As a diocesan seminarian studying with the Sulpicians in Paris, a young Basil Moreau wrote to the rector at the seminary in Tessé about an unquenchable desireabout, actually, a vocation:
I am burning with this desire [to preach in some country parish], and should love to be already engaged in this work. Need I tell you? At times, this desire is so strong that I feel my whole heart on fire. When I get into my bed, which I regard as my grave, I should like to wake up and find myself in the midst of some peasants. How I would teach them! How I would bring them back to God!
Fifteen years later, Fr. Moreau founded the Congregation of Holy Cross, the religious community that founded the University of Notre Dame in 1842. One hundred seventy-three years later, the University finds itself far from the small primary and secondary school it started as. Each freshman class has higher test scores and grade point averages than the preceding class, the faculty continues to distinguish itself by receiving prestigious research grants and by publishing outstanding work, and the multi-billion endowment continues to grow.
Despite all of these accomplishments, the University of Notre Dame in 2015 has much in common with the French peasants Fr. Moreau desired to preach to in 1827. Simply, Notre Dame suffers from spiritual poverty. It was the zeal of Fr. Moreau “to make God known, loved, and served, and thus save souls” that led to the founding of the Congregation of Holy Cross and to the apostolate to evangelize through and with education. But the University of Notre Dame risks jeopardizing that mission if its proposal to drop a theology requirement is adopted.
Every ten years there is a curriculum review and unfortunately, students and faculty have reported a real possibility of losing the two-course theology university requirement for every undergraduate student at Notre Dame, no matter the student’s college (Arts and Letters, Science, Engineering, Architecture, or Business). “A set of required courses intended to provide every undergraduate with a common foundation in learning,” the requirements “play a critical role in the University’s goal to ‘offer an unsurpassed undergraduate education that nurtures the formation of mind, body, and spirit,’” according to the Core Curriculum Review homepage.
The requirements give the theology major an opportunity to see the beauty of creation in cosmology, the engineering student to sketch with charcoals, and the biology student to leave the lab to delve into a classic English novel in Waddick’s. The Core Curriculum invites a student to have a share in the liberal arts tradition, but as the review recognizes, it is certainly debatable how effectively the Core Curriculum in the past ten years has formed students’ “mind, body, and spirit.”
Yet the greatest scandal in this curriculum review is not the question of the state of the liberal arts and its place at a modern university, or how to form the perfect, specialized researcher at the expense of being intellectually well-rounded and formed, but that this Catholic university is considering removing her theology requirements, as small as they already are, and is essentially rescinding the rationale it supplied in 2005 in favor of them:
No Catholic university can give an account of itself as an intellectual endeavor apart from Theology. . . . In particular, “theology plays a particularly important role in the search for a synthesis of knowledge as well as in the dialogue between faith and reason. It serves all other disciplines in their search for meaning, not only by helping them to investigate how their discoveries will affect individuals and society but also by bringing a perspective and an orientation not contained within their own methodologies” (John Paul II, Ex Corde Ecclesiae, 16). The core requirements in theology therefore lie at the heart of the education that Notre Dame strives to give to each of its undergraduate students.
The study of God has been with us before the university, in the custom of studying God’s Law, in the Finding of Christ in the Temple (Luke 2:4152), and in that quiet, humble description of Our Lady, who “pondered all these things in her heart” (Luke 2:14; 51). And it was at the heart of the Holy Cross tradition, as Fr. Moreau exhorted in a circular letter to his community:
But we shall never forget that virtue, as Bacon puts it, is the spice which preserves science. We shall always place education side by side with instruction; the mind will not be cultivated at the expense of the heart. While we prepare useful citizens for society, we shall likewise do our utmost to prepare citizens for heaven.
It is true that you cannot measure the results of studying theology to a direct correlation of an increase in virtue, piety, or holiness. But St. Thomas reminds us that theology’s telos “is eternal beatitude, and this is the ultimate end to which all the other ends of the practical sciences are ordered.” Theology brings all other subjects to its proper order, and into a cohesive and coherent synthesis.
The Basilica of the Sacred Heart, the Grotto, the Main Building, and even the Hesburgh Library’s “Word of Life” mural will lose their proper context if Notre Dame drops its theology requirement. And the alma mater will fall flat on its last note, for “love thee, Notre Dame” will only mean a place in Indiana and not also the woman who bore God.
Sandra Laguerta is a graduate of the University of Notre Dame. She is a former junior fellow at First Things.