“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 though they were antithetical: the search for truth and the certainty of already knowing the fount of truth.”
Those were the words of Pope John Paul II in his 1990 apostolic constitution on Catholic universities, Ex Corde Ecclesiae (From the Heart of the Church). The search for truth and the fount of truth are so interconnected that — as John Paul emphasized here by quoting himself from earlier in his pontificate — one cannot be pursued without the other.
I take very seriously John Paul’s guidance in Ex Corde, appreciating its insistence that the search for truth must be connected to the source of truth: God himself. So, as I looked into teaching at a university after receiving my doctorate in psychology, I wanted to work for a faith-based institution. I know that too many universities attempt to disconnect those two orders of reality John Paul mentioned in both their research programs and their classrooms.
I hoped for a position with a Catholic university such as Franciscan University of Steubenville (Ohio) or Marymount University in Arlington, Va., but I was open to going wherever God would lead me. The place turned out to be Regent University in Virginia Beach, Va., the institution founded by televangelist (and 1988 presidential candidate) Pat Robertson.
Many of my Catholic friends ask how I can be comfortable working as an uncompromisingly Catholic professor at a fervently evangelical-Protestant college: Am I not under pressure to renounce my Catholic faith and get “saved”? (In fact, the essay you are now reading was spurred by a query from a Register editor along those lines.)
I think much of their confusion comes from the erroneous assumption that Regent is a “Bible college” — a school with a very narrow curriculum whose aim is to produce evangelists, missionaries and Bible teachers per se rather than Christian thinkers in general.
At Regent, Catholics rank sixth out of the top 10 represented Christian traditions. Regent has had a Catholic president, and Mass is regularly celebrated on campus. Robertson participated in the work of Evangelicals and Catholics Together, and the late Father Richard John Neuhaus was a commencement speaker here.
In short, Regent offers me a place to live out my Catholic identity and an outlet to investigate issues of faith in my particular discipline, psychology. With a background in both psychology and theology, I find that Regent works nicely for me. My training at St. Vincent Seminary in Latrobe, Pa., informs my psychological discipline so that the truth I seek in psychological studies is rooted in God.
I experience true academic freedom here. No one tells me to leave my faith at the door before beginning a lesson. I am free to incorporate the Christian faith into my teaching and research.
When I teach physiological psychology, for example, I am able to discuss the idea of the soul. Most universities do not want their instructors applying philosophical and theological considerations to questions involving biology or, indeed, any of the natural sciences.
As a Christian, I cannot deny the existence of the soul. If I am asked to keep from investigating the connection between body and soul in my classroom, then I am being limited as an academic. That will not happen at Regent.
If there is any place I may encounter a question regarding my Catholic identity, it is from neither the administration nor my fellow faculty members. Tellingly, it is not uncommon for a student to be curious about Catholics — what we believe, how we interpret Scripture and whether we are true Christians (as opposed to Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons and members of other curious offshoots).
I find great joy in explaining my faith to my students and answering their questions. It helps that I have a theological education and worked in parish ministry for more than a decade but, in reality, what matters most in these exchanges is the simple fact that I remain authentic. I do not apologize for being Catholic, but neither do I feel compelled to force my convictions on the campus. I am transparent with my students, often making the sign of the cross when I pray with them, but I remember that my role is not to be an apologist but rather a Christian educator.
I have been helped greatly in my work in a pluralistic Christian environment by Cardinal Francis Arinze’s 1998 book Meeting Other Believers: The Risks and Rewards of Interreligious Dialogue. Cardinal Arinze, prefect emeritus of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, wrote this as a reflection on his interactions with other religions — mostly non-Christian — but I find that the principles he outlines work for me as well.
“One must also not forget the ability of religion, seriously believed in and generously practiced, to promote a meeting of hearts, the fashioning of true friendship across religious borders,” he writes. “Often hearts meet before heads. When we love a person, we are better positioned to understand that person and to experience greater appreciation of whatever that person has that is true, noble, good, beautiful, or holy.”
So: How can a Catholic professor work at a school like Regent University? Easily. Regent is an authentically (if incompletely) Christian institution. As an authentic Christian, I find this a comfortable place to study and teach. What’s more, because I am authentically Catholic, I bring a unique perspective to this particular academic table — a worldview that both demonstrates and strengthens my love for my students, my co-workers and our Lord Jesus Christ.
I encourage my fellow Catholics to engage the world around them, showing other believers what a difference the Catholic faith makes in our lives. Authentically live the faith wherever God places you, and good things can and will happen. I’ve found that doing this simple thing at Regent University allows me to help the school fulfill its own motto: Christian Leadership to Change the World.
And that’s how, at Regent, I am living out Pope John Paul II’s Ex Corde exhortation to Catholic educators: “The Church and the world have great need of your witness and of your capable, free and responsible contribution.”
Dominick D. Hankle writes from
Virginia Beach, Virginia.