Saturday, April 19, 2008


As one long associated with Catholic education, it was with some interest that I turned to Pope Benedict's remarks to a gathering of Catholic educators in Washington.

Certainly, the question of the identity and mission of Catholic colleges is a recurring theme of concern. I have read the Pope's remarks and find nothing of particular use in helping those of us who care deeply about Catholic education confirm a sense of 21st-century purpose. The speech is mostly a string of pious platitudes about faith, truth, hope and love -- all worthy topics, to be sure, but the real challenge is to know how these things are related and how they are to be understood in the modern world. There is nothing in the pope's remarks that could not have been said five hundred years ago.

Running throughout the speech is a notion of objective truth that can only be understood in the light of faith based on revelation. Several times, the pope speaks of evangelization as the Church's primary mission. If that is what Catholic higher education is to be about -- transmitting the eternal verities -- then I suspect that most of my faculty colleagues, Catholic and non-Catholic, would be prepared to walk away. To be sure, Benedict makes the required nod to "academic freedom," but he cautions against any teaching that undermines the truths of faith.

In my view, Catholic institutions of higher learning should ground their identity in those things that are uniquely Catholic. Of course social justice and ethics should be part of a curriculum, but there is nothing uniquely Catholic about trying to be good. Evangelization, apologetics and catechesis more properly belong in the family and church. I would prefer to see scholars in Catholic colleges and universities exploring the modern meanings of truth and faith within the Church's rich traditions of sacramental theology and creation spirituality. Let students read Sigrid Undset's Kristin Lavransdatter, for example, the themes of which are timeless, rather than Thomas Aquinas, whose arcane speculations are couched in prescientific cosmology. How about reconstructing the debates of Augustine and Pelagius in the context of the current sci-faith cultural wars? Meister Eckhart. Flannery O'Connor. Galileo. Nikos Kazantzakis. Heloise and Abelard. Francis and Clare. Julian of Norwich. Shusaku Endo. Gerard Manley Hopkins. Mary Gordon. Let students confront with complete freedom the roaring river of creative Catholic thought, orthodox and heretical, and discover the universal human concerns that find expression within Catholic tradition. What makes us Catholic intellectuals is not a list of infallible supernaturalist doctrines that have grown up like stony encrustations on the faith, but a passionate immersion in a two-thousand-yearlong pilgrimage through darkness and light.

U. S. News & World Report had a brief story recently about Christendom College in Front Royal, Virginia, a tiny Catholic institution that (according to USN&WR) "embodies the pope's vision for education." There are no biology or chemistry classes. All professors pledge annually to stay loyal to Vatican authority. The story quotes a student's favorable comment about the school: "There is no risk involved. When you go to other universities, you don't know what you are going to get." It seems to me that if you know what you are going to get, there is no point in going to a college at all.