Five Questions with Fr. Bill Miscamble

EDITOR’S NOTE: CV is happy to include a new entry in our “Five Questions” series. This interview features Fr. Wilson D. Miscamble, CSC, a priest and professor of history at the University of Notre Dame, who spoke with CV’s Stephen Kokx about his new book For Notre Dame: Battling for the Heart & Soul of a Catholic University. We hope you find this a helpful addition to our ongoing conversation about how to best live out our Catholic faith in the modern world.

Fr Bill Miscamble

Born in Australia in 1953, Bill Miscamble originally had hopes of becoming a politician. Fortunately for us he crossed paths with Vincent P. De Santis, a now deceased Notre Dame professor who was visiting the land down under on a Fulbright fellowship. Bill eventually followed Professor De Santis back to the States to pursue graduate studies in history at Notre Dame. Upon receiving his Ph.D. in 1980, he returned to his homeland. However, he soon discovered that something was calling him back to South Bend. He returned to Notre Dame in 1982 and entered the Moreau Seminary. Six years later he was ordained a priest and was assigned by his religious superior to “reside and assist at the University of Notre Dame.”

Rather quickly, Fr. Miscamble discovered that not all was well at Our Lady’s University. Bl. John Paul II’s 1990 document on Catholic colleges Ex Corde Ecclesia was being completely ignored by the administration. Support for and funding of authentically Catholic initiatives was hard to come by. And the Catholic orientation of the school was in danger of fading away due to the hiring of faculty that were generally unenthusiastic about the Catholic faith.

The first decade of the 21st century was not much better. Not only did Notre Dame host The Vagina Monologues in 2006, persons hostile to the Catholic Church’s teachings on abortion were appointed to its Board of Trustees. Moreover, as everyone knows, it awarded President Obama an honorary degree in 2009.

President Obama at Notre Dame

In response to each of these incidents, Fr. Miscamble, in his obligation to “assist the University of Notre Dame,” spoke up, forcefully, on behalf of the Church. His courageous efforts are presented to us in his latest book For Notre Dame, a collection of essays, speeches and initiatives he undertook during the 1990s and 2000s.

Upon reading For Notre Dame, you discover rather quickly that Fr. Miscamble’s main concern is that Notre Dame is putting “prestige over truth.” His fear is that it is becoming too much like its secular peers. To be a truly Catholic institution, Fr. Miscamble argues, Notre Dame must promote the integral development of the person – not just help them with their “critical thinking” skills. Notre Dame must also reject the idea that students are consumers simply seeking a degree and embrace the idea that students are persons made in the image of God who, through education, can and should be brought closer to Him. Fr. Miscamble believes the most effective way of accomplishing these goals is to hire faculty who are willing to uphold the true mission of a Catholic university.

Although his efforts have won him many enemies, students and alumni regularly invite him to speak at their events. And although he holds no prestigious deanship or bureaucratic power, his decade’s long battle for the heart and soul of Notre Dame seems to be paying off, as his desire to have Notre Dame hire more faculty dedicated to upholding Catholic teaching appears to have played a role in the school’s decision to hire Georgetown Professor Patrick Deneen last fall.

Deneen, who teaches political science at ND, is regarded as one of the top thinkers in the country regarding liberal political thought. His essays have appeared on Public Discourse and on a range of websites and academic journals. In a phone interview with me, Professor Deneen said that one of the primary reasons he came to Notre Dame is that during the hiring process they told him that they were “looking to solidify the faculty’s Catholic identity.”

At Georgetown, Deneen remarked, the Catholic faith was “not pervasive in the curriculum or campus life.” You never really “knew if anyone was really Catholic. It was never discussed.” Unfortunately, “Georgetown has gone the route of big [secular] schools,” which has resulted in an “attenuated Catholic identity.” At Notre Dame there is “no way to avoid its visibly Catholic nature.” However, Deneen  noted, its identity is far from being secured. Notre Dame can either “stand up and, like Fr. Miscamble, defend the school’s Catholic identity” or “ignore Fr. Miscamble’s words and cease to be a Catholic university.” Either way, ”Fr. Miscamble is absolutely right about hiring faculty devoted to the intellectualism of Catholicism. Faculty are the heart and soul of a university.”

Catholic institutions need to follow the advice of Fr. Miscamble. His voice needs to be heard, and not just at Notre Dame. For Notre Dame should be mandatory reading for all employees at Catholic colleges.

For Notre Dame covers a wide array of topics. It is undeniably informative and eye-opening. But what is it you want people to take away from it? Hope? Courage? Is it a call to arms?

For Notre Dame

This book is an effort to inform a broad audience as to what is going on at the University of Notre Dame and also in Catholic higher education more generally.  It asks its readers to reflect deeply about the ongoing struggle to determine the present mission and future course of Notre Dame, clearly one of the leading Catholic universities in the country.  The book raises serious questions about the path that Notre Dame has pursued and that it presently follows. It holds that the Catholic mission and identity of Notre Dame have suffered and, indeed, are at risk.

But, I trust the book is more than an insider’s account of various developments at Notre Dame over the past two decades.   It also sets out to some degree how Notre Dame might fulfill its true calling as an authentic Catholic university.   Notre Dame must be a place where its students truly encounter Christ and in which the Gospel is brought to the world.  The university should nurture not only the intellectual lives of her students but also their moral and religious lives and aid them in integrating the two.  To this end my book draws special attention to some essential questions involved in the daily operation of universities—namely, what is taught and who teaches it?  It also points to the responsibilities of various stakeholders in the university such as trustees, administrators, faculty, alumni and students.  I do hope that Catholic Vote readers and others who read the book will appreciate that a real struggle is going on for the future of Notre Dame.  No one should “give up” on the school. All involved should contribute as they can to uphold and enhance the Catholic character of Notre Dame.

In the introduction you write that the battle for the heart and soul of Notre Dame “relates to and in some ways is a microcosm of larger conflicts in the culture, the church and Catholic higher education.” Can you expound upon that?

American universities exert considerable influence over the nation’s intellectual and cultural life but they are, sadly, largely characterized by secular thinking and moral relativism.  They are key components of a highly secularized elite culture which is increasingly hostile to religion and especially to Catholicism.  Yet, Notre Dame in many ways seeks the approval of and acceptance by its secular “preferred peer” schools.  This desire can make ND susceptible to the prevailing and often shallow fads that beset American colleges and universities.  There is a powerful temptation to appease the forces in American society that aim to diminish and limit the role of the Catholic Church and the significance of its contribution to the public square and to intellectual life.   When one succumbs to this temptation Catholicism becomes largely a veneer over a secular project. This is a real danger at Notre Dame.

But Notre Dame must be a place which overcomes what one observer has deemed its “craven quest for success understood in conventional, and often quite secular, terms.” Dare I say it must be an intellectual bastion where what Pope Benedict called “the dictatorship of relativism” does not prevail.  It must be a place where faculty and students resist the blights of materialism and utilitarianism in their academic endeavors and instead work to bring faith and reason into dialogue.  By aiding a true and honest confrontation with the great issues of our day Notre Dame can make its own distinct contribution to the culture and to the Church.  This is why a renewal of Notre Dame’s mission as a Catholic university has broad implications.

In his seminal book Another Sort of Learning, Fr. James Schall SJ writes about what students owe their teachers. Do you feel that students enrolled at Notre Dame, or any Catholic college for that matter, owe something to their university? If yes, what? Also, what should students who want to keep their college Catholic be doing? Are there any examples at Notre Dame you’d like to highlight for us?

notre dame

I am deeply grateful for the opportunity I have had to teach some terrific students during my time here and to work with them in various clubs and organizations such as ND Right to Life and The Irish Rover.  I also have had the chance to address students in a variety of contexts and some of these talks are included in the section on “Student Life/Counsel for Students” in For Notre Dame.

Students owe it to their universities to truly engage their studies and to take full advantage of the opportunities to learn that are placed before them.  Certainly no student at Notre Dame or at any Catholic school should just “drift along.”  They should be in a place that offers an integrated education concerned not only with the mind but also with the heart and the soul and they should take advantage of that.  The Catholic university should encourage students to deepen their quest to discern the path God calls them to pursue.  My hope is that amidst the various questions posed to them during their studies, students at Catholic schools consider this one posed long ago:  “Good teacher, what must I do to share in everlasting life?”  Of course, this was the rich young man’s question to Jesus and he declined the Lord’s invitation to full discipleship.  A Catholic university must be about extending the fundamental invitation to Christian discipleship in our challenging time and circumstance.

Students also can be key and direct participants in the debate over the Catholic character of their colleges and universities.  At times they can play a crucial role.  For example the opposition to Notre Dame’s honoring of President Obama at the 2009 Commencement was led primarily by able and courageous students gathered in a group called ND Response.  They had a real impact.  Furthermore, students (and alumni and parents) can ask Catholic institutions to live up to what they proclaim in mission statements about providing truly Catholic educations.  They can join committed faculty in demanding that Catholic colleges and universities resist the secularist temptations and instead be institutions providing an education which will allow students to grasp the complementary nature of faith and reason, to receive a deep understanding and love for the truth, and to gain a clear appreciation of the Catholic moral and social vision.

In December of 2012, university president Fr. Jenkins announced that Notre Dame, after decades of pressure, would officially recognize and support programs for GLBTQ students and their allies. The argument is that Notre Dame must move into the 21st century and seek to be “more inclusive.” Is this initiative good for Our Lady’s University or is it, as you would say, putting “prestige over truth,” and that it represents a capitulation to the trends we see at secular colleges?

I have serious reservations about the official recognition of a student organization for homosexual students.  The previous arrangements at Notre Dame, guided by the admirable “Spirit of Inclusion” statement, provided pastoral support for homosexual students in full accord with Church teaching.  I appreciate the aim of the new pastoral plan—named “Beloved Friends and Allies”—to have all students live a chaste life.  Also, there is a significant effort made to present the new plan as in accord with Church teaching.  Yet, the creation of a Courage Chapter on campus would have fulfilled these goals far better than the approval of a student run GLBTQ organization.  Much will depend on the implementation of the pastoral plan, but such an organization seems likely to develop into an advocacy group promoting the gay lifestyle.  This will run counter to the professed goals of the plan and will be damaging to the Catholic mission and identity of Notre Dame.

Last year, the Vatican stripped the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru of its Catholic identity. There is currently an effort underway to have Georgetown’s Catholic affiliation removed. Do you support these types of measures and, God forbid, if Notre Dame strayed too far from the faith would you endorse the removal of its Catholic status?

I see such a formal canonical measure as a veritable last resort and designed to give clarity that institutions have effectively surrendered any genuine claim to Catholic mission and character.  My major effort, however, is focused on the strengthening of Notre Dame’s Catholic identity such that it adopts Ex Corde Ecclesiae as its essential guide.  I hope and pray that other Catholic higher education institutions will do the same.  There is much to be done.

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6 thoughts on “Five Questions with Fr. Bill Miscamble

  1. vick colbert says:

    If an institution fails to uphold its Catholic traditions, all bets are off. It’s scandalous. Like a person who scandalizes the faith. Revoke its gift of being Catholic and “excommunicate”. The policy of divestiture as a Catholic Institution should be applied more often. Too bad, I’ve always loved Notre Dame

  2. mary says:

    am I remembering correctly, or did Obama speak at a graduation? if so then he is the beginning of the end of this Catholic U. But hopefully Fr Miscamble will be the Archangel who protects ND and steers her and its students away from its possible demise as a Catholic institution..Georgetown is basically going down the tubes. Obama has been invited multiple times to speak, as has Sebelius. Hagel came from Gtown. What a shame that the President of Gtown has to sucker up to Obama and allow him to cover up the Cross and replace it with Obama’s Communist sign. Downhill, people. Please I hope that ND does not follow Gtown’s path.

  3. Michele Flynn says:

    I pray that Notre Dame can strengthen its Catholic identity and lead the way for other “catholic” Colleges and Universities … Ex Corde Ecclesiae!

  4. Margaret McIntyre says:

    It’s interesting that Notre Dame justifies ..In December of 2012, university president Fr. Jenkins announced that Notre Dame, after decades of pressure, would officially recognize and support programs for GLBTQ students and their allies. The argument is that Notre Dame must move into the 21st century and seek to be “more inclusive.” WHEN has Notre Dame EVER been inclusive in any way shape or form??? Even with Notre Dame alumni in my family, I long ago recognized the school had gone off the rails. If Notre Dame is so enthralled with power and status of the secular kind–to worship Obama… then Notre Dame must choose to be Catholic or give up it’s tax exempt status! Miscamble’s book looks interesting, but my son chose to study engineering at Marquette University and we are soooo thrilled with his choice . We just love Marquette, we love the Jesuits and the fact that the school is truly inclusive, Catholic and offers a great education!

  5. Nathan says:

    I had applied to Notre Dame for a Ph.D. with the intent to study under Fr. Miscamble in diplomatic history. I was rejected, but hey, I had good sense in who I wanted for a dissertation advisor! Excellent interview, and thanks to Father for his efforts.

  6. Bill Dempsey says:

    This book should be “mandatory reading” not only for employees of Catholic schools, but for all Catholics interested in Catholic higher education and, in particular for all alumni and other members of the Notre Dame family. I’ve studied Notre Dame intensively for seven years as chairman of an organization of alumni and others who cherish Notre Dame but deplore the weakening of its Catholic identity (www.sycamoretrust.org). I have no doubt that Father Miscamble is absolutely right on all counts. His courageous, intelligent, and eloquent leadership of those both within and outside the campus who are pressing for a recapture of the school’s robust Catholic identity has been indispensable. If his side, which has not fared well but has not yet been routed, finally loses, there will be scant hope for the whole of Catholic higher education. Read this book!

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