Crouched on the side of Notre Dame Avenue, visually eclipsed by the splendor of the Golden Dome, McKenna Hall is about as unprepossessing a building as you could imagine. Yet this past weekend, hundreds of scholars, professors, and students shook down the thunder from the sky within the drab enclosure of its walls.
From November 18 though the 20th, the Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture held its 11th annual Fall Conference in McKenna. Entitled “Younger than Sin” the conference explored the recovery of simplicity through childlike joy, wonder, and humility. Such a topic naturally generated papers and presentations of the fine academic quality one would expect from one of the Center’s conferences. But the awestruck looks on the faces of the audience members listening to Fr. John Saward on St Thomas Aquinas’ childlike wonder bespoke another quality that suffused the conference: beauty.
When an elderly British priest delivering a talk on Thomistic theology moves his listeners to tears in an opening keynote address, the peculiar nature of the event should leave a deep impression. Fr. Saward’s description of St. Thomas’ joyful pursuit of God emphasized the Dumb Ox’s deep and abiding humility, and set the tone for the entire conference. There were other highlights: Anthony Esolen on the innocence in Dante and Shakespeare and Ralph Wood on Chesterton’s love for the Blessed Virgin Mary, but the truly amazing aspect of this conference was the omnipresent beauty and wonder characterized by the childlike approach to God.
The Center’s latest conference was its largest in both participants and attendees, and the effect this bastion of Catholic intellectual thought has on the academic world is quite simply inspiring. The University of St. Thomas in Minnesota and Baylor University in Texas both sent large delegations of students and professors; as Director David Solomon noted, there were more college students at this conference than at any previous Fall Conference to date.
I cannot help but see the Center for Ethics and Culture as the last great stand for Truth in Catholic intellectual thought at Notre Dame. David Solomon and the staff, fellows, and trustees of the Center are the fearless warriors in the clash of orthodoxies, as uncompromising in their stand for truth as they are in their insistence on the beauty of that truth. They perpetually labor to bring the glory of Catholicism to the student body of Notre Dame through the encyclicals and work of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. They never cease to go further up and further in, their joy and wonder unsullied despite the petty politics and power grabs that are apparently inescapable in University administration. Theirs is a grander cause, that rises above the ebb and flow of popularity.
Because of this, Solomon’s everlasting optimism still compels even in the face of administrative hostility. There is a sense in which the Center is too big to kill; not in terms of financing, but in terms of what will live on in the imagination of all the people from around the country they were able to touch in their conferences, especially this latest one.
The Golden Dome will not grow too dull to reflect the sunlight so long as the Center remains on Notre Dame’s campus. The Virgin Mary atop the Dome may be a Mater Dolorosa in these dark times. But as long as the Center continues to contend for the permanent things at a University suffering the temptation to compromise for prestige, old Notre Dame may win over all.
Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.