Is a Secular University a Contradiction in Terms?

As a kind of prelude to writing this, I began to rummage around in university mission statements, starting from my own, which informs the interested public that “The University [of Notre Dame] is dedicated to the pursuit and sharing of truth for its own sake.” I have to confess, and to my chagrin, that I had always found our mission statement equal parts pallid and desultory. But my brief tour through other university mission statements caused me to rethink what now appeared to me as a hasty judgment. Let’s face it friends, the pursuit of truth has fallen on hard times, at least if university mission statements are any indication. None of the Ivy League schools, nor Chicago nor MIT, mention either the search for truth or the word “truth” itself. Some do not even mention knowledge. The mission statement of a school of which I am an alum can serve as a representative example:

Yale is committed to improving the world today and for future generations through outstanding research and scholarship, education, preservation, and practice. Yale educates aspiring leaders worldwide who serve all sectors of society. We carry out this mission through the free exchange of ideas in an ethical, interdependent, and diverse community of faculty, staff, students, and alumni.

In a way, what’s not to like? The world is certainly in need of improving! And yet this statement could be credibly taken for the mission statement of an upper end school of technology such as MIT (which it actually resembles) because in this vision the primary goal of the university is defined in pragmatic terms: “improving the world,” educating leaders who will serve society. “Research and scholarship [and] education” are thereby, subtly but definitely, instrumentalized. They no longer appear as goods in themselves, for the basis on which they would appear as goods in themselves, the pursuit of truth, has been withdrawn.

The inclusion of the phrase, “pursuit . . . of truth,” and especially with the qualifier, “for its own sake,” imparts, I have come to see, a refreshing humanism to our own mission statement—and to that of every other Catholic university I looked at (except for Georgetown). It tells you something about Catholic education. And I use the word “humanism” advisedly. To propose that the pursuit of truth is something worthwhile in the first instance on its own terms and for its own sake implies that such a pursuit is satisfying to the human being as such, and it therefore implies a commitment to the human being as in some way, and in the first instance, transcendent of pragmatics and utility and thus in some way spiritual.

Yale’s mission statement certainly does not preclude such a view of the human being as permissible for individual scholars to hold and to argue for, but it makes no institutional commitment and therefore, in spite of itself, lists towards the pragmatic. Notre Dame’s statement, which I am for the moment highlighting here to make public reparations for years of internal scoffing, makes a different choice. It reflects the humanistic view of the university on offer in John Paul II’s Apostolic Exhortation Ex Corde Ecclesiae, where we read,

With every other university, [the Catholic university] shares that gaudium de veritate, so precious to St. Augustine, which is that joy of searching for, discovering and communicating truth in every field of knowledge.

Evidently Ex Corde was overly ebullient in imputing its humanist view to “every university.” Or perhaps is it the idea of a university itself which has been increasingly atrophied, in favor of a more instrumentalizing and utilitarian model, in the 27 years since Ex Corde was promulgated? In which case we must regard the document as in some sense prophetic. Who would have imagined that 27 years ago?

I wonder if the mission statements of the great secular universities mentioned above have left behind the idea of the pursuit of truth for its own sake because it does in fact imply a particular view of the human being, implicit in Notre Dame’s statement and that of other Catholic schools, but explicitly stated in Ex Corde, namely, that the “thirst for truth . . . is profoundly inscribed on the heart of the human person” (§16) and that truth itself is thus a “fundamental value without which freedom, justice and human dignity are extinguished” (§5). This view of the human being in turn implies some kind of metaphysical or at least philosophical commitment to truth as a reality, as not a null set, as meaningful, as having some kind of positive content. There is thus the additional commitment implied to some kind of systemic or rational coherence to reality which makes it so the commitment to the pursuit of truth for its own sake is not simply undercut as illusory or incoherent. Notre Dame’s mission statement puts it very confidently: “In and through the visible world in which we live, we come to know and experience the invisible God . . . There is an intelligibility and a coherence to all reality, discoverable through spirit, mind and imagination.”  

Ex Corde for its part puts it most robustly, distinguishing the purpose of a university from its utility with the latter as a corollary advantage:

It is the honor and responsibility of a Catholic University to consecrate itself without reserve to the cause of truth . . . Without in any way neglecting the acquisition of useful knowledge, a Catholic University is distinguished by its free search for the whole truth about nature, the human being, and God. The present age is in urgent need of this kind of disinterested service, namely of proclaiming the meaning of truth, that fundamental value [once again] without which freedom, justice and human dignity are extinguished (ibid.).

Perhaps I misspoke. Ex Corde does conceive of the university as having utility, but its main usefulness is precisely in its institutional witness to the pursuit of truth as good in itself, and to the vision of the human being whose dignity is reflected in his or her capacity for joy in the truth. It is only useful secondarily, in the practical utility of knowledge acquired or imparted along the way. 

That this could be a viable, intellectually coherent enterprise, as noted, implies an institutional commitment to a view of reality where reality is characterized by an intelligibility that is not simply imposed and thus a mere construction and therefore not truth. This means a commitment not simply to truths in the plural, but to truth as transcending all individual truths, namely, to quote Ex Corde again, “the supreme Truth, who is God.” Although Ex Corde is here speaking specifically of Catholic universities, the claim is that this is how the Catholic university fulfills its identity not so much as Catholic, but as a university.

It is a claim about what is essential for a university to provide the cultural service which most makes it useful. It is the precisely institutional dedication to truth as transcendent of particular truths and of their utility, and its concomitant explicit commitment to the idea of God as the Supreme Truth, that permits a Catholic university—or any university—to fulfill and preserve the broadly based humanistic vision that is properly at the heart of a school dedicated to educating in the tradition of the liberal arts. It is this commitment that permits a Catholic university to resist a purely utilitarian view of education and its tag-along reductionist view of human being. In other words, the pursuit of truth for its own sake is in itself a witness to human dignity. One cannot “improve the world” and at the same time violate human dignity, or, as Notre Dame’s mission statement puts it, “a sense of human solidarity and . . . the common good,” explicitly employing language drawn from Catholic Social Teaching and Ex Corde both.

Technically, a secular university could go this far. To conceive of God as the “Supreme Truth,” as “Truth itself,” is to conceive of God in philosophical terms antecedent to any religious specification, for, to bastardize Thomas here, “Truth itself” is “what all people call God.” Yet in point of fact we see that the most prominent, trend-setting secular universities do not go this far, and in fact, have dropped the phrase “pursuit of truth” from their mission statements, despite university mottos such as “Lux et Veritas,” because it is correctly seen or at least intuited that embracing the “pursuit of truth” as such inclines one to a humanism backed by definite philosophical commitments even if they are only implied.

Perhaps it is not so much of an abuse of Thomas to note that he warned us that the pursuit of truth, meaning of God, through the use of reason alone, though in principle possible, would in fact, without revelation, be subject to atrophy and error. It would not, in other words, be able to sustain itself. Like a radioactive element, it has a kind of half-life—I know I’m stretching Thomas here. But for the pursuit of truth not to be like an unstable radioactive isotope, reason needs to be stabilized, or it will degrade into a set of mutually incommensurable truths, or we could say bodies of knowledge that are verified principally by their utility.

We could summarize with a paradox: in a way, to be committed to the pursuit of truth for its own sake means already knowing, in some way, what truth is or means even as one searches for it. Ex Corde puts the paradox this way: “A Catholic university’s privileged task is ‘to unite existentially by intellectual effort two orders of reality that too frequently tend to be placed in opposition as though they were antithetical: the search for truth, and the certainty of already knowing the fount of truth” (§1). It takes Ex Corde another four paragraphs before saying what that fount of truth is, because it works its way up, as it were, through the philosophical layers of reflection on this issue I have tried to summarize above:

By means of a kind of universal humanism a Catholic University is completely dedicated to the research of all aspects of truth in their essential connection with the supreme Truth, who is God. It does this without fear but rather with enthusiasm, dedicating itself to every path of knowledge, aware of being preceded by him who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, the Logos, whose Spirit of intelligence and love enables the human person with his or her own intelligence to find the ultimate reality of which he is the source and end and who alone is capable of giving fully that Wisdom without which the future of the world would be in danger (§4).[1]

Specifically, this will entail the creation of an intellectual culture animated by the pursuit of truth for its own sake, but where that pursuit is thematized and grounded in and stabilized by its ordering towards the Truth already possessed. This Truth is the revelation that Reason itself, the divine Logos, has become Incarnate in an act of loving kenosis or self-emptying. We thereby learn that human reason is most reasonable, most itself, most fully and intimately ordered towards truth and in pursuit of it, when it orders itself, through an act of faith, towards the love revealed in the Incarnation. We can understand why. The love revealed in the Incarnation of the Logos, love divine all loves excelling, is revealed precisely in disvestment; in poverty and not ownership; in renunciation of a claim to power rather than assertion of any such claim, for the love of the world, the world the Father so loved that he gave his Only-Begotten Son.

Reason ordered towards revelation is thus ordered towards a disvestment too great to be fully captured in words; this election of poverty without remainder; this renunciation of a claim to status, rather than the assertion of a status that would without question trump any other. Reason ordered toward revelation is thereby an ordering towards “love of the world” without vested interest. From this perspective the words of Ex Corde read and re-read, reveal their profundity on the nature of a university:

In this context [of introducing the idea of a Catholic university], Catholic Universities are called to a continuous renewal, both as “Universities” and as “Catholic.” For, “What is at stake is the very meaning of scientific and technological research, of social life and of culture, but, on an even more profound level, what is at stake is the very meaning of the human person.” Such renewal requires a clear awareness that, by its Catholic character, a University is made more capable of conducting an impartial search for truth, a search that is neither subordinated to nor conditioned by particular interests of any kind (§7).

Skipping ahead one Pope, Benedict XVI comments on the Incarnation in a way that helps us understand why this should be so. Benedict notes a certain apophaticism attaching to the Incarnation, despite the fact that it teaches that “God becomes concrete, tangible in history.” He goes on to explain that nevertheless “this very God, become graspable, is utterly mysterious. The humiliation he himself has chosen, his kenosis, is in a new way, so to speak, the cloud of mystery in which he both conceals and reveals himself.” This cloud of mystery is the cloud of disvestment, of poverty, of renunciation, of abjection, to use the language we had chosen above. Benedict concludes that “Poverty is the truly divine manifestation of truth: thus it can demand obedience without involving alienation.” The divine kenosis fulfills and recapitulates all of its anticipations in the domain of reason. Again commenting, this time on Plato, Benedict notes,

Plato’s Socrates . . . points us to the connection between truth and defenselessness, between truth and poverty. Socrates is credible because his commitment to “God” brings him neither position nor possessions; on the contrary, it consigns him to poverty and ultimately to the role of an accused criminal.

When revelation is thematized this way, it is easier to see how the notion of reason ordered towards revelation in faith would fulfill, rather than negate, the mission of a university, and why in Ex Corde the renewal of the university as university and the renewal of the university as Catholic are inextricably linked as one renewal. The more the university is ordered, in all its rational endeavor, by institutional commitment and not simply ad hoc individual commitments, to revelation, the more it is ordered towards an impartial search for truth not pressured by the interests of the will to power, status, and ownership but precisely as continually exposed to purification by the faith that the ultimate reality ordering the universe is glimpsed in a supernatural gift of renunciation of ownership, power and status and, in fact, that out of that very gift the universe arose.

Only from this point of view does one have any kind of standard to judge what “improving the world” might be, and the faith that truly “improving the world” really matters, really has meaning, really corresponds to truth and not just to shifting interests of the will to power however concealed in the package of technological progress and bureaucratic language. Giving up the language of the pursuit of truth means giving up on truth as an institutional commitment and so giving up any institutional commitment to the meaning of the human person.

The institutional witness spoken of here is the creation of an intellectual culture that performs or incarnates the dialogue between faith and reason. From Ex Corde: “While each academic discipline retains its own integrity and has its own methods, this dialogue demonstrates that ‘methodical research within every branch of learning, when carried out in a truly scientific manner and in accord with moral norms, can never truly conflict with faith[2] An education along these lines is a “witness to the unity of all truth” (§17) and to an “organic vision of reality” (§20).

One can easily see how philosophy and theology have specific contributions in creating this distinct intellectual culture. If “it is necessary to work towards a higher synthesis of knowledge in which alone lies the possibility of satisfying that thirst for truth which is profoundly inscribed on the heart of the human person,” then it is necessary both that the disciplinary canons of each discipline not be violated—for faith does not replace reason—and that there is some kind of transdisciplinary inquiry that, on the one hand, orders the results of disciplines, the “truths” that they discover, to “truth” itself, “reason” itself,” and that is philosophy, and then, on the other, orders even that order of reflection to revelation as received in the faith of the Church, and that is theology. The word “wisdom” here is an important one, present, as we have seen, in both Ex Corde and in ND’s university mission statement, and also notably absent in the mission statements of the highly ranked secular schools I looked at.

“Wisdom” comes in the first instance from the traditional vocabulary of philosophy, and therefore from the vocabulary of the striving for an integration of the liberal arts which also transcends them. That this quest for wisdom is itself ordered towards something that does not come in the first instance from unaided human reason, but from revelation, does not mean that theology itself is not a wisdom discipline, a sapiential discipline. That “theology” is a “wisdom” does not negate its connections to the other disciplines but features them, and imparts to the whole intellectual life a “sapiential” character that is properly its own, precisely by ordering it to something that transcends, and so purifies, reason. We do not say that theology cancels out or leaves behind the results or the questions of any other discipline; we say rather that it provides a voice, a conversation, a possibility, of “integrating them” as “faith seeks understanding” of what is revealed, and thereby, on another level, of what is discovered and left intact as such in the other sciences.

I would like to emphasize, and Ex Corde itself emphasizes, that “Integration of knowledge is a process, one which will always remain incomplete” (§16). I emphasize this against the tendency to reify “integration of knowledge” in an accomplished system which is then taught as such. Integration of knowledge is the name of a quest, more than that of a settled achievement. “Moreover, the explosion of knowledge in recent decades, together with the rigid compartmentalization of knowledge within individual academic disciplines, makes the task increasingly difficult” (§16, my emphasis), not easier. The temptation to reify “integration of knowledge” in a synthesis of the past or in an imagined, settled system of the present is the greatest enemy of the truly dynamic process described by Ex Corde, because it gives the impression to those who are not theologians, those involved in the “explosion of knowledge” in all its fast moving complexity, those most likely to know no other academic frame of reference than the strong compartmentalization of the disciplines that does describe the contexts in which this new knowledge arises, that “integration” means somehow imposing a synthesis that these discoveries might call into question, and that this questioning will not be allowed. But it is precisely the questions that fuel the “dialogue between faith and reason.”

To name a few: Do the results of scientific inquiry into human origins cancel out the doctrine of original sin? Students in my classes sometimes point out that they learned in an evolutionary psychology class that because death is part and parcel of the evolutionary process leading up to and including human beings, it cannot be the result of sin. Nor does the fall of two historical original human beings seem to make sense given current research on human ancestry. Of course one must always be alert to the categories one is using in research: “human” as a descriptive phylogenetic taxis should not be confused with “human” as the metaphysical description of a nature. That is a philosophical question that would already show that this particular question cannot be answered simply on the basis of empirical research alone. But without the philosophical perspective, the question would have no disciplined place to go to be properly asked.

But can the results of science cancel out the idea that human reason itself is warped, incurvatus in se, towards the vested, towards ownership, towards power, through a deformation that is not, nevertheless, “natural?” Our ultimate job is not to say, “evolutionary psychology should not exist as a discipline” (long may it live!), but rather, do we know our own doctrine, do we understand it, fully enough? Do we really know who “Adam” is apart from the Second Adam, Christ? The doctrine of original sin is not the only empirically verifiable Christian doctrine, as Reinhold Niebhur once quipped, because there is none. It is not self-standing, but “so to speak, ‘the reverse side’ of the Good News that . . . salvation is offered to all through Christ” (CCC §389). Its transmission is a “mystery” which certainly must be tied in some way to human descent, but not thereby reduced to such an account. I am not solving the problem here: I am saying that the process of “integration” is first and foremost mainly a “process,” an aspiration, a quest, whose results come, partly but of course not fully, in the separation of questions into different levels, which makes it possible, paradoxically, to have a whole and integrated intellectual life rather than one that is fragmented into “rigidly compartmentalized,” by which is meant, “mutually incommensurable,” academic disciplines.[3]

The presence of a theology faculty officially sanctioned as such by the university is thus a key element in the identity of a Catholic university. It is the only faculty that Ex Corde singles out as necessary, and comments as follows:

Theology plays a particularly important role in the search for a synthesis of knowledge as well as in the dialogue between faith and reason. It serves all other disciplines in their search for meaning, not only by helping them to investigate how their discoveries will affect individuals and society but also by bringing a perspective and an orientation to bear not contained within their own methodologies. In turn, interaction with these other disciplines and their discoveries enriches theology, offering it a better understanding of the world today, and making theological research more relevant to current needs (§19).

The presence of the theology faculty thus changes the academic community into which it is welcomed, or rather, the acceptance of a theology faculty signals the kind of conversation that the academic community will have and, in a way, will be. The very presence of the faculty already, even ahead of any specific results, both accomplishes and signifies the character of the intellectual life as a “search for a synthesis,” as a “dialogue between faith and reason,” especially when theology is part of the required core curriculum for undergraduates. Theology is the way the institution orders its intellectual life to the revelation of divine love, a revelation handed down through scripture and the authoritative tradition of the Church to this day.

The accountability of theology to the Church, ironically, is its accountability to the fullest and freest exercise of reason, thereby authoritatively ordered to poverty and not wealth, to dispossession of status and not its claims, to self-gift and not power, in sum, to truth. Of course there will be arguments. No one can save us from the work proper to the academy, discussion, disputation, interpretation, claim and counter-claim. But the university ordered by its commitment to theology as a discipline is ordered beyond itself such that its other disciplines, without renouncing their proper methodologies, do not close in on themselves but rather contribute to a conversation at a “higher level” where their results become “questions” that leverage deeper “understanding” of a mystery that will always elude understanding and premature foreclosure of the search through complacency—of either the disciplines or theology—or through the reduction of the university to utilitarianism.

We can conclude with a proper scholastic examination of the Question posed in the title of this essay:

Whether a Secular University is a Contradiction in Terms

It seems that, a secular university is not a contradiction in terms, given the many excellent secular institutions of higher learning that evidently exist and educate at the highest level.

Sed contra, even the best of these do not have faculty in Catholic theology recognized as such.

I answer that, without an explicit orientation of the intellectual life, the life of reason, to a higher truth revealed by God and accepted in faith, which purifies reason and makes it more fully itself, a university cannot fully succeed as such. But this orientation, institutionally speaking, is supplied by the theology. Therefore, a secular university, while not strictly speaking a contradiction in terms, cannot completely fulfill its identity as a university.

Ad primum: Of course these excellent institutions exist. Yet the impossibility of sustaining theological endeavor without an institutional witness to its value, means that the secular university has no way of blocking the reduction of the university to utilitarianism, nor the reductive view of the human being it implies. Ironically therefore, such an institution, as an institution, actually teaches the very truncation of reason which as a university it was designed to foreclose.

It is evident, then, that Catholic education provides a real and true intellectual option in American higher education, badly needed in a time in which our culture has a lost an “ear” for mystery, for the sense that there is something which, though not reducible to reason, is nevertheless hospitable to reason. The presence of Catholic education, when it is true to itself, thus keeps the whole scene of American higher education from a self-enclosed and self-enclosing rationalism which will ultimately leave the intellectual life impoverished, reduced to the pragmatic and expedient, which means, to the interests of power and status instead of truth.

[1]I would add that our own University mission statement echoes Ex Corde here, “A Catholic university draws its basic inspiration from Jesus Christ as the source of wisdom and from the conviction that in him all things can be brought to their completion. As a Catholic university, Notre Dame wishes to contribute to this educational mission.”

[2]As our own mission statement puts it, “Notre Dame’s character as a Catholic academic community presupposes that no genuine search for the truth in the human or the cosmic order is alien to the life of faith.”

[3] Another issue that a theology department is uniquely poised to take up is interreligious dialogue. It allows for a paradigm of truth seeking and discovery of truth in mutual conversation rather than the bracketing of these searches into the sociological category of “religion,” with its academic counterpart, “religious studies.” Pope Benedict is apposite here: “The Word, which the Incarnate and Crucified One is, always far surpasses human words; thus God’s kenosis is the place where the religions can meet without claims of sovereignty.” The academic space formed by this kenosis is theology, and the theology department is its institutional incarnation.

Featured Image: Photo by Jiuguang Wang, photo of the Cathedral of Learning on the University of Pittsburgh campus, taken on 28 August 2012; Source: Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 2.0.


John Cavadini

John Cavadini is the McGrath-Cavadini Director of the Institute for Church Life and a professor in the department of theology at the University of Notre Dame. He was appointed by Pope Benedict XVI to a five-year term on the International Theological Commission in 2009. He is the recipient of the Monika Hellwig Award for Outstanding Contributions to Catholic Intellectual Life and is the author of Visioning Augustine.

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