National Catholic Register


Higher Education & Love of TruthóPrivate Faith vs Relationships

BY Bishop John Dougherty

Dec. 1-7, 1996 Issue | Posted 12/1/96 at 2:00 PM


The Cardinal Newman Society for the Preservation of Catholic Higher Education sponsored a national conference Oct. 19 and 20. One of several speakers, Bishop John Dougherty, auxiliary of Scranton, Pa., delivered the following address (excerpted).

When Plato, the man who first institutionalized education in his academy, talked about the nature of education in The Republic, he told a story. The story symbolizes his understanding that all knowledge, even sense knowledge, is obtained in the light of what he called the Idea of the Good. This light was somehow possessed by everyone, and could no more be imposed from the outside than sight could be placed in the eyes of the blind. Therefore education was not a process of giving someone what he did not already have, but an art of conversion, of turning one around and leading him to recognize the source of his knowledge.

Christianity has not changed this understanding of the goal and method of education. It has the gift however, of recognizing that the idea of the Good is not an abstract idea but a Word become flesh that enlightens every man who comes into the world. The thought of The Republic that if there ever were a just man he would be scourged and crucified has been fulfilled. The heart of the Church from which the Catholic University was born is the same heart from which the Church was born, the heart of the crucified Christ. That this heart is the concrete source of truth is illustrated in St. Thomas Aquinas&spos; position that in the cross he beheld “the perfection of the whole law, and the complete art of living well.” It is also expressed in St. Ignatius&spos; requirement in the Constitutions of the Society of Jesus that students who came to Jesuit universities should go to Mass every day and their teachers should see to it.

To our ears, which have become accustomed to the individualistic strains of the Enlightenment, the harmony of faith and reason sung by Thomas and Ignatius may sound strange. Yet I suggest that the so-called tension between faith and reason that is responsible for so much of the difficulty in Catholic higher education is due to false individualistic notions of both faith and reason. With regard to reason, individualism is clearly apparent in the 17th century in the philosophy of Descartes, who could doubt the existence of the rest of reality while retaining certainty about himself. This individualism continues in the 18th century in the philosophy of Kant, whose Critique of Pure Reason's refutation of idealism grounds self-consciousness in the awareness of matter and leaves the existence of other selves, including God, to a realm which he calls faith. This faith, however, unlike the faith of Aquinas and Ignatius, was uncertain. What was certain for Kant about the interpersonal realm was the categorical imperative, a rule of the individual mind on the basis of which the existence of other selves might be only hypothetically asserted. The trend toward individualism was reversed by Kant's successors in German philosophy, Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel, who recognized the foundational principle that self-consciousness was only possible in communion with another self-consciousness. It is unfortunate, however, that it is Kant's ivory tower academy that has captured the imagination of present day academics. Like him they are content not only to reduce religion to the limits of reason but also to reduce reason to some sort of a private language derived from the principles of the individual mind.

Is there a connection between Kant's individualistic notion of knowing and a similar notion of faith? If one follows the Hegelian principle that one's philosophy is a reflection of one's religion, the answer must be yes. Significant in the Protestant reformation that preceded Descartes and Kant was the principle that one's faith in God was primarily a private matter. The interpreter of God's revelation was the individual consciousness, not that of the community. With such a principle the objectivity of religious truth necessarily disappeared; there was no way to discern which of disagreeing minds was correct. The Pope, once regarded as the Vicar of Christ who formed and expressed the consciousness of the Christian community, was now reduced to the role of expressing one opinion among the many of other believers. His opinion was dangerous, however, because with it came the claim that one opinion was more valuable than others. Such intolerance was now anathema, for it was tolerance of diverse opinions rather than truth that now must keep the peace in the community.

The virtue of the academy of reason as well as faith, however, is not tolerance but courage. “I believed, and so I spoke” (Corinth. 4-13). The tension in Catholic higher education is not between faith and reason but between soul and body—an earlier distinction made by Plato in his work in general and especially in his cave analogy. Opinion and the tolerance that regulates the conflict of diverse opinion belongs to the realm of the body, while truth which manifests itself in sharing belongs to the realm of the soul. If you ask the average American Catholic college student why he seeks higher education; to get a good job so that he can have riches and honor for the enhancement of his bodily existence, or to come to know God better so that he may come to know himself and others in the world in loving communication, what do you think his answer will be?…

We are all familiar with the American work ethic, with the temptation to measure one's success as a person by the material fruits of one's labor. Given the theology of private faith, such temptation is inevitable, for if success does not consist in doing the truth in love in community, one must find one's fulfillment in tangible standards. In terms of symbol, the sacramental presence of Jesus in the Eucharist was no longer for many the objective tangible unity of the community. Since humans cannot live by word alone when that word is a private language, the symbol of community, the real presence, became money. The highest goal for the Church then becomes to ensure that everyone has an equal share of material wealth. Should we be surprised that once religious universities became skilled at producing experts in making money, their religious affiliation was no longer necessary?. …

Is there any doubt that Catholic universities in the United States are wealthier and more honored than ever before? Is it any surprise that such institutions truly struggle and have difficulty hearing the word of God as expressed in Ex corde Ecclesiae? This apostolic constitution, reflecting the profound truth found in Plato, embraces the Gospel and announces that the Word was made flesh and dwells among us in the wounded heart of Christ. It is not in grasping the satisfactions and necessities of material existence, therefore, that one fulfills one's being but in emptying oneself in loving communication. This truth, however, does not sell because it is free. It does not sell because we already possess it. It does not sell, because in all of its applications by the Church: sacrifice for the poor, care for the sick, sacredness of life of the unborn, permanent commitment in marriage, and chaste love, it requires great trust and sacrifice. Catholic universities will teach such a necessary principle of good only by making communion with the sacrifice of Christ in the Eucharist a central emphasis of their life. …

It is interesting to note that Vatican Council II proposes the same concrete goals for Christian education as the medieval university: humanitas and civilitas from a Christian perspective. “True education,” according to the council, “is directed toward the formation of the human person in view of his final end and the good of that society to which he belongs and duties of which he will as an adult have a share” (Gravissimum Educationis, 1). Forming the human person and promoting the good of society require, of course, a prior understanding of human nature and the common good. The Catholic university, true to its mission, will seek knowledge of these matters especially through the study of the humanities, the social sciences and the natural sciences. While the university will accurately present the various, significant positions on humanitas and civilitas, it will do so in order to find the truth. In this perspective, then, Catholic education cannot embrace a metaphysical and ethical neutrality in the teaching of theology, philosophy and literature. Such neutrality would prevent the Catholic university from being serious about its mission to seek the truth and the liberty which accompanies it. In other words, the Catholic university shouldn't just present various alternatives in a neutral matter and tell students to make up their own minds, but should show respect for the freedom of its students by seeking to persuade with arguments based on reason and/or revelation.

Today many believe that open-mindedness requires neutrality in the classroom. In fact, true open-mindedness requires a willingness to look at the relevant material and then make a judgment. The early Church decided it was worth taking a serious look at pagan learning. The majority of Church Fathers rejected Tertullian's advice that it was too risky for Christians to relate Athens and Jerusalem. As a result of decisions taken in the early Church and the Middle Ages, Catholic universities in the 20th century became a home for a thorough, open liberal education. …

As mentioned, students themselves come to the university mainly in order to find a good job upon graduation. The acquisition of a university education is a ticket to prosperity and prestige. Given the state of American culture, who can blame young students for having an inadequate view of the university? What does seem blameworthy is the growing failure of the Catholic university to persuade students to temper or abandon their preoccupation with pleasure and wealth. This failure shows a lack of effective love for students, despite all the goodwill that is undoubtedly present.

While the importance of autonomy and freedom in the university is pressed, there seems to be little discussion of what constitutes a good liberal education. Meanwhile, the education of the students suffers. Ex corde Ecclesiae cannot really be implemented without finding a way to persuade students to be serious about obtaining a truly liberal education, that is to say, an education that will have a positive influence on the way they understand and live their lives.

A good liberal education gives students the opportunity to look at life through the eyes of very subtle observers. With the proper guidance this kind of education can lead students to have a love of truth, to believe in reasoning and yielding to the better argument, and to have a good chance of developing a vision of the good with the consequent incentive to step back from pursuing their interests to the detriment of relatives, friends, neighbors and the wider community.

By studying the greatest theologians philosophers, poets, novelists, etc., students will have access to the most significant theories on humanitas and civilitas that underlie debates on the crucial issues of the day. e.g. theories about autonomy, relativism, historical consciousness, virtue, social justice and ethics in general.

In his Confessions, St. Augustine notes how the study of philosophy (his liberal education) helped liberate him from the manichean heresy and prepared him for conversion. And, “Christ freed us for liberty,” writes St. Paul to the Galatians (Gal 5, 1).

Doing this truth, that is, emphasizing and implementing a truly liberal education in our universities and colleges I am suggesting, will, through the liberty attained, prepare for and even require the liberty for which Christ freed us. It is a work uniquely fitted to the Catholic university and college. And if well done, it will serve as a principal return route to that Word which enlightens every man, the Word which became flesh and heart from whence was born both Church and her university.

For more information about the Cardinal Newman Society, call (703) 536-9585 or write: Cardinal Newman Society, 207 Park Ave., Ste. B-2, Falls Church, VA 22046