WORCESTER, Mass. (EWTN News/CNA)—Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput encouraged Catholic universities to rediscover the Church’s intellectual tradition and use it to shape society’s future.
“Catholic higher education is heir to the greatest intellectual, moral and cultural patrimony in human history,” the archbishop said in a Nov. 10 address at Assumption College in Worcester, Mass.
The Catholic intellectual tradition, he said, offers a “deeply satisfying answer” to the questions of human life and is “beautiful because it’s true.”
“It has nothing to be embarrassed about and every reason to be on fire with confidence and apostolic zeal. We only defeat ourselves, and we certainly don’t serve God, if we allow ourselves to ever think otherwise.”
The Philadelphia archbishop said that Catholic institutions of higher learning have suffered even more than other Church ministries from secularization that has taken place under the banner of “academic freedom.”
“Instead of Catholics converting the culture, the culture too often bleached out the apostolic zeal in Catholics while leaving the brand label intact,” he noted.
“And the lack of a vigorous Catholic witness … applies in a uniquely hurtful way to Catholic higher education.”
He acknowledged several reasons for the decline of Catholic academic life, including economic pressure and the loss of teaching personnel from religious orders.
“But another cause is the discomfort too many Catholics feel with a scholarly tradition that can be made to seem shabby and primitive in an age of scientific doubt,” observed the archbishop.
Instead of seeking to impress the world on its own terms, he said, Catholic schools must recapture the “genius” that once gave life to Western civilization, with its harmony of reason and faith.
This type of education “refuses to separate intellectual and moral formation because they are inextricably linked.” And while honoring all subjects, “ it gives primacy to the disciplines that guide the formation of a holistic view of reality: philosophy and theology.”
Authentic Catholic learning, he noted, also makes an impact outside the university campus because it “aids in the creation of a Christian culture and explains what this means for human thriving.”
This type of cultural renewal is not a luxury, but an urgent need, Archbishop Chaput stressed.
Believers, he said, must use all of the Catholic tradition’s resources to shape the future. Otherwise, they will find themselves lost in “the ‘next America’ we now see emerging: an America ignorant or cynical toward religion in general and Christianity in particular.”
He noted that believers themselves had fostered this cultural crisis, both by their actions and by things left undone.
“We can blame the mass media or the academy or science or special-interest groups for the environment we now face,” Archbishop Chaput said.
“But we Christians, including we Catholics, helped create it with our eagerness to fit in, our distractions and overconfidence, and our own lukewarm faith.”
In the next several decades, the archbishop sees an America emerging that is “likely to be much less friendly to Christian faith than anything in our country’s past. … It’s not a question of when or if it might happen.”
And in that type of cultural environment, colleges and other Catholic institutions could use their freedom meaningfully, or continue losing it, he warned.
“It’s happening today,” he said, citing state pressure on Catholic hospitals and adoption agencies, as well as lawsuits attacking religious liberty, restrictions on the conscience rights of doctors and other professionals, and attacks on religious institutions’ tax-exempt status and hiring rights.
“Freedom of belief and religious practice used to be a concern that Americans had about other countries,” Archbishop Chaput said. “Now it’s a concern in ours.”
He told his Assumption College audience that their calling, in this context, was not to conform themselves to the world, but to oversee a revival in culture and the life of the mind.
“The vocation of a Catholic college is to feed the soul as well as the mind … to offer a vision of men and women made whole by the love of God, the knowledge of creation, and the reality of things unseen,” Archbishop Chaput reflected.
This, he said, “is the work that sets fire to a young person’s heart. … Our task is to start that blaze and let it grow.”