Saturday, January 27, 2024

Kill it to make it survive. . .

If you are a person of my age, you cannot help but know the name Fr. Theodore Hesburgh.  He took over Notre Dame University and introduced a whirlwind of changes that, on the surface, seemed to be just the thing the school needed.   Upon the heels of the 1967 Land O'Lakes Statement, Hesburgh had a vision for what a modern Roman Catholic university should look like.  Key to this happening was the need for the school to cast off the constraints of churchly authority and become autonomous.  That is what happened.  With it, his progressive vision gave to Notre Dame an increasingly secular educational setting.  This, of course, meant that ownership of Notre Dame had to be transferred from the Congregation of Holy Cross (a Roman Catholic order) to itself and its governance was now by a board of laymen who brought to the school expertise that would insure not only its survival against competitors (secular schools) but success.  They admitted women into the student body, built up the school’s research role and with it the dependence upon government money -- all the while turning the school into its own form of semi-religious Ivy League identity.  The movie Knute Rockne--All American in 1940 (Ronald Reagan starred) and then Rudy (1993) added to the mystique of the school and enhanced its reputation along with the changes taking place in South Bend.  

Hesburgh's successor, Fr. John Jenkens, was perhaps no match for his charismatic predecessor in some ways but in others excelled at expanding the vision of Notre Dame.  Though he decried higher education’s descent into secularism, acknowledging that many of the “other truly great universities in this country . . . began as religious, faith-inspired institutions, but nearly all have left that founding character behind,” Notre Dame was soon to follow -- despite his haunting question: “If we are afraid to be different from the world, how can we make a difference in the world?”   We all know how that went with Vagina Monologues and drag shows on campus.  In 2012, the university sued the government (HHS) for redress by religious freedom against the mandate to provide contraceptive services. After they won in 2017, Jenkins changed his mind and decided to provide contraceptives after all. You could not make him but he did what the government wanted anyway.  Now Jenkins is retiring and a successor named.  Will that president increase the drift of the university away from Roman Catholic faith and practice?  Do I need to ask that question?

I have not attended Notre Dame and only been once on the campus and that in the 1970s.  But we have a university in the LCMS and a leadership that might have read the playbook.  We are currently in court over one of our schools which cast off the constraints of the church in order to pursue its own vision of what a Lutheran university looked like.  As in the case of Notre Dame, the board voted to make itself and its stewardship over the school begun by the LCMS self-sustaining -- without some denominational meddling.  We will see how this goes.  For what it is worth, Concordia Texas has little chance of becoming a Notre Dame but they have tied their survival to an independence that, like Notre Dame, preserves the ambiance of the church without having to mess with the messy business of doctrine and practice.  In the end, Notre Dame may end up surviving but not as an institution with a Roman Catholic identity.  CU-TX may be in the same boat.  Sadly, some folks are reconciled to the fact that you might have to kill something to keep it alive.  God may be able to do that but I have no confidence in university administrations and regents to do the same.  In the end, would it have been so bad to remain small and faithful?  For Notre Dame we will never know.  For CU-TX we might have the opportunity to find out.

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