The Idea of a Catholic University

Those privy to conversations in Catholic higher education in the last twenty years are well aware of the contentious status of discourse regarding Catholic identity among these institutions of higher learning.[1] Does the Catholic identity of such schools relate primarily to the prominence of theological and philosophical education in the curriculum? Is it ensured through an emphasis on tangible Catholic practice and visible iconography on campus? To what extent does Church teaching inform who is invited to campus, either for awards or for other lectures? Does one cultivate the Catholic character of a university by establishing faculty and student quotas, ensuring the presence of religiously like-minded faculty, staff, and students alike? If Catholic identity is a contentious term, might it be more profitable to nurture a robust conversation regarding Catholic intellectual tradition?[2]

Such queries are not simply the result of Catholics, who succumbed to the secularization of higher education in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.[3] As Monika Hellwig summarized the situation of modern-day Catholic higher education in the United States:

We are the heirs and trustees of a great intellectual and cultural tradition founded on Catholic faith and enhanced by grace and by many centuries of testing for fidelity and authenticity. It is a trust not only for the benefit of the Church but also for the benefit of the world. The Catholic universities play a key role in bearing this trust with its treasury of classic deposits and its long-developed approach to life and learning. The conditions for fidelity to our trust have changed a good deal in the twentieth century. If we are still moving experimentally and are not always clear and successful in what we are doing, that is not from ill will or unconcern, but due to the uncharted nature of our situation.[4]

Indeed, Catholic universities throughout the United States are encountering a variety of unique challenges. For many small, Catholic liberal arts colleges, there is the constant threat of under-enrollment; of an endowment too small to provide tuition assistance, hire faculty, and renovate decaying buildings. Such schools might wonder if their commitment to Catholic education, including the promotion of the liberal arts, might mean the end of their existence. On the other hand, nationally recognized Catholic universities (with endowments that are the envy of their smaller peers) are striving to join the elite bodies of higher education in the United States, emulating the ambitious research agendas of peers such as Harvard and Yale, Stanford and Duke (to name but a few). Of course, this ambitious goal comes with the concomitant challenges of maintaining a focus on undergraduate teaching and formation, keeping Catholic particularity central to the university’s mission and hiring practices, while simultaneously attracting faculty with enough standing to receive research grants. The quest for survival and flourishing alike necessitates the articulation of fundamental principles, which may guide a diverse number of Catholic institutions not simply in maintaining such identity in the face of a variety of influences but offering a peerless educational experience. That is, Catholic higher education in the United States must not simply respond to external stimuli, being constantly on the defensive about its status vis-à-vis other institutions. Instead, it must embody a sacramental, incarnational approach to learning grounded in the fullness of Catholic tradition.

In this essay, I seek to offer some small contribution to the ongoing discussion regarding Catholic identity in higher education through elucidating four core principles, which should be intrinsic to Catholic higher education today. First, Catholic higher education is grounded in the person of Jesus Christ. Second, it operates out of an epistemological humility, grounded in theological education. Third, it seeks to respond to forms of secular reason, which reduce education to what is pragmatic and useful alone. Fourth, Catholic higher education is constantly interrupted by the witness of the saints, a recognition that intellectual knowledge and the cultivation of research are not the ultimate telos of humanity. These principles may serve as guides for Catholic colleges and universities alike, seeking to articulate what distinguishes a Catholic education from other institutions of learning.

Catholic Higher Education and Jesus Christ

In his The Catholic University as Promise and Project: Reflections in a Jesuit Idiom, Michael J. Buckley, SJ offers a critical assessment of the mission statements of three Jesuit colleges and universities in the United States. He writes:

All three frame general statements about education within the Jesuit or Judeo-Christian or Catholic tradition or identify the university as Jesuit or Catholic. They embrace the service of faith and the promotion of justice. . . However, there is not much beyond this level of formulaic generality, bland prose, and second-hand slogans. When one has left deference and set phrases behind, they do not indicate how this Catholic tradition and Jesuit orientation tell significantly and uniquely upon the educational core of these institutions, upon the content of its curriculum, its priorities in research, and its academic atmosphere.[5]

Buckley’s assessment of Catholic mission statements is congruent with James T. Burtchaell, CSC’s sobering treatment of the religious disestablishment of American higher education in the United States, one in which general humanistic ideals come to replace particular religious claims in the strategic mission of colleges and universities.[6] The transformative quality of higher education, spoken about in quasi-religious terms, and the promotion of justice through the university’s educational mission gradually come to replace precise doctrinal or ecclesial language guiding the mission of the university. Religious higher education in the United States largely moved away from such doctrinal claims, viewing them as sectarian, intellectually irresponsible, and inappropriate for participation in the American polis. Indeed, lost in the process was not simply affiliation with particular ecclesial creeds and bodies but rather the slow reduction of a religious tradition to morals and then mores, no longer capable of functioning as an intellectual and spiritual icon to the idolatrous gods of state and academy alike.[7] Schools both Catholic and Protestant who have succeeded in keeping their religious tradition central, while also engaging in the intellectual work of the modern university, have made theological reflection on Christian doctrinal claims central to their mission and vision.[8]

Buckley proposes a specific medicine for those institutions that have fallen into the habit of reducing religious language to generality and second-hand slogans. Simply, the heart of Catholic higher education may be discerned in the person of Jesus Christ. He writes:

For the Christian, the wisdom and the revelation of God is above all in Christ. . . It means that if one wants to apprehend something of the incomprehensible mystery that is God—what God thinks and judges and directs, one can find this revealed above all in Christ. . . If one wants to determine what is a completely human life . . . one will find that above all in Christ. Christ is the revelation of God; Christ is the revelation of the human being. It was for Blaise Pascal, mathematician and philosopher, scientist and contemplative to put this Christian conviction so starkly: “Not only do we understand God only through Jesus Christ, but we understand ourselves only through Jesus Christ. We understand life and death only through Jesus Christ. Out of Jesus Christ we do not know what life is, nor death, nor God, nor ourselves.”[9]

Thus, the Catholic university for Buckley does not promote knowledge or the transformation of the world apart from this Christological foundation. Indeed, much of the life of the contemporary university will include engagement with literature, methodological apprenticeship into scientific inquiry, learning the fundamentals of sociological analysis, etc. For Catholics, this cultivation of human experience in all of its richness is ultimately oriented to the salvation of our humanity in Christ: 

We bring all of that human promise and beauty, pathos and sorrow, intricate structures and biological drives, massive disagreements and debates about political interactions and economic forces to a theological inquiry into what it means to hear the great promise of the Gospel: “I have come that they might have life and have it more abundantly” [Jn 10:10].[10]

The liberal arts are foundational to a Catholic education, not simply as a historical precedent arising first in the monastic schools and later developing within the universities. Rather, the liberal arts seek to develop the fullness of our humanity; the very humanity that the Word assumed to transform in love.

Of course, there is a further consequence to the centrality of Jesus Christ and the doctrine of the Incarnation to the educational mission of Catholic higher education. Brian Daley, SJ writes:

This paradoxical faith in the simultaneous distance and nearness of God, as realized in the person of Christ, has important consequences for culture, and for the work of education. First of all, it is a ringing affirmation of the accessibility of truth with—in history, of the presence—what George Steiner calls the “substantiation”—within our limited human categories of a source of meaning that can be apprehended but never exhausted, contemplated but never wholly controlled. Christian faith in the Incarnation of the Word is the intuition that order and purpose and intelligibility have been and can be discovered dawning within human history, despite the ambiguity and absurdity that constantly swirl around us. It is in principle opposed to philosophical nihilism, to doctrinaire relativism and materialism, to theories of art and literature and history that deny in principle the possibility of finding abiding meaning in human gestures and words, because it is convinced that there is a transcendent reality that continues to reveal itself within human categories in a mysterious way.[11]

At the heart of a Catholic university is that search for truth, which we know to be possible because it is the Word, the one who imprints traces of divine order upon the universe, who becomes flesh.[12] Catholic higher education is rigorous, because it knows that it is possible to discover reflections of divine beauty through the sophistication of mathematical formulae; to see such beauty in the creation of forms of art, which elevate our imaginations to perceive creation anew; to learn forms of critical argumentation that move the human being away from simply gazing at the shadows on the walls of a cave, to looking with rigor upon reality as it is.

Such work is indeed difficult. In the theological classroom, I often encounter students who have embraced strong forms of social constructionism, which do not allow them to make ethical judgments about what is true and good in human life.[13] They refuse to “judge” those who have participated in mass genocide, because these dictators must have thought such mass killings were acceptable (and who am I to judge the validity of other people’s actions?). Such ways of thinking, reducing all human knowledge to personal perspective alone, eliminates the possibility of encountering truth. In this case, the result of a well-intentioned relativism, divorced from seeking truth, is the elimination of any ethical categories from human discourse. A Catholic education is rigorous and realist enough to know that it is often difficult to discern such truth by creatures embedded in time and space. Yet, it is sufficiently optimistic to hope that such authentic knowledge is possible because the world was created as ordered in love. The Catholic university is a midwife, guiding students to seek the true, the good, and the beautiful through the rigors of attuning the student’s intellectual, ethical, and aesthetic dispositions.

Lastly, Jesus Christ is at the heart of a Catholic education not simply as the objective manifestation of divine love in space and time but as a person to be imitated in love. Again, turning to Daley:

One of the most challenging—and potentially embarrassing—aspects of Christian faith is that it calls us not simply to acknowledge Jesus as God made human, not simply to “get with the program” and prepare the world for God’s Kingdom, but also to imitate Him: to let His way of acting and His mode of self-understanding become our own. In the Gospels’ portrait of Him, Jesus did not simply preach deliverance to the “little ones” of Israel. He consciously chose to act and live as such a “little one.” Jesus repeatedly calls on His disciples to join Him in this same attitude of freely chosen humility, obscurity and service.[14]

The persistent temptation of Catholic universities is to adopt language of excellence, of success, of ostentatious displays of wealth and athletic conquest, which are part and parcel of academic life in the modern academy. Such language is ultimately inadequate. For indeed, the presence of a crucifix in the classroom is more than a marker of Catholic identity. It is a visible and sacramental reminder that the way of self-giving love, of sacrifice, of humility, is pivotal to this encounter with truth. The undergraduate learns to empty herself of supposed accolades bestowed in high school, as she undertakes the painful process of learning to write clearly according to standards, which she had never previously imagined possible. A faculty member empties himself when he learns that the way to teach a student to seek truth is often through the painful gift of self in the classroom or office hours as an act of love. The entire university enters into the humility of Christ when it ceases to proclaim its own superiority vis-à-vis other institutions. This commitment to embodying an imitation of Christ should manifest itself in the entire life of the university: “Modesty, truthfulness, a clear-sighted emphasis on the university’s human and educational purposes have to be cultivated publicly and concretely, on an institutional level, by the institution’s leaders.”[15]

The Epistemological Humility of Theology

To a certain extent, the humility necessary for undertaking a Catholic approach to learning in the university has already been described. The student and the faculty member alike give themselves over to the difficult process of seeking the truth in love; of recognizing the possibility that the assumptions he or she enters with may distort reality rather than reveal it. Yet, something needs to be said about the role of theological education in the curriculum of the Catholic university as pivotal to this epistemological humility. In his magisterial The Idea of a University, John Henry Newman writes:

If you drop any science out of the circle of knowledge, you cannot keep its place vacant for it; that science is forgotten; the other sciences close up, or, in other words, they exceed their proper bounds, and intrude where they have no right. For instance, I suppose, if ethics were sent into banishment, its territory would soon disappear, under a treaty of partition, as it may be called, between law, political economy, and physiology. . . The case is the same with the subject matter of Theology; it would be the prey of a dozen various sciences, if Theology were put out of possession; and not only so, but those sciences would be plainly exceeding their rights and their capacities in seizing upon it. They would be sure to teach wrongly, where they had no mission to teach at all.[16]

Although most Catholic universities continue to offer theological education (sometimes under the category of religious or Catholic studies), there is a constant threat to remove theology proper from the circle of sciences within the University and instead teach religion as a historical phenomenon alone. Yet, theology is more than the history of religious ideas or practices, a phenomenological comparison of various religions throughout the world, or an examination of the Bible as a piece of literature fundamental to Western culture. Instead, theology is most clearly defined as faith seeking understanding.[17] Yet, what is meant by understanding? Joseph Ratzinger in his Introduction to Christianity notes:

Understanding means seizing and grasping as meaning the meaning that man has received as ground. I think this is the precise significance of what we mean by understanding: that we learn to grasp the ground on which we have taken our stand as meaning and truth; that we learn to perceive that ground represents meaning.[18]

The central beliefs of Christianity grounded in that revelation of divine love offered in Christ is what theology seeks to understand. Theology seeks to see reality anew through the lens of the doctrines of creation, the Incarnation, Christ’s death and resurrection, and the Church. Theological inquiry within the context of the Catholic university deals with reality, yet one infused with the light of divine love. Because the subject matter of theology is revelation, then the theologian receives the data of his or her science from the Church: 

The credo of the believer is always derivative from the credimus: the faith of the church into which he or she has been baptized. Thus, if we take ‘faith seeking understanding’ as a helpful approach to the task of theology, it highlights theology’s ecclesial nature and responsibility. The faith the theologian seeks better to understand is the faith received from the church; and further understanding it seeks is to serve the church and its mission. The theologian is not an independent contractor.[19]

In some ways, the theologian here is no different than the scientist, the sociological researcher, the modern English literature professor who receives the canon of texts, of ideas, of methodological approaches as the ground for his or her research. Likewise, the theologian draws from the wealth of academic disciplines, of historical methodology, of philosophical hermeneutics, to engage in his or her craft; theology is an intellectual discipline. The difference is that the subject of theology radically disrupts the circle of knowledge of such human sciences, re-orienting the source of all knowledge toward a transcendent source:

The awareness of a transcendent presence at the heart of human activity has gradually disappeared from culture and morality. . . Without the religious dimension, culture and morality become hollowed out, formalistic, shallow. . . The vocation of the Catholic university in our time is, against all odds, to keep the disparate elements of our culture together with an integrating transcendent perspective.[20]

Thus, a way of re-interpreting theology as the “queen of the sciences” is to see theological education within the Catholic university as providing the proper orientation for all knowledge as directed toward that ground, which sheds light on the fullness of what it means to be human. Theology does not impinge upon the methods of other sciences; the methodologically sound theologian does not seek to teach the evolutionary biologist how to conduct research. But the very fact that the evolutionary biologist teaches within the context of a university, which sees more to reality than what is visible to the eyes, necessarily requires epistemic humility on the part of the biologist. He or she cannot claim that human beings are in fact meaningless creatures, a product of sheer chance rather than any divine order. Such a claim would impinge upon the province of both theological inquiry, which seeks to understand the origins of human beings as created in the image and likeness of God. In such a case, the evolutionary biologist would be inserting his or her own malformed theology into scientific inquiry. The presence of theology in a university curriculum educes an epistemic humility from faculty and students alike, who come to guard against usurpations of forms of inquiry against one another.

Strikingly, another aspect of epistemic humility promoted by the presence of theology within the curriculum of the Catholic university is the narrative of salvation, upon which theology depends. Human beings are not simply sometimes mistaken, as one discovers in the art of writing, of engaging in scientific research, of composing a piece of music. Instead, the theological anthropology of the Catholic university recognizes that human beings are sinful. We can allow the effects of pride to become an obstacle to perceiving truth. We can consider our own theory to be not simply an adequate explanation of a phenomenon but the only intelligible interpretation of a text. Such sin is in fact debilitating for all human knowing, destructive of further insight within the community of the university. Bernard Lonergan, commenting on this fact, writes:

Just as insight can be desired, so too it can be unwanted. Besides the love of light, there can be a love of darkness. If prepossessions and prejudices notoriously vitiate theoretical investigations, much more easily can elementary passions bias understanding in practical and personal matters. Nor has such a bias merely some single and isolated effect. To exclude an insight is also to exclude the further questions that would arise from it, and the complementary insights that would carry it towards a rounded and balanced viewpoint…the incomprehension, isolation, and duality rob the development of one’s common sense of some part, greater or less, of the corrections and the assurance that result from learning accurately the tested insight of others and from submitting one’s own insights to the criticism based on others’ experience and development.[21]

As Lonergan writes elsewhere, “Corrupt minds have a flair for picking the mistaken solution and insisting that it alone is intelligent, reasonable, good.”[22] Catholic theology constantly interrupts the work of the university, reminding students and faculty alike that they may love not only the light of truth but the darkness of their own phantasms. The narrative that the theologian seeks to contemplate informs the other disciplines in a humble recognition that scientific inquiry in whatever field (including and especially theology) may be informed not by an impartial searching for truth alone but a human heart bent toward its own desires.

The Problem of Economic Pragmatism in Education

In John Henry Newman’s Idea of a University, the Catholic educator addresses the rationale for a liberal education vis-à-vis concerns directly related to vocation. He writes:

I am asked what is the end of University Education, and of the Liberal or Philosophical Knowledge which I conceive it to impart: I answer, that what I have already said has been sufficient to show that it has a very tangible, real, and sufficient end, though the end cannot be divided from that knowledge itself. Knowledge is capable of being its own end. Such is the constitution of the human mind, that any kind of knowledge, if it be really such, is its own reward.[23]

The Liberal Education of the university, according to Newman, does not seek to form better Catholics, to lead to an increase in vocations to religious life, or to prepare one for a lucrative professional career.[24] Instead, Liberal Education creates the gentleman, who has “a cultivated intellect, a delicate taste, a candid, equitable, dispassionate mind, a noble and courteous bearing in the conduct of life;—these are the connatural qualities of a large knowledge.”[25] A Liberal Education forms the person in specific intellectual habits, which indeed will have an effect on society as a whole. Again, Newman states:

A University training is the great ordinary means to a great but ordinary end; it aims at raising the intellectual tone of society, at cultivating the public mind, at purifying the national taste, at supplying true principles to popular enthusiasm and fixed aims to popular aspiration, at giving enlargement and sobriety to the ideas of the age, at facilitating the exercise of political power, and refining the intercourse of private life. It is the education which gives a man a clear conscious view of his own opinions and judgments, a truth in developing them, an eloquence in expressing them, and a force in urging them. It teaches him to see things as they are, to go right to the point, to disentangle a skein of thought, to detect what is sophistical, and to discard what is irrelevant.[26]

Thus, a University education seeks to teach human beings to perceive reality as it is through the cultivation of the intellect in such a way that the social and cultural life of the nation is transformed in the process. Higher education seems not simply to form a person for a career but to develop dispositions of thought for the good of humanity.

Of course, as anyone would know today, the primary purpose of a university or college degree in the popular imagination has become not the cultivation of knowledge for its own sake but the gaining of a diploma that serves as a passport into potentially lucrative employment. Students wonder why they must take a course in philosophy, in English literature, in mathematics, in sociological theory, and theology, since such classes have nothing to do with their future career. Indeed, the liberal arts in the university often seek to counter this mentality not through a defense of knowledge for its own good but with the promise that such courses are ultimately “useful.” The pre-medicine student who studies theology will have an edge on his or her medical school application. The student entering into a deep analysis of the Great Books will learn valuable intellectual habits for law school.

Of course, university educations are not cheap investments. Catholic colleges and universities, in particular, are very expensive. In the academic year 2011–12, the average cost of such an education was $26,300.[27] Indeed, it would be economically unjust for such institutions to avoid the question of whether or not the student might have gainful employment following graduation. But, the danger of an economically pragmatic approach to higher education is ultimately its telos. If the entire purpose of a university education is entrée into a career, then the student is reduced to nothing more than a cog in the economic machine. The university curriculum which ceases to be concerned with a liberal education will gradually focus only on those disciplines which enable students to fulfill their role as workers in American society. The formation of the entire human being, of the intellectual and aesthetic dispositions intrinsic to human flourishing, is sacrificed at the expense of economic pragmatism. The university becomes nothing more than a business, offering diplomas that receive economic value according to the degree to which they enable the student to climb the social ladder and to participate in an economy of consumption.

Catholic universities must find a way to remain counter-cultural relative to this economic pragmatism in education. Prescribing a way out of this reduction of the human person, Gerald McCool writes:

The ideal of the integrative mind . . . preserves education from a number of distortions. Faith in the presence in the world of a creating and redeeming God is a protection against a narrow, this-worldly secularism or a despairing resignation to an unintelligible universe. Conviction that the human person has a divine call to wholeness is a defense against a narrow professionalism in education or the tyranny of a single discipline or a single method. Interdisciplinary cooperation is neither a sacrilege nor an imposition. Fidelity to an old and coherent tradition frees the educator from slavery to the present or to the immediate future.[28]

Catholic higher education must be concerned that students will receive gainful employment at the conclusion of their time in school. But even more so, such institutions must continue to hold up a vision of the human person that moves beyond the apotheosis of scientific inquiry for the sake of technological innovation. Students at Catholic universities take courses in the arts, in philosophy, in economic theory, in theology, in the social sciences, because they are seeking to adopt a holistic view of what it means to be human. The Catholic university maintains funding for these programs as a way to ensure that the great treasury of learning and the monuments of the human condition do not disappear through the heresy of economic pragmatism. Faculty members traverse the boundaries of disciplines, not because it is in vogue in the academy to do so, but because all knowledge is ultimately one. Those of us who teach at the university do so with passion, precisely because we believe that the search for knowledge is a form of wisdom that elicits wonder. Such a curriculum and pedagogy refuses to reduce the student to a future employee (who donates excessive quantities of money to the university), but seeks to cultivate the student as a thinker, one with an acute aesthetic sensibility, who wonders at the world.

The Witness of the Saints

At the conclusion of this piece, it seems wise to raise one important point: it is not necessary for salvation within Christianity to pursue a college degree. Salvation within Christianity ultimately seeks to promote holiness, not intellectual prowess or a commitment to activism. Though Catholics are quick to quote John Henry Newman in assembling an argument for the function of the university in the world, they are less prone to turn to his sermons on the hiddenness of holiness. He preaches: 

There are many reasons why God’s saints cannot be known all at once;—first, as I have said, their good deeds are done in secret. Next, good men are often slandered, ridiculed, ill-treated in their lifetime; they are mistaken by those, whom they obliged to withstand sin in their days, and this raises about them a cloud of prejudice and dislike, which in time indeed, but not till after a time, goes off. Then again their intentions and aims are misunderstood; and some of their excellent deeds or noble traits of character are known to some men, others to others, not all to all.[29]

The university seeks to promote dispositions that enable men and women to be leaders in society, in intellectual life, and in politics. When women and men are acknowledged for their work in this regard, even on behalf of the Church, this is by no means evidence of their sanctity. It simply means that the university has formed the student in the proper natural habits, which enable “success” within society.

Of course, the Catholic university is not a seminary, a program for formation in religious life, a school of ministry for lay students, even an extension of previous religious education. The modern-day university, with students drawn from a variety of traditions, cannot have as its primary focus the formation of saints. Nonetheless, the Catholic university separates itself from its secular peers insofar as it forms its students in those dispositions that point toward holiness, in that which makes genuine holiness possible. The Catholic university does not simply admire those who have joined the pantheon of business, political, and economic success. It ruminates upon the memory of the saints, who present to the world a radically distinct vision of what constitutes a successful human life.

Presently, emerging adults (generally of college age) are not discovering the early twenties as a time in which the search for holiness is central to their identity. As Christian Smith et al. have discovered:

We as a society are failing our youth in crucial ways . . . it may not be too strong to suggest that we are failing to equip teenagers and emerging adults with the basic tools for good moral reasoning. We are failing to teach them how to deal constructively with moral, cultural, and ideological differences. We are failing to them teach them to think about what is good for people and in life. We are failing to equip our youth with the ideas, tools, and practices to know how to negotiate their romantic and sexual lives in healthy, nondestructive ways that prepare them to achieve the happy, functional marriages and families that most of them say they want in future years. We are failing to teach our youth about life purposes and goals that matter more than the accumulation of material possessions and material comfort and security. We are failing to challenge the all-too common need to be intoxicated, the apparent inability to live a good, fun life without being under the influence of alcohol or drugs. And we are failing to teach our youth the importance of civic engagement and political participation, how to be active citizens of their communities and nations, how to think about and live for the common good.[30]

Catholic universities have an obligation to form students to perceive that excessive alcohol consumption is not simply dangerous for one’s physical well-being but also destructive of relationships, a giving over of oneself to a loss of control that often leads to sexual violence. It must form women and men who care deeply for one another, willing to offer the self in love to the dormitory neighbor in need; for solidarity begins with learning to care deeply for members of a particular community here and now. It must offer a vision of human flourishing, not connected with physical beauty or athletic capacities alone. That is, Catholic higher education has a responsibility to point toward a way of life informed by humble self-gift; a Eucharistic disposition of love that extols the hiddenness of holiness.

Residence life remains a central way of forming students in natural dispositions that might serve as the basis of such future holiness, at least for those interested. The presence of holy women and men in such dorms serves as a persuasive, puzzling sign regarding the attractiveness of holiness. The frequent celebration of the Eucharist in the dorms is a constant reminder that Catholicism seeks to form humanity not in the Machiavellian art of power and prestige but the humility of Eucharistic caritas. The presence of women and men in the dorms who meditate upon God’s Word, who devote themselves to the rich devotional life of Catholicism, slowly evangelizes a community.

Likewise, the entire life of the university should testify to the world that there is a different vision of humanity being proclaimed. Service to the community and the world at large is not simply a way to increase status among our peers; it is a concrete commitment to let love spill over beyond the bounds of the university to the world. The refusal of the university to take advantage of its student athletes, to reduce them to gladiators existing for our entertainment and the increasing profits of the school, will be a salutary stumbling block for other universities who treat their athletes as property. Indeed, this concrete commitment to love, to charity, will mean passing by opportunities for success, for excellence, for worldly recognition. But the university’s wariness of operating according to such short-term visions of success, over the long run, will be the true marker of Catholic identity.

In the end, as we noted at the beginning of this section, the raison d’etre of the Catholic university is not to provide an education that saves; no education can do this. After all, there is an array of well-educated human beings (some of whom graduated from Catholic schools) whose moral qualities are severely lacking. But, the formation that the University offers must not lead students away from the possibility of this salvation. We cannot turn a blind eye toward vice, toward injustice, toward all that reduces human flourishing to economic and athletic success alone. Instead, a Catholic higher education will continually point away from itself, away from markers of accomplishment and prestige, to a vision of humanity transformed in love.

Editorial Note: This essay originally appeared in Vol. 2, No. 2 of Church Life Journal (2013).

[1] For a historical analysis of the problem of Catholic identity in American, Catholic universities in the twentieth century, see Philip Gleason, Contending with Modernity: Catholic Higher Education in the Twentieth Century (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995).

[2] Robert Imbelli, SJ, ed., “Exploring the Catholic Intellectual Tradition” in C21 Resources (Spring 2013).

[3] For a classic description of this process of secularization, see George Marsden, The Soul of the American University: From Protestant Establishment to Established Nonbelief (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994). For a general introduction to the secularization of intellectual life in the American university, see Julie A. Reuben, The Making of the Modern University: Intellectual Transformation and the Marginalization of Morality (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996). Lastly, for a case study of such secularization in American higher education in the discipline of sociology, see Christian Smith, “Secularizing American Higher Education: The Case of Early American Sociology” in The Secular Revolution: Power, Interests, and Conflict in the Secularization of American Public Life, ed. Christian Smith (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003), 97–159.

[4] Monika K. Hellwig, “The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Catholic University” in Examining the Catholic Intellectual Tradition, vol. 1, ed. Anthony J. Cernera and Oliver J. Morgan (Fairfield, CT: Sacred Heart University Press, 2000), 18.

[5] Michael J. Buckley, SJ, The Catholic University as Promise and Project: Reflections in a Jesuit Idiom (Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 1998), 6–7.

[6] James Tunstead Burtchaell, CSC, The Dying of the Light: The Disengagement of Colleges and Universities From Their Christian Churches (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998).

[7] Ibid., 836.

[8] Robert Benne, Quality with Soul: How Six Premier Colleges and Universities Keep Faith with Their Religious Traditions (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001), 196–206.

[9] Buckley, The Catholic University as Promise and Project, 17.

[10] Ibid., 19.

[11] Brian Daley, SJ, “Christ and the Catholic University” in America Magazine (September 11, 1993); reprinted by the Office of Ministry and Mission at Boston College:, 5.

[12] For a further explication of the relationship between reason and the creation of the world, see Joseph Ratzinger, ‘In the Beginning…’: A Catholic Understanding of the Story of Creation and the Fall, trans. Boniface Ramsey, OP (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), 15–18.

[13] For a critique of this approach, see Christian Smith, What Is a Person?: Rethinking Humanity, Social Life, and the Moral Good from the Person Up (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010), 119–219.

[14] Daley, “Christ and the Catholic University,” 9.

[15] Ibid., 10.

[16] John Henry Newman, The Idea of a University (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1986), 55.

[17] For an account of theological education at the undergraduate level in particular, see Mark McIntosh, Divine Teaching: An Introduction to Christian Theology (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2008).

[18] Joseph Ratzinger, Introduction to Christianity, 2nd ed., trans. J.R. Foster (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2004), 77.

[19] Robert Imbelli, SJ, “The Heart Has Its Reasons: Giving an Account of the Hope That Is In Us” in Origins (43: June 20, 2013), 106.

[20] Louis Dupré, “On the Task and Vocation of the Catholic College” in Examining the Catholic Intellectual Tradition (Fairfield, CT: Sacred Heart University Press, 2000), 31.

[21] Bernard Lonergan, Insight: A Study of Human Understanding, ed. Frederick E. Crowe and Robert M. Doran (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1997), 214.

[22] Bernard Lonergan, Method in Theology (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1971), 55.

[23] Newman, The Idea of a University, 77.

[24] For the historical context of Newman’s lectures, see Ian Ker, John Henry Newman: A Biography, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 397–416.

[25] Newman, The Idea of a University, 91.

[26] Ibid., 134–35.

[27] This statistic may be found on the website of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities: (accessed August 22, 2013).

[28] Gerald McCool, “The Ideal of the Catholic Mind” in Examining the Catholic Intellectual Tradition, 49–50.

[29] John Henry Newman, “The Visible Church for the Sake of the Elect” in Parochial and Plain Sermons (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1997), 832–33.

[30] Christian Smith with Kari Christoffersen, Hilary Davidson, and Patricia Snell Herzog, Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 237–38.

Featured Photo: Kresge Law Library (University of Notre Dame) by Michael Fernandes; CC BY-SA 3.0


Timothy P. O’Malley

Timothy P. O’Malley is the director of the Notre Dame Center for Liturgy, associate professional specialist in the department of theology at the University of Notre Dame, and founding editor of Church Life Journal.

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