Address on the occasion of the Inauguration of the Academic Year 1999-2000 at the Pontifical University of St Thomas Aquinas - Rome
The questions of the nature and mission of the Catholic university have been the subject of widespread discussion and debate in recent years, reaching a new level of intensity with the publication of Pope John Paul II's apostolic constitution, Ex Corde Ecclesiae in 1990. I do not intend to attempt to resolve or even to summarize the various tensions which have characterized these discussions. My own views about the distinctive nature of the Catholic university have been enriched by the variety of perspectives and the intensity of debate that have developed over the last decade. I must confess, however, that I have become increasingly fatigued by the predictability of some of the ideological language, both of the right and of the left, that has come to predominate in these conversations, especially as we have moved to a direct consideration of the problems associated with the implementation of the apostolic constitution. I would also like to insist that the basic question which we need to address is not so much that of the current nature and relevance of the Catholic university as such, but rather the nature and relevance of the modern university itself.
In this context, it may be worthwhile to consider this more fundamental question in the light of David Schindler’s recently published reflection on the privileged status of liberalism in contemporary Western culture, Heart of the World, Center of the Church: Communio Ecclesiology, Liberalism and Liberation. In this work, Schindler criticizes some of Western liberalism's most entrenched presuppositions, most directly for our purposes, the presupposition that one can identify a pure rationality, freed from the contamination of cultural, religious or political assumptions, a rationality which claims to be universal rather than particular or partisan, and thus the only proper object of academic inquiry. This rationality is enshrined, he argues, in the notion of the post-Enlightenment university, and is now taken for granted, as Theodore Hesburgh insisted in The Challenge and Promise of a Catholic University, by "all university people throughout the world as essential to anything that wishes to merit the name of university in the modern context." (Theodore M. Hesburgh, CSC, The Challenge and Promise of a Catholic University, University of Notre Dame Press, 1994, p. 4). Schindler criticizes this account of a normative, pure rationality and in doing so, raises fundamental questions about the normativity of the modern notion of the university itself and about the critical methodologies which it takes for granted as the principal expression of this pure rationality.
It is surely essential for us today to raise questions about the consequences for general education, indeed for human culture, of a university system based on this model of rationality. In The Idea of a University, Newman acknowledged the benefits to society of the increasing specialization of academic life but he also warned of the consequences for those persons who carry out specialized research. Furthermore he warned of their danger to society as a whole for he insisted that society must expect from individuals something more than a very narrow professional competence. "For if we are defined solely by this narrow specialization, it is the common failing of human nature, to be impressed with petty views and interests, to underrate the importance of all in which we are not concerned, and to carry our partial notions into cases where they are inapplicable, to act in short, as so many unconnected units, displacing and repelling one another." (Idea, 127-28)
Of course, in this case Schindler's immediate concern is not the danger that we are producing an educated class which knows more and more about less and less but rather with Fr. Hesburgh's claim that a Catholic university must be a university first and Catholic second, an argument which Hesburgh had expressed forcefully when he claimed that "one may add descriptive adjectives to this or that university, calling it public or private, Catholic or Protestant, British or American, but the university must first and foremost be a university, or else the things that the qualifiers qualify is something, but not a university." (Cited in Schindler, p.143) I think that it is fair to say that this seems to be substantially Fr. Hesburgh's view of the matter, although he has consistently argued for the distinctiveness of Catholic higher education, agreeing with Newman that a Catholic university has a unique capacity to pursue an essential unity of knowledge because of its commitment to the foundational role of the integrating disciplines of theology and philosophy within its broader curriculum. He also has insisted that Catholic universities have a special role in securing the moral implications of intellectual inquiry and human experience, protecting them from the reductionist tendencies of merely technical accounts.
I think that Schindler is fundamentally correct in criticizing this now dominant view both of the university, and of the rationality on which it depends, one in which Catholicism is merely a value added on to the essentially normative secular character of the university. In saying this, I do not mean to suggest that the modern secular university is itself irreformable or that the Catholic university should exist in isolation from the intellectual claims of modern secular thought. But I do want to insist that the Catholic intellectual tradition cannot be considered somehow an ornamental supplement to the secular university. A much more complex dialectical tension should characterize their relations. When Newman argued that it was the task of the Church to steady the university in the performance of its intellectual mission; that in fact the Church is necessary for the university's very integrity, surely he meant something more than this value added account. I say this despite the fact that Newman clearly agreed with Fr. Hesburgh's insistence that knowledge is an end in itself and in this sense the task of the university must be distinguished from that of the seminary. Nonetheless, we must carefully differentiate particular goods and ends and these distinctions are both more complicated and at the same time, increasingly more necessary in our own day.
Schindler is surely not the first to address this problem. I have already suggested that Newman raised similar concerns in the last century and in our own day Michael Buckley has done so as well, especially in the context of his examination of a number of mission statements of Jesuit universities in the United States. He reported a remarkable and disturbing consistency of language in these mission statements and suggested that, despite their impressive emphasis on social leadership and responsibility, many of them "do not advance much beyond American civil religion and a committed social ethic." (Michael Buckley, SJ, "The Catholic University and the Promise Inherent in Its Identity," Catholic Universities in Church and Society, 1993, p.77) He went on to say that, "One looks in vain for anything that needs or demands—as inescapably appropriate - the name of God, of Christ, of Church, and of theology or indeed anything uniquely Christian or Catholic in the paragraphs that speak of the core curriculum." (Buckley, p.77) It is not surprising then to find that the Catholic, Christian character of the university "was shaded off into a vacuity that offers neither specification nor direction to the education given by the institution." (Buckley, pp. 77-78)
But of course this is hardly surprising if Jesuit universities in the United States in fact share the fundamental presupposition that they are universities first and Jesuit or Catholic second. They will, perhaps inevitably, conceive their religious mission as merely complementary to their pursuit of pure rationality as it is to be found at any secular institution of higher learning. In this sense, the situation is strikingly like that of those nineteenth century liberal Protestant institutions in the United States at which religious questions were relegated to the margins of the academy and housed in separate schools of divinity. Faith becomes a voluntary and somewhat eccentric private interest, well removed from the real business of the university.
Father Buckley criticizes one contemporary expression of the dichotomy of secular purpose and religious inspiration of the Catholic university in his reflection on the philosophy of education of a famous president of Georgetown University, Timothy Healy. Father Healy had claimed that the Church and the university were essentially two radically distinct entities capable of coexisting in a mutually beneficial relationship but only if their mutual autonomy of mission was retained. In Fr. Healy's view, education at Georgetown was to remain "principally a secular business, and the university is a secular entity with a clear secular job to do. The Church can deeply influence how the secular job is done," (Buckley, 80), but one would not presume that this deep influence would substantively modify the normative secular character of the university. In fact, it is clear that Fr. Healy would not have wanted such a modification.
One often hears popular expressions of the same presupposition that the principal mission of the Catholic university is to provide a secular education within a broad context of Catholic values. We have, in fact, come to take this distinction for granted. Is a Catholic university really intended to develop a specifically Catholic philosophy of law or a Catholic chemistry or simply to produce lawyers and chemists who happen to be Catholic (or to be more modest, who work under the benign influence of Catholic values).
But are we really prepared to accept such an absolute distinction? It seems to me, at a minimum, to be a very open question whether contemporary proceduralist accounts of law, for example, provide an adequate foundation for human justice. As George Parkin Grant reminded us in 1974, it was once possible to take for granted the relevance of a classical account of law and human rights in which "justice is not a certain set of external political arrangements which are a useful means of the realization of our self-interests; it is the very inward harmony of human beings in terms of which they are alone able to calculate their self-interest properly.... For justice is the inward harmony which makes a self truly a self (or in more accurate language which today sounds archaic: justice in its inward appearance is the harmony which makes a soul truly a soul)." (George Parkin Grant, English Speaking Justice, 1974, pp. 44-45) How much more archaic does the language of soul strike us twenty five years later? We should not presume to think that this is accidental.
As Grant pointed out in his reflections on the paradoxes surrounding abortion rights and limits in the United States, the detachment of the English common law tradition from its roots in canon law and its deeper foundations in theology and philosophy is not without consequences. When we decide that the mother is a person and the foetus is not we do so on ontological rather than scientific grounds. And so he asks:
On what basis do we draw the line? Why are the retarded, the criminal or the mentally ill persons? [of course these are questions to which the answer is no longer to be presumed, as the recent appointment of Peter Singer to a chair at Princeton reminds us]. What is it which divides adults from foetuses when the latter have only to cross the bridge of time to catch up with the former? Is the decision saying that what makes an individual a person, and therefore the possessor of rights, is the ability to calculate and assent to contracts? Why are beings so valuable as to require rights, just because they are capable of this calculation? What has happened to the stern demands of equal justice when it sacrifices the right to existence of the inarticulate to the convenience of the articulate? But thought cannot rest in these particular questionings about justice. Through them we are given the fundamental questions. What is it, if anything, about human beings that makes it good that they should have such rights? What is it about any of us that makes our just due fuller than that of stones or flies or chickens or bears? (Grant, pp. 71-72)
This is why the proceduralist tendencies of Western liberalism pose such serious challenges and correlatively why a Catholic university's approach to legal education must involve more than the addition of a context of values to the normative secular account of justice. What is required is a substantive reconsideration of the very nature of justice itself with an appeal to philosophical and theological sources long since dismissed by contemporary culture. In this sense I think that Schindler is fundamentally correct in insisting that to "have a Catholic university," it is "necessary to have a Catholic mind." (Schindler, p.147) and that the modern tendency to celebrate a public, universal rationality while tolerating a private set of particular religious values inevitably leads to the voluntarizing or fideizing of the Catholic faith. This is not to suggest of course, that by a Catholic mind, one means a license to ignore contemporary secular thought. It is surely the case that there has sometimes been the tendency among Catholics in various historical periods to isolate and sanctify a Catholic intellectual life which is protected from the challenges of secular culture. This helps to explain the general skepticism, even among Catholic scholars, about the danger of a naïve triumphalist tendency that too often characterizes an official Catholic account of reality. But it is clearly this danger of reducing the Catholic faith to a private category that John Paul II had in mind in arguing that the Catholic university arises out of the heart of the Church and cannot be understood to be merely in a state of cordial or adversarial relation to it depending on the particular historical context.
Many contemporary American critics would contend that Schindler's account (and surely that of Ex Corde as well) of the Catholic university is fundamentally restorationist in its aims and signifies a longing for a pre-critical, sectarian Catholic college of the late 19th century, one whose intellectual pretensions rarely surpassed and often significantly failed to meet the academic standards of seminary formation. It is some indication of the success of this modern view that when Pope John Paul II argued that the Catholic university participates in the Church's larger mission of evangelization, many American academics paused in some confusion. Schindler himself does not hesitate to say that "As Catholic, the Catholic university has its origin and fundamental mission in the universal call to holiness affirmed with special emphasis at the Second Vatican Council. As a university, the Catholic university must carry out this fundamental mission in specific reference to the intelligence." (Schindler, pp. 148-9) I suspect that this claim of a fundamental relation between academic commitment and sanctity would surprise many in the contemporary academy whether on Catholic or secular campuses, but I think that Schindler must be right on this point.
Of course, this raises the broader question about the various audiences which the Catholic university is called to address. Is the principal audience that of the secular academy and its learned societies, is it the Church, is it the undergraduate student body, is it the more specialized research of doctoral students, is it civil society and its secular institutions? Perhaps of necessity the contemporary Catholic university attends to all of these audiences in the complexity and diversity of modern cultures. But this does not free us from confronting the basic question—which audience is primary? Schindler presumes that the role of the Catholic intelligence in contemporary Western liberalism has been reduced to a "public" or "critical" function which cannot in any real way modify the essential presuppositions of modern secular thought and it is, therefore, essentially compromised; that is, that the Catholic university has come to accept that its principal audience is indeed the secular academy and its learned societies.
At least in the United States, there has been no resistance, in fact there has been great enthusiasm in accepting the accreditation standards of the secular academy. The early efforts of Catholics to develop learned societies within the context of Catholic thought and culture has now been largely abandoned, although it is worth noting recent attempts to revive some long established organizations such as the Catholic Commission on Intellectual and Cultural Affairs, founded in the midst of the post-World War II Catholic Renaissance in the United States. The issue of accreditation arises very directly in the context of the juridical implementation of Ex Corde Ecclesiae, especially as it applies to Catholic theologians and the mandate to teach. At least some of the resistance to the mandate suggests the further shift of theology from an ecclesial vocation to a secular academic specialization. Do we need to assume that these two expressions of theological self-understanding are fundamentally irreconcilable?
In a manner similar to that of Schindler, James T. Burtchaell has argued that the Catholic university must understand itself as an academic household of the faith. That is, that one of its principal audiences must be the Church. As Catholics, he argued, our ideal "would be a venture of higher education carried out within the communio sanctorum, the 'community of consecrated people', the 'collective of Christ's holy gifts’. We would engage in the work of learning as a communion of believers, in the hope of a dynamic synergism between faith once handed on to the saints and a strenuous inquiry into knowledge running off in all directions." (University of St. Thomas lecture, April, 1998)
Father Burtchaell's emphasis on the communio sanctorum does not involve an attempt merely to revive a sectarian Catholic university formation but to insist upon a genuine and vital synergism between two distinct but potentially complementary poles of Catholic education; a synergism between "faith handed on" and a "strenuous inquiry into knowledge running off in all directions." We have already seen that the two categories are now generally seen to be mutually exclusive in academic circles. In Ex Corde Ecclesiae, Pope John Paul II argues that a Catholic university's privileged task is "to unite existentially by intellectual effort two orders of reality that too frequently tend to be placed in opposition as if they were antithetical: the search for truth and the certainty of already knowing the fount of truth." (Ex Corde Ecclesiae, 1,3) We should not assume that such a view would mean that only Catholics could participate in such a community or that secular knowledge is irrelevant to it. In fact, if the Catholic university is genuinely committed to the pursuit of universal knowledge, it must also be committed to a genuine dialogue with other religious and secular traditions. It would seem that the contemporary secular university is equally committed to such a universal task but it has largely abandoned the belief that any real integration of knowledge is possible; perhaps it is not even desirable.
But for a Catholic university, this view seems to me to be altogether inadequate and this is really the heart of the matter. Are we as Catholic scholars committed to the conviction that truth is not merely something we struggle critically to explicate with greater but always inadequate precision but also a gift we have received in Christ and which we are called to interpret and pass on to new generations? Are those distinct "orders of reality" capable of an existential unity and integrity? The assertion that they are is the very foundation of Ex Corde Ecclesiae, and it seems to me, has traditionally been presumed as central to a Catholic philosophy of education, however varied this has been in other respects. But this has surely been called into question by a sometimes uncritical embrace of the reigning theory of rationality in the secular academy.
Now it is Burtchaell's argument, and indeed that of John Paul II as well, that this privileged task has always been the aspiration rather than the achievement of Catholic higher education, for such synergy is the good under construction, a goal never quite achieved, and each new effort pushes us to new attempts at synthesis. The pope has said "a Catholic university is completely dedicated to the research of all aspects of truth in their essential connection with the supreme truth, which is God." (Ex Corde Ecclesiae, 4) This privileged task is the goal of a Catholic university but it is certainly not possible, perhaps not even conceivable, in the context of a university in which religious claims are marginal to its essential secular purposes. One would presume that this unity of knowledge can only be achieved within the context of universal knowledge, including religious knowledge and such knowledge is largely excluded from the secular academy.
One of the unfortunate consequences of the current debate about the implementation of Ex Corde Ecclesiae in the United States is that the focus has tended to be placed on authority as itself inherently problematic rather than on the challenge posed by a distinctive philosophy of education, now little understood even among many Catholics. It is undoubtedly the case that both conservative and liberal critics have overemphasized the importance of authority and freedom as if they were ends in themselves rather than the necessary means to secure a more authentic life and a more adequate understanding of reality. The American understanding of freedom as a private right has the unfortunate tendency to place this discussion very quickly in a quagmire, one perhaps unexpectedly identified by D. H. Lawrence, surely no Catholic restorationist, who sharply criticized the naiveté of American accounts of freedom when he pointed out that as human persons we are free only when we "belong to a living, organic, believing community, active in fulfilling some unfulfilled, perhaps unrealized purpose." He contrasts this organic view of an authentic freedom with the American temptation to describe freedom as an escape from responsibility.
Similarly Christopher Dawson had warned in 1961 that if we were to avoid a basic dependence on the conformity imposed by modern secular culture it would be "necessary to view the cultural situation as a whole and to see the Christian way of life not as a number of isolated precepts imposed by ecclesiastical authority but as a cosmos of spiritual relations embracing heaven and earth and uniting the order of social and moral life with the order of divine grace." (Crisis of Western Education, p. 150) If we continue to focus solely on the inherent procedural difficulties of the juridical norms for the implementation of Ex Corde Ecclesiae, we run the risk of losing sight of the larger vision that the norms are designed to protect. The principal expression of that vision lies in the attempt to unite the two orders of reality, of faith and reason, without betraying the distinctive character of either order.
When Newman wrote The Idea of a University, he stressed not so much the tension between faith and reason, for he was committed to a philosophy of education in which Catholic theology was an integral component of liberal education as a whole. Rather, as Ian Ker has pointed out, the real tension in the Idea is between Newman's "genuinely unconditional insistence on the absolute value of knowledge in itself and the equally firm conviction that knowledge is emphatically not the highest good." (John Henry Newman: A Biography, 384) This is why Newman asserts that "liberal education makes not the Christian, not the Catholic, but the gentleman." This definition of liberal education often confuses contemporary readers of the text, for although the gentleman is the supreme achievement of liberal education, sanctity is the higher good, and Newman is supremely cautious about the danger of confusing them.
At the same time he is not content to leave the university and the Church in a condition of radical dissociation, each jealously guarding its own privileges and pretensions and this despite the fact that when he speaks of the university he assumes that it does have an essentially secular character to it. But this character is not immune from the church’s critique and confirmation. For, as he stated in the preface, the Church is necessary to the university's integrity, and he clearly has in mind something very like the synergy described by Fr. Burtchaell in which there would be a genuine and substantive relation and influence between the two. He insists that the Church "fears no knowledge, but she purifies all; she represses no element of our nature, but cultivates the whole." (178). Their relations are neither subtle nor really fully stable for history is rarely in a state of equilibrium. In a famous passage in his Apologia Pro Vita Sua Newman described the complex relations of reason and Church authority in Catholic Christendom and argued that the Church is like a moral factory in which reason might find its full expression and authenticity, not by being destroyed but in being refined "by an incessant noisy process, of the raw material of human nature, so excellent, so dangerous, so capable of divine purposes." (Apologia Pro Vita Sua, 194)
Although Newman's theory of education accepted the intrinsic excellence of both orders of reality, he was equally aware of the potential for collision between them not on the grounds of an essential incompatibility, for truth cannot contradict truth, but because especially in our own time, the supernatural has been all but replaced by the natural. The "long reign of the unseen shadowy world" is overturned "by the mere exhibition of the visible. (Idea, 298) And so, although the Idea is an eloquent tribute to the inherent dignity and majesty of liberal knowledge, Newman is very much aware of the fact that "considered in its religious aspect, it concurs with Christianity a certain way, and then diverges from it; and consequently proves in the event, sometimes its serviceable ally, sometimes from its very resemblance to it, an insidious and dangerous foe." (p.163)
It is for this reason that Newman, and similarly John Paul II, argued that the Church must exercise "a direct and active jurisdiction" over the teaching of university theology "lest it should become the rival of the Church with the community at large in those theological matters which to the Church are exclusively committed, acting as the representative of the intellect, as the Church is the representative of the religious principle." (p. 163)
Newman clearly assumed not only that faith and reason, the Church and the university, were complementary but truly interdependent. It was in this sense that he described their dialectical relationship on terms strikingly different from the modern account of their benign isolation. For Newman saw that there was an inherent danger in the interaction of these two orders of reality. He argued that liberal knowledge has a tendency to impress us with a mere philosophical theory of life and conduct, in the place of Revelation." (165) He insisted that Truth has two attributes, beauty and power, and that if one followed either to its furthest extent and true limit, one is led to the Eternal and Infinite.
satisfy yourself with what is only visibly or intelligibly excellent, as you are likely to do, and you will make present utility and natural beauty the practical test of truth, and the sufficient object of the intellect. It is not that you will at once reject Catholicism, but you will measure and proportion it by an earthly standard. You will throw its highest and most momentous disclosures into the background, you will deny its principles, explain away its doctrines, rearrange its precepts, and make light of its practices, even while you profess it. Knowledge, viewed as knowledge, exerts a subtle influence in throwing us back upon ourselves, and making us our own center, and our minds the measure of all things. (p. 165)
Surely Newman is correct to warn us of the danger that knowledge, viewed as knowledge, tends to make us our own center.
Newman was a psychological realist, and unlike the therapeutic but merely theoretical complementarity by dissociation of university and Church in contemporary culture, he insisted on their vital relation and interdependence. But like any genuine relation, the vitality of their interaction depends upon a true tension as the basis of its synergy. Newman did not hesitate to use the language of warfare to describe their occasional, indeed regular collisions. Newman always insisted that the Catholic system alone provided a forum for a resolution of the tensions between the church and the academy and he criticized the reductionist tendencies of a modern notion of academic freedom as an absolute private right in arguing that the mind is not most creative and fertile in a situation in which it faces no external challenge but rather when it confronts the demands of a strong authoritative claim. One of the great ironies of the contemporary university is that its insistence on the absolute right of academic freedom has produced not a vital debate about rival truth claims but a quiet and absolute tolerance for uncritical private judgments. The choice then is not one between a docile and subservient academic submission to ecclesial authoritarianism on the one hand and a celebration of the absolute autonomy of disciplinary pretensions on the other, but rather a dynamic interdependence in which competing claims are exercised and adjudicated. This understanding of the university might allow an account of freedom, not as an end in itself, but freedom for an authentic human search for the truth and for a genuine human integrity. Flannery O'Connor reminded us that, "if other ages felt less, they saw more, even though they saw with the blind prophetical, unsentimental eye of acceptance, which is to say, of faith. In the absence of this faith now, we govern by tenderness." (Mysteries & Manners: Occasional Prose, p. 227). It is a tenderness wrapped in theory and this may explain the often unreal or artificial character of the relation of the Church and the university in contemporary culture.
One of the most depressing aspects of so much of the modern dialogue about the nature and purpose of Catholic higher education is that we seem to have lost the conviction that dogma is an instrument for penetrating reality and instead see Catholic doctrine as the mere information of an external, coercive authority. Ex Corde Ecclesiae is a forceful reminder of the essential conviction of this possibility for the unity of knowledge at the heart of a Catholic university. The general problems of its application in specific cultural contexts should not deter us from a recognition of its central importance.
Perhaps what is required for us now as we struggle to come to terms with the complexity of the task of uniting existentially the two orders of reality in contemporary culture, is a greater tolerance for the tensions that link them. Neither the temptation of an artificial unity which ignores real differences between them nor the ideological separation which presupposes their incompatibility can be the basis for a genuine Catholic university. One of the striking paradoxes of Ex Corde Ecclesiae lies in John Paul II's insistence that we need to live out the implications of the provisionality of our historical situation and struggle to realize the complex existential synergy between the orders of faith and reason. But ours is not a culture which is particularly hospitable to such an undertaking.
Again Dawson warned that there is much at stake in this struggle between the "unitary" character of modern Western culture and the Christian tradition. For in this unitary culture,
there is little room for the concepts which are fundamental to the Catholic or Christian view - the supernatural, spiritual authority, God and the soul - in fact, the whole notion of the transcendent. So unless students can learn something of Christian culture as a whole—the world of Christian thought and the Christian way of life and the norms of the Christian community—they are placed in a position of cultural estrangement—the social inferiority of the ghetto without its old self-containedness and self-sufficiency. (Crisis of Western Education, pp. 146-7)
We do well to seek to escape the religious ghettoes of the past but we should be more attentive to the new ghettoes we often erect to replace them. I think that this is the significant challenge of Ex Corde Ecclesiae.
In an age of increasing cultural and intellectual fragmentation the classical pretension of the Catholic university that the human person is capax universi, capable of seeing the whole, has implications well beyond its local expression in Catholic universities. In this sense, the fate of the Catholic university in the modern age has consequences for the secular university as well. But we seem to be moving relentlessly in the direction in which Catholic universities will become pale imitations of the pretensions of their secular counterparts. This is a danger not only for Catholic universities but for intellectual life as a whole. The Catholic intellectual tradition embodies not merely an alternative vision to that of the secular academy but an essential corrective to some of its reigning assumptions. We would do well to attend carefully to this distinction in our own time. If we do so, I think that we can look to the new millennium with hope and confidence in the future promise of our institutions but it is too early to tell whether this is a realistic expectation or merely wishful thinking.