that this change is a step away from being a Catholic University. A University is, in its essence, intellectually based, and if its intellectual center shifts away from the Church then so does the University itself.

The University of Notre Dame is a liberal arts university, not a seminary. But it is a Catholic liberal arts University. Ultimately, the question underlying this discussion is about how to be a great Catholic University. Catholic intellectuals have addressed this subject, and the University’s esteemed theology faculty and gifted students have been recently addressing this for Notre Dame in particular, but my testimony ends with one question for the Core Curriculum Review Committee: Can the University truly claim to be giving students a Catholic education if the majority of the students graduate after only taking one course on the intellectual foundation of Catholicism?

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