A Civilizing Force

Author: Ralph McInerny


Ralph McInerny

Maybe twenty years ago, Father Leo R. Ward gave me a little book that was printed privately in 1900, copies of which had mysteriously turned up at Saint Mary's College.

Written by one Charles Veneziani as a sort of reverse encyclical—subtitled a layman's "Circular Letter to the Archbishops, Bishops and Prominent Clergy of the United States"—it was a wholesale attack on Notre Dame by a disgruntled former professor. Its title: <A Plea for Higher Education of Catholic Young Men of America with an Exposure of the Frauds of the University of Notre Dame, Ind.>

Veneziani taught at the University from 1896 to 1899 at an annual salary of $600 plus a housing allowance. On the edges of his 91-page indictment one gets precious glimpses of a long-ago Notre Dame through admittedly angry eyes.

Among his grievances were that he was not given a stall for his horse near the Main Building, that his salary was cut when a course he was to give to "waiter-students" was canceled, that the lay faculty were rowdy and intemperate and in any case regarded as only an expedient until vocations to the C.S.C. increased, and that he was lied to by the president when they chatted on the veranda of the main building. Father John Zahm figures prominently in Veneziani's plaint, but the C.S.C.s, priests and brothers, are described as woefully undertrained for the task of teaching.

A recurrent motif of the accusation is that Notre Dame, in a Spanish-language catalogue, offered several "honorary doctorates" to graduates who later distinguished themselves, an offer not echoed in the English-language catalogue. Veneziani was disdainful of his lay colleagues—they sound like Bernard DeVoto's father who spent years at Notre Dame as "a perpetual student and part-time professor." Significantly, Veneziani complains of the school's emphasis on baseball and football in attracting students.

Perhaps the best way to think of Notre Dame is on the model of America's Catholic immigrants. With rare exceptions, they entered at the bottom of the social and cultural scale, and their history is one of a slow descent to respectability and affluence, during which they were measured—and measured themselves—by standards not so much secular at first as non- and anti-Catholic. In the course of the past 150 years the ambience has gradually changed from non-Catholic, more or less WASP, to secular.

To ponder Notre Dame and the American culture is thus to ask about the shifting relationship between an altering effort and a context itself in constant change.

When Archbishop Ireland preached a sermon called "The Catholic Church and Liberal Education" on the occasion of Notre Dame's golden jubilee (not celebrated, incidentally, until June 1895), he praised Father Sorin because "he had faith in America and in the West; he had faith in the Catholic Church in America." If country and church were to prosper and become great, schools such as Notre Dame had to exist and flourish.

Ireland went on to recount the church's historical role as the conduit of culture to the world, the monastic schools, the medieval universities....

John Ireland's parents brought him to America when he was a child; he lived in St. Paul, Minnesota,—that no one would have accused of culture, and was sent to minor and major seminaries in France. He returned as a young priest to become chaplain to a Minnesota regiment in the Civil War. Magnificently put before us in Marvin O'Connell's biography, John Ireland is an apt symbol of the immigrant church which, despite its modest social standing, saw itself as engaged in a missionary effort to bring Western culture as well as Christ to this raw land.

The scene we discern through Veneziani's wrathful eye is the same one Ireland gazed upon when he preached that golden-jubilee sermon. Archbishop Ireland was American and Catholic to the soles of his feet, unabashedly a citizen of this country and a prelate of his Church, a kind of George M. Cohan of the hierarchy. Crude as its beginnings doubtless were, Notre Dame saw itself as a civilizing force in this New World.

An anthology we used in school, Francis Beauchesne Thornton's <Return to Tradition>, conveyed the thought that the American Catholic was, through his faith, connected with the mainstream of Western culture. One had the heady realization that the Puritans and other Protestants who founded what became our prestige universities were actually on the cultural margin of things.

Norman Podhoretz, in <Making It>, suggests that New York Jews felt somewhat the same way. However modest their origins, they regarded themselves as bearing the message of continental culture to America. American Jews took those Protestant universities as their field of labor; American Catholics set about building their own system of higher education.

A pleasantly paradoxical situation, no doubt, but I wonder if it doesn't capture the essence of Notre Dame. When I joined Notre Dame's philosophy department in 1955, the dominant element was a Thomism mediated through such figures as Jacques Maritain, Etienne Gilson and Charles De Koninck. My new colleagues had taken their degrees at Toronto, Louvain, Laval, the Catholic University or one of the Roman universities, with the notable exception of A. Robert Caponigri.

This was still the heyday of the pre-Conciliar church, and there was an exuberant confidence that, guided by Leo XIII's <Aeterni Patris>, a new synthesis was a building that would create a distinctively modern Catholic culture. On the basis of a shared Thomism, the department would reach out toward phenomenology, analytic philosophy, philosophy of science, American philosophy—not to join all those conflicting contemporary movements, but to fuse the best of the old and new. No wonder Jacques Maritain—who lectured annually at Notre Dame— served as a common symbol of our efforts.

This was the Catholic Church that converts such as Thomas Merton entered. I never thought I 'd live long enough to see <The Seven Storey Mountain> become an historical document, but it can now serve as a corrective to distorted views of the preConciliar church that have become received opinion.

Gilson and Maritain, along with Dorothy Day, defined that Catholic milieu, supported by Chesterton, Belloc, Mauriac, Bernanos and Claudel as well as Waugh and Greene.

The social teachings of the Church, interpreted by her philosophers and writers, provided a basis for criticism of—not simply assimilation into—the wider culture.

Frank O'Malley taught a famous course in Catholic philosophy as conveyed in our literature. The founding of the General Program in Liberal Education (it was intended eventually to absorb the College of Arts and Letters) brought Otto Bird to Notre Dame and exuded a confidence that the Catholic tradition of liberal arts was the best way into the renewal of higher education. The Great Books effort had in its turn been influenced by the Catholic tradition of liberal education. There was <Commonweal>, there was <America>, there was Sheed & Ward.

Bliss was it in that day to be alive, but very heaven to be young.

My first contact with Notre Dame was via Maisie Ward's life of Gilbert Keith Chesterton, which I read as a boy in 1943 when it first appeared.

Chesterton had been at Notre Dame in the fall of 1930, lecturing evenings in Washington Hall to audiences of 600 on Victorian literature and Victorian political figures, 36 lectures in all. The new stadium was dedicated while he was here, and he wrote a commemorative poem about Notre Dame football, called "The Arena":

I have seen, where a strange country Opened its secret plains about me, One great golden dome stand lonely with its golden image, one Seen afar, in strange fulfillment, Through the sunlit Indian summer That Apocalyptic portent that has clothed her with the Sun.

And I saw them shock the whirlwind Of the world of dust and dazzle: And thrice they stamped, a thunderclap; and thrice the sand-wheel swirled; And thrice they cried like thunder On Our Lady of the Victories The Mother of the Master of the Masterers of the World.

Reading Chesterton stirred in the mind of a youngster who came from an Irish family of modest means and nine children a sense of the possible interweaving of faith and learning. And it was fateful that that combination should have been linked with Notre Dame.

And football. There are purists who lament the identification in the public mind of Notre Dame and football. They are wrong. American higher education and athletics grew together: "Varsity," after all, is a version—critics would say a corruption—of "university." When Edgar Rice Burroughs, the eventual creator of Tarzan, wanted to test his Michigan Military Academy team against the best, he arranged football matches with Harvard and Notre Dame. On November 20, 1895, he received this telegram from Notre Dame: "Will guarantee $100 or one half gate. Reply. (Signed) P. B. McManus." That was a few months after Archbishop Ireland's sermon.

Knute Rockne's novel, <The Four Winners: The Head, the Hands, the Foot, and the Ball>, published in 1925 (and dedicated to Arnold McInerny), falls into a popular genre of sports novels, and its author was already a legend.

The success of Notre Dame football is a symbol of the presence of Catholicism in the United States, its leavening of the general culture, its aspiration to excellence in this life and the next. The fortunes of the team serve a mesmerizing function for young boys and girls around the country who grow up dreaming of the golden dome and praying that one day they will be students at Notre Dame.

In 1946, Evelyn Waugh wrote for <Life> magazine an essay titled "The American Epoch in the Catholic Church." I doubt that anyone ever called Waugh soft-hearted, so his generally favorable assessments of Catholic institutions of higher education in this country can be taken as fair:

Their object is to transform a proletariat into a bourgeoisie; to produce a faithful laity, qualified to take its part in the general life of the nation; and in this way they are manifestly successful. Their students are not, in the main, drawn from scholarly homes. Many of them handle the English language uneasily. The teaching faculties are still dependent on European recruits for many of the refinements of learning. But when all this is said, the Englishman, who can boast no single institution of higher Catholic education and is obliged to frequent universities that are Anglican in formation and agnostic in temper, can only applaud what American Catholics have done in the last hundred years.

And like Chesterton before him, Waugh was struck by the combination of piety and athletic prowess: "The holy places of Notre Dame are crowded before a football match."

American Catholics claimed as their own Chesterton and Belloc, just as they claimed Mauriac, Bernanos and Claudel. However arch his attitude towards this country, American Catholics felt they shared a secret with Evelyn Waugh. The California he lampooned in <The Loved One> was what you might expect when the Catholic sensibility is absent.

And Graham Greene was ours, even the later, anti-American Greene. What he criticized in our country were its flaws, those that revealed themselves to the eyes of faith. "Whenever people talk of the brotherhood of man, I think of Cain and Abel," Greene muttered, and it was a welcome antidote to chuckleheaded hopes for the United Nations as the new communion of saints.

So too in 1948, uncharacteristically on the program of a conference which asked whether Christian culture is threatened, Greene reminded his listeners that being threatened by the world is part of the definition of Christian culture.

When I noticed that so many of the heroes of American Catholics were foreigners, usually French or English or Irish, I told myself that in a sense culture is international, and that it is far from peculiar to Catholics to be interested in the art of lands other than their own.

But of course that wasn't it at all. It was the Catholic thing that counted, a shared sense of what it all means, the intellectual and imaginative variations on the personal import of a common creed. American writers like Edwin O'Connor, Walker Percy and Flannery O'Connor were part of that Catholic culture, as were T. S. Eliot and J. F. Powers. Modernity was equivocal for Catholics because it seemed a deliberate attempt to sever itself from that essential source of Western culture, the Christian faith.

In one of his essays on Henry James, Greene searches out passages in which the Master touched however obliquely on the Church—it was as if, full of the zeal of the convert, he could not believe that a writer he loved failed to notice what had become so obvious to him.

C. S. Lewis accounted it a bonus of his conversion that he now shared the faith out of which the authors he taught as professor of medieval and Renaissance literature had written. What must it be like to read Dante when his Catholicism is as esoteric as Homer's mythology?

The contemporary authors O'Malley and others taught were those who wrote out of that same Catholic faith Dante possessed. For that matter, could a non-Catholic really understand the horror of Joyce's apostasy? "I will forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race." How Promethean. How Satanic.

Thus it was that, while consciously separating itself from the outlook of modernity, the Catholic university was part of a great tradition, one that was alive and well in our own day. What many regarded as the mainstream was, from the point of view of the culture that drew its strength from Christian faith, an aberration—marginal, doomed.

This was the conviction in philosophy as well as in literature and the arts. The revival of Thomism was meant to redeem the modern mind from the errors into which it had wandered. Leo XIII saw the alternative to Christian culture, the long sad story that began with Descartes's placement of the human subject at the center of things, not simply as a threat to the faith but as a disaster for mankind.

The giants of the Thomistic revival were quite clear in presenting Thomistic realism as a corrective alternative to what had been happening in philosophy. One of Maritain's first books was <Antimodern>. Was it a retreat into a safer past? At the time of <Aeterni Patris>, the Pope had become the prisoner of the Vatican, modernity seemed triumphant, and the encyclical might have been heard simply as the plaint of the defeated.

The American philosopher Josiah Royce was not alone among non-Catholic philosophers in welcoming <Aeternis Patris>, but there were few outside the fold who regarded modern philosophy as largely a mistake. Modernists within the Church were soon to urge Catholic theologians and philosophers to learn the lessons of modernity and to adopt those very aspects of it against which Leo had warned. Their message was, in part, that the Church should join the winning side.

How prophetic Leo's letter looks now, more than a century after its appearance. Surely this is one of the lessons of Alasdair MacIntyre's magnificent Gifford lectures, <Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry>. The crisis of modernity is all around us, in the universities, in the arts, in the culture at large. Nowadays, philosophers celebrate their own nihilism, critics deconstruct our literature, sexual perversity is no longer the avocation of the affluent but a movement that demands that society accept its Humpty-Dumpty logic.

How providential for our country and indeed for the world that our grandparents supported the founding of a vast network of Catholic colleges and universities by religious orders and bishops.

These institutions have never been more necessary than now.

Ralph McInerny is Michael P. Grace Professor of Philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, and director of the Maritain Center there. This article first appeared in slightly longer form in Notre Dame magazine (Summer 1991). This article is taken from the Spring 1995 issue of "The Latin Mass", published by the Foundation for Catholic Reform, 1331 Red Cedar Circle, Fort Collins, CO 80524-2005.