What Universities Do

Dormitories are empty. Campuses are only partly busy, with summer events and special programs. Faculties are busy preparing for fall — or, truth be told, not so very busy. It’s the off-season at one of the most important places on earth: the university.

Not that universities should be self-important about that. They’re among the most important places on earth in the humble way mothers are the most important people on earth: They prepare people they know to leave them and do something important somewhere else.

Think of the fundamental beliefs in our society that originated in the universities: moral relativism, radical feminism, militant atheism. By and large, Americans oppose all of these things. But that is changing fast.

Imagine what the world would be like with more teachers, journalists and public officials who are professional, balanced and as unafraid to speak of their Catholic faith as secularist folks are to speak of theirs. Imagine more doctors as careful to uphold human dignity as they are to be up on the latest developments in medical science.

Imagine librarians open-minded enough to present religious books alongside secular ones, business people always looking out for families — in the community and in their employ — alongside their own profits.

But a central misunderstanding about the nature of Catholic higher education has robbed the Church of many of the benefits Catholic universities should have provided.

In 1967, the nation’s top Catholic university leaders signed the Land O’ Lakes Statement, claiming: “The Catholic university must have a true autonomy and academic freedom in the face of authority of whatever kind, lay or clerical, external to the academic community itself.”

That choice of words betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of academic freedom that could only happen in a situation where schools are deliberately trying to exclude the magisterium.

Who else would try to exclude “authority of whatever kind” from their schools? The attempt would be suspicious in a lab. What experiments are they keeping from the authority of the law? An evangelical Christian school making that claim would draw nervous attention. What are they trying to hide?

The very concept of complete academic autonomy can’t be taken seriously and seems to have been invented with the idea of excluding one group: the magisterium.

But how can a school teach in the name of the Church and at the same time be utterly detached from the Church?

In his address at The Catholic University of America last year, Pope Benedict XVI provided a better definition.

“In regard to faculty members at Catholic colleges and universities, I wish to reaffirm the great value of academic freedom,” he said. “In virtue of this freedom you are called to search for the truth wherever careful analysis of the evidence leads you.”

He added: “Yet it is also the case that any appeal to the principle of academic freedom in order to justify positions that contradict the faith and teaching of the Church would obstruct or even betray the university’s identity and mission; a mission at the heart of the Church’s mundi docendi and not somehow autonomous or independent of it.”

Are those two thoughts contradictory? From Brennan Pursell’s Benedict of Bavaria (published by our own Circle Press), we learn that they weren’t considered so in Pope Benedict XVI’s life.

As the book notes, when Joseph Ratzinger was in school, a mentor of his was Gottlieb Söhngen, a theology professor who had lost his job during the war due to Nazi persecution: “Ratzinger described Söhngen as a ‘radical and critical questioner.’ For him no subject was untouchable, nothing taboo, and at the same time he was a man deeply committed to his Catholic faith.”

Writes Pursell: “Throughout all of Ratzinger’s writings, we find the same courage to ask the hard question — Why should anyone believe in any of this? — and an even greater confidence in the answers, which allows him to take on any intellectual challenge to the faith.”

He quotes Pope Benedict: “‘Only if we ask questions, and are radical with our questions, radical as theology has to be, going beyond specializations, only then can we find answers to these fundamental questions that affect all of us. Before everything else, we have to ask questions.’”

True academic freedom at a Catholic university isn’t the freedom for theologians to teach that the Church is wrong. It’s the freedom for students to ask radical questions, relentlessly, in a context where wise scholars know that the Church has the answer.

Does that sound like a contradiction? It wasn’t for Thomas Aquinas. Nor was it for Cardinal Avery Dulles. Rather, it’s a description of what theologians do: dig deep into the deposit of faith, not to hollow it out and reshape it in their own image, but to be further enriched by it.

Does it sound impossible to have to staff a school with Thomas Aquinas or Gottlieb Söhngen types? That’s why we have the mandatum, oaths of fidelity and other safeguards.

The Church’s safeguards don’t constrict academic freedom. On the contrary, they free Catholics from radical dissenters and allow them to be radical questioners who look to the magisterium for guidance and enrich the Church with their answers.