“I just can’t accept papal infallibility. What if the pope said we couldn’t drink Pabst Blue Ribbon?” one of my classmates (class of 2005) from the University of Notre Dame said to me recently over a couple of pints at my neighborhood pub.
I carefully explained to my friend—I'll call him “Seamus O’Sullivan”—that the Catholic doctrine of papal infallibility does not apply to every word the pope utters. I also wondered how someone could graduate from Notre Dame, an ostentatiously Catholic university that requires all its students to take four theology and philosophy courses in order to graduate, and still misunderstand so basic a tenet of the faith.
Seamus was actually quite typical of the recent graduates I know from Notre Dame, where 85 percent of the student body is Catholic but most of them know as much about Catholicism as I imagine the pope knows about Midwestern beer. I quickly discovered during my years there that Catholicism for many of my fellow Domers was a comforting presence in times of trouble, a legacy of rituals passed on to them from their parents, a binding element in "dorm unity"--and a condiment rather than an entree in the vast smorgasbord of courses offered at Notre Dame.
I first encountered the campus brand of Catholicism while jogging through campus on a Sunday night during my freshman year. Passing the dorms, their yellowed bricks shrouded in nightfall, I heard hymns echoing through the wooded quads. Each residence hall contains a chapel, and when I passed their stained-glass windows I felt like a sinner for not joining my own dorm-mates in the Notre Dame weekly ritual of 10 p.m. Mass in the chapel. Then I remembered why I had decided to attend a morning Mass in the main campus basilica instead. The dorm Mass, in many ways the centerpiece of residence life at Notre Dame, was nearly as foreign to me as a Mormon ritual.
Inside some of those chapels the students lounged in beanbag chairs during the liturgy instead of standing or kneeling. Up front, a priest (or sometimes a nun) preached a homily that contained no Catholic teaching on any subject. At communion time the Mass-goers typically enjoyed a five-minute round of hugging, kissing, and handshaking before linking hands in a circle around the altar to sing a “praise and worship” song borrowed from evangelical Christians. Before and after these Masses there was often a riot of fellowship—in front of the tabernacle where the Eucharist was kept. This sort of spirituality might have seemed impressive compared to the secularism that reigned at most of the rest of U.S. News’s top 20 universities, but it struck me that few participants in the dorm liturgies seemed to understand that the Mass was about worshipping God, not about cementing bonds with their roommates and friends.
My fellow students at Notre Dame often talked about Catholicism with genuine respect, but like my friend Seamus, they had only the foggiest acquaintance with its key doctrines. I can't even remember how many of my classmates informed me that the Eucharist, which the church teaches is literally Christ's body and blood, was actually no more than a symbol. I was regularly informed that “we need to find a balance between doctrine and compassion,” as a classmate told me during a student government “focus group” on Catholicism. She was arguing that there should be more rights for homosexuals on campus—though she did not specify exactly what rights. She did, however, firmly believe that the Catholic Church was an oppressive institution. Another friend declared to me that the only true statement about the church was that “it always changes.”
They received little enlightenment on such matters from their professors. In one of my sophomore literature classes we read Dante's "Divine Comedy." Dante had included a Corpus Christi procession in that poem, but not a single one of us, including the professor, recognized it for what it was. Instead, we focused mostly on how Dante had used the poem to condemn his political enemies to ridiculous punishments in hell.
In our theology classes professors fed us outright misinformation about the fundamentals of Catholic belief. My freshman-year professor informed us that the church “no longer really believes in transubstantiation,” the doctrine that the bread and wine at Mass become Christ's body and blood (no wonder most of my classmates thought the Eucharist was just a symbol). Instead, we spent many class-hours discussing the fact that “theology” is Greek for “God-talk,” why churches should feature plain brown carpeting rather than gold ornaments so there wouldn't be too much emphasis on the divine, and how the Old Testament definitely did not foreshadow the New Testament. After all, as our professor said, “How could the [Old Testament] writers possibly have known what was to come?”
In my second-year theology course, most of my classmates came away thinking that Christianity was just a crazy concoction of St. Paul. The professor, an affable polyglot, often quoted Greek, which none of us understood, to back up his claim that St. Paul also contradicted himself all the time. He also insisted that the passage in the book of Genesis in which God, right after Adam's sin, asks Adam, “Where are you?” meant that the author thought that God really didn't know where Adam was.
Then, in senior-year theology, our professor informed us that Jesus’ death on the cross—“the Jesus story,” as he put it—was actually a political gesture against Roman tyranny, which our professor compared to the Bush administration. When we read Kant in a senior-year great books course, we grappled for several weeks with his ideas, painstakingly working our way through three of his treatises. By contrast, we had just a few cursory class discussions of St. Thomas Aquinas' "On Faith and on Law," mostly revolving around our wonderment at how Aquinas "could be so sure of himself.”
Thanks to carefully selecting courses taught by a handful of professors committed to the Catholic intellectual tradition, and to providentially meeting the right people, I was able to obtain a liberal arts education at Notre Dame that also enhanced my understanding of my faith. I don't regret my years there. But most of my fellow Domers didn't know how to make the kind of effort I made, and they learned almost nothing specifically Catholic. They enjoyed talking about religion, and they went to Mass willingly. But many left Notre Dame with little of substance to sustain their faith after graduation, let alone articulate it to the world at large. Catholicism for them was all sentiment, no reason or knowledge. And, like my friend Seamus O’Sullivan, they learned the truths of their faith, if they learned them at all, only from better-informed pals with whom they shared a beer.
Norman Mailer, speaking at Notre Dame during in the 1970s, observed that there “one can use the word ‘soul’…and they don’t snicker.” True, they don’t snicker, but can they tell you what a soul is?