Benedict and the Universities
Can we recapture the essence of Catholic higher education?


At a recent event at Georgetown University, the formidable Fr. Wilson Miscamble, a Holy Cross priest and Notre Dame history professor, advanced a modest proposal for Catholic universities: to retain their religious identity, a majority of each institution’s faculty should be Catholic. The response from some Georgetown administrators was immediate and predictable: such a requirement would undermine the university’s pursuit of academic excellence. That rejoinder has become a standard discussion-stopping maneuver in Catholic higher education, and tells us much about the state of the American Catholic university in advance of Pope Benedict XVI’s highly anticipated speech on Catholic higher education at the Catholic University of America on Thursday.

Some will say that there are many ways in which such universities can be Catholic apart from hiring Catholics to teach. That is not so clear, however; the trend is toward a contraction of the broad scope and the rich tradition of Catholic liberal education to issues of social justice and service, issues to which secular schools can be equally devoted. In addition to contraction, there is marginalization, as the Catholic elements are relegated to campus ministry or specialized Catholic centers, sometimes even centers for Catholic Studies. But a state university open to the serious study of religion could, according to these criteria, be equally “Catholic.”

Given these tendencies, what should the pope say to American Catholic colleges and universities? And what kind of impact, if any, will his words have? Any hint of the imposition of intellectual standards will bring cries to protect academic freedom from magisterial onslaught, while any papal reflection on the nature of the Catholic university will be labeled “interesting” and ignored. Instead of criticizing, Benedict XVI might consider praising those Catholic institutions — most of them colleges rather than universities — that strive to live up to the ideals of Catholic education. We can be sure of one thing: fundamental issues and subtle distinctions will be utterly lost on the mainstream religious media in America.

Benedict could do worse than to repeat the message that former Secretary of the Congregation for Catholic Education, Michael Miller, CSB delivered in a 2005 address at Notre Dame, which was quite simply the best discussion of the topic in many years:

In recent years, the debate in the United States, and to a lesser degree in Europe, over the Catholic identity of universities has presumed that the pope and the bishops want to preserve all of the Church’s institutions of higher education; that she has, if you will, a vested interest in their continuance. But what if that presumption is mistaken? . . . . Some commentators would conclude from this that, if a nominally Catholic university is no longer motivated by a strong sense of its institutional Catholic identity, it is better to let it go, to end its claim of being Catholic. Perhaps now is the time to move the debate over the Catholic identity of institutions of higher education to a different level. Instead of sterile arguments over how “Catholic-lite” a university can be and still be “Catholic,” the question to be engaged becomes: how does a Catholic university honestly and effectively provide a Christian presence in the world of higher education? The burden of proof now falls on the university itself. The challenge thus becomes whether a Catholic university can develop the institutional arrangements that clearly demonstrate its willingness to participate in the Church’s evangelizing mission as well as to serve the common good.

This way of phrasing the question assumes, of course, that an institution truly wants to retain its Catholic identity. No doubt, some might opt for letting it go, as has already happened in a very few instances. It strikes me as essential that all stakeholders in a Catholic university face this fundamental option honestly; they must decide on their institution’s future direction. Let me also stress that a decision to retain a university’s Catholic identity cannot be equated with maintaining the status quo. Instead, it involves positive institutional changes which will result in clear witness, where this has not been the case, in teaching and scholarship to Catholicism’s rich intellectual, artistic, moral, literary, historical, spiritual, socio-political, and even scientific traditions. Catholicism is a living — indeed a lively — tradition that is being constantly challenged and refreshed by its own saints and sinners, artisans and rogues, pilgrims and sufferers, as well as by the rest of humanity who do not share its faith and way of life.