Catholic higher education has
a rich tradition
By Terrence J. Downey
The beginning of a new academic year provides a distinct perspective from which to appreciate the rich academic tradition that is Catholic higher education and to recommit to providing the transformative learning experience that defines the genre.
We read in Proverbs that “where there is no vision the people perish.” We live in an era that has little time for vision as demonstrated by a seemingly relentless drive to conformity in terms of what society rewards or ignores or punishes. On the contrary, the vision that inspires and sustains the Catholic intellectual tradition recognizes that whatever else can be said about God’s plan for any of us, it is clearly evident that conformity is not high on the list.
This is why we cherish and celebrate, as a central component of our tradition, academic freedom, stated nowhere more clearly than in the Papal Constitution on Catholic Universities, Ex Corde Ecclesiae, where we are invited to vigorously and humbly pursue the truth in all matters. And we recognize, with St. Edith Stein, that when we seek truth, we seek God.
This is the scholarly model for all of us in the Catholic university sector: we must be — and must be seen to be — above reproach in terms of honesty and integrity in our pursuit of the truth; it is this that justifies academic freedom and public support. This distinction for honesty and integrity is earned by critical thinking which constantly questions received wisdom in the disciplines we study and in the contemporary culture.
Cardinal Newman in The Idea of a University wrote that “the world is content with the surface of things;” the Catholic university does not have this luxury. We have an unequivocal obligation to inspire our students to seek, to want to see, and then to confidently confront, what is not just in the world; to accept the obligation to speak for those who cannot speak for themselves; to understand that we are spiritual beings and that there are ethical and moral dimensions in all that we do; to appreciate that each person is made in the image and likeness of God and that this belief determines the manner in which we relate to one other in the scholarly community and informs all that we do as scholars.
The Catholic intellectual tradition demands that we model for students the truth that each one of us is unique, there is not now nor has there ever been or will there ever be another person exactly like any one of us. Each and every person is characterized by an inherent dignity that deserves the utmost respect — including those we disagree with, those who come from different cultures and speak different first languages, those who are from different religious traditions or from none, those who think and look unlike ourselves.
We respect our God-given freedom of conscience; we welcome debate and reason not only because that is what is done in any reputable university, but mainly because God has given us minds with which to think and we have an obligation to use them to the full. Indeed, this is what the world demands of our graduates.
The Catholic intellectual tradition seeks to inspire in students both the desire and the confidence to contemplate their rights and obligations as citizens, to envision the potential nobility of our nation, to appreciate that in a healthy democracy we must always discuss/persuade; never demean/compel. England’s Archbishop of Westminster, Vincent Nichols, has pleaded for such “respectful dialogue” in modern society, “a society in which we genuinely listen to each other.”
The complex global technological era in which we find ourselves presents a staggering array of social, economic, political and ethical challenges. This situation demands not just specialized knowledge in science, medicine, engineering, politics or business, but also a broad academic foundation to enable thinking well beyond one’s own discipline and expertise. It is equally certain that these potentially devastating challenges demand civilized, compassionate, and courageous deliberation, and leadership which recognizes that respectful dialogue is mandatory.
The late Czech playwright and former president, Vaclav Havel, reminds us that the great forces for change in human history are achieved not by military might or by ideology, but rather by the human spirit, by conscience, by questioning the prevailing orthodoxy, by a sustained sense of justice, of responsibility and compassion. These are objectives that Catholic universities are well equipped to meet both by tradition and sustained scholarly practice.
No one can possibly know how the 21st century will ultimately unfold. Who can predict the political, economic, religious and cultural forces that will challenge a currently unjust global status quo? Who can possibly imagine the seemingly implausible technological advances that are very likely to revolutionize how we live and learn and love in this century?
But there is no need to fear this future; in fact, there are compelling reasons to embrace it.
Catholic universities greet the future with confidence based not only on our record to date, but mainly by a firm belief in our vocation. The very soul of Catholic universities is the calling we share to provide for students a superb scholarly learning environment, one that fosters not only academic excellence but also an appreciation of their own abilities, a life-long hunger for knowledge and truth, an understanding of a calling in life, a desire to seek meaning and purpose.
We meet the future with confidence by virtue of our calling to inspire in our students the courage to heed St. Paul’s exhortation to “not be conformed to the world” but rather to thoughtfully ponder and challenge, to address injustices, to assume obligations.
This is an educational vision that demands original research and teaching excellence, classes that are focused on empowering students to speak and write effectively, where all matters including faith and belief can be discussed, debated and contemplated in a respectful setting, a place that consistently invites and enables students to think critically, and to develop disciplined habits of mind, body and spirit. These are the characteristics demanded of those who would lead in this century.
What Catholic universities are capable of providing for students is both priceless and lasting. Priceless because we are in a position to transform lives; lasting because such transformations resonate through future generations.