Catholic Universities in Crisis

When John Henry Newman was named rector of the Catholic University of Ireland it was tantamount to being appointed emperor of Wonderland. No such university existed. It was still but a dream. The lectures that Newman gave in Dublin during 1852, which form the first part of The Idea of a University, sought to define the desired institution. Newman's major point of reference was Oxford, where he had spent the formative years of his life, but of course Oxford had not come about as the result of a series of lectures or by episcopal fiat. The origins of Oxford are obscure precisely because it was not an invented institution.

Of course Newman was not interested in fashioning the idea of a university ex nihilo. He was guided by his own institution and by the history out of which it and the other medieval universities arose. This explains what he had to say about the relation between the university and Catholicism.

There is a similar assumption in Pope John Paul II's 1990 apostolic constitution on Catholic universities, Ex Corde Ecclesiae: “Born from the heart of the Church, a Catholic university is located in that course of tradition which may be traced back to the very origin of the university as an institution.”

There is but one explicit citation of Newman in this document, but his spirit pervades it. Cor ad cor loquitur?

There are, it should be noted, two quite different ways of discussing the question of the Catholic university.

One might take as regulative what universities have become at the end of the second millennium in the United States and appraise our universities in the light of those criteria. Since institutions of higher learning, whatever their origin, either are or have become secular with religious faith relegated to off-campus status, it will seem a contradiction in terms to try to put together such a university and religious faith.

This is the problem Martha Nussbaum faced in her recent book Cultivating Humanity. The university is by definition secular and this makes religious colleges and universities anomalous. They can be permitted only on condition that they accept the secular model as normative. Brigham Young University might find this logically impossible, but Nussbaum thinks Notre Dame is somehow managing to square the circle.

A second way to consider the Catholic university is historically. The formal education of the young that took place in the fourth century B.C. moved from the market place and banquet table to the Academy and Lyceum, which might be thought of as the precursors of the university. But it is not until the thirteenth century that universities in the proper sense can be found. And then suddenly they are everywhere, spread across the map of Europe. Eventually they would migrate to the new world thanks to Spanish, and in one notable instance, to French, missionaries. The university was from the beginning a Catholic institution. From the historical perspective, accordingly, the question becomes, “How did universities cease to be Catholic?”

There have been several recent studies of the way in which universities founded under Protestant auspices in this country have ended by being almost completely secular, their religious origins lost in the dim forgotten past. On such campuses, it would be amusing, puzzling, or irritating to have it suggested that religious faith should play an integral role in the cultivation of the mind and imagination. Nussbaum's approving look at Notre Dame assumes that the premier Catholic university in the United States is in the same trajectory.

There is a very easy test for finding which of these two approaches is actually being taken. If the faith is regarded as a positive advantage in the search for truth, the approach is that of Newman and John Paul II. If religious belief is considered a problem that might interfere with academic freedom and make an institution somehow less of a university, the approach is the secular one.

Many Catholic colleges and universities are engaged in prolonged institutional self-examination as to what they are. All too often, what bills itself as the first approach, turns out to be one more instance of the second. Too many Catholic universities dread being thought of as really different from their secular counterparts. This dread is the source of the countless small betrayals that gradually make it all but impossible for a university to be anything other than secular.

The institutions which today resist the relevance of John Paul II's Ex Corde Ecclesiae, and the thus far ineffective efforts of the bishops to implement it, must find Newman's Idea of a University equally foreign to their efforts. This is a shame. The present generation has not been a very successful custodian of the Catholic heritage. The widespread and culpable illiteracy concerning basic tenets of the faith is intimately connected to the confusion as to the Catholic character of our universities.

The full understanding of the university found in Newman and John Paul II requires that revealed truth not only form part of the truth studied but that it occupy a predominant place. A university without theology, Newman points out, is not concerned with all the truth available. He also warns us that theology practiced independently of the teaching Church runs the risk of setting itself up as her rival. How prescient he was. It is ironic that the declaration of independence from the Magisterium that characterizes theologians in our universities has gone hand in hand with the loss of Catholic identity on the part of these institutions. But this was inevitable.

If theology is only something some people in universities do, it will of course be what they say it is. And since they say it is different things, and ours is an age of tolerance, any substantively regulative definition of the discipline disappears. Catholicism is merely one “faith tradition” among many and can claim no hegemony in the university. This Pickwickian sense of tolerance spreads to the whole institution.

One of the things that the Nussbaum volume clearly promotes is this: The “principle of tolerance” must be applied within the Catholic university and, when it is, it becomes intolerant either to make or implement a Catholic appraisal. It is a feature of modernity that it renders religious faith private, not public. Now we are witnessing the demand that faith be privatized within the Catholic institution on the assumption that it would be unfair to non-Catholics to keep the Catholic character of our universities.

Note that this demand is not made by hostile critics, outsiders, foes of the faith. This is the attitude of the willing accomplices within the walls who rush to manacle and muzzle themselves in the interests of “academic freedom.” If they were ashamed of the faith they could not act differently.

What Newman and John Paul II call for is the robust faith that sees the Catholic character of the university as its proudest boast. Faith is the best thing that ever happened to the human intellect. It is the bulwark of reason, the abiding conviction that there is truth and that it can be grasped by the human mind.

This is not mere theory. Ask yourself who at the present time, other than the Catholic Church, comes to the defense of reason in both the practical and theoretical orders? Moral relativists and stylish nihilists know who their enemy is. Their enemy is the friend of reason.

The modern university is in crisis. When Catholic universities regain their vigor and confidence they will be able to come to the rescue of the secular universities and help them breathe new life into their Latin mottos—Dominus Illuminatio Mea; Veritas; etc.—mottos that are now a judgment on them.

The motto of my own university invokes the patronage of the Mother of God: Vita, dulcedo, spes. May it not become a judgment on us.

Ralph McInerny is director of the Jacques Maritain Center at the University of Notre Dame, South Bend, Ind., and editor of Catholic Dossier.

Horace Vernet, “The Angel of Death,” 1851

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“Each man receives his eternal retribution in his immortal soul at the very moment of his death, in a particular judgment that refers his life to Christ: either entrance into the blessedness of heaven — through a purification or immediately — or immediate and everlasting damnation.” (CCC 1022)

Francisco de Zurbarán, “The Family of the Virgin,” ca. 1650

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“After her Son’s Ascension, Mary ‘aided the beginnings of the Church by her prayers.’ In her association with the apostles and several women, ‘we also see Mary by her prayers imploring the gift of the Spirit, who had already overshadowed her in the Annunciation.’” (CCC 965)