Alma mater

The University of Notre Dame has always been blessed by loyal and generous alumni. This has never been truer than in the case of Project Sycamore, whose president is Bill Dempsey ‘52, retired after a most distinguished legal career that began with a clerkship under Chief Justice Earl Warren. Dempsey has rallied fellow alumni to address current campus outrages, and thousands of alumni have subscribed to the Sycamore website ( The extremes of alumni sentiment might be called unquestioning, on the one hand, and carping, on the other. Project Sycamore, as evidenced by Dempsey’s letters to ND president Father John Jenkins and his analyses of university proposals, is a model of calm and reasonable yet unrelenting friendly questioning of recent events on the South Bend campus.

The trigger for the Project was the incredible waffling of Father Jenkins about, and ultimate allowing of, campus presentations of the infamous and pornographic play The Vagina Monologues. The very title is an affront. Imagine Penis Ponderings, Malice Aforeskin or Anal Analyses. That such a patent effort to corrupt the young and to trash common morality, to say nothing of the enforcement and enlargement of that morality by Catholic moral teaching, should not require five minutes of reflection before being dismissed. Yet the unthinkable has happened, again and again. If only Father Jenkins had simply sought his mother’s advice, none of this would have happened.

A meeting of bishops, scheduled to be held at Notre Dame, was moved because the prelates were given no assurance that the Monologues would not be shown again. Bishop John D’Arcy had previously, and publicly, expressed his dismay to Father Jenkins, in firm but gentle pastoral terms. Jenkins’ latest compromise has been to meet the Monologues with — dialogue; that is, to schedule discussions of this monstrosity after it is enacted. The problem is that those who had not fled gagging beforehand did not stay around for the “academic” discussion that followed.

The controversy brought to the surface the disturbing fact that a significant number of Notre Dame faculty are pleased as punch at the showing of the Monologues and characterize objections to it as an assault on – you guessed it – academic freedom. This led Project Sycamore to examine the alarming drop in the percentage of Catholics on the faculty, now hovering around 50 percent. To its credit, the administration too is concerned about this – a concern that would have been quickened by Pope Benedict XVI’s remarks during his recent visit to the United States. The plan to remedy this that was proposed by the university revealed, upon analysis by Project Sycamore, that, far from meeting the problem, it would exacerbate it; the analysis is a model of the incisive comments one has learned to expect from Project Sycamore.

The administration would be less than human if they did not wish that Project Sycamore would just go away. What can one do with a group that does not accuse you of malice but rather exhibits the naivete and ineffectiveness of your actions? I doubt very much that Project Sycamore will become deciduous soon. They love Notre Dame too much for that. They are not trying to score points against Father Jenkins. They are appealing to his undoubted intelligence and good will. In the end, it is, in its way, a lovers’ quarrel.

A few issues ago, The New Criterion ran a symposium on the parlous state of higher education. All of its exempla horribilia took place on secular campuses. Alas, many of them are what Notre Dame has come to refer to as peer institutions, a designation which is perhaps more wishful than factual. The New Criterion was only one of hundreds of lamentations about our colleges and universities that have appeared over the last decade or so, some of them written by former presidents of as well as by professors in those institutions.

Notre Dame is not a secular university. It is a Catholic university, as indeed were all the original universities. Universities arose, as John Paul II pointed out, ex corde ecclesiae. What the times require is not for Catholic universities to become more like their chaotic secular counterparts, but to recover and celebrate the great tradition in which they stand. The future of Catholic universities could be even more golden than their past, but only if they set aside an indecent respect for the opinions of mankind and celebrate the complementarity of faith and reason.

No one could imagine that Father Jenkins would take exception to this ideal. Only a churl would imagine that there is some plan to secularize Notre Dame. Our president is a good and holy priest, although a philosopher. Project Sycamore and Father Jenkins are children of the same mother, the lady atop the golden dome. She will bring them together in her historic roles as Advocata nostra and Sedes sapientiae.

Ralph McInerny (1929-2010) was a writer of philosophy, fiction, and cultural criticism, who taught at Notre Dame from 1955 until his death in 2010. He was among the founding contributors to The Catholic Thing.