Martha’s Vineyard: Protecting Notre Dame From Its Admirers

If you had your pick of pagans who might throw light on what is good and bad about American higher education at the end of the second millennium, you probably would not settle on Seneca. If you were going to propose a reform of liberal education, you probably would not ignore St. Augustine, Cassiodorus Senator, Boethius, and the long monastic tradition that culminates in the chartering of universities in the 13th century—universities that arise, as John Paul II has put it, ex corde ecclesiae, out of the heart of the Church. If so, you are different from Martha Nussbaum. In Cultivating Humanity, she provides an apologia of sorts for the very features of secular higher education that have caused others concern. More importantly for my purposes here, she seeks to enlist the pope in her neopagan vision of education aimed at world citizenship.

If I were looking for as good a defense of current social and moral and educational trends as could be devised, I would not go beyond this book. This is about as good as it gets. But then, the sun also rises. “Do not think that I am much impressed by that as a boxing title,” as Jake says of the middleweight championship that Robert Cohn won at Princeton.

Others will deal with Nussbaum’s proposal as it applies to the secular and secularized schools of the nation. My interest is confined to the pat on the head that she awards my own university. “You’ve come a long way, baby,” is the general idea. Notre Dame, more or less despite its religious origins, is a place where something like higher education in the Nussbaumian sense may yet occur. That she finds a source of her optimism in proceedings of the faculty senate is perhaps symptomatic, but she has also been helped in her credentialing of Our Lady’s University by willing accomplices on campus who provided her with reports, let her sit in on classes, and the like. This band of brothers seems willing to replace an outlook and principles devised over centuries with the latter-day liberalism that presides over the chaos around us.

Nussbaum is reluctantly aware that many of the great American universities had religious origins, and if many have outgrown them, others have not. She cites seminaries, but then notes that there are some “full-scale colleges and universities” that, though religious, offer a liberal arts education and even some forms of graduate education. How does she cope with this?

The context she provides is a “nation defined by liberal ideals of religious toleration, free exercise of religion, and nonestablishment of religion.” She adds unctuously, “Our liberal-democratic tradition views itself not as an enemy of religion but as its vigilant protector.” Some of her best friends are believers. But her point is clear. Religious universities, like all others, are preparing citizens for a culture defined by the liberal ideals she has cited. She seems to think that the private universities in this country are somehow the fruit of our constitutional traditions, as if central planning had something to do with their coming into existence.

Western education in its origins is defined in terms of the relation between secular and sacred learning. The liberal arts tradition grew up at a time when the arts of the trivium and quadrivium were taken to be an adequate summary of secular education. Sacred learning had its source in Scripture. The great dialectic of medieval education lay in the interaction between faith and reason, philosophy and theology. It is to this tradition that a university like Notre Dame looks. And needless to say it is to this that John Paul II looks. He cannot be invoked in the way that Nussbaum does, as if he were simply signing on to her vision of things. He cannot be used as a means of countering such resistance to her proposal as may still survive on Catholic campuses.

What Nussbaum and her correspondents seem to foresee is the application to the Catholic campus of the liberal ideals that obtain in the wider society. This is the condition the Church must meet if she chooses “to enter the world of the modern university.” Above all, this means that academic freedom, in her sense, must obtain.

A little band of French missionaries showed up on a lake shore in Northern Indiana in 1842 and started what they called University de Notre Dame du Lac. They saw what they were beginning as in continuity with what was done on the continent of their origin. Against much adversity, the institution survived. Its aim was to educate Catholics in secular and sacred learning, to equip them for this life, and to increase their understanding of the faith. Its centenary was celebrated, then its sesquicentenary. Comes now Nussbaum to point out that Notre Dame exists in a nation driven by liberal ideals vis-a-vis religious faith. Any and every faith is tolerated, none is established, all are freely exercised. So far so good. But her proposal is that these ideals must now become the internal ideals of Notre Dame and, moreover, she invokes magisterial documents to make her point. If she is right, religion is going to have to become privatized in private universities, all manner of beliefs and outlooks must be given droit de la cite, and any effort to exclude them will be a betrayal of what is meant by a university.

Now in the wider world that Martha Nussbaum inhabits, the way of regarding human sexuality has undergone a radical change. She herself is sternly antinomian in this area. Sexual relations in and out of marriage, in and out of one’s gender, are allegedly engaged in with insouciance. What a generation ago was called perversion is now a lifestyle. Disapproval of sexual aberrations is now identified as homophobia, suggesting that it is a mental illness to disapprove what until quite recently was universally recognized as a mental illness. It is a topsy-turvy world out there. Moral relativism, even nihilism, may seem to be right over the horizon if not already arrived. So let us take, as she does, the question of homosexuality.

The appraisal of homosexual activity from the point of view of Catholic morality is clear to anyone guided by the teaching Church. One would think then that activities permitted on secular campuses that accept Nussbaum’s interpretation of liberal principles would not be permitted on such a campus as Notre Dame. No wonder Nussbaum draws attention to a 21-4-2 vote by the faculty senate deploring the administration’s action in denying to a homosexual organization the rights and privileges enjoyed by other student groups. The administration no doubt thought it was preserving a Catholic moral atmosphere at Notre Dame. With relish she quotes from the senate resolution, deploring the administration’s action as “discriminatory against a group of Notre Dame students and as compromising of the University’s ideals and stated mission.” What precisely is compromised? The assertion that “the intellectual interchange essential to a university requires, and is enriched by the presence and voices of diverse scholars and students” and that “the University prides itself on being an environment of teaching and learning which fosters the development in its students of those disciplined habits of mind, body, and spirit which characterize educated, skilled, and free human beings.” Nussbaum clearly interprets this mission statement as the university’s signing on to her liberal ideals that are then betrayed by not allowing homosexuals to organize. And so apparently does the vast majority of the faculty senate. To such disfavor we have come.

What is wrong with this argumentation? That anything can be discussed in a university is one sort of claim; that any mode of moral behavior has equal right to expression is e discussed in a quite another. It is the latter that is being demanded, not the former. That the senate majority is less than sincere in its dismay has recently been made all too clear. Despite all the agitation, rallies, senate votes, and the like, there had been no serious discussion of the question of homosexuality on the Notre Dame campus. The faculty senate did not seek to educate students on the matter. And when, in the fall of 1997, several graduate students organized a series of lectures on homosexuality—to be given by a distinguished group of speakers, many invited from outside the university—Campus Ministry took out a full page in the student daily urging students not to attend these lectures! Many reasons were given, most of them incoherent, but the overall point was clear: Homosexuality cannot be discussed at Notre Dame in a way that threatens the ideology of those agitating for its recognition on campus. This from Campus Ministry. O tempora, O mores, as Martha Nussbaum might have said. She presumably would have been shocked by this assault on the principles of the university’s mission statement. Hers would have been a lonely protest. Not one single member of the faculty senate took umbrage at this attack on a lecture series whose high caliber is now generally acknowledged. Homosexuality in its various aspects—psychological, medical, moral, spiritual—is being discussed as such matters should be discussed at a university. And those who arranged it have been browbeaten by professors and maligned by campus ministry.

Of course it is not simply the familiar inconsistency of those who invoke Nussbaumian liberal principles that is at issue. It is those principles themselves. They have led in the wider world to the privatizing first of religious faith and then of moral judgments. The overriding liberal principle seems to be that no moral judgment is objectively true. Views may coincide on certain judgments, traditions may grow up around them, but the underlying judgments are still open to question. Nussbaum invokes Socrates as the champion of this willingness to question everything. Perhaps remembering Kierkegaard’s Johannes Climacus, whose hero tries to take seriously the maxim de omnibus dubitandum est (“question everything”) with disastrous results and to the surprise of his professors, Nussbaum warns against skepticism. She seems also fleetingly concerned about moral relativism and nihilism, but the best she can offer here is that there are some who do not think that relativism and nihilism result from the principles of liberalism. It would be merely a contingent fact, apparently, if they did not.

But I shall leave to others the examination of Nussbaum’s principles in the secular order. I am now discussing her suggestion that unless they become the internal rule of the Catholic university it cannot be a “modern university.” There is nothing in the documents of John Paul II that she cites that gives any support to her own outlook. Ex Corde Ecclesiae speaks of academic freedom “correctly understood.” But the claim that there is a correct understanding of academic freedom would be a breach of it in the Nussbaumian sense. In addressing the United Nations, the Holy Father does indeed celebrate the variety and diversity of human life, but to suggest that he is thereby signing onto liberal principles is outrageous. So too the suggestion that Vatican II’s “Declaration on Religious Liberty” is the adoption of the privatizing and subjectivising of religious faith in the liberal manner is simply wrong. The Church’s relation to modern social and political developments is a complicated one, but it would be tendentious to see it as the Church’s slow acceptance of values inimical to her doctrine and mission.

The Church is more a judge than an ally of the attitude expressed by Martha Nussbaum in her book. She seeks to cultivate humanity. But the culture aimed at looks like the culture of death described by the Holy Father in Evangelium Vitae.

Let me stress that I do not blame Martha Nussbaum for her sense that Catholic universities like Notre Dame are eager to become like what she is pleased to call a “modern university.” Who can blame her for finding in the senate resolution an outlook exactly like her own? Who would not find fundamental confusion in a Campus Ministry that, in the name of Catholicism, would mute serious discussion of positions quite incompatible with Catholicism? There is a malaise in Catholic higher education and it threatens to get worse before it gets better. The great tradition out of which we have come, and in which John Paul II stands, seems effectively forgotten. The laudable desire to excel has led to the culpable adoption of an outlook that spells the destruction of the Catholic university.

It is an outlook which, pace Martha Nussbaum, is destroying higher education in America. Many have noted that pleas for multiculturalism are veiled attacks on Western culture and more precisely its Christian roots. A multiculturalism that regards the culture in which one stands as simply an arbitrary arrangement mounted on moral judgments that have no objective truth implies a notion of the human person at total odds with the teaching of John Paul II. It is the plurality of persons as much as the plurality of cultures that has come to be distorted. What is a person? What is human nature? Why do we have minds? Why is there anything at all rather than nothing? It will not do simply to say that there are lots of different answers to such questions. It will not do to say that we simply have to live with a plurality of answers. If that is the best we can do, then “the liberal outlook” will no longer be sustained by the deeper view on which it has for so long been parasitic, and it will definitively collapse.

Nick Carraway, the narrator of The Great Gatsby, describes himself as that narrowest of specialists, the well-rounded man. That was before the events of the novel. In retrospect, he finds that he wants the world to stand at moral attention. He has caught a glimpse of chaos and drawn back. “Life,” he concludes, “is much better looked at from a single window after all.” Of course all windows are single, but only one gives on the great globe itself.


Ralph McInerny was a popular writer, philosopher, and teacher, as well as the co-founder of Crisis Magazine. He passed away on January 29, 2010.

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