The Myth of Autonomy: Catholic Universities Needed, Now More Than Ever

EDITORIAL: The Church must offer an education that does justice to the incalculable worth of young people, the kind of formation that will prepare them to lead holy lives that inspire a broken, skeptical world to believe in love and in God.

(photo: The Catholic University of America Facebook )

“When I graduated from college there was a finite number of career ladders in front of me: teacher, lawyer, doctor, business. Now college graduates enter a world with four million footstools. There are many more places to perch (a start-up, an NGO, a coffee shop, a consultancy), but few of the footstools pay a sustaining wage, seem connected with the others or lead to a clear ladder of rungs to climb upward,” observed David Brooks, an author and New York Times columnist, in a recent post.

“And how do we as a society prepare young people for this uncertain phase?” he asked. “[W]e send them (the most privileged of them) to colleges where the professors teach about what interests the professors. Then we preach a gospel of autonomy that says all the answers to the deeper questions in life are found by getting in touch with your ‘true self,’ whatever the heck that is.”

The result of this mismatch between challenging times and weak support for lagging millennials, said Brooks, is that when many reach their 30th birthday, they still haven’t achieved the milestones that once defined adulthood for middle-class America: financial independence, marriage, home ownership and children. Worse still, their trajectory is further burdened by the fact that they are much less likely than their parents to find support in their faith, as many have drifted away from organized religion.

Few Catholics will be surprised by Brooks’ portrait of young Americans. But we may well have mixed views about his proposed solution.

He wants colleges “to do much more to put certain questions on the table, to help students grapple with the coming decade of uncertainty: What does it mean to be an adult today? What is the cure for sadness? What do I want and what is truly worth wanting?”

Colleges? Is the typical U.S. college or university still capable of providing this essential guidance? Cynics would argue that modern campus culture has contributed to the problems Brooks and others enumerate, by transforming higher education into a consumer experience that tells the student what they want to hear and demands far too little from them, while promoting social experimentation and a radical agenda that calls for the destruction of the Judeo-Christian patrimony.

Once upon a time, U.S. colleges and universities anchored their curriculum in the Western canon, transmitting to the next generation the most important ideas about the human person and his divine and earthly calling.

Today, however, few institutions of higher education offer the kinds of classes or mentoring that help students grapple with the perennial questions that define the human condition. For starters, parents and guidance counselors often push students into career-track courses, as tuition soars and future graduates fear the cost of paying off college loans. And when the Great Books, the hallmark of classical Catholic education, are on the syllabus, the inconvenient moral truths embedded in their pages are often routinely dismissed or banned outright as the discredited legacy of the white male patriarchy.

Catholic universities and colleges face the same pressures that have transformed secular higher education. Yet Church-affiliated schools are well-positioned to draw from an intellectual tradition that has provided invaluable assistance to the young, changing the arc of individual lives by imbuing them with meaning and purpose.

In a special symposium in this print issue, we address the broad, formative impact of the momentous 1967 “Land O’Lakes Statement” that effectively redefined the mission of many Catholic universities.

The signatories demanded “a true autonomy and academic freedom in the face of authority of whatever kind, lay or clerical.” But few of them could have anticipated the scope of change in American culture and politics or the intellectual and spiritual carnage to Catholic higher learning that would follow. A half-century later, the timely comments of Brooks, a Jewish-born writer who has long expressed his appreciation for the countercultural power of Catholic teaching, offers another lens from which to examine the present state and future promise of Catholic higher education.

On the one hand, the secularization of many “Catholic” universities has left them ill-equipped to help students embrace, both intellectually and spiritually, the religious beliefs and virtues that will sustain them into adulthood and beyond. Freshmen who arrive with a superficial understanding of the faith may attend classes that feature speculative theology and a predictably dismissive treatment of moral doctrine on the intrinsic evils of abortion, premarital sex and gender ideology. During their four years on campus, they may embrace the principle of non-judgmentalism, upholding the right of every person to adopt their preferred gender. Yet they may never learn to cherish a holistic Christian vision of life, in which the body expresses the person’s deepest values and the “one-flesh union” signifies Christ the Bridegroom’s love for his Church.

Of course, this is not the whole story. A number of Catholic colleges and universities have remained true to their mission, or begun anew, and their students do receive a solid moral and intellectual foundation. Graduates leave campus with a sense of hope and real purpose, as moral relativism is effectively challenged in the classroom, the pulpit and the dorms, and they see how real community is fostered through a mutual respect for the truth. Msgr. Stuart Swetland, the president of Donnelly College in Kansas City, Kansas, has observed firsthand how Catholic higher education can change lives for the better. “Once they have confidence that truth exists and it can be known, students want and desire it,” Msgr. Swetland told the Register.

A campus community grounded in truth and the practice of virtue will also expose the myth of radical personal autonomy that inspires so much selfishness and unhappiness in modern relationships. Those who believe in God will “always hear His revealing voice in the discourse of creatures,” the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council stated in Gaudium et Spes (36), illuminating the role of faith in human relations and warning of the corrosive effects of its absence. “When God is forgotten, however, the creature itself grows unintelligible” (36).

Yes, these are uncertain times for the young. They will likely be forced to change jobs throughout their lifetimes, and marriage and family life may appear challenging. All the more reason for the Church to offer an education that does justice to their incalculable worth, the kind of formation that will prepare them to listen for the Creator’s “revealing voice” and so lead holy lives that inspire a broken, skeptical world to believe in love and in God.