Intellectual and Moral Purpose Still Meet at Catholic Universities

Author: Nathan O. Hatch

Almost three decades ago, fresh out of graduate school, I arrived at the University of Notre Dame to teach early American history. I have lived and worked at the institution since that time, serving as provost for the last decade. It has been quite an unexpected pilgrimage for a Southerner, the son of a Presbyterian minister, and I deeply appreciate the way Notre Dame has extended its welcome to me over the years, taking me seriously as a colleague and fellow laborer in the challenge of building a great university, and one with a distinct religious identity.

My recent decision to become president of Wake Forest University prompts me to step back and reflect on the experience. Taking stock is also timely given the recent death of Pope John Paul II and the election of Pope Benedict XVI, who have both exerted such a powerful influence on world Catholicism and Catholic higher education in America. As long-term professors themselves, both took a keen interest in Catholic universities.

Deciphering life at Notre Dame has been intriguing for a historian who studies church-related higher education. Sometimes the process has been lonely. I recall attending a mass with more than 100 Roman Catholic bishops who were meeting at Notre Dame. As they processed resplendently into the Basilica of the Sacred Heart, vestments flowing and incense wafting, my wife and I took note that we were the only non-Catholics in attendance.

I have also enjoyed rare privileges. In 1998 I visited Rome with the president of Notre Dame, the Rev. Edward A. Malloy. The purpose of the trip was to call on a dozen or so senior Vatican officials, cardinals, and archbishops responsible for various dimensions of the Catholic Church’s ministry: education, finance, the laity, worship, ecumenical affairs, and missions. On our final day in Rome, we were invited to an early-morning mass with Pope John Paul II in his private chapel. Seeing the historic depth and global reach of the church made it the most memorable week of my life.

However, I came home puzzled about one thing that bothers me to this day. It is the mood of distrust that the Vatican expresses toward Catholic higher education in the United States — the 230 institutions that enroll some 600,000 students. Since the publication in 1990 of Ex corde Ecclesiae, Pope John Paul II’s Apostolic Constitution on Catholic Universities, a document designed to shore up the Catholic mission and the authority of local bishops, Vatican officials have decried the state of schools like Boston College, Georgetown University, Notre Dame, Santa Clara University, Seattle University, and Villanova University. In 1996, after years of work, the American bishops adopted norms for applying the document to colleges and universities here — only to have them rejected by the Vatican for not being sufficiently “juridical.” One imagines a stern and worried father lecturing a wayward child, hoping to find some way to regain tighter ecclesiastical control over these institutions, particularly their theologians.

That worried distrust stands in striking contrast to the flourishing experiments in Catholic higher education that I have witnessed at Notre Dame and elsewhere. While I am deeply aware of the struggles and failures of Catholic institutions and of the powerful secular undertow in academic life, what I find remarkable is how creative and intentional these communities have become in renewing their Catholic identity. In part, that may be a reaction to strident critiques from Rome. More important, I think, are the convictions that spring from deep within those institutions to set a course that is faithful to a distinct mission. What Martha C. Nussbaum, a professor of law and ethics at the University of Chicago, concluded about Notre Dame in Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Higher Education (Harvard University Press, 1997) can be said of scores of other Catholic universities: “Drawing on a long Roman Catholic tradition of inquiry and higher education, Notre Dame has constructed a genuinely religious education within a first-rate research university with strong guarantees of academic freedom and a commitment both to Socratic searching and to international study.”

It has been almost 40 years since leading American Catholic universities declared their independence from church control in the Land O’Lakes statement that the Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, then president of Notre Dame, helped to craft in 1967. Predominantly lay boards took ownership and control of Catholic universities, setting a course that included academic freedom for faculty members. Father Hesburgh’s dream of independence sprang from his conviction that Catholic universities in America, as private institutions, could prosper only if they mobilized lay Catholics. His vision was to unleash the energy, resources, and expertise of American Catholics on behalf of a distinctly Catholic higher education — an outcome he thought unlikely under tight ecclesiastical control.

I am convinced that the experiment has been enormously successful. The generosity of American Catholics has propelled many institutions to a competitive academic level, bolstering endowments, facilities, faculty support, and financial aid. Catholics and non-Catholics alike are attracted to these academic communities, where religion is taken seriously and is studied and practiced intelligently. Catholic colleges and universities also manifest tremendous models of collaboration between clerical and lay leadership. Far from losing its soul, Catholic higher education has emerged as a vital influence within the broader American society and the Roman Catholic Church itself.

Even more, Catholic higher education has an important role to play as the United States and other nations face the uncomfortable realities of the 21st century. We live in a curious age: The world seems to be growing more radically secular and more radically religious at the same time. Religion in America is thriving in popular culture and has become a significant wedge issue in politics. Yet in the realms of high culture — in the best universities, in the arts, in literary circles — secular values are the coin of the realm.

In a telling address in 1997 to first-year students at the University of Chicago, John J. Mearsheimer, a distinguished-service professor in the political-science department, suggested that students should expect to gain from their education critical thinking and self-awareness. He then specified two “non-aims” of education at the University of Chicago: truth and morality. Mearsheimer contrasted the current approach with what John D. Rockefeller and William Rainey Harper envisioned in founding the institution in the 1890s: a university permeated by a spirit of religion. “Today,” Mearsheimer said, “elite universities operate on the belief that there is a clear separation between intellectual and moral purpose, and they pursue the former while largely ignoring the latter. There is no question that the University of Chicago makes hardly any effort to provide you with moral guidance.”

By contrast, Catholic universities have not given up the dream of linking intellectual and moral purpose. They provide a middle ground where vital religious traditions can engage modern thought in a climate of academic freedom. As institutions they are committed to a given point of view, are enlivened by a founding religious community, and are typically headed by a scholar who is a priest or by a religious woman.

In addition, Catholic universities welcome a diverse range of faculty members and expect the curriculum to confront students with different ways of thinking. At Notre Dame a student can take courses on medieval life from a committed Thomist, from a staunch feminist, or from a cultural historian whose own point of view is hard to discern. The intellectual crossroads of a Catholic university avoids two extremes: the homogeneity of religious colleges and the relativism of modern universities.

Catholic universities work at building a voluntary community of reflection and engagement. Their campuses are honeycombed with discussions, retreats, and activities that challenge students to renew their faith, to engage critical social problems, and to consider professions for reasons other than self-interest. What is evident is a commitment to the holistic nurturing of students — body, mind, and spirit. If the Roman Catholic Church in America is to retain the loyalty of the next generation of its educated parishioners, particularly young women, one clear reason will be the inviting forms of intellectual exchange, faith, and service they experience in college. Those may be the greatest antidote to the “dictatorship of relativism” that Pope Benedict XVI identified in his last sermon as a cardinal.

The institutional church, I would suggest, has much to learn from Catholic colleges and universities. Bishops and cardinals could discover how to make a faith tradition powerful and enticing for modern young adults. Parishes, for instance, need more occasions for young adults to relate their faith to their professional life and to the questions raised by popular culture. The church could also glean much about how to engage fully the talents and resources of lay leaders. At Notre Dame I witness daily a tremendous model of collaboration between priests and lay persons. Last year, when the university was being reaccredited, it was Father Malloy, the president, and three lay deans who presented to the visiting committee a vision of Notre Dame’s distinct mission as a Catholic university. There is mutual admiration for the critical role that clergy and laity play, and each holds the other accountable.

Catholic universities face stiff challenges if they are to prosper as genuinely Catholic and remain accountable to the highest standards of scholarship. They, too, have much to learn from the church on which their life depends. Most important, they need to find ways to recruit Catholic intellectuals and other faculty members who are committed to the august tradition of “faith seeking understanding.”

For opposite reasons, some secularists and some churchmen disparage the Catholic university as a contradiction in terms. I believe, instead, that it represents a cornerstone of renewal, a place where the church can do its thinking and where young people are still inspired by the ideals of transcendence and compassion that so animated the life of Pope John Paul II. My hope is that Pope Benedict XVI will appreciate these lively experiments and welcome their collaboration in addressing the secularity and relativism that he condemns in today’s world.

Nathan O. Hatch is provost of the University of Notre Dame and will become president of Wake Forest University on July 1.


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