The Idea of a Catholic University

November 29, 2011

Writes the Rev. Gregory Kalscheur, an associate professor at Boston College Law School, this morning in Inside Higher Ed:

For Christians, the dialogue between faith and culture is as old as their earliest efforts to articulate what it means to be a distinctive faith community. As the Christian way moved beyond its original Jewish communities, attracted Gentile converts, and spread across the Roman world and beyond, a Christian intellectual tradition developed, which was the product of a continuous dialogue between faith and cultures.

This dialogue reflected two essential characteristics of the Christian, and especially the Catholic, understanding of human experience: that faith necessarily seeks understanding, and that all intellectual inquiry leads eventually to questions of ultimacy that invite faith responses.

Kalscheur is urging Roman Catholic colleges and universities to reaffirm and revitalize their engagement with the Catholic intellectual tradition.  He sees evidence that Catholic institutions are doing more to affirm their Catholic identity in recent years, but worries that this is happening outside the classroom, and skirting issues involving the dialogue between faith and reason.

In the idea of a Quaker college, a convocation address I gave at Earlham College in August 2000, I addressed issues around the dialogue between faith and reason in a Quaker context.

What’s the difference between a Catholic and a Quaker college in this respect?  Quakers are (for the most part) non-creedal.  They resist gathering up what they believe into authoritative statements of belief or doctrine.  Quakers put the emphasis on seeking truth.  In seeking the truth, Quaker scholar-teachers do not have to worry about saying something that disagrees with or diverges from “orthodox” Quaker teachings.  (Or at least that’s the hope: there certainly have been instances when professors at Quaker colleges have said or written things that have been declared offensive — out of bounds — by other Quakers.)

Roman Catholics, on the other hand, have developed a rich body of doctrine and authoritative statement of belief. Truth-seeking in this context runs the risk of taking a scholar-teacher (or a student) to conclusions that disagree with authoritative teachings of the Church.  Then what?

Kalscheur references Ex Corde Ecclesiae, in which John Paul II said that the special legacy of a Roman Catholic university “is distinguished by its free search for the whole truth about nature, man, and God.” It was one thing for a Pope to call for free search for the whole truth when all the whole known intellectual world was embraced within a Catholic frame, and quite another when, as today, most of the search for truth in the academy proceeds in a way that takes no account of Catholic positions or teachings.

Kalscheur’s principal urging is for Roman Catholic universities to “integrate their 2000-year intellectual legacy into the academic life of their campuses.”  There is a tension here between unfettered truth-seeking on the one hand and engagement with the 2000-year intellectual legacy on the other.  That tension is more severe when the church’s intellectual legacy is no longer the main stage of world-wide intellectual inquiry.

Kalscheur acknowledges the tension.

Over the long history of the tradition, there have been times when the dialogue between faith and reason has been difficult — times when Church teaching and secular scholarly research have stood in tension.  During such times, the tradition, at its best, has urged more careful inquiry on both sides…

He references Cardinal John Henry Newman’s confidence that unity between faith and reason will be found.  But Newman wrote a century and a half ago, and his view appeared nostalgic just a few years after he wrote it.

I agree with Kalscheur that we need a fresh address to the predicament of squaring faith and reason, but I do not see that Kalscheur offers any fresh insight into the problem.

About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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