The Catholic Thing
Mammon and Uniquity Print E-mail
By Ralph McInerny   
Sunday, 07 December 2008

A friend suggests as a solution to the woes of the University of Notre Dame that the president, Father Jenkins, and the football coach, Charlie Weis, should exchange jobs. No one is likely to mistake the one man for the other, but the malaise of the football team and what some of us grumpy old men see as a free fall into secularism on the part of Notre Dame are oddly complementary. The link is money.

Other Notre Dame sports flourish without any need to turn those who guide young people over floor and ice and field into instant millionaires or millionairesses. The football coach’s “package,” already obscene, was remarkably expanded after his first year with an inherited team. He was given a ten-year extension of his contract with an undisclosed increase in the annual emolument. A decade suggests decadence. The dollar sign seems to hover over the campus like the Goodyear Blimp, overseeing the flow of money into the university coffers. As one who is now in his 54th, and final year, on the faculty, the adoption of the corporate model is distressing.

Education, by its very nature, is predicated on a conception of the human person, with implications as to what life is all about, what its purpose is. A Catholic institution adds to the once common assumption that the student is not being trained to be a consumer, to state the goal negatively. The positive statement is that truth and beauty and the good should be the guiding stars of life. Elsewhere, that draws snickers now. Truth? An influential administrator of a once-respectable institution dismissed truth as irrelevant to the work of the university. Surely no Catholic institution could share such indifference to the telos of the mind, the faculty that sets humans off from members of every other species. What sense could then be made of the stirring text in which the Son of Man is described as the Way, the Truth, and the Life?

The apparent intent of piling millions on an untried football coach was to return Notre Dame to national prominence in that sport, to be in the top ten, to secure a lucrative post-season bowl bid, to win the equivocal “national championship.” The result has been ironic. The last team that trounced us has recorded more victories this year than Notre Dame has in the last two. The coach’s solution was to set off on yet another recruiting effort, luring young men to South Bend by describing the team as a feeder to professional football. Play for Notre Dame and end up with a wily agent who will secure you a multimillion dollar contract. If success rather than more failure follows from that effort, Notre Dame football will be indistinguishable from other football factories.

One doesn’t have to be a president or a coach to be baffled as to how that goal is to be reached. But anyone can ponder whether it is a worthy one. On the academic side, the mission of the university is fairly well stated. But the way the university is conducted is often in dubious harmony with that mission. It is not only coaches – well, one anyway – who are seen as motivated primarily by money. The faculty is replenished with that same vulgar assumption scarcely muted. The need, we are told, is for faculty salaries to be competitive. Once men and women joined the faculty of Notre Dame, not because they thought it was competitive with other putatively similar places, but because it was unique.

Recently Otto Bird, founder of the Program for Liberal Studies, told me what he received in salary when he came to Notre Dame in 1950. I know what I received in 1955. Both Otto and I came to Notre Dame from other universities, but the decision was not made by weighing compensation. Lefty Smith, who was our first hockey coach, told me of his interview with Father Joyce. The two had shaken hands and Lefty was headed for the door when Father Joyce called after him, “By the way, what do you want in salary?”

It is melancholy to have lived into a time when Notre Dame describes itself primarily as “a great research institution.” Research has its native habitat in the sciences; its application to the liberal arts is more equivocal than analogous. A liberal education is far more a matter of catching up with the past than regarding it as in need of premature efforts to supplant it. The slow accumulation of the wisdom of the race is only begun in four years. It is a lifelong quest. Cardinal Newman’s Idea of a University and John Paul II’s Ex corde ecclesiae remain the best guides for a Catholic university. To take Ivy League schools as models of what we should be is having predictable results. We would be wiser to follow their lead in avoiding the professionalization of sports.

Ralph McInerny is a writer of philosophy, fiction, and cultural criticism, who has taught for many years at Notre Dame.

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Comments (9)Add Comment
written by Brad Miner, December 08, 2008
An Ohio State and Army football fan, I and share Ralph McInerny’s sense of Notre Dame’s conflicting missions. The last time a top program was tamed by academic officers was when its Faculty Council refused to let the Buckeyes play in the ’62 Rose Bowl; football was diminishing OSU’s academic status. But OSU and ND may falsely certify some “scholar-athletes” without risk. West Point (in a football tailspin) is commissioning battle-ready officers. But 7 straight losses to Navy hurts.
written by Bill Loughlin, December 08, 2008
Dear Professor McInerny,
All I can say to you is BRAVO. Thank you. I only wish there was someone at my alma mater, Holy Cross College, with the wisdom and the intestinal fortitude to straighten out those Jesuits.
Merci beaucoup.
written by Carlos de Zayas, December 08, 2008
Professor McInerny is hopelessly behind the times. Clearly, what matters today is not a liberal education with a Christian ethical base. What matters is a BCS ranking high enough that Notre Dame, flush with cash, can obtain a top five U.S News and World Report ranking, enabling its graduates to compete for megabuck positions packaging fraudulent mortgages into investment-grade securities and covering them with credit default swaps that no one can decipher.
written by Charles Maloney, December 09, 2008
In our Irish Catholic home of the 40s and 50s there was no doubt that God made Fall Saturday afternoons for the sole purpose of providing a venue for Notre Dame football. I attended ND for a year in the early 60s, and learned that, while Saturday afternoons might have been for football, the rest of the week was unabashedly Catholic. ND had no identity crisis then. She knew who she was, serving as a beacon of faithfulness for America's Catholics. But, just look at her now. Shame on her.
written by Thomas C. Coleman, Jr., December 09, 2008
Bravo, indeed! I have been telling friends that the Irish cannot triumph on the gridiron until ND distances itself from heretical theologians, since the prayers for which ND relied on for victory will not be said by those saddened by both gratuitous heterodoxy that weakens faith and by obscenity on stage which pollutes minds and souls.
Why did he stay?
written by Steve Hellman, December 11, 2008
Call it a foolish question, but when I read articles such as this all I can think is to ask why, why did Mr McInerney stay at Notre Dame? Why did this eminent scholar lend his considerable talents in support of an institution that has made a "free fall into secularism"? I have the same wonder about Fr. Schall at Georgetown. These men have had many options but they choose to remain under the auspices of institutions which cheapen and often repudiate the values they cherish. Why?
written by Brian Stanley, December 13, 2008
Why does Dr. McInerny stay at ND and Fr. Schall at G'town? They stay because they care, because they have and use "caritas" -- love. They love God and love God's people, i.e., they seek the good for others, in the pursuit of the Truth. The service they have given to ND and G'town respectively is to be commended, although I understand the question. While I am saddened by the news of retirement, I am grateful to God for Dr. McInerny's service at ND. Ad multos annos!
written by John Gorman, December 15, 2008
Prof. McInerny is going to be missed at ND. I wish I had paid more attention to him while I was there. He makes some excellent points in this article. Notre Dame was always intended to be the premier Catholic Undergraduate University in the world. The focus on research and graduate studies has betrayed the mission and has weakened the school. I've been arguing for years that ND also points far too many of its students toward business studies.
written by James, December 20, 2008
The glaring problem with this article is its ending. Professionalized sports is is all but irrelevant compared to the issues of theological orthodoxy and Christian morality. The Ivys, the educational apex of WASP culture, led American education right into the gutter in both categories . On the other hand, when Rockne had the Irish dominating college football, the university was a bastion of religious orthodoxy. It was aping Ivys that led ND to embrace the diversity of theological and moral rot

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