On Some Campuses, Students Making Pope's Ideal University a Reality

Throughout his pontificate, Pope John Paul II has methodically sought to renew and revitalize every aspect of the Church's life. Catholic education — more specifically Catholic higher education — has been among the most important of these. The Pontiff has continually addressed the need for Catholic colleges and universities to revitalize their own enterprises.

This emphasis culminated in the promulgation in 1990 of the apostolic constitution, Ex Corde Ecclesiae, in which he reaffirms the profound importance of Catholic higher education and outlines specific characteristics that Catholic universities should bear to deserve the title “Catholic.”

During a recent ad limina address to the bishops of Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin, John Paul thanked his brother bishops for their efforts to implement Ex Corde Ecclesiae and underscored once again the importance of Catholic higher education.

The Pope's emphasis on higher education in the ad limina speech was no mere coincidence. The states from which the bishops present hailed are home to such prestigious American Catholic universities as Notre Dame, Marquette, Loyola, and DePaul. The address also comes at a time when the U.S. bishops' conference is in the midst of re-drafting a document to implement Ex Corde Ecclesiae.

Two themes are featured very prominently in his recent ad limina address. First, Catholic education, especially higher education, has to do with culture. Second, Catholic education must take into account and be aimed at the integrity of the human person. In his relatively short address to the visiting bishops, the Pope reiterated why Catholic higher education is so important to the life of the Church. His words came not as lofty exhortation, but from personal experience.

“To belong to a university community, as was my privilege during my days as a professor,” John Paul II said, “is to stand at the crossroads of cultures that have formed the modern world. It is to be a trustee of the wisdom of the centuries and a promoter of the creativity that will transmit that wisdom to future generations.”

In the statement, he expressed the urgency of the mission of a Catholic university in our times. The urgency comes from the fact that, in his view, Catholic universities are the primary branch of the Church that engages culture.

The Pope sees the challenge of the Catholic academy as one of restoring a true anthropology, a true understanding of man based on the Son of Man. It is only through this understanding that the dominant philosophy of the Enlightenment can be replaced by the knowledge that man can come to know the truth. The Pope calls Catholic colleges and universities to recognize their specific place as champions of the truth, noting that “in a cultural climate in which moral norms are often thought to be matters of personal preference, Catholic schools have a crucial role to play in leading the younger generation to realize that freedom consists above all in being able to respond to the demands of truth.”

The Pope's emphasis on the integrity of the human person is a message he has been delivering for twenty years. Early in his pontificate, in an address at The Catholic University of America, he noted that young people have the capacity for a dynamic generosity which longs to build communities that fit human dignity. However, the Pope also insisted that the “correct actualization of this noble inspiration beating in the heart and will of the young requires that man be seen in the whole of his human dimension.”

The Pope's great hope in the youth as implementers of revival and renewal is sensible, for there are good things happening today in many different areas of Catholic higher education. In order for Catholic higher education to engage the culture, we must engage it first as a living example. This means that our Catholic culture should be an ethos that sets us apart, and also, an invitation that calls all people to the same communion.

ACatholic campus that endeavors to be a living example must be “a place where students live a shared experience of faith in God and where they learn the riches of Catholic culture.” This kind of authentic Catholic community is redeveloping according to the Holy Father's description that “prayer and the liturgy, especially the Sacraments of Eucharist and Penance, should mark the rhythm of a school's life.” The sacraments need to be the foundation and life-giving source of a Catholic campus.

These words have been heeded by students on various Catholic campuses such as at Georgetown, where they organized eucharistic adoration on campus. At the University of Notre Dame, students have also organized eucharistic adoration and formed their own prayer groups such as the Children of Mary and Knights of the Immaculata. At Boston College, students have formed a St. Thomas More Society, a society that invites Catholic speakers to campus to present an authentically Catholic perspective on a variety of issues. The students also gather for holy hour in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament.

Students at Loyola University at Chicago recently formed the St. Edmund Campion Society. Their first event was to sponsor “Catholic Faith Week” to inform the campus of traditional Catholic devotions and of the intellectual contributions made by members of the Church throughout its history. Similar groups are also forming at Marquette University and at many other Catholic campuses across the country.

The Pope also calls for a renewed consideration of academic disciplines in light of the totality of the human person. One can survey positive responses from various Catholic campuses across America. For several years now, the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota has offered a Catholic studies program. The program is unique, for instead of dividing various academic disciplines into majors, the Catholic studies major draws from the various academic disciplines in such a way that they contribute to a Catholic whole. Another example is the St. Ignatius Institute at the University of San Francisco. This Great Books program integrates philosophy, theology, history, and literature to offer students a comprehensive look at Western Civilization. It offers students the opportunity to learn how to think cohesively, which is to think as a Catholic.

These programs fulfill the Pope's call to Catholic universities to “uphold the objectivity and coherence of knowledge.” “Now that the centuries-old conflict between science and faith is fading,” he writes, “Catholic universities should be in the forefront of a new and long-overdue dialogue between the empirical sciences and the truths of faith.” Several other similar programs are starting on various Catholic campuses and some non-Catholic campuses around the country.

Given that engagement of culture and the transmission of the Catholic vision of the human person are the goals of Catholic higher education, John Paul is explicit about the means by which these goals can be attained: “If Catholic universities are to become leaders in the renewal of higher education, they must first have a strong sense of their own Catholic identity,” he writes. “This identity is not established once and for all by an institution's origins, but comes from its living within the Church today and always, speaking from the heart of the Church (Ex Corde Ecclesiae) to the contemporary world.”

Mo Fung, director of the Cardinal Newman Society, writes from Washington.