WASHINGTON—Archbishop Francis George made the case for the necessary role of the bishop in Catholic higher education last month at Georgetown University's “Centered Pluralism” lecture series.
In his talk, “The Catholic Mission in Higher Education,” the archbishop of Chicago noted that despite his own fond recollections as a member of the teaching faculty of a Jesuit university, he intended his evening's remarks to be those of “a bishop of the Catholic Church.”
In amplifying the role of the bishop in Catholic higher education, Archbishop George maintained that the local ordinary was already “within the Catholic university as teacher of the faith.” And while the university was a setting where faith was expressed through various theological formulations, it remained the responsibility of the Magisterium “to judge theological opinions in the light of the certitude of faith.”
Even as the Magisterium could be the judge of the soundness of theological opinions, Archbishop George maintained that “the bishop is in the Catholic university neither as a watchdog nor an academic lawgiver.” However, a university which calls itself Catholic “cannot separate itself from the community of faith, a community which Vatican II describes as a hierarchical communion.”
“I would respectfully suggest, therefore, that the office of bishop is not a problem in understanding the Catholic mission in higher education; rather, the office of the bishop is part of the solution.”
David O'Brien, professor of history at Holy Cross College in Worcester, Mass., acknowledged the pointed nature of the archbishop's address.
“From what I have gathered from those attending, the reaction has been one of recognizing the somewhat confrontational nature of the talk.” O'Brien said the archbishop's tone was refreshing inasmuch as there is a danger of “too much pabulum.” Bishops of the Church, he added, “are not simply decorative objects for the commencement podium.”
Certain developments in Catholic higher education in the post-conciliar period have had negative consequences, Archbishop George noted.
“The arrangements of the last thirty years are proving to be unstable,” he said. The archbishop referred to the Land O'Lakes Statement of 1967 and similar documents that followed in the '70s as examples of “mitigated secularization.” Although the signers of these statements, presidents of major Catholic universities, sought “to retain their Catholic institutional identity,” nevertheless, universities “that followed the direction given by these documents were separated from their juridic attachment to the Church.”
Parallel to these university declarations, the archbishop said, were various conciliar documents and pastoral letters of the U.S. bishops relating to higher education, which culminated in formal consultation with the Holy See's Congregation for Catholic Education and its promulgation of Ex Corde Ecclesiae, Pope John Paul II's apostolic exhortation issued in September of 1990. Subsequent conversations between the bishops and university presidents, focused on Ex Corde Ecclesiae, “have vastly improved the level of trust and communication between the U.S. bishops and the university presidents,” said the archbishop.
In “resolving tensions of the present moment,” Archbishop George said, certain “presuppositions of academic culture” need to be examined, especially those presuppositions “which are antiecclesial.” Here, the archbishop referred to an implicit assumption on the part of some in the academy, that “faith is inevitably the enemy of reason.” On the contrary, said Archbishop George, “the medievals were insightful when they declared, Credo ut intelligam, that reason itself can be enlightened by faith.”
“Do university structures themselves,” he queried, “tend to push to the side any integrating vision, especially one based on faith?"
The theme of an integrating vision within the university dominated Archbishop George's remarks.
“A university may have its bureaucratic house in order,” he said, “but it will not become a place where faith becomes culture.”
The archbishop noted that in the past “the study of theology has served to integrate the Catholic university's curriculum…y giving access to knowledge of the highest sort, it integrates thought and speech and life by grounding all of these architectonically in the sources or natures of things.” Yet theology itself seems to have withdrawn from its role of “preserving the truth of things,” and become, merely, “religious studies.”
A lack of a coherent vision, said the archbishop, has ineluctably led many Catholic institutions to become “highclass trade schools.” The traditional vision of the liberal arts has been lost, he argued. The plunge into careerism or professional training has had the effect, paradoxically, of “narrowing” the field of rational inquiry.
“Reason becomes so narrowly conceived that dialogue with faith is difficult and enlightenment by faith nearly impossible,” the archbishop maintained. And while theology and philosophy have traditionally preoccupied themselves with an exploration of the nature of things, current canons, said the archbishop, blanche at the hint of dogmatism, unaware that “pluralism itself can obscure truth.”
On a more promising note, Archbishop George pointed out that “students were changing.” There are groups of students, he said, on Catholic university campuses “who want a much clearer Catholic institutional identity.” That observation seemed to place the archbishop's imprimatur on the ongoing efforts of a Georgetown student group to return crucifixes to the walls of the Georgetown classrooms. Indeed the group has taken to co-opting the title of the lecture series and applying it to their placards which now read: “Center Our Pluralism: Return Crucifixes to the Classroom.”
In terms of faculty and administrators, the archbishop observed that many of those who had orchestrated the “disengagements of the '70s” were now a “diminishing presence in the '90s.” Yet “new faculty replace those who negotiated the ‘mitigated secularization’ of the last generation.” Many of these ask whether “the price of engagement with the world” has not been too high.
In his talk, Archbishop George suggested some ways in which the presence of the bishop on the university campus might be formalized. A regular Mass and sermon by the bishop in the university chapel would have the effect, he said “of bringing the bishop's teaching Magisterium into the heart of the university.” Also, “structured discussions with the students about their beliefs and with the faculty about their sense of mission … would bring about an invigorating addition to both the bishop's and the university's life.”
The archbishop pursued the issue of the relationship between the bishop and the faculty by calling for contact that would go beyond “purely social or ceremonial” exchanges. A type of “structured availability” should be erected wherein the bishop and the faculty could dialogue.
And in what may promise to be a most controversial proposal, the archbishop called for the establishment by the U.S. bishops of “a kind of accrediting association” for the Catholic university. Such an association could be a positive help, the archbishop said, in enabling “the university itself find direction in its sense of mission.” Commenting on this last proposal, Dr. Joseph Hagan, president of Assumption College in Worcester, Mass., was enthusiastic. “I heartily support such an initiative, as well as other suggestions made by Archbishop George. These are things which we have been endeavoring to establish at Assumption College.”
Dr. Peter Sampo, president of Thomas More College in Merrimack, N.H., applauded Archbishop George's defense of the liberal arts tradition.
“The medievals received the tradition of the liberal arts from antiquity. They were able to assimilate this tradition precisely because the Christian philosophical and theological base was thoroughly humanistic and broad, the very opposite of the narrowness that the archbishop decried in his address.”
The archbishop affirmed the existence of objective truth; the need of the university theologates to remain linked to the bishop's teaching office; the dangers in a pluralism detached from the font of religious faith; and the urgent necessity to recover a unified and coherent vision of the university as a laboratory where faith and reason cooperate.
In his concluding remarks, he maintained that this kind of recovery would require of all the participants “a surrender to the eternal logos incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth.”
James Sullivan is based in Southport, Conn.