WASHINGTON—“What's at stake for Catholic education is important for the culture as a whole,” Mo Fung, executive director of the Cardinal Newman Society, said at the beginning of the organization's third annual conference.
The society was founded in 1993 to encourage Catholic colleges and universities to more fully emphasize their roots. Its patron, John Henry Cardinal Newman (1801-90), was an English convert to Catholicism, university administrator, and author of The Idea of a University.
Speakers meeting at The Catholic University of America, Nov. 7-8, cited the thoughts of Newman as well as the teachings of Pope John Paul II in his 1990 apostolic constitution Ex Corde Eccelsiae and his recently released Fides et Ratio.
The society's previous conferences were held at Marymount University and Georgetown University. At this year's meeting, administrators and students from 22 institutions heard talks from Dr. Jude Dougherty of Catholic University, Father Benedict Groeschel CFR, Dr. Robert Royal of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, and Connaught Marshner, formerly of Christendom College. There also were panel discussions on mentoring students and campus witness.
Dougherty, the dean of Catholic University's philosophy department, gave the opening address. He discussed the decline of moral grounding at U.S. universities and added, “Unfortunately, Catholic institutions have not escaped the drift toward secularism.”
Citing historian Christopher Dawson, he noted that “the secular state school is an instrument of the Enlightenment.” He added that the secular worldview was exacerbated by Emile Durkheim, the French sociologist, and by American philosopher and educator John Dewey.
Durkheim believed the state would free the individual from such mediating influences as religion and the family. Dewey, his disciple, crafted a philosophy of pragmatism. In doing so, he “had no use for religion,” Dougherty said. “Religion was socially dangerous, it was an undesirable course for knowledge.
“By 1910, nearly every university chair was held by materialists,” he added. The secularist trend then intensified, leading, among other things, to Supreme Court decisions that have transformed public education. A once Protestant-oriented educational system has been replaced by a secular humanist system.
This creates a problem for society. Dougherty said, “We have no experience of being under wholly secular auspices. As early as the 1830s the great observer of American life Alexis de Tocqueville noted that ‘liberty can't govern without religious faith.’” Yet, what de Tocqueville said would not work is the dominant approach in the United States today.
Dougherty argued that to counter this development there needs to be a thorough grounding in philosophy, a reestablishment of morality, and a rededication to our Catholic heritage. “There can be no ecumenism in the intellectual order; Catholic tradition must be maintained,” he said.
Father Groeschel, a prolific writer and director of the Office of Spiritual Development for the Archdiocese of New York, asked, “How do we get higher education back to Catholicism?” In his lively keynote address, he said the answer is in Ex Corde Ecclesiae.
“I love the Holy Father,” he said, “because he gloriously and consistently ignores what's going on. He says it as it is—with an incredible practicality. I'm glad the Holy Father has never studied public relations.”
The apostolic letter encourages Catholics to aspire to an ideal with its educational institutions. In so doing, Father Groeschel noted, the Holy Father is telling the Catholic universities to build on the basis of truth.
Rather than treat universities as mere consumer institutions content to train people, society needs to return to the mind-set behind the first Catholic university, founded 1,850 years ago in Alexandria, Egypt. Its founder, St. Clement, defined a Catholic university as a reflection of only one teacher, Jesus Christ.
Even today “a Catholic institution—even a truly Protestant institution—should be built on faith in Christ,” Father Groeschel said. In order to accomplish that “radical” notion, “we have to become a countercultural phenomenon.” In doing so, Catholics will come to understand Newman's point that “truth has two attributes: beauty and power.”
Father Groeschel was optimistic about this happening. Telling the many students who attended the conference “you are the children of a generation of destiny,” he ended with a moving anecdote about the late Terence Cardinal Cooke of New York.
On his deathbed in 1983, the prelate told him, “Benedict, don't be disheartened—because you can hear the bagpipes.” Those bagpipes proclaiming victory, Father Groeschel noted, are now closer. “I will die happy because I lived to see the turning of the tide,” he said.
In more reserved style, Robert Royal offered an analysis of the importance of science in reversing secularism. There is, he said, no conflict between religion and science, but rather a complementarity.
Royal emphasized the importance of the encyclical Fides et Ratio (Faith and Reason), which was released Oct. 15. The document shows how Catholics can confront the “isms” of the modern world—secularism, relativism, materialism, and the rest—by recognizing that faith, through Scripture, tradition, and the magisterium, will withstand any test.
The professor lauded the Holy Father, who “puts no prior limits on the Gospel. He trusts the truth. Be faithful and confident in that spirit, and you will be astonished because there is nothing else in the modern world.”
Other discussions instructed conferees in how to implement changes suggested by these principal speakers. Connaught Marshner, who served as student affairs director at Christendom College, said, “To be authentically Catholic, the institution has to swim against the tide.
Christ showed us a way to live that is radically different from the way we live today.”
To capture that spirit, then, Marshner said students need to be taught the truth, see it lived, experience it, and pray. “All of the campus should be ordered so students can pursue the truth.”
Dr. Susan Matthews, of the University of Scranton and a member of the Cardinal Newman Society's faculty council, was one of several people who discussed ways faculty can mentor students to meet these ends. “To help our students engage the culture, do it with them,” she said.
A co-founder of a Catholic Studies Program at her institution, she encouraged professors to nurture students by bolstering the curriculum. She also suggested they “light fires of passion to help build alternative communities.... A virtuous kind of life is wonderful, liberating, and fun. Help students understand [Catholic] wisdom, particularly regarding sexuality.”
Another commentator on mentoring, Jesuit Father Joseph Koterski of Fordham University, offered four practical suggestions: give students time, create supportive Catholic groups, encourage religious activities such as eucharistic adoration, and share books.
In addition to offering conferences for students and faculty, the Cardinal Newman Society has been actively involved in efforts to adopt norms for the U.S. implementation of Ex Corde Ecclesiae , which is scheduled to be discussed at the U.S. bishops' meeting this month.
Such involvement is exactly what the group needs to focus on, according to the society's executive director, Mo Fung. He told the Register , “A lot of institutions are going with the flow and not very conscious of where they're going. If we can direct that flow, corporate personality can be transformed.”
Joseph Esposito writes from Washington, D.C.
The Cardinal Newman Society can be reached at 207 Park Ave., Suite B-2, Falls Church, Va. 22046; telephone: (703) 536-9585; e-mail: cardnewman@erols.-com; and website: www.rc.net/cardinal newman.