Determined to clarify their Roman Catholic identity in the face of potent secularizing trends and concerns that they had sacrificed their Catholic distinctiveness for secular academic respectability, Catholic colleges and universities in the United States over the past 20 years have adopted new mission statements and added personnel and programs designed to reemphasize the religious dimensions of the Catholic college experience.
Today, at many Catholic colleges, students and parents find explicit attention to the Catholic nature of the institution: a wide variety of programs aimed at students' spiritual and religious formation, numerous well-attended Masses and retreat experiences geared to young adults, service programs reaching out in all directions, and encouragement of students to discern not only what career they will pursue after college but what kind of persons they will become. More and more Catholic college undergraduates are being challenged to explore the vocation in life to which God is calling them.
But this rich set of opportunities for student personal, spiritual, and religious formation seems not always to have been matched by a parallel interest in and emphasis on reaffirming and revitalizing engagement with the Catholic intellectual tradition. As Pope John Paul II explained in Ex Corde Ecclesiae, his 1990 vision of what a Catholic university should be, the special intellectual legacy of the Catholic university "is distinguished by its free search for the whole truth about nature, man, and God." Rather than exploring the implications of this dynamic legacy, discussions of Ex Corde Ecclesiae sometimes seemed more inclined to focus on presumed tensions between maintaining academic freedom and protecting orthodoxy. One could get the impression that not inviting certain speakers, not honoring certain public officials, or not hiring so many non-Catholics was more important than encouraging the university community to engage the full range of authentically human questions opened up by a commitment to pursue the whole truth about nature, the human person, and God, wherever that search for truth might lead.
Ten years after Ex Corde was formally adopted by U.S. Catholic bishops, Catholic colleges and universities today must meet the challenge to reaffirm and revitalize their engagement with the Catholic intellectual tradition. Failure to do so will mean that they are content by default to risk leaving Catholic identity to what happens outside the classroom by abandoning the conviction that, to be authentically Catholic, they must integrate their 2000-year intellectual legacy into the academic life of their campuses.
Admittedly, getting hold of the Catholic intellectual tradition is a challenge. It contains a vast repository of theological thought; philosophizing; devotional practices; works of literature, visual art, music, and drama; styles of architecture; jurisprudential principles; social and political theorizing; and other forms of cultural expression that have emerged in vastly different parts of the world in the course of 2,000 years of Christian religious experience.
For Christians, the dialogue between faith and culture is as old as their earliest efforts to articulate what it means to be a distinctive faith community. As the Christian way moved beyond its original Jewish communities, attracted Gentile converts, and spread across the Roman world and beyond, a Christian intellectual tradition developed, which was the product of a continuous dialogue between faith and cultures.
This dialogue reflected two essential characteristics of the Christian, and especially the Catholic, understanding of human experience: that faith necessarily seeks understanding, and that all intellectual inquiry leads eventually to questions of ultimacy that invite faith responses. As a result, reason has been intrinsic to the life of the Catholic Church, which sees the search for truth as a manifestation of the Creator. For the Catholic, thinking is part of believing, and the Catholic view sees no conflict among faith, knowledge, and reason; it looks to how they illuminate one another. The most probing questions in every discipline are never deemed to be in opposition to faith, but are welcomed into the conversation on the conviction that ongoing discovery of the intelligibility of the universe will reveal more of the truth about God.
Ten years after Ex Corde was formally adopted by U.S. Catholic bishops, Catholic colleges and universities today must meet the challenge to reaffirm and revitalize their engagement with the Catholic intellectual tradition.
In the words of Pope Benedict XVI, "the world of reason and the world of faith -- the world of secular rationality and the world of religious belief -- need one another and should not be afraid to enter into a profound and ongoing dialogue, for the good of our civilization." This is a two-way process. Reason plays a purifying role within religion, while religion supplies a corrective to reason, reminding reason to take full account of the dignity and destiny of the human person.
At my own Jesuit, Catholic university, we've tried to invite people to enter into this expansive dialogue in search of truth, meaning, and justice through the publication of a document called "The Catholic Intellectual Tradition: A Conversation at Boston College." Our hope is that that the search for truth in all disciplines can be enriched by engagement with the tradition, because it is our conviction that, in the words of the Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, "The world is charged with grandeur of God." The Catholic intellectual tradition is at work whenever questioning in any field is open to moving out of narrow disciplinary isolation and toward the horizon of human dignity, the common good, and the wholeness and fullness of life that the Christian tradition calls God's reign.
The Catholic intellectual tradition that flows out of this dialogue is a living tradition, not a static traditionalism, which draws from the riches of the past to give life to the future; a simultaneous capacity for continuity and change gives it a growing edge, allowing it to develop in new ways even as it retains its firm roots in the foundational Catholic worldview. In the Catholic university, wisdom accumulated in the past is handed on, criticized, reworked, and reappropriated in response to new questions prompted by new experience, new evidence, new arguments, and new interlocutors. This way of proceeding gives life to the Catholic intellectual tradition.
A university animated by the Catholic intellectual tradition embraces all who are dedicated to learning from one another, and remains open to contributions that may come in a range of ways. This persuasion challenges a Catholic university to engage all people, cultures, and traditions in authentic conversation -- conversation undertaken in the belief that by talking across traditions we can grow in shared understanding that opens all parties to the possibility of changing their views.
In my own work at Boston College Law School, I draw on the Catholic intellectual tradition in exposing my civil procedure students to Martin Luther King's "Letter from the Birmingham Jail" and its discussion, informed by Augustine and Aquinas, of the natural law understanding of the difference between just and unjust laws. I ask those same students to think about what sort of person they are becoming and what sort of world they are shaping as they learn to use the power and the legal tools that our procedural system makes available to lawyers. I also offer a seminar on Catholic Social Thought and the Law that allows students to explore the Catholic vision of the person, the relationship between the person and society, and the role played by law as an institution in structuring the good or just society. But a Catholic university's engagement with the tradition must go beyond the content of any particular course. The shared project of the university is enlivened by the tradition whenever faculty and students across the disciplines begin to understand themselves as more explicitly engaged in a conversation with one another and with seekers of truth around the world and across time, together working toward the freedom, wholeness, and fullness of life that God desires for God's creation.
Over the long history of the tradition, there have been times when the dialogue between faith and reason has been difficult -- times when Church teaching and secular scholarly research have stood in tension. During such times, the tradition, at its best, has urged more careful inquiry on both sides, confident that even though "there may be momentary collisions, awkward appearances, and many forebodings and prophecies of contrariety," as Cardinal John Henry Newman, the great 19th-century scholar, has put it, the unity of truth will ultimately be seen.
Catholic colleges and universities today must build upon the good work they have done in providing rich formational opportunities to their students by enlivening engagement with the Catholic intellectual tradition on their campuses, thus living up to the deepest meanings and aspirations of the Catholic university.
American higher education and society will be enriched by Catholic universities embodying in our national conversation the Catholic intellectual ideal of a mutually illuminating relationship between religious faith and free intellectual inquiry.
Rev. Gregory Kalscheur is an associate professor at Boston College Law School.
Read more by
Opinions on Inside Higher Ed
Inside Higher Ed’s Blog U
What Others Are Reading