Not to Notre Madame
Not to Notre Madame
by Anthony Esolen
In the last several years I've been invited to a few dozen colleges and churches around the country, usually to speak about Dante. It's no surprise, I guess, that a translator of the Divine Comedy should receive such invitations. What is surprising, though, and what confounds the secularist who derives his news from Mother Times and similarly reliable sources, is the happy variety of such schools, and their deep and unfashionable commitment to teaching the classics of western learning.
I'd like, besides, to declare up front that most of them have one need in common, a need that I encourage all Catholics and Christians who love our heritage to help to meet. They need money; and it is a cruel irony that in a recession largely fueled by government mismanagement of the money market, such small private and faithfully Christian schools as Thomas More College in New Hampshire, or Patrick Henry College near the nation's capital, or Christendom College in the Shenandoah Mountains, will be first to feel the tightening noose. So now -- I'll not wait to the end of the essay -- I call upon all Catholics disgusted by Notre Madame's flirtations with the culture of death, or by
To lend my plea some additional force, behold here a few things I've found that my small Dante-loving schools have in common.
First, and most important: They are colleges. I don't mean that they are merely institutions of higher larnin'. I mean that they enjoy an enviable collegiality among the students, and between the students and the faculty. Many of the schools, like Christendom or
When I had lunch at Christendom College, I was amazed to see everyone, faculty and staff and students, in one big room, eating the same food from the cafeteria, and listening to the same school announcements -- as if (and I know I am going out on a limb here) they really were members of the same Church engaged in a common intellectual and personal exercise, and not members of separate species going each his own way to a white-collar job and the grave. I had thought, visiting Christendom, that I'd see what a genuinely faithful Catholic college looked like. I did see that; and also saw, for the first time in my life, what a college of any sort looked like.
It's no exaggeration; I could multiply instances of this sort of warm and intellectually stimulating collegiality. At
The second thing I've noticed is the intellectual fire among the young people. How could it be otherwise, when talented minds are confronted with Dante, Shakespeare, Aquinas, Dostoyevsky? The first time I spoke at
It's no isolated occurrence, that. At Thomas Aquinas, one young man -- well known to every student in the school as the most passionate lover of the Divine Comedy among them -- sat in the front row, waiting to ask the question about Beatrice, a question that brought the house down, because everyone knew it was coming. That fellow went on to write a publishable thesis on the relationship between eros and "the Love that moves the sun and the other stars," and I became one of the readers of the thesis, 3,000 miles away. At Faulkner University -- another Protestant college whose students are reading more of ancient and medieval Catholic literature than will those at nominally Catholic schools like
In the heavily philo-Catholic honors program at nominally Baptist Baylor, students take part in what I can only call a storm of charity and soldiership: charity toward all true Christians fighting with them the good fight against the default nihilism of our time. You may doubt whether students at Villanova or Gonzaga could tell you exactly why such village atheists as Richard Dawkins should read their Summa Contra Gentiles, but the young men and women who took me and my son to breakfast at Baylor would give you an earful. Indeed, the provost of Baylor's honors college, Catholic philosopher Thomas Hibbs, said to me that during his tenure there he had hired 167 committedly Christian professors. I doubt you could find that many at the five oldest Catholic colleges in the country put together.
One last thing I'll mention, common to such schools and programs. The students understand that they are not like other students. They are the new counterculture; or rather I'd say they are the vanguard of the restoration of a lost culture, among the ruins.
At Princeton, of all places, students inspired by Rev. C. J. McCloskey and the redoubtable Catholic philosopher Robert George established the Anscombe Society, with membership 200 strong, for the promotion of traditional sexual morality. When I visited the
What I want to say, to sum up the matter of an article that could be much longer, is this. The cracks in the blacktop are showing, and green shoots are poking up through them -- but not where we found them perhaps a hundred years ago. The tree that seemed dead is sprouting buds -- but not on the old limbs. It is time, alumni of the old limbs, to consider pruning. To whom do we owe our allegiance at last? Is it to our almae matres, or to Holy Mother, the Church? If to the latter, then I think we know what we should do. The small and doggedly faithful Catholic schools need our support. Notre Madame will be with us a century from now. Let us make sure that
Anthony Esolen is a professor of English at
While Mount Saint Mary's University had some rough sledding as it danced with the Land O'Lakes crowd during the turmult of the 70's through the early 90's, the Mount has made great strides over the last few years to reclaim its Catholic identity and heritage. I would venture to say that you would find a significant number of committed Christians teaching the undergraduate students there. I am hopeful that those teaching in the Seminary would be above suspicion in this regard.