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Incoming first woman director of Notre Dame’s ethics and culture center shares her vision

Jennifer Newsome Martin, the incoming director of the University of Notre Dame's de Nicola Center for Ethics and Culture, is pictured in a May 28, 2021, photo. (OSV News photo/Matt Cashore, University of Notre Dame)

By Catherine M. Odell , OSV News

NOTRE DAME, Ind. (OSV News) — Catholic theologian and professor Jennifer Newsome Martin is honored — but won’t deny that she’s also pretty excited — to have been recently named the next director of the University of Notre Dame’s internationally renowned de Nicola Center for Ethics and Culture.

In July, Martin becomes the third director — and first woman director — for the 25-year-old center which has become a model for Catholic colleges and universities seeking to promote the Catholic witness on ethical and societal issues. She succeeds O. Carter Snead, who has led the center since 2012.

“This center has always been very interested in preserving and ensuring Catholic identity across a lot of academic fields,” Martin told OSV News. “And in its programming,” she added, “there’s always been great concern about the dignity of every human person. Much of the center’s outreach is based on the thinking and teaching of Pope John Paul II. He said that culture and ethics have to do with full human flourishing. That’s his language from his 1993 encyclical “Veritatis Splendor.'”

Martin has been teaching in both Notre Dame’s theology department and in its Program of Liberal Studies for more than 10 years. But Martin has also been a fellow of the de Nicola Center. She’s watched closely as the center’s events and programming have successfully reached out and connected with students and the wider community beyond the campus.

Since its founding, the center has worked hard to strengthen Notre Dame’s Catholic character on campus and speak out on the burning issues of the day. Its outreach has focused on its four foundational pillars or principles — student formation, research and publications, culture of life initiatives, and mission stewardship.

The center’s annual fall conference is the largest conference on Notre Dame’s campus year after year. It draws scholars from all disciplines, artists, lawyers, business professionals as well as undergraduate and graduate students and people from the local community. The de Nicola approach, Martin quipped, is definitely “outward turned and public facing! And that’s kind of unusual, because sometimes academic centers like this tend to be narrowly focused, exclusively academic.”

Student formation — that first pillar, she pointed out — may be the most important. Sometimes, Martin explained, at a university like Notre Dame, students have the mindset that they’re only there to succeed academically and that the only people they need to connect with are the ones who will help them build good resumes.

Martin explained that de Nicola’s staff and faculty fellows work very hard to help students outgrow that narrow vision. In particular, the center wants all students to learn about and experience “true friendship.” She called those “the friendships built on wanting what’s truly good for other people and wanting to draw out the virtues in others.”

That’s a challenging goal, Martin admitted. But the center works constantly to lay the groundwork for those true friendships.

“We have Masses and talks just for them,” she points out. “There are also student pilgrimages planned, and there are times when faculty members will invite six or eight students to their homes for dinner and conversation. It’s a way of giving these students a place to develop as whole persons.”

Martin says this is key for a university concerned with providing students a Catholic liberal arts education.

“We need to help prepare students to really know how to engage with other people,” she said. “But, that’s what the center does. It places friendship at the center of activities and events, drawing people in through relationships.”

Under her tenure, Martin expects to bring forward some new initiatives to the center.

“The first director of the center was a philosopher of medical ethics and it has always sort of leaned towards bioethics although it has also been concerned about preserving Catholic identity across many academic fields,” Martin said.

“But, I would now like to elevate the scholarly profile of the center in the area of humanities,” she add What can we do to support young Catholic artists, novelists or academics? What can we do to keep theology, philosophy and literature healthy? We’re in a cultural moment which says that everything we do must translate into a resume and a job that gets me money. I want the center to protect and witness to the value of the humanities even more strongly in the future.”

Martin has taught Dante’s “The Divine Comedy” for 10 years and wants to expand the center’s promotion of literature, poetry, theology, history and those studies which explore what it means to be human. She wants to promote the wonderful writing and wisdom of many Catholic thinkers, including St. John Henry Newman.

Martin may also work to revitalize some book series through the University of Notre Dame Press, bringing back forgotten Catholic authors.

Making the charism of the Holy Cross order better known is also important, she believes.

“Blessed Basil Moreau, the French founder of the Holy Cross order, the order of priests that founded and still leads Notre Dame, wrote beautiful things about educating the whole person, educating the mind and heart together,” she said.

Is there anything about taking on this new role that she might find particularly challenging? Martin reflected momentarily but didn’t take long to respond. Yes, she replied, “there are two concerns.”

“One would be,” she began, “that during my career as an educator, I’ve wanted to be a person whom students could come to for help. … Now, I do wonder if I will be able to keep offering that attention to the individual student if I have all of these different constituents as director of the center.”

The second concern has to do with “starting this position in an election year.”

She said, “Sometimes the kinds of themes and topics that emerge in the center could engender partisanship which I’m not at all interested in. I worry a bit that we might be on the front line of potentially contentious issues.”

Martin said the U.S. political party system has definite flaws, whereas “the Catholic position is much more complicated.

“Our obligation is to the Gospel,” she said. “No political party can adequately answer to the radical demands of the Gospel.”

“Fair and constructive dialogue have always been the hallmark of the de Nicola Center for Ethics and Culture,” she insisted. “We will continue to say that we can have conversations that are respectful and charitable without giving up the fundamental elements of our Catholic positions.” ?

Catherine M. Odell writes for OSV News from Indiana.

To learn more about the de Nicola Center for Ethics and Culture, visit ethicscenter.nd.edu

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