Politics & Policy

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.

One has the sense that many discussions of the religious identity of Catholic universities perform the same function as our endless national conversation about education reform: they effectively insulate the institution from any real change. One sometimes hears that there is no real cause for concern: Catholic universities will not go the way of the great Protestant universities, because Catholic institutions have a different understanding of faith and reason. However, if almost no one on the faculty or in the administration can articulate that difference, it is difficult to see how that understanding will insure the perpetuation of the Catholic identity.

Recruiting and hiring faculty who are enthusiastic about the mission of a Catholic university is but one of the three indispensable components — along with curriculum and student life — of having that mission embodied in the academic life of the university. If an institution cannot say how its curriculum is different from that of a secular university, then students will not glimpse the Catholic conception of the unity of truth or the compatibility of faith and reason. And if student life fosters habits of self-indulgence, moral relativism, and anti-intellectualism, then it will matter very little what goes on in the classroom. Indeed, parents wondering exactly how Catholic a school is should ask — not only about hiring and curriculum — but also about the liturgical life of students and even the number of vocations the school produces. On that score, the Catholic student center at Texas A&M is doing much better than many Catholic institutions.

Even at those few universities where administrators are keen to hire with their school’s religious mission in mind, they can make little progress without faculty cooperation. After decades of hiring almost exclusively on academic pedigree, with questions about a candidate’s suitability for the religious mission of the institution having been asked with a wink and a nod, if at all, it is now extremely difficult to ask those faculty tenured under the old dispensation to take Miscamble’s proposal seriously.

Ironies abound — the most dramatic being the way that leading Catholic universities, desperately afraid of being identified with “official” Catholic teachings on sexuality, have abandoned the Catholic intellectual tradition save for some small portion of the Church’s teaching on human sexuality. We see this in the Catholic campus debates over the official recognition of gay and lesbian groups, pro-choice groups, and the performance of The Vagina Monologues, the result of which at a place like Notre Dame seems to have been to confer on a mediocrity the stature of James Joyce’s Ulysses.

Another painful irony is that this is precisely the wrong time for Catholic universities to slavishly mimic top-ranked secular schools. Former Harvard dean Harry Lewis, author of Excellence Without a Soul: How a Great University Forgot Education, contends that at elite universities the “ideal of liberal education lives on in name only.” The libertarianism of the faculty who want to be left alone to do their research complements the laissez-faire attitude of students. Instead of being “immersed in the life of the mind,” students act like the good consumers universities increasingly conceive them to be — maximizing upscale pleasures and opportunities for career advancement. Complaints like these, for which Allan Bloom was once reviled, are now common in secular higher education. The failure to offer an integrated liberal education, to raise big questions about the common good and to foster a genuine community of learning among students and faculty are matters on which religious universities ought to have a distinct advantage.

We are better served in these matters by diversity, rather than homogeneity, in institutions of higher education. But to set out on a different path will mean a willingness to buck the purportedly self-evident claims about what academic excellence means. Both John Paul II and Benedict XVI have made us acutely aware that many Catholic universities are in trouble not simply because they are no longer Catholic, but because they are no longer universities — arenas for the communal pursuit of truth in a range of disciplines.

In a book published not long before he died, Truth and Truthfulness, the stridently secular British philosopher Bernard Williams noted that we live in a time when the demand for truth has never been greater. But, he added, we have never been more doubtful about our ability to reach the truth or even whether there is truth to be had. Williams saw the cultural, and particularly academic, despair over truth as a troubling sign. He criticized the ironic distance from which many academics, particularly in the humanities, approached truth. If we lose our hold on the truth, he observed, we risk losing everything. Benedict would no doubt concur. His recalling of the Church’s universities to a recovery of their Catholicity is simultaneously a reminder of what makes them universities.

– Thomas Hibbs, who has taught at Thomas Aquinas College and Boston College, is currently dean of the Honors College at Baylor University.


Thomas S. HibbsThomas S. Hibbs is the dean of the honors college and distinguished professor of philosophy at Baylor University.


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