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Students and faculty visited Notre Dame for a philosophy retreat this weekend. Wikimedia Commons

Over the din of energetic theological and philosophical discussions among conference attendees clutching cups of coffee, the woman on the loudspeaker announced that it was time for prominent virtue ethicist Alasdair MacIntyre to speak.

More than 30 students, six alumni, and Kathryn Wales, former program coordinator for the Center for Ethics and Culture, attended the University of Notre Dame’s 18th Center for Ethics and Culture Fall Conference, a three-day event that drew 750 people and more than 100 presenting scholars.

As everyone filed in, some Hillsdale representatives found seats front and center, positioned their coffee and notebooks, and prepared for MacIntyre’s lecture, “From Grammar to Metaphysics, From Adjectives to Evil.” Entitled “Through Every Human Heart,” the conference grappled with the perennial problem of good and evil and how it is discussed and depicted in theology, philosophy, and even pop culture.  

For students like senior Stacey Egger, who has been attending the conference since her sophomore year, the event is an annual highlight.

“A big part of it is going on the trip with Hillsdale students. It’s become a really cool tradition,” she said. “The first time that I went was the first time that I heard of Alasdair MacIntyre and then that’s something that becomes a part of the conversation once you get back to campus.”

Junior Natalie Taylor attended for the first time this year. She said at first it was hard to see how the disparate lectures connected, but she loved being able to see everything come together.

“I was trying to think of how I could justify spending time at this conference because I have so many other things I should be doing, but even to be able to hear these lectures from the mouths of amazing thinkers that we’ve read,” she said. “There are so many levels, you have access to their words and all the things that come along with it.”

Wales’ connection to the conference dates to 2009, when she coordinated the event — Notre Dame’s largest academic gathering — and she knows it inside and out. The conference connected her to Hillsdale students for the first time, and she would later give a talk to Hillsdale’s Catholic Society. If it weren’t for that talk, she said her husband, assistant professor of  theology, religion, and philosophy Jordan Wales, would not have applied for his job at the college.

“Ever since arriving in 2014, I’ve been telling people about it: It’s amazing, it’s so close, you can’t miss it,” Wales said. “People need to know. There are some important speakers at this thing who won’t be around much longer.”

Where serious academic credit is concerned, Wales said this conference is a big deal. To get more students to the conference, she even volunteered to drive a shuttle — if she had the right license.

“I think this conference should be worth a credit, if the CCAs are worth a credit,” Wales said.

The conference features keynote speakers, a day of paper presentations by rising scholars, and colloquiums and panels by scholars and consecrated religious from universities across the nation and the world.

Egger said going to the conference made her realize that what’s going on at Hillsdale and what’s going on outside is all part of one conversation.

“There is a sense of freshness to it,” she said. “There is something so amazing about finding people out there who are having similar conversations, there are a lot of other things they’re talking about that we’re not. Some of my best memories of Hillsdale have been at these conferences with my friends there.”  

Taylor added that at Hillsdale, there’s a sense that the college is the last institution engaging in these kinds of discussions, to the point of seeming like the city on a hill. It seems lonely and hopeless, she said.

“It wasn’t just Hillsdale students,” Taylor said, noting the students coming from Notre Dame and Rice universities. “It’s comforting to know…this dialogue is happening in all these places that are so different from Hillsdale.”  

Some of Egger’s best memories are from going to this conference with her friends and engaging in conversations that they bring back to campus. After her third conference, she said she has more reference points and can make connections between the talks and her conversations at Hillsdale.

Egger pointed to one presentation as the most shocking and also her favorite.

“The whole time I was thinking, ‘I have to tell Dr. Gaetano about this,’” she said. “It ties into this class I took with him about scholasticism and modernization — in terms of the sacraments — in this crazy new way that was connected to this question defining the whole conference: Is evil a demonic presence or is it just negation, are these the same thing? For me, not only did it sort of unify the other talks but it also tied into so many other things I’ve been thinking about at Hillsdale.”  

In one panel, a discussion of depictions of depravity in art segued into demonology and the modern rejection of the devil that necessitates the rejection of God, which transitioned into a discussion of natural law and how Pascal can contribute to a Thomistic conception of natural law.

“I loved that because it really did bring together these things I’ve been studying and that I care about a lot, and to see how it was framed in an aesthetic conference,” Taylor said.

Senior Birch Smith is in charge of philosophy tutoring for the honorary. He organized the conference trip in 2016 and stepped in to help this year. According to Smith, the philosophy honorary has organized it for the last two years after taking the responsibility from the Symposium, which organized it in 2015 but shrunk down and disappeared with the graduation of the class of 2016.

He said the fact that the event conflicted with Phi Mu Alpha’s Battle of the Bands prevented eight to 10 other interested people from attending part or all of the conference.

The central theme is something that usually interests Hillsdale students and gives them three days of intensive talks. Smith said every year he’s attended has been really helpful for sorting out what he believes, and for broadening and deepening his understanding of big topics.

Smith said he was encouraged to hear that recent alumni in master’s programs are interested in applying to Notre Dame’s graduate program because it reveals the similarities in focus and interests between Hillsdale and the graduate program.

“I would love to see more people even than we had come this year, continuing to go down to the Fall Conference,” he said. “I certainly plan on being there, and I think a lot of the other alumni are as well — it is a miniature homecoming for the Hillsdale humanities people.”

For junior and first-time attendee Colleen Prince, the conference came at the right time.

“It felt like a philosophical retreat, where I was able to take a weekend to listen and absorb what I love most,” Prince said. “Even though I love the pressure of school and the academic setting, it is really nice to listen to those people you’ve encountered in class and appreciate them and realize that you’ve learned so much in your classes at Hillsdale that you’re able to understand these speakers later on in your life. I want to go next year and see the improvement there.”

Enlivened by a day of lectures, attendees, presenters, and religious braced themselves against the evening chill as they walked toward the bells tolling for closing mass at the basilica, where the painted stars guided their gaze to the ceiling.