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Education: God & Man at Notre Dame

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“A Catholic university is a contradiction in terms,” George Bernard Shaw once said. The Rev. Theodore Martin Hesburgh, C.S.C., president of the University of Notre Dame, can readily see Shaw’s point—that religious dogma seems incompatible with the scientific spirit of skeptical, free inquiry. He can just as readily reply to Shaw. “We must cherish both values. We must reflect the ‘ancient beauty, ever old and ever new,’ ” he says. “There is no conflict between science and theology except where there is bad science or bad theology.”

By this precept, Father Hesburgh, 44, is guiding the country’s best-known Roman Catholic university, and has become the most influential figure in the reshaping of Catholic higher education in the U.S. A school once known chiefly for a football team is trying to rise above the undistinguished record of U.S. Catholic colleges in general and reach for the renown of the Catholic universities of the Middle Ages.

A Spectacular Flowering. As spring semester opened last week on the campus near South Bend, Notre Dame clearly reflected St. Augustine’s “ever old and ever new.” In the Sacred Heart Church, young men in blue and gold jackets knelt in prayer as a priest pronounced the ancient greeting Dominus vobiscum. Across the 1,100-acre campus, bulldozers chewed the frozen earth, and riveters set steel beams arattling. Under construction: a geodesic-dome student center, a federally financed radiation laboratory, a $3,000,000 computer center, a ten-story library big enough to seat half the student body (total: 6,467 men).

Notre Dame (pronounced Noter Dayme, according to a university ruling made to help sportscasters) is the proud possession of the Congregation of the Holy Cross,* founded in France in 1837. In size (world membership: 3,300) and wealth, the order does not compare with the 422-year-old Jesuits (34,700 members), who control 28 U.S. campuses. C.S.C. has only five: Notre Dame, Oregon’s Portland University, Massachusetts’ Stonehill College, Pennsylvania’s King’s College and Texas’ St. Edward’s College. But in Notre Dame, C.S.C. has what is generally acknowledged as the most rapidly improving Catholic campus in the U.S.

“The Notre Dame efflorescence,” says Robert M. Hutchins, former chancellor of the University of Chicago, “has been one of the most spectacular developments in higher education in the last 25 years. I suspect that Notre Dame has done more than any other institution in this period, possibly because there was more to do.”

The Missing Scholars. What had to be done, and what still must be done, is clear from a steady refrain of Catholic selfcriticism. “In no Western society is the intellectual prestige of Catholicism lower than in the country where, in such respects as wealth, numbers, and strength of organization, it is so powerful,” wrote Historian D. W. Brogan. “The general Catholic community in America does not know what scholarship is,” said Jesuit Theologian Gustave Weigel of Maryland’s Woodstock College. And the Rev. John J. Cavanaugh, Hesburgh’s predecessor at Notre Dame, asked sorrowfully, “Where are the Catholic Salks, Oppenheimers, Einsteins?”

The search for the answer leads into sociology as much as religion. U.S. Catholics came mainly from Europe’s humblest classes, and in America were “foreigners” struggling for security in a hostile society. American priests seemed even more foreign to the dominant Protestant society, in turn saw themselves as protectors of their flock against the moral and intellectual corruption that was all around. Their own hard-won learning was something to be passed along by rote and discipline, not challenged or enlarged by free inquiry. The stifling effects persisted well into the 20th century, even with millions of American Catholics two and three generations away from their immigrant origins and tens of thousands able to afford college. When “Americanization” might have been expected to set in, it began with the least scholarly practices of secular schools. The result was a blend, in one Catholic critic’s words, of “Thomism and the split T.”

Huge Effort. Canon Law 1374 says: “Catholic children must not attend non-Catholic, neutral or mixed schools, that is, those which are also open to non-Catholics.” In practice, this is not fully possible in the Protestant U.S. Nearly half of the nation’s Catholic grade and high school children and 60% of its Catholic collegians attend non-Catholic institutions. With some 10,000 Catholics, for example, New York University (enrollment: 43,000) has been called “the largest Catholic university in the country.”

Yet the Catholic school effort is huge, the biggest complex of private education in the world. In higher education, it consists of 267 campuses, including 31 universities, enrolling 322,000 students (about 8% of all U.S. college enrollment). These colleges are fed by 12,700 grade and high schools enrolling 5,300,000 students—one out of eight U.S. schoolchildren.

Few Phi Bete Keys. Few secular colleges can match Catholic education at its Latin-and-Greek best: the “pure” B.A. offered at many Jesuit campuses (see box). But overall, Catholic colleges weigh light on the U.S. academic scales. There is no Catholic equivalent of Amherst, Oberlin, Reed or Swarthmore, let alone Harvard, Yale or Princeton. Notre Dame itself is not yet among the top schools.

One gauge of quality among the nation’s colleges and universities is a Phi Beta Kappa chapter. Whereas 167 secular campuses are empowered to award a Phi Beta Kappa key, only three Catholic colleges can (Catholic University, the College of St. Catherine in St. Paul, and—beginning next month—Fordham). Another gauge is Rhodes scholarships for study at Oxford: of the 1,670 awarded in the past 57 years, students at Catholic colleges have won just 15, including five at Notre Dame. Catholic colleges do not produce enough doctoral candidates, either clerical or lay, to replenish their own faculties. In Woodrow Wilson fellowships for graduate study by prospective professors, Catholic schools do better: Notre Dame has 78, St. Louis University 36, Fordham 28—against Yale’s 132, Harvard’s 142, Princeton’s 222.

Some of the trouble is money. The average Catholic college has 300 or 400 students, scant cash for science facilities or even faculty pay. This is particularly true of women’s colleges, which heavily outnumber those for men.

To Notre Dame’s President Hesburgh, all this means that “we have our work to do.”

“Total Truth.” What is that work? The text of Catholic education is that of the old Baltimore catechism: “God created man to know Him, to love Him and to serve Him in this life, and to be happy with Him forever in the next.” In the Catholic view, education is thus committed to “total truth”—moral, religious and intellectual. Unlike secularists, Catholics cannot divide reason and revelation into tidy compartments; each informs and reinforces the other. “The hell of secular society unredeemed by Christianity,” said St. Augustine, “is not even capable of improvement.” Summed up Pope Pius XI: “There can be no true education which is not wholly directed to man’s last end.”

At the lower school levels, this means strict training in “habitual good acts,” the cultivation of faith and morals that constitutes “soul saving,” the impressive air of neatness, manners and discipline that strikes visitors to any parochial school in the land. It means piety: Mass before school, prayer before class, grace at lunch, prayer when school lets out, and an average 2½ hours of religious instruction each week. It means “conditioning the will” in order to have “the power to choose freely what is good in life.”

At the university level, Catholic education finds its roots in the great tradition of the Catholic universities in the Middle Ages, when all-inclusive learning was no problem. Universities then organized their faculties around the “queen science” of theology, which supernaturally interpreted all natural knowledge. It was a time when St. Thomas, the breathtaking synthesizer of Aristotelian reason and Christian faith, could say: “The truth of our faith becomes a matter of ridicule among the infidels if any Catholic, not gifted with the necessary scientific learning, presents as a dogma what scientific scrutiny shows to be false.”

Unhappily, lesser theologians forgot this sound advice. When Galileo peered through his telescope four centuries later and saw a heliocentric rather than a geocentric universe, the result was conflict between baffled theologians and fascinated scientists. The Roman Inquisition forced Galileo to “abjure, curse and detest the aforesaid errors,” but science was not to be stopped that easily.

The wound did not really heal until this century. Yet as far back as 1852, Britain’s John Henry Cardinal Newman wrote The Idea of a University, a plea for “cultivation of the intellect.” Newman held that a university “is not a convent, not a seminary; it is a place to fit men of the world for the world.”

Belligerently Protestant. While Catholicism was in mid-journey from the Inquisition to Newman, Jesuits in 1789 founded the first U.S. Catholic university, Washington’s Georgetown. Georgetown raised its head in an overwhelmingly (99%) and belligerently Protestant new country. A pamphleteer of the time warned of the “calm, shrewd, steady, systematic movement of the Jesuit order . . . to subvert the Reformation, and to crush the spirit of liberty.”

In fact, the swelling flock of unlettered immigrants was not much interested in higher learning. Putting first things first, the bishops in 1884 ordered every parish to build a parochial school. Not until 1908, when Pius X converted the U.S. “mission church” to full status, did the real history of Catholic higher education begin. Various religious orders then began building colleges (all jealously independent) at a fabulous rate: since 1909, Catholic college enrollment has jumped 2,000%.

A Home in Indiana. Notre Dame got its start when the French-born Father Stephen Badin, first Catholic priest ordained in the U.S., bought several hundred acres around his Indiana log cabin, deeded it to the nearest bishop for a school. In 1842 the C.S.C. in France sent Father Edward Sorin, 28, to build the school. His endowment: an oxcart, seven religious helpers and $541.12½. Bewitched by a fresh November snow, Sorin had a vision of purity that made him call the place Notre Dame (Our Lady).

After 37 hard years, Sorin’s proud achievement was a tightly disciplined college, modeled on a French boarding school. Then the place burned to the ground. Sorin concluded that the Mother of God had “to show me that my vision was too narrow.” In four months flat, Sorin and the faculty raised the huge main building that still stands, topped with the golden dome that is Notre Dame’s landmark. The school pushed on with its work, for many years under the Rev. William Corby, whose campus statue has long tagged him as “Fair Catch” Corby.

The next major figure in Notre Dame’s history was a smash-nosed kid from Chicago, a Norwegian-American Protestant named Knute Rockne. In 1913 obscure little Notre Dame played Army in Yankee Stadium as a filler on West Point’s football schedule. Captain Rockne, at left end, and Quarterback Gus Dorais passed Army to death—35 to 13. The stunning upset made Notre Dame famous. From nuns to workingmen, Catholics all over the country began praying on Saturday mornings for Notre Dame victories.

Fighting Irish. With Rockne as coach, Notre Dame became everybody’s favorite underdog, then swiftly graduated from underdog ranking. Protestant Sportswriter Grantland Rice supplied the “Four Horse men”* tag; the “Seven Mules” manned the line; the “Fighting Irish,” liberally assisted by Poles, Germans, Italians and an occasional Jew, were a national institution. From 1918 until he died (holding a rosary—he had become converted) in an airplane crash in 1931, Rockne’s Notre Dame tackled the nation’s best football teams, won 105 games, tied five, lost twelve.

Football fame, scorned as it was by intellectuals, was the key that unlocked the sources of money that now pay for Notre Dame’s increasing academic quality. The more scholarly graduates nowadays like to recall that Coach Rockne was also a magna cum laude graduate (’15), a brilliant chemistry student who worked with Father Julius Nieuwland, discoverer of the base for synthetic rubber. In 1952, Notre Dame honored Nieuwland with a first-rate science building that bears his name and the inscription. “All Things God Hath Made Are Good and Each of Them Serves Its Turn.”

Withal, Notre Dame has not forgotten football. Like its once-helpful victim, West Point, it believes in the game as a character builder. Moreover, football nets $500,000 a year. But nowadays Notre Dame imposes strict standards on its prime beef, requiring a 77% average for varsity players against the 70% passing mark. And Hesburgh can permit himself a gibe at Notre Dame’s 58,000-seat football stadium as “the civic opera.”

“I’m Going to Be a Priest.” The priest who dares to kid about football comes from a comfortable, informal home in Syracuse, N.Y., where he was the son of a plate-glass plant manager of German-French descent. “We were middle class, pure and simple.” says Hesburgh. He went to parochial schools, served as an altar boy, got to be a Life Scout, built model airplanes, liked to hunt and fish, once played Christ in a passion play, and graduated third in his high school class. What made the quick, dark-eyed boy different was his voracious reading and early ambition. At twelve, he was asked by a Holy Cross priest what he wanted to be when he grew up—fireman, policeman, explorer? Snapped Hesburgh: “I’m going to be a priest, Father. Like you.”

Duly impressed, Father Thomas Duffy scribbled down Hesburgh’s name and attributes (“fine boy, bright”), eventually steered him to Notre Dame. After one year on campus, Hesburgh took his novitiate year at a wilderness camp in Rolling Prairie, Ind. Up at 5 every morning, the novices prayed, read and recited in Latin; prayed, chopped trees, and built a silo. For the voluble Hesburgh, the toughest rule was silence for 22 hours a day. “It was a boot camp,” says Hesburgh.

From an original class of 29, Hesburgh and eight others survived to take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. He was not fleeing the world, he says: “I liked dancing. I liked everything. But I thought there was something more to life. By really belonging to nobody except God, you belong to everybody.”

Hebrew in Latin. At Rome’s Gregorian University, Hesburgh absorbed theology. The classes, including the class in Hebrew, were taught in Latin, and “the dormitory talk was French, the street talk Italian.” He also picked up Spanish, and later, Portuguese. Ordered home in wartime 1940, Hesburgh continued his studies at Catholic University. When he was ordained in 1943, Hesburgh begged to be a military chaplain, was ordered instead to work for his S.T.D. (Doctorate of Sacred Theology), which he earned in 1945. Hoping for missionary work, he fetched up teaching a course on moral virtue at Notre Dame.

Again plunging into extra work, Hesburgh became chaplain to Notre Dame’s married veterans who swarmed over an area known as “Fertile Valley.” Hesburgh badgered obstetricians for discount deliveries, baptized babies and baby-sat in return for sandwiches and beer. He got so adept at marriage counseling that he once reunited a couple after a three-year split.

A year after becoming head of the religion department, Hesburgh at 32 was made executive vice president of the university. Among his first acts: replacing Clarence Manion, the far-right dean of the law school, with Joseph O’Meara, a Cincinnati lawyer active in the American Civil Liberties Union. Hesburgh also took charge of the university’s rapidly expanding building program, got it moving even faster. President John Cavanaugh knew a brilliant successor when he saw one: “You would have had to be blind not to spot his talents.” At 35, Hesburgh became Notre Dame’s 16th president.

Ready for Take-Off. What Hesburgh inherited was a university ready for takeoff. Father Cavanaugh, a onetime Studebaker salesman who dreamed of a grown-up university, had sold the necessity of change not only to his conservative congregation but also to the standpat alumni. Money began to flow, buildings to rise. Though 80% of Notre Dame’s 30,000 alumni have graduated since 1940, and few are rich, they have chipped in at the rate of $700,000 a year, may hit $1,000,000 this year—a considerable feat considering what they also give to parochial schools.

Under Hesburgh, Notre Dame has put up twelve new buildings worth $12.6 million, started another $13.5 million construction program, increased faculty salaries by 90%, tripled endowment to $25 million. The school’s operating budget is up threefold, its science spending tenfold. On completion, the new $8,000,000 library will house 2,000,000 books, five times more than the present library. All this is part of a ten-year (deadline: 1968) $66 million “Program for Excellence.”

While raising bricks* and mortar, Hesburgh drastically revamped the curriculum, tossed out vocational courses by the score. He held down undergraduate enrollment, let graduate enrollment (now 795) grow. To get better students, he raised admission standards; the average IQ of entering freshmen has gone from 118 to 127. Since 1954, average College Board scores have risen 78 points to 536 on the verbal aptitude test, and 77 points to 579 on the math aptitude test (out of 800).

This is well below the 650-750 range on secular “prestige” campuses, but significantly rising. The Ford Foundation in 1960 gave Notre Dame the honor, as one of five rapidly improving universities (none other Catholic), of receiving $6,000,000 in no-strings grants.

Hesburgh is aware that overobedience and lack of initiative are among the chief criticisms brought against Catholic collegians. For 50 years, Notre Dame cut off lights and even the electricity in student rooms at 11 p.m. Three mornings a week, students had to sign in with prefects outside hall chapels, a way of encouraging attendance. This year Hesburgh dropped both restrictions (chapel attendance has not slipped). Hesburgh also cut eleven pages of student rules to two quick pages that, among other restrictions, prohibit students from having cars, from cheating or from “overdrinking.” If it took Hesburgh nine years to make those changes, his hesitation is understandable. On the record, the old tight rein produced remarkably stable men. Not long ago, a visiting Harvard psychiatrist was astounded to find not a single undergraduate suicide in Notre Dame’s history.

“Natural Doubt.” One result of better students is a more intellectual Catholicism, an increase in the “natural doubt” that sometimes hits parochial school graduates in college and even produces some apostates. According to Hesburgh, “practically all” of his students believe in God. But “you run a hazard working with kids,” he says. Real belief comes from experience, perhaps from “darkness, not light.” With a 19-year-old, “you can’t just saw off the top of his head and pour it in. All you can do is give him a basis of order that will prepare him to under stand.” To assist that process, Notre Dame has 33 chapels, prayers before classes, courses in theology that are required except for the 2% who are not Catholics. Eight crosses stand atop the administration building.

Ironically, Notre Dame’s theology department, theoretically the core of the school, is regarded by all students and most faculty members as the worst department on campus. Staffed entirely by 24 priests, it offers no major—for fear nobody will seek it. But Notre Dame is working toward improvement: some 25 young C.S.C. priests are studying for their S.T.D.s at foreign universities, and Hesburgh hopes to snap up 10 or 15 of them. “We’ve got our Jacques Maritains coming up,” he says.

Notre Dame has long given science its due. Its famed Lobund Laboratories were created 30 years ago to develop germ-free animals as a tool for medical research. Its radiation lab claims the nation’s largest radiation chemistry program, and is now being expanded by the AEC to the tune of $2,200,000. Notre Dame also gets good grades in chemistry, English, history and math. But it still cannot afford sabbaticals for research or a psychology department (launching cost: $220,000). It is notably weak in social sciences.

Knowing & Being. Whether or not the “moral dimension” enters teaching at Notre Dame is up to the 398 lay teachers (including some 60 Protestants and several Jews) and the 89 priest or brother teachers. In the classes of Historian Aaron Abell, a Catholic, “the Christian ethic is not stressed at all.” A political science course, on the other hand, devotes half its reading to Augustine and Aquinas. Papal encyclicals on social justice show up in economics. Biology and the dogma of virgin birth do not conflict because, in Hesburgh’s view, “biology does not study miracles.” Historian Matthew Fitzsimons hopes that “a Christian view of man makes sense out of sacrifice and suffering.”

Perhaps no one else has better conveyed that sense to Notre Dame students than witty, incisive English Professor Frank O’Malley, 28 years on the faculty and the university’s most inspiring undergraduate teacher. O’Malley plumbs life’s most basic emotions, using Charles Peguy to examine the virtue of hope, Claudel to plumb suffering, Kierkegaard to emphasize the shallowness of religion without love. When he reaches students, O’Malley often changes their lives, teaching them to love learning and learn love. “The totality of life has hit me,” said one of his students last week. “The act of knowing and the act of being are becoming one.”

Public Service. Keeping this fine-tuned institution going is a fulltime job for Hesburgh. But he can and does manage another big job: an intensive career of public service. As a member of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, Hesburgh gives special emphasis to Christian action, last year wrote a notable attack on police brutality against Negroes. As a member of the National Science Board, Hesburgh votes on multimillion-dollar federal research projects. As a board member of the Rockefeller Foundation, he votes on another $40 million in medical and social welfare projects. As the Vatican’s permanent representative to the International Atomic Energy Agency, he goes to Vienna each September for an annual meeting at which he is considered a quietly effective negotiator.

By now Hesburgh has visited almost every country in Africa, Asia, Europe and South America. When he does get time for play, he generally slips off to a favorite Mexican fishing village with a few old friends (one: C. R. Smith, president of American Airlines).

Habitually, Hesburgh works until 3 in the morning, with Brahms and Beethoven humming on his stereo set if he is in his office. “Some people are unwinders,” he says of his late hours. “I’m a winder as the night goes on.” He sometimes winds right through the night, rising from his desk at dawn to go to church and the first round of his daily 2½ hours of prayers. The type who breakfasts on a vitamin pill and fruit juice, Hesburgh lives a spartan life (salary: nothing), sleeps in a brown iron bed in a bare room, where the furnishings consist of two chairs and an old Royal typewriter.

For all his comings and goings, Hesburgh is abidingly devoted to the glory of the University of Notre Dame. Every conceivable improvement is on his mind, from painting the front door of the main building to launching a new Center for the Study of Man in Contemporary Society, a project that he hopes will draw theologians into the problems of cities, civil rights and developing nations.

“A Possible Renaissance.” By such efforts to join faith and reason, Hesburgh embodies an intellectual maturity that long seemed beyond U.S. Catholic education. At least in theory, such maturity is bound to spread. Socially, politically and economically, U.S. Catholics are now strong and secure. If money, drive and ambition can create great universities, Catholics will sooner or later have them. What critics still challenge is whether the peculiarly American heritage of Catholic anti-intellectualism will so hobble scholarship that greatness is out of reach. Mortimer (Great Books) Adler charges, for example, that Catholics still “often appear to think that all the truth worth knowing is already completely known and in their possession.”

Hesburgh stands for probing all truth on the ground that there cannot be a conflict in truths. Some Catholics fear that this might push Catholic colleges toward secularism and deprive them of their reason for being. Yet the faith-and-reason approach might flower in the nation’s first significant generation of Catholic intellectuals. Carefully keeping his claims moderate, Hesburgh foresees only “a possible renaissance” of Catholic education.

“We are men committed to Truth,” says Hesburgh, “living in a world where most academic endeavor concerns only natural truth, as much separated from supernatural truth, the divine wisdom of theology, as sinful man was separated from God before the Incarnation. If these extremes are to be united, a work of mediation is needed. We must somehow match secular or state universities in their comprehension of a vast spectrum of natural truths in the arts and sciences, while at the same time we must be in full possession of our own true heritage of theological wisdom.”

*In Latin, Congregatio Sanctae Crucis (C.S.C.). *Rockne’s famed 1922-24 backfield: Quarterback Harry Stuhldreher, Halfbacks Don Miller and Jim Crowley, Fullback Elmer Layden. *The yellow “Notre Dame brick,” made originally from marl in nearby St. Joseph’s Lake and now manufactured in New Jersey.

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