CATHOLIC COLLEGES AND UNIVERSITIES TODAY
Assumption College, Worcester, Mass., Oct. 11, 2007
Avery Cardinal Dulles, S.J.
Let me begin by congratulating the Board of Trustees of this college on its choice of a new President. Dr. Cesareo has an excellent scholarly background, having received his doctoral degree from Fordham University, where I am now privileged to teach. He was a student of history, specializing in the Italian Renaissance, which I myself studied to some extent in an earlier stage of my life. Since then Dr. Cesareo taught at another Jesuit University, John Carroll in Cleveland, where he was the founder and first director of the Catholic Studies Program. He then came to Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, where he continued to promote Catholic studies in his capacity as a dean. In addition to his doctoral dissertation, he has published a fine study of one of the major theologians at the Council of Trent, Girolamo Seripando. For all these reasons I am confident that Dr. Cesareo will maintain the standards of excellence of Assumption College and even raise them to greater heights.
By preference and not only by obedience, I have spent almost all my teaching career in Catholic higher education, believing it to be of great importance for the Church and for society at large. I am so convinced of the transcendent value of our faith that I find little interest in activities that have no apparent connection with Christ and the Church.
On this auspicious occasion I thought it might be fitting to share with you some thoughts on the aims and situation of Catholic higher education today. Seeking to go beyond platitudes to which everyone agrees, I shall take the risk of making some controversial statements that could be disputed. But my positions will not be arbitrary or idiosyncratic. My primary guides will be Cardinal John Henry Newman in his great work, The Idea of a University, and Pope John Paul II, in his apostolic constitution Ex corde Ecclesiae. I shall build on their ideas in my own way, for which I cannot hold them responsible.
Assumption College dares to call itself a Catholic institution. To deserve that name it must be founded on three principles: that there is a God, that he has made a full and final revelation of himself in Jesus Christ, and that the Catholic Church is the authorized custodian and teacher of this body of revealed truth. Like other Catholic institutions of higher education, Assumption College is committed to the proposition that faith is intelligible and that its study is profitable for the individual and society. The College, to be sure, does not confine its mission to theology, but it is a place where theology can find a home. "Because of its specific importance among the academic disciples," writes Pope John Paul, "every Catholic university should have a faculty, or at least a chair, of theology" (19).
In the decade following the Second Vatican Council many colleges and universities in this country dropped theology out of the curriculum and substituted some confessionally neutral type of religious studies. Assumption College, I am pleased to note, still retains a department of theology. Theology and religious studies are not just two names for the same thing. They are very different in character. Theology studies the data of Christian revelation from inside, under the light of faith. Catholic theology unfolds under the light of Catholic faith. Religious studies, however, treats religion only as a human and historical phenomenon, to be studied from the outside with the tools of history, sociology, philosophy, psychology, and other human disciplines. There is nothing wrong with religious studies, but they cannot claim to deal with revelation as a gift from God. For that reason it falls short of satisfying the desires of believers who wish to understand their faith. They will be drawn to theology because it gives them a deeper comprehension of the faith in which they seek to grow. I hope that our Catholic colleges and universities that still have theology departments can offer the benefit of a true theological education to students who are suited to this kind of study.
Since Assumption College is neither a seminary nor an institution of graduate study, it should not be expected to teach dogmatic or sacramental theology in all their dimensions, but it should provide its students with a solid introduction to Catholic theology on a level proportionate to their general education. Graduates should not go forth with an advanced education in literature and science, while remaining at the grade school level in their knowledge of their religion.
One desirable service sought from college theology departments in our day is to reflect on the interplay between faith and reason. Students should not complete their education with the impression that faith is a pure leap into the dark. They should be familiarized with the reasons for believing that have traditionally been taught in apologetics courses or fundamental theology. Pope Benedict XVI has been constantly emphasizing the immense light that faith casts on human and worldly affairs. The source of our faith is the God of reason, the divine Logos, whose revelation lifts up our human reason beyond its natural capacities. Without the light of revelation human reason cannot find sure answers to many urgent questions about the meaning and goal of life.
Students who come to a Catholic college, or their parents, generally expect that the curriculum will include some study of the Catholic faith. Catholic studies, as I understand it, is an area broader than theology strictly so called. It includes history, art, literature, politics, philosophy, and even the social and physical sciences insofar as these specialties intersect with Christian faith. Catholic studies does not have to be a separate program or department; they can be included as part of the normal curriculum if the institution retains its full Catholic identity, as I suspect may be the situation here. As a former director of Catholic studies programs, Dr. Cesareo will not need any advice from me about how to make Catholic studies available here at Assumption, whether as a separate program or as part of the regular curriculum.
I would propose that all disciplines involving human values should be taught at a Catholic institution with due attention to their religious implications. Courses in literature can be greatly enriched by an analysis of the religious persuasions of the author. Classical poets such as Dante, Chaucer, Milton, and Goethe, not to mention more recent poets such as Gerard Manley Hopkins and T. S. Eliot, can only be superficially understood if one ignores the biblical and theological background of their works. The same is true of many great artists and musicians of the Western world over the past two thousand years. To understand the art of Fra Angelico and Michelangelo, to mention but two names, and the music of Bach and Beethoven, Verdi and Gounot, it is essential to pay attention to the religious inspiration and themes of their compositions. Courses in politics and business raise ethical and moral questions that intertwine at many points with Christian teaching. Catholic institutions have the distinct advantage of being able to draw on the Church’s long history of reflection on these matters.
Our Catholic colleges in this country have a tradition of strength in philosophy. I would hope that this strength can be maintained in an age when students are inclined to prefer feelings to ideas, the particular to the general, the new to the old, and the immediate to the eternal. For solving the deeper questions that confront all of us in our lives, and for dealing with the harmony between faith and reason, philosophy is almost essential. It enables the student to integrate all other studies by fitting them into a comprehensive framework of the true, the good, and the beautiful. Good courses in logic and philosophy are invaluable for helping students to detect sophistries, to organize their ideas, and to express themselves clearly. Graduates of Catholic colleges have a good reputation for perceiving the ethical dimensions of the decisions that they may have to make in business, politics, and the professions. They know the difference between right and wrong, and seek at all costs to do what is good and avoid evil. With that disposition they can be a credit to those who formed them. It is an embarrassment for the Church when prominent Catholics, after being educated in Catholic schools, commit white-collar crimes such as fraud and embezzlement. One aim of a Catholic college is to prevent its graduates from becoming involved in such scandals.
A persistent complaint against American higher education today is the lack of integration. Each department tends to become a domain for itself, struggling for turf against the others. Interdepartmental cooperation, which ought to be the rule, is conspicuous by its absence. The curriculum is fragmented, or as some say, balkanized, so that the student graduates without anything approaching a synthesis of knowledge.
In Catholic colleges this rigid compartmentalization and rivalry of disciplines ought not to occur. Cardinal Newman believed that a university, as a place of universal learning, should include not only the liberal arts but also sciences such as chemistry, engineering, and medicine. Even at a relatively small institution, such as his own university in Dublin, he favored a multiplicity of disciplines, but for that very reason, he maintained, it was imperative to have a principle of unity and order. On the ground that reality is a single, undivided whole, he held that all knowledge should be unified. At the end of their course of studies, students should be able to achieve a connected view in which all knowledge fits together into a coherent system of truth. The college, therefore, should not be content to convey information and particular skills, useful though these may be, but should strive, in addition, to impart what Newman calls a philosophical habit of mind. Philosophy, for him, “embraces and locates truth of every kind, and every method of attaining it.”
To grasp reality in its wholeness and unity, we need to have not only intelligible objects but intellectual eyes that can perceive relationships (144). Studies should be chosen for their capacity to “strengthen, refine, and enrich the intellectual powers” (263). A person with a sharpened mental vision can excel in a great variety of fields, and can become a better orator, statesman, soldier, lawyer, or physician than one who lacks this capacity (165-66).
Pope John Paul II would agree. In his apostolic constitution Ex corde Ecclesiae he writes: "It is necessary to work for a higher synthesis of knowledge, in which alone lies the possibility of satisfying the thirst for truth which is profoundly inscribed in the human heart" (16). The entire faculty, says the Pope, should take advantage of the specific contributions of philosophy and theology for helping them see the relative place and meaning of their respective disciplines. Integration is possible in the context of a vision of the human person and the world that is enlightened by the gospel and therefore in reference to Christ the Logos, who is the very center of creation and human history (16).
So as not to go too far beyond my area of competence, I will comment only briefly on campus life and the role of campus ministry. Newman lived before the age of campus ministry, but he firmly held that tutors should care for the spiritual and religious life of their charges, as well as their intellectual formation. Pope John Paul II devotes several key paragraphs of his apostolic constitution to pastoral ministry, which has the responsibility of seeing that students are encouraged to grow in prayer, to participate in sacramental worship, and to be predisposed for active participation in the life of the Church. I would be remiss if I failed to mention the importance of maintaining a vibrant Catholic culture on campus, so that worship and reception of the sacraments can be seen as a normal part of life. Catholics who conscientiously practice their faith should not be regarded as eccentric.
The kind of Catholic college I have been describing, to be realized in practice, must resist threats that come from many directions. It will require strong faith and firm commitment on the part of university leaders to stand up against contrary tendencies in contemporary American culture.
We live in a consumerist society, in which colleges tend to shape their policies according to the demands of the market, as though the measure of success were to construct more buildings and increase student enrollment to the maximum. If this mentality takes over, the mission of the institution is trumped by the desires of potential students for a less demanding and more immediately practical curriculum, pointed toward well-paying jobs and worldly success. The inclinations of students, rather than the wisdom of their mentors, would shape the curriculum. The college would surrender its responsibility to transform its students, so that their ideas and values may be better attuned to reality as known through reason and revelation.
The mass media exert a powerful influence on the minds of our students and on public opinion at large. The media promote the consumerist culture, carrying advertisements that induce people to spend money on artificial needs and superficial gratifications. Everything in the secular ambience impels people to seek wealth, prestige, comfort, and pleasure as though they were the ends of human life. Our colleges and universities must be constantly on guard against being coopted into this culture, which is in the long run both anti-Christian and dehumanizing.
Many of the students who enter our colleges today are deeply affected by what may be called the postmodern mentality. They are skeptical if not cynical about the capacity of the human mind to grasp what is objectively true and good. Many take it as self-evident that human beings can freely decide for themselves what is to be held as true and practiced as good. Father Joseph Feeney, S.J., who teaches at St. Joseph’s university in Philadelphia, quotes several papers submitted by his students in the Fall of 2006. Typical are the following remarks of one of them:
I think the postmodern world has given me my sense of humor–-nothing is too ridiculous, and offensive (usually) equals funny.... I don’t take things seriously anymore...I cannot find any attachment for characters in a television program or movie....I just don’t care about the outside world anymore... I am critical of everything-–that way I don’t get attached to something.
The same student continues:
I don’t believe in God or any religion, in fact, I believe in nothing. I see a chaotic world around me; I can’t even begin to try to explain my consciousness. I’ve given up trying to search for answers-–how the world was created, what is right and what is wrong, is there an afterlife?
Only a serious engagement with philosophy can make such students see that the human mind is made for truth and that the moral law is not of our own making.
Postmodern students readily imagine that change and diversity are desirable for their own sakes. We can agree that students should be educated for the world of today, with all the new methods offered by modern science and technology. We can acknowledge that a variety of cultures may be a source of enrichment. But for nations to live together in peace and friendship, they must share common convictions regarding the dignity of persons, the value of the common good, and the basic norms of morality.
Religious diversity is not desirable in itself. It appeals chiefly to those who believe that there is no truth in religion anyway. If we believe that God is one, and that Jesus is his incarnate Son, we will hope that all peoples, with their different voices and idioms, may someday unite in praising him. To make this goal persuasive in the contemporary atmosphere of subjectivism and relativism is a serious challenge.
Still another challenge comes from the academic establishment in America today. In secular circles there is a virtual consensus that no courses ought to be taught from a distinctive religious point of view. Faith is generally held to have no place in the classroom, at least on the level of higher education. If this means only that faith should not be imposed in the classroom, we can agree. But if it means that professors should not manifest their religious beliefs or seek to defend them, the objection is unsound. As I have said, a Catholic college is professedly committed to promoting and defending a Catholic outlook on the world, and if it failed to do so it could be convicted of false advertising.
As Pope John Paul II pointed out in his apostolic constitution Ex corde Ecclesiae, Catholic colleges and universities are in a position to criticize the reigning culture from the perspective of Christian faith. They should be capable of contributing to the evangelization of culture, transforming it from within and renewing it in the light of Christ. A Catholic college or university, said the Pope, should participate in the Church's work of evangelization by being "a living institutional witness to Christ and his message, so vitally important in cultures marked by secularism, or where Christ and his message are virtually unknown" (49).
To be an evangelizing force in its own setting, a Catholic educational institution has to be clear about its mission. An essential step, which I take to be fundamental, is that faculty be hired for mission. If the teachers are hostile to the mission of the college or indifferent about it, the college will suffer. It does not suffice to hire faculty who are nominally Catholic. If teachers are angry with the Church or unsympathetic toward her doctrines, no changes in the curriculum will succeed in making the institution truly Catholic.
To meet these many and serious challenges cannot be the task of the president alone. He must have backing from the trustees and cooperation from the faculty and administration. From what I have been able to gather, I believe that this climate of colleagueship and teamwork is present at Assumption College.
In this context it becomes important to consider the relationship of the Catholic college to the Church. This relationship is basic to John Paul II’s apostolic constitution, which bears the title “From the Heart of the Church” (Ex corde Ecclesiae). Because of its intimate relationship to the Church, says the Pope, the Catholic college or university participates in the life of the local church and in the mission of the universal Church. It must therefore be institutionally faithful to the Christian message as expressed in the Catholic tradition. Bishops, as custodians of the faith, should not be seen as external agents but as participants in the life of the institution. They cannot shirk their responsibility to preserve and strengthen the college’s Catholic identity (28).
Depending on one's point of view, this institutional bond may be seen as a burden or a help. Some seem to hanker for the freedom to teach whatever comes to their minds, without having to conform to any doctrinal norms. But on deeper consideration it becomes apparent that the Church says no only in order to guide her members to a deeper yes–-yes to God who is the source of all truth and to Christ, who said of himself, "I am the truth" (Jn 14:6). Since the truth makes us free (Jn 8:32), it does not confine us; it liberates us from the shackles of ignorance and error.
In saying this I am not rejecting all discussion of statements that come from ecclesiastical authorities. Those who speak in the name of Christ and the Church must make it apparent that they are faithful to their mandate. Respectful discussion of Church doctrines can and should occur in Catholic institutions of learning, but such discussion should be conducted with respect and humility, not with hostility and pride.
Cardinal Newman, in his Idea of a University, points out the advantages that the guidance of the magisterium gives for the purposes of the university itself. Just as we turn to professors to teach us disciplines in which they are expert, so we turn to the magisterium of the Church to give secure guidance in matters of religion. For it is to the Church that God has entrusted the deposit of faith. Universities that exclude the sacred sciences are handicapped because they lack an essential resource for answering important questions that inevitably arise in the human heart. They easily fall into error because the absence of theology creates a gap that other disciplines such as the physical sciences and psychology seek to fill, even though they lack the necessary competence. Medicine tends to be taught as though physical health were the aim of human existence; economics as though wealth were the supreme value, and so forth.
Without the helping hand of the Church, Newman contends, the human mind gravitates toward infidelity. The paths that lead to truth in the spiritual order are difficult to find. In the lecture on Medical Science with which he concludes his Idea of a University, Newman emphasizes the positive value of Church affiliation. Compared with the facts of physical science, he says, the intimations of religion and ethics lack the same degree of evidence. Even though we may feel the force of conscience and the call of faith, neither comes to us with the evidence of sight and touch upon which physical science is founded. If we rely only on personal insight, we can easily be talked out of our religions beliefs. For firmness in faith we depend on a seat of authority in another world, and for effective direction in religion we need a local government on earth. And so Newman concludes:
That great institution, then, the Catholic Church, has been set up by Divine Mercy as a present, visible antagonist, and the only possible antagonist, to sight and sense. Conscience, reason, good feeling, the instincts of our moral nature, the traditions of Faith, the conclusions and deductions of philosophical Religion, are no match at all for the stubborn facts (for they are facts, though there are other facts besides them), for the facts, which are the foundation of physical and in particular of medical, science. (515)
Already in Newman’s day, the world was a rough antagonist of spiritual truth. What science has to say may be true as far as it goes, but it is not the whole truth, or the most important truth. Newman therefore writes: “These more important truths, which the natural heart admits in their substance, though it cannot maintain,–-the being of God, the certainty of future retribution, the claims of the moral law, the reality of sin, the hope of supernatural help,–-of these the Church is in matter of fact the undaunted and the only defender” (516).
The Catholic college or university, for these reasons, should gratefully acknowledge the mercy of God who has provided an institution that has for two thousand years kept the Christian revelation complete and unsullied. Whatever the latest theories of professors or the inclination of students may be, the college should not forsake its Catholic allegiance. While offering its students a vast panoply of skills and learning, it gathers up the scattered fragments of knowledge under the luminous aegis of Christian faith, proclaimed today as always by the successor of Peter and the bishops in union with him. ###
John Henry Newman, The Idea of a University Defined and Illustrated, ed. Ian T. Ker (Oxford: Clarendon, 1976), 428. This quotation is from chapter 5 of the 1852 edition, which was omitted from subsequent editions.