Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Mission


Yesterday morning steel workers topped off the framing for Stonehill College's new $34 million science building. It will be the most expensive project in the college's history. I am tremendously proud of the college for the quality of its science programs and the support they receive from the administration.

Like many church-related schools, Stonehill is concerned about its Catholic identity. We define ourselves as a Catholic college, and our students are mainly the children of devout or nominally Catholic families. But the faculty is increasingly laic and non-Catholic, and the formal trappings of Catholicism that I experienced as a student at Notre Dame in the 1950s and at Stonehill in the 1960s -- prayers before classes, courses in apologetics, teachers with Roman collars, etc. -- are no longer much in evidence. A casual visitor to our campus would be hard pressed to recognize the place as Church-related. And certainly the science taught in the new building will be identical to that taught in any first-rank secular institution.

And there's the rub.

Science and religious faith are the two greatest forces in the world today, and the tension between them is palpable and real. In Catholic higher education, the battle with the content of science has been mostly won. But the clash of orthodox theology with the spirit of scientific inquiry is generally swept under the rug, and the tension will become more acute as scientists learn more about the genetic, chemical, and anthropological origins of religion.

Theologically, it's as if the Scientific Revolution never happened. We teach 21st-century science in the classroom, and in the chapel we recite a Creed based on neolithic cosmologies. No wonder it is so difficult to find and hire topnotch Catholic scholars; we are asking them to live in two contradictory conceptual worlds at once -- naturalist six days a week, supernaturalist on Sunday. Meanwhile, we tell ourselves that there is no contradiction between classroom and chapel because science and faith belong to separate domains. But knowledge is a single domain, and it was the historic triumph of Christian Europe (with significant assists from elsewhere, especially from Hellenic Alexandria) to devise a unitary way of knowing -- the scientific way of knowing -- that is a more reliable guide to reality than tradition, authority or revelation.

Can there be a distinctively Catholic intellectual mission for an institution of higher learning? Absolutely. In place of the magic, miracles and anthropomorphic gods of our prescientific ancestors, a renewed Church would embrace the evolving empirical cosmology of the 21st century -- what the Catholic visionary Thomas Berry calls "the New Story." The antagonisms between science and faith are deeper than they might appear to be, writes Berry. The older redemptive stories of the Judeo-Christian tradition simply do not meet the most basic tests of rational knowing, he says. But the newer, scientific story of creation has not yet acquired a spiritual aspect: "An integral story has not emerged." It should be the fundamental mission of Catholic colleges and universities to help forge the integral story -- to make sacred and holy the world described by science by drawing upon the Church's rich traditions of sacramental theology and creation spirituality. In a world beset by religious strife, no mission can be more important to our collective future.