Spirit and Norms: The Pittau Discourse

On Feb. 1, the secretary of the Vatican Congregation on Education, Archbishop Giuseppe Pittau, S.J., gave a lecture to the U. S. Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities. Archbishop Pittau began by emphasizing the importance of the U.S. Bishops' implementation of Ex Corde Ecclesiae (From the Heart of the Church), the Pope's 1990 apostolic constitution on Catholic higher education. With some shrewdness, Archbishop Pittau compared two streams: St. Ignatius Loyola's explanation of the need for a formal constitution to guide the spirit of all Christian endeavors — and the similar need Catholic colleges have for not only good will and genuine spirit, but also for norms and principles. The latter make the inner spirit visible and genuine. “The two must go together: the spirit and the norms,” he said.

The “incarnational” thrust of Catholicism implies that graces, ideas, abstractions and spirits need to be transformed into concrete reality for them to be effective in this world, pointed out Archbishop Pittau. “They would remain mere ideals,” he added, “if they were not brought down to the operative level by concrete norms and practices in the choice of students, faculty and staff — in the curriculum, in research, in campus ministry, and in the whole range of extracurricular activities.”

Archbishop Pittau, former rector of the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, continued with the idea of “communion” and how it relates to colleges and universities. The Church is a worldwide, historical community. It is not an abstraction. It was from “within its heart” that universities first arose in the West.

“A president of a Catholic college and university should know that the universal Church, the local bishop and the local church are also a most important constituency,” said the archbishop. “One does not wait for an emergency to contact the bishop. At the same time, the bishop should not feel uncomfortable calling the president for an exchange of views on one of the most important apostolates in his diocese: the intellectual apostolate of the dialogue between faith and reason, between faith and culture.”

One forgets, I think, that, among other things, the Church itself is an institution directed to and concerned about reason. It does not stand outside of intelligence, looking in, as it were. This attention to intelligence is not the exclusive property of a Catholic, or any other, university, however important such may be. Even though they deal in mind, universities do not have a monopoly on mind.

To have precisely a Catholic college, Archbishop Pittau suggested (very carefully, following the Church's position), a Catholic university must retain and establish an “influential core,” as he calls it, of Catholic faculty members. No Catholic college without Catholic minds! Seems logical enough. Just how many this “core” would comprise, the archbishop leaves to prudence and historical or cultural circumstances. He is concerned with the principle.

High Aims

The solicitude of Catholics for what they hold, Archbishop Pittau thought, does not imply unconcern for what others hold. But it is not necessary to neglect what is specifically Catholic. Archbishop Pittau was especially anxious about carrying out the noble purposes for which Catholic universities were founded. They were not established to become secularized or something other than what those who sacrificed for them intended in their founding.

Archbishop Pittau next, as an instructional aside, painted a surprisingly pessimistic picture of contemporary European societies. They have, he thought, “become almost entirely secular.” He remains more optimistic about the United States, but many will recognize in his description of Europe the very same features in our culture.

“They (Europe) are societies where God and religion have almost disappeared,” he pointed out. “Religion is no longer talked about on the radio, on television, or in the media in general, except when there is some scandal or some special event which becomes a show. Religion has become a private issue; it is something done in private and not talked about in public.” When religion is talked about in the media, he noted, it is often presented as something old and outdated, as something against freedom and as something that causes division and conflict.

One does not have to look too hard to see that, increasingly, the same observation fits the media in the United States.

Archbishop Pittau does not think the university question is one of requiring lower academic standards, though he seems somewhat unaware of the degree to which such “standards” have been used to eliminate genuinely Catholic concerns within universities. The making and calculating of academic “standards” are not neutral enterprises. Recalling an ancient debate, Archbishop Pittau did think Athens and Jerusalem have mutual interrelationships, something taken for granted in most classical Catholic thinking.

The most “supernatural” element in Archbishop Pittau's address was a citation from Hugo Rahner, in a book comparing Christian mystery and Greek myth. “Only he who knows by faith that there once was a man who is God has the valid yardstick for determining the true nature of man. Only such a one as this knows just why we cannot discover true man and what pertains to him if we seek for man alone.” This is a constant theme of John Paul II from Redemptor Hominis to Fides et Ratio.

Catholic at the Core

The main thing I wondered about while reading Archbishop Pittau's address was his notion, derived from his experiences in Japan, that a culture should be “baptized” before stress is placed on conversions. If a Catholic university needs an “influential core” of Catholic professors, so it seems a culture needs an “influential core” of converted, believing Christians before any culture can really be confronted. It seems difficult to imagine how we could have a Catholic culture with few or no Catholics. But of course the Catholic natural law and philosophic tradition do claim to address themselves to the foundations of any culture or society.

Archbishop Pittau's final remark had to do with the ever present “pluralism” that has justified so much cultural relativism in the university and in society. “Not everything could be accepted and used in formulating a new Christian culture,” Archbishop Pittau rightly remarked. “We need prophets who know the absolute truths that transcend all cultures. Pluralism has to be respected, but it does not mean that all ideas and all religions are true. The right to express freely one's own opinion does not mean that any opinion is right.” He concluded with a remarkably pithy phrase: “It is not always morally correct to be political ly correct.” That is very well-said.

This is clearly not a “hard-hitting,” “intemperate” Roman “imposition” on the freewheeling Americans. But neither is it wishy-washy. It gets its main points across: Norms are needed; Catholics make things Catholic; not all things are true; others are important; Catholic universities ought to have Catholic standards.

How this can be “unreasonable” or “harsh” is quite mystifying. Or to put it the other way, the higher organs of the Church are likewise seats of reason and intelligence. It is not irrational to acknowledge the fact. “The two must go together: the spirit and the norms.”

Father James Schall is a professor of government at Georgetown University.