A First Gauntlet and A Final Gladness - December 10, 2012

Each December since 2001, my wife Laila and I put together a celebration on the anniversary month of St. Augustine’s Press’s founding in 1996; we call it the St. Augustine’s Symposium. In July of 2001, after having raised four children in a tiny house, we followed our counterintuition and bought a house three times the size of the first one, the idea being that our children would get married, have children, and come and visit. It has worked out splendidly, so much so that we regret not doing it a decade earlier. Without the large house, we couldn’t have the Symposium, since it is a dinner party (and for many a Christmas party) for perhaps fifty people.

As for creating Symposium, I say “we” advisedly. I pick the topic and the book and author we wish to honor, invite many friends and colleagues, both local and from far away, and Laila does everything else. She even came up with the idea for the Symposium in the first place. It is, I fear, in keeping with our early departmentalization of duties, in which she is in charge of all the secondary decisions, such as where we would live and how many children we would have, and I handle the primary decisions, such as what our relations with Red China would be.

Anyway, this year’s Symposium, held this past Saturday, featured the upcoming title For Notre Dame: Battling for the Heart and Soul of a Catholic University by Fr. Wilson (“Bill”) Miscamble, a brave and outstanding priest, scholar, and friend, who is certainly the most popular (and possibly the most unpopular) person on campus. You can get a sense of the flavor of his book in the first few paragraphs of his introduction:

          This is a book for all those who love Notre Dame and are interested in its past, present, and future. It is a book that asks its readers to reflect deeply about the ongoing struggle to determine the university’s present mission and future course. This struggle is not readily apparent to those who visit the campus briefly and experience its picture-postcard beauty and then participate in a wonderful liturgy or a well-staged academic conference. It is also well disguised by the university’s relentless institutional self-promotion. It is not even always obvious to many of the undergraduates who blithely enjoy their four years under the dome. Nonetheless, the struggle is very real, and its outcome will shape whether or not Notre Dame will be a Catholic university in a meaningful sense in future decades.

            Notre Dame’s mission as a Catholic university has been the subject of significant debate and dispute for at least the past four decades. This book raises serious questions about the path that Notre Dame has pursued and presently follows. It holds that the Catholic mission and identity of Notre Dame have suffered and, indeed, are at risk. This view will not receive the approbation of the Notre Dame public relations machine and those it serves. No doubt the book will attract some censure from those who resent any criticism of the university, however well grounded. But I do not aim to placate those who bear responsibility for Notre Dame’s current situation. Instead, I seek to deepen understanding of the university so that its fundamental challenges can be faced honestly and a better course charted for it. The debate also relates to and is in some ways a microcosm of larger conflicts in the culture, the church, and Catholic higher education. Tracking the debate at Notre Dame casts some light on elements of those broader areas.

            I have been a participant, to some extent, in what I call the battle for the heart and soul of Notre Dame for well over two decades, and this collection brings together some of my written and spoken contributions to this debate. Read together, I trust these essays and talks will provide insight not only for those—both friend and (metaphorical) foe alike—who have contributed in various ways to the debate, but also to those who come to it afresh with true concern for Notre Dame.

Reading For Notre Dame requires us to come to grips with the idea that we may love institutions, ideas, gestures, even intentions, if only we are able to personify them, to make them a part of our life with others, with friends and family and dogs and, especially, God. And we find that anything loved must be loved for a reason . . . good or bad, high or low, God-like or dog-like, but a reason nonetheless. What we love becomes part of us, and we are here to do our best, to be our best, to demand our best, though we fall daily.

If For Notre Dame is a beginning, how beautiful and fulfilling is the end we find in the Final Lecture of the inimitable Fr. James V. Schall, who gave his farewell lecture at Georgetown the evening before the Symposium, a lecture that requires wide circulation. He called it “A Final Gladness,” and it caps a career of this greatest living essayist in our language with his own exemplary love of learning and ideas and institutions that gladden the heart just to know that such a man exists. To know him is to know what great privilege is, to know the mercy of God, and to read him is to know him. Read A Final Gladness.

This blog is late this week because of the Symposium, so I beg your pardon and say that the blog will return on Monday, Christmas Eve.