Finding God on the Quad

COMMENTARY: Benedict XVI’s Vision for Catholic Higher Education

Students from the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family, on the campus of The Catholic University of America, walk past the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington.
Students from the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family, on the campus of The Catholic University of America, walk past the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington. (photo: Courtesy of John Paul II Institute)

Today, we are in the midst of a great renewal in Catholic higher education. Colleges and universities founded after the Second Vatican Council with the intention of cultivating a vibrant and faithful Catholic identity are thriving.

In addition, a number of schools that had lost their way are regaining their bearings and becoming beacons of fidelity. Now more than ever, for those with eyes to see and ears to hear, it is becoming easier to distinguish schools that are truly Catholic from those that may have a Catholic name but are essentially irreligious.

Yet this renewal is far from complete. As it continues, leaders, trustees, faculty and supporters of these schools will need to remain vigilant, keeping their eyes clearly fixed on their goal and evaluating their progress along the way. Several key documents will provide essential guidance to those to whom these institutions have been entrusted. These include Blessed John Henry Newman’s Idea of a University and St. John Paul II’s apostolic constitution on Catholic universities, Ex Corde Ecclesiae, and his 1998 encyclical, Fides et Ratio. But of equal importance is a brief, less-well-known document by Benedict XVI: his “Address to Catholic Educators,” delivered at The Catholic University of America during his visit to the United States in 2008.

In these remarks, Benedict made the startling claim, “First and foremost, every Catholic educational institution is a place to encounter the living God who, in Jesus Christ, reveals his transforming love and truth. ... In this way, those who meet him are drawn by the very power of the Gospel to lead a new life.”

In the words that follow, Pope Benedict describes this encounter using the terms “relationship” and “personal.” Clearly, Pope Benedict envisions not only fidelity to Catholic doctrine, but also something more: Catholic schools should “first and foremost” be places where the Gospel is heard, students are called to conversion, and they are invited to enter into a personal relationship with the risen Christ.

Were they not the words of Benedict XVI, such language might be dismissed as the “Jesus and me” rhetoric favored by some Protestants. Yet Benedict’s remarks make it clear that the experience he envisions is personal without being individualistic, emerging from and existing within a single ecclesial and academic reality.

Indeed, such an integration is not merely an option at Catholic schools: “Fostering personal intimacy with Jesus Christ and communal witness to his loving truth is indispensable in Catholic institutions of learning.”

In this address, Benedict locates the mission of Catholic schools within “the Church’s primary mission of evangelization.” Speaking three years later, Benedict echoed this language in his address to Filipino prelates: “Your great task in evangelization is therefore to propose a personal relationship with Christ as key to complete fulfillment.”

If we accept Benedict’s vision, one that is simultaneously personal and ecclesial — unfolding within an academic context — we are led to ask: What are the means by which this mission can succeed? There are two preconditions and one immediate cause.

First, the fullness of truth — the truth of God, of man, of nature and of culture — must be presented courageously within and beyond the classroom and in a coherent manner. Since professors, administrators and staff cannot communicate what they do not possess, institutions must creatively and diligently ensure that the foundational theological and anthropological perspectives that inform the institution’s academic and co-curricular activities harmonize with the classical Catholic understanding of God and human nature.

Second, while advanced theological speculation is an important part of Catholic higher education, it is clear that most undergraduates who arrive at Catholic colleges and universities are poorly catechized. Institutions must recognize the weak theological formation that most undergraduates have received and ensure that students encounter the splendor of truth in a complete and coherent expression, e.g., the Catechism of the Catholic Church, before tackling the latest trends in theology.

With these preconditions having been met, the most immediate cause can come into play: Catholic colleges and universities must strategically plan so as to ensure that each student will hear the call to Catholic conversion and discipleship while enrolled as a student and hire those who are capable of presenting that call effectively.

Such an approach to evangelization will involve virtually every member of the collegiate community with proportional roles given to different groups within it. One group will be those involved in campus ministry. For some schools, the answer will be to partner with an apostolate such as the Fellowship of Catholic University Students, whose work is widely known, justly praised and bears much fruit. At smaller schools, conversion and ecclesial discipleship may be proposed and promoted primarily through the chaplain, the members of a religious order or those trained for campus ministry. But at most schools, these means will not be enough.

A second group, student-life professionals — in large part because they spend so much time with students — must learn how to share their own faith journeys, how to discern the progress of the students in their care and how to help them take the next steps. (Sherry Weddell’s book Forming Intentional Disciples is an indispensable resource for this process.)

When hiring student-life staff, great care must be taken to ensure that fidelity receives as much attention in the hiring process as the review of professional credentials.

Finally, everyone employed at a Catholic college or university who interacts regularly with students must be encouraged to embrace Pope Benedict’s vision of Catholic education as a reality within the greater mission of evangelization.

As laudable as it is to have all Catholic faculty take the “Oath of Fidelity” at the beginning of the academic year, this is not sufficient. In hiring for mission, stewards of Catholic colleges and universities should give priority to faculty and staff who not only possess first-rate academic credentials and can joyfully affirm the teachings of the faith, but who also are willing to encourage students to embark on the great adventure of Catholic discipleship.

In many ways, Benedict XVI’s expression of a Catholicism that speaks the language of conversion and personal encounter is remarkable. Benedict was, after all, one of the most brilliant popes in recent centuries, and he was, for many Catholics, an intellectual’s intellectual. Though he could have used the most abstruse theological language, Benedict instead chose the simple language of conversion and personal relationship to express the goals at which Catholic education should aim.

And most surprising of all, he saw no need to separate the Church’s mission of education from evangelization; instead, he integrated the former within the latter, making the personal encounter with God “first and foremost.”

As we advance the renewal of Catholic higher education, let us continue to draw inspiration from Cardinal Newman and John Paul II.

But let us also remember Pope Benedict and his call to make “every Catholic educational institution a place to encounter the living God, who in Jesus Christ reveals his transforming love and truth.”

George Harne is the president of

The College of St. Mary Magdalen in Warner, New Hampshire.

Edward Reginald Frampton, “The Voyage of St. Brendan,” 1908, Chazen Museum of Art, Madison, Wisconsin.

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