Notre Dame Curriculum Committee Insists Theology Critical to Catholic Identity
December 1, 2015 | By Justin Petrisek | Cardinl Newman Society
Following much discussion last year over whether Notre Dame would reduce its theology requirement from two courses to one, the committee in charge of the ten-year core curriculum review has advised that its theology courses are too essential to the University’s Catholic identity to be reduced, according to the draft report released on Monday.
“In placing theology at the core of its Catholic liberal arts education, Notre Dame is not merely adding another discipline to the existing educational paradigm. Instead, it embraces a paradigm of the intellectual life that posits the complementarity of faith and reason,” stated the review committee’s initial draft report.
The current review process, which began in August 2014, is comprised of a 13-member committee charged with studying the core curriculum and recommending possible changes.
As part of the review, three advisory groups were commissioned, including a “Catholic Mission Focus Group” that was to examine how the core curriculum sustains and can deepen the University’s commitment to its Catholic character.
“Two theology courses have come to be seen as a barometer of our support of Catholic mission, and backing away from these would be seen as backing away from our Catholic identity,” the Catholic Mission group wrote in its final report, recommending that the curriculum review committee retain the current theology requirements.
“Moving away from two required courses in theology would be a move toward secularization,” the group explained.
The influence of an increasingly secularized culture is something that the larger review committee is paying attention to as well, noting its significant impact on incoming students.
“Our students arrive at the University formed by a culture in which questions of faith and reason are often reduced to a sterile polarity—in which the mystery of God’s revelation to human beings is typically said to be directly at odds with science and rationality,” the committee stated in its report.
“Theology challenges this conceptualization. Theology invites our students to broaden their horizon of understanding by grappling with the mystery of the revealed word and by seeing how, in the light of God’s revelation, they may bring the fullness of reason and experience to bear in comprehending its meaning for all dimensions of human life,” the report continued. “At its best, the science of God that is theology introduces our students to a wisdom tradition, a realm of beauty, and a depth of inquiry they may never have experienced or imagined existed.”
While the committee agreed with the recommendation that the University maintain its two required courses in theology, it also recommended advance placement for those students already well-versed in theology.
“The committee also recommends that the Department of Theology build on current efforts to develop placement mechanisms to ensure that students with significant background in theology upon entering Notre Dame are placed into courses above the introductory level,” the committee wrote.
The current theology requirements include a “foundational” course in Scripture and Tradition and a “developmental” course focused on exploring the important doctrines of the faith and their application in light of modern contexts, but advanced placement in theology would allow incoming students to engage in more in-depth courses at a level appropriate to their knowledge.
While the proposed retention of theology courses is largely seen as a positive development by those concerned with the University’s Catholic identity, some critics have still taken exception to the committee’s view that it is at the “high end” of the liberal arts among its peers.
The committee’s report stated:
Compared to its peers, Notre Dame is at the high end in terms of liberal arts requirements in part because we require theology and philosophy, which are usually not required elsewhere, and in part because we believe that students who have a wide range of intellectual capacities are better equipped to make a difference in the world.
In his “Perils of ‘Preferred Peers’” article for First Things in August, George Weigel questioned who prominent Catholic colleges such as Notre Dame considered their “peers” and suggested that some Catholic colleges may need to rethink the standards of excellence they aspire to.
Other critics have already determined the draft’s “integration” proposals to be a set of “weak goals” and called on the University to distinguish between striving for strong standards of disciplinary study and setting the bar low when it comes to the liberal arts.
Prompted by student comments and in an effort to possibly restore the quality of teaching in core classes, the review committee looked at who currently teaches undergraduate courses in philosophy and theology. The committee found that “only 37 percent of the first philosophy courses … and 30 percent of the first theology courses in the core curriculum were taught by tenured or tenure-track faculty in the 2013-14 academic year.”
“Given the privileged position of theology and philosophy, especially, to the core curriculum as currently structured and as envisioned by this committee, the paucity of tenure-line instructors teaching core courses in these two areas is especially concerning,” the report stated.
The committee recommended that the vast majority of introductory courses be taught by their “most talented and experienced faculty,” adding that as a goal Notre Dame “is to ensure that an invitation to teach in the core is recognized as a reward for excellence, not a burden to be endured.”
The encouragement to have more tenured or tenure-track professors teach the introductory courses should be welcome news to students at Notre Dame, which boasts plenty of respected theologians, many of whom are recommended by the new NDCatholic project for their support of the University’s Catholic identity and mission.
The recently released draft report will now undergo a period of campus-wide faculty deliberation before a final report is presented in fall 2016 to the faculty senate, academic council and University President Father John Jenkins, C.S.C.