Are Catholic Schools are Emphasizing Worldly Success Over Holiness and Sound Doctrine
by Fr. David Vincent Meconi, SJ: Was it not William F. Buckley who famously quipped that he would rather be governed by the first 2,000 people in the Manhattan phone book than the entire faculty of Harvard? When my buddies and I were in graduate school, we used to debate kiddingly whether the initials Ph.D. stood more accurately for “psychologically disturbed” or for “probably heavy debt.” And there was always “post-hole digger” which, by the way, is how many of my friends made it through financially. With a glut of graduate degrees in every conceivable field—from an M.A. in the “Department of Sexuality Studies” at (where else?) San Francisco State University, to the Ph.D. in “Decision Sciences” at Indiana University—the Master’s and Doctoral degree have replaced the Bachelor’s as today’s distinguishing academic mark. In such a world we can often put too much trust in titles, and be intimidated by someone’s pedigree. These days, let’s face it, if one has enough money and will-power (with a little docility thrown in), it’s possible to lumber on at most places to obtain a terminal degree.
Catholic colleges and universities have the special responsibility of ensuring that a young person is at least exposed to the great minds, texts, and art of the human community. That is, Catholic centers of learning must constantly fight against the temptation to reduce undergraduate studies to merely the utilitarian, to rudimentary skills sufficient to land a job only. Of course we want our students to be successful in the world, but if we are not even more desirous of turning out people thirsty for holiness, we have failed them.
If this sounds outlandish, remember that today’s university is the evolutionary result of western monastic houses and cathedral schools. Like hospitals, orphanages, and soup kitchens, centers of higher learning have come out of a unique Catholic way of living in this world. Intellectual and charitable pursuits have always gone together in this Christian worldview that understands the human person to be both body and soul, which understands God to be both human and divine. In such a world, truth is thus pursued by both faith and reason, experienced as both the result of one’s own discoveries, as well as the trust that some truths simply transcend my own limited understanding. Keeping all these contraries in a healthy tension demands wisdom, prayer, and daily discipline. Minus that healthy tension, you see such examples as fideists who all too easily reduce all reality to dogmatic statements (thereby ridiculing human experience or opinion); while rationalists won’t assent to anything they haven’t first figured out on their own (thus dismissing any external authority or tradition). What we most certainly can’t do is reduce this precious time of college and university to simply landing a job and, along the way, learn how to eschew the higher things. (“I promise you, folks can make a lot more money, potentially, with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree”—Barack Obama, January 30, 2014, in Wisconsin).
This past month, I was invited to participate in a colloquium with theologians and bishops from all around the United States. We met on the campus of Catholic University of America to discuss “The Role of the Catholic University or College in the New Evangelization.” Such dialogue is heartening, and it is always good to have bishops and theologians discuss the various ways they come to see and express the life and ways of Christ. It was humbling to be surrounded by such bright lights, and only confirmed my belief that we have many good and thoughtful people looking out for the state of theological discourse on our college campuses. Not all places are as robustly orthodox as one might want, not all places can account for every professor’s Catholic or even Christian orthodoxy. But the days of outright heresy, and simply trying to “out-fad” the latest shocking theological headline, seem to me to be a lot less obvious.
Taking special care for our schools in this country began back in 1949 when members of the Vatican Congregation on Catholic Education met with the fledgling IFCU, the International Federation of Catholic Universities. This discussion was partially captured in Vatican II’s Declaration on Christian Education (Gravissimum Educationis), §10-12, but came to its crescendo in 1990, with John Paul II’s Apostolic Exhortation, Ex Corde Ecclesiae (From the Heart of the Church). I wonder what is being done about implementing Ex Corde, and am trying to exhort colleagues to take seriously the vision it lays out. It is not a document that stifles academic research or expression; it is a document that simply wants to allow Catholic schools to be, well, Catholic. It is a call toward greater freedom, not paralysis. In my opinion, the most important paragraphs in Ex Corde come in Section 2, article 4, where the Holy Father lays out the Church’s vision of “The University Community”. In the 5 paragraphs that follow, we read that:
§ 1. The responsibility for maintaining and strengthening the Catholic identity of the University rests primarily with the University itself. While this responsibility is entrusted principally to university authorities (including, when the positions exist, the Chancellor and/or a Board of Trustees or equivalent body), it is shared in varying degrees by all members of the university community, and therefore calls for the recruitment of adequate university personnel, especially teachers and administrators, who are both willing and able to promote that identity…
§ 2. All teachers and all administrators, at the time of their appointment, are to be informed about the Catholic identity of the Institution and its implications, and about their responsibility to promote, or at least to respect, that identity.
§ 3. In ways appropriate to the different academic disciplines, all Catholic teachers are to be faithful to, and all other teachers are to respect, Catholic doctrine and morals in their research and teaching. In particular, Catholic theologians, aware that they fulfill a mandate received from the Church, are to be faithful to the Magisterium of the Church as the authentic interpreter of Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition.
§ 4. Those university teachers and administrators who belong to other Churches, ecclesial communities, or religions, as well as those who profess no religious belief, and also all students, are to recognize and respect the distinctive Catholic identity of the University. In order not to endanger the Catholic identity of the University or Institute of Higher Studies, the number of non-Catholic teachers should not be allowed to constitute a majority within the Institution, which is and must remain Catholic.
§ 5. The education of students is to combine academic and professional development with formation in moral and religious principles and the social teachings of the Church; the program of studies for each of the various professions is to include an appropriate ethical formation in that profession. Courses in Catholic doctrine are to be made available to all students.
John Paul II thus insists that a place be, if not completely in line with Catholic faith and morals, at least, all who are employed there are “respectful” in allowing those truths to unfold and, hopefully, take root in the lives of students. For a wonderful analysis of this, see Dr. Cunningham’s piece in February, 2014’s HPR: http://www.hprweb.com/2014/02/observations-on-ex-corde-ecclesiae-and-its-fitful-implementation/).
St. Paul exhorts each of us not to be conformed “to this age but to be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and pleasing and perfect” (Rom 12:2). As the sounds of summer and the end of the school year are beginning to be heard; and, as our bishops are gathering to think about ways to improve Catholic higher education; and again, as each of us asks God to renew our minds so we do not become children of our age, we should pray and work for the best state of Catholic schools and colleges in this country. Jesus Christ is the greatest Gift we could ever receive or give, and he deserves the brightest and most beautiful expression of love in return. This can be done only when minds and hearts, hands and heads, work together to manifest the Lord to all who seek him.
Fr. David Meconi, S.J. is professor of patristic theology at St. Louis University and editor of the Homiletic and Pastoral Review (HPR). Fr. Meconi would like you to know that he offers Mass each month for readers of HPR; please be assured of his prayers for you.