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Boston College used to be called a Jesuit university. Why should we now call it Jesuit and Catholic?
When John Lancaster Spalding, Bishop of Peoria from 1877 to 1908, urged the establishment of Catholic universities in the United States, he argued that only in an “atmosphere of faith and purity, of high thinking and plain living” would young men “become more intimately conscious of the truth of their religion and of the genius of their country.” Spalding represented the best of those thinking aloud on this subject at that time in the United States, yet the universities that were emerging, fortified by his appeals, were generally “custodial” institutions. They transmitted a teaching, the common teaching of the magisterium, and this body of doctrine or creedal affiliation afforded a criterion by which faculty was selected, curriculum chosen, and morals enforced. The purpose of these universities was the formation of faithful, catechetically orthodox Catholics who were good Americans. Counter-positions were permitted within them, but usually more as tokens or as a stimulus to study and refutation than as a serious invitation to the kind of inquiry, conversation, and debate from which Catholic culture could learn and grow.
Those universities and colleges were “Catholic” because their elements were Catholic: Their teachers were clerical, often religious under vows, with Catholic laymen and laywomen added as clerics proved insufficient in number or lacked specialized education; their students were Catholic, frequently from families concerned that the faith of young adults be safeguarded; their textbooks and libraries were vetted, often ecclesiastically censored.
The Church in the United States stands deeply indebted to those early institutions. At their best, they transmitted the books, tradition, spirit, and culture of generations richer than their own. A fatal internal contradiction, however, eventually emerged in many of the custodial universities. Dogmatic commitments were read as if in tension with the defining orientation of the university toward open, free discussion and unhampered research and argument in a setting where all forms of human knowledge and serious opinion have a place. It is this tension that Catholic educators have attempted to negotiate over the past 50 years—sometimes at great personal cost and misunderstanding.
The attempt has led to the significant, even revolutionary changes in Catholic higher education that followed Vatican II and has registered a massive influence upon the universal Church. It has also occasioned polemics and accusations of betrayal and cowardice. It has led to widespread charges that Jesuit and other Catholic universities have ceased to be emphatically Catholic. For the Holy Cross theologian James Tunstead Burtchael, CSC, it marks “the dying of the light.” In response, counter-institutions have been established, notably Christendom College in Virginia, Thomas Aquinas in California, Magdalen in New Hampshire, and the only new Catholic university opened in recent years, Ave Maria University in south Florida.
Perhaps also in response, Jesuit universities have begun increasingly to describe themselves as “Jesuit, Catholic universities.” Loyola University of Chicago, for example, maintains in its statement of mission that it is a Jesuit Catholic university, “seeking God in all things and working to expand knowledge in the service of humanity through learning, justice and faith.” Boston College in its mission statement, written in 1996, holds that “as a Catholic and Jesuit university, it is rooted in a world view that encounters God in all creation and through all human activity, especially in the search for truth in every discipline, in the desire to learn, and in the call to live justly together.” There are two novelties in such statements that bear attending to: the explicit introduction of “Catholic” into prose where, it seems to me, “Jesuit” once sufficed; and the immediate emphasis that follows, on diversity and academic excellence—as if these might be read to be in some danger because of the universities’ Catholic identity.
It is generally admitted that the academic quality of Jesuit universities and colleges has significantly improved in the past half-century, placing some of them among the very best universities in the nation and many more high in the ranks of solid educational institutions. These days, Jesuit universities are under serious attack, not for their academic standing, but with respect to their credibility as Catholic institutions. And so they have responded now with explicit insistence upon their Catholic character. Google the phrases “Catholic Jesuit” and “Jesuit Catholic,” and nearly 140,000 links appear.
But can a Jesuit university be expressly Catholic without returning to the custodial template of the past? Must it admit that a true university can no more be “Catholic” than a chemistry department? I would argue that the university can claim and foster a profoundly Catholic character, but only by articulating a renewed sense of what it means to be a Catholic institution of higher learning. The universities now engaged in this undertaking are attempting to formulate an institution that has never existed in the history of the Church: a Catholic university inclusive of the diversity of religious, social, and political understandings that mark both American culture and the range proper to a university.
In this endeavor, Catholic universities start out with certain advantages—common factors that endow and continue to nourish their character and that cause this renewed formulation to be an organic one. I refer to four major influences: (1) the community out of which the Catholic university comes and by which it is sustained; (2) the purpose that it is to serve; (3) the spirit and structures that inform it; and (4) the presence of Catholic tradition, reflection, and mores among its most significant components. Let me say just a word about each.
To begin with, the Catholic university in America clearly came out of and is supported by the Catholic community, which, according to the teaching of the Second Vatican Council, must “strive to relate all human culture eventually to the news of salvation.” Notice that the Church is to be concerned with “all human culture,” all modes of discourse and thought and professional life, no matter how varied and contradictory. The Catholic university is part of this common concern of the Church and its members, effective through the advancement of knowledge (research) and the educational development of its students (teaching). It is the instrument through which the Church enters reflectively and with some depth into its relationship with culture. For this reason, John Paul II wrote that the Catholic university is “born from the heart of the Church.”
I would push this notion further. I would contend that the Catholic university is part of the universal Church, one of the manifest subcommunities in which the Church visibly exists. The Catholic university is as much a Catholic community in its own unique, pluralistic way as is the parish, the monastery, the hospital, the family, a communidad de base, the pontifical Academy of Sciences, the Vatican Observatory, a diocese. These Catholic communities differ radically among themselves; each has its respective membership, constitution, government, origins, urgency, and purpose. But each in its own way is part of the body of the universal Church.
Second, the Catholic university is Catholic because its purpose includes not only the education and research commitments mentioned above, but because it has made a deliberate determination to render to the Church a forum where, in utter academic freedom, the variant lines of Catholic tradition and thought can intersect with the most complex challenges, contradictions, and reinforcements of contemporary thought, moving toward a unity of meaning and coherence in which all things are assimilated into Christ. No other institution can render this critically important contribution to the Christian community as a whole. Without it, the commitments of faith disintegrate into sectarian polemics whose only strength lies in their isolation.
Third, a university is Catholic not only in its source and purpose, but also in the spirit and activity that mark and energize it. Formative education, academic exchange, and collaborative inquiry constitute the fundamental activity of any university. But to the degree that a university’s life is permeated by love for the truth to be explored, for the students and faculty who are to assimilate and advance such truth, and for the world they are called upon to serve—and to the extent that such love bespeaks the influence of Christ and the Church—you have a Catholic university in fact as well as in protestation. Informing the academic atmosphere should be such markers of a Catholic spirit as a pervasive commitment to social justice, the richness of the campus’s liturgical life and retreat programs, and so on. The only spirit that can ultimately specify any community as Christian is charity, that love of friendship for God that embodies the influence and teaching of Christ and that binds women and men to one another. In a Catholic university, this comes to a love for the truth and for human beings that they possess so great a good. Ignatius of Loyola understood this. In almost the first lines of his treatment of universities, he speaks of Jesuit universities as being initiated from the “motive of charity.”
Fourth, there is the indispensable presence—strong and influential, but not exclusive—of Catholic intellectuals, those who understand the Church in her tradition and teaching and who have found faith to be an illumination and entrance to wisdom. They are the ones through whom the many different Christian philosophies and theologies whose inspiration is the manifestation of God in Christ reach out to contact another world whose inspiration is other, but whose commitment to dialogue is no less real. This dialogue constitutes much of the life of a vital Catholic university. Without Catholic scholars, intellectuals, professors, and a corresponding core curriculum, the Catholic identity will inevitably fail—living on only in the catalogues and official pronouncements of the university after the faculty has long since ceased to espouse the vision.
The presence of Catholic intellectuals is obviously necessary and urgent, but not sufficient. Essential is the presence on the faculty of members of other traditions, both religious and humanistic. They should find in the Catholic university a strong support for the religious and humanistic values they represent, a support they might not find in any number of other academic institutions. Gaudium et spes (1965), the pastoral constitution on the Church in the modern world, states that whatever is human enters with peculiar efficacy into the concerns of the Church. And the Church adds its own religious sense of urgency to those values that engage all human desire and longing.
For this reason, members of the faculty who represent a learned tradition other than Catholic should never find themselves alien within this world. The diversity of traditions and philosophies they represent is essential for the university, necessary so that the university be a university and universal human culture be present and in the discussion—precisely because the university is Catholic as well as a university. The vitality of Catholic intellectualism should manifest itself in its ability to recognize and reverence in other traditions and cultures the humane and religious values that are there, while those who represent these values should find themselves supported even more strongly as this culture conjoins, to an educated sensibility and moral development, an additional religious inspiration. It can be legitimately hoped, even expected, that all faculty will find the values they love strongly affirmed in a Catholic university and that whatever disagreements arise can provide the incentive for discussion and a common search for truth.
I would go further and contend that the Church’s concerns allow and even push a Catholic university to be more of a university precisely because of the presence and influence of the Church—that is, if this does not corrupt into sectarianism. Why? Because the Church insists upon the humane questions that a contemporary secular culture can brand as “religious” and so exclude from serious academic attention.
We learn something, for example, of the meaning of life from Tolstoy: the great stretches of its promise and beauty, the pathos of its young loves and misunderstandings, the sorrows of its partings and betrayals. We also learn cumulatively something about human life and death from research in anatomy and physiology, genetics and neurophysiology; we see something of ourselves in the self-replication of DNA and the evolution of the species through natural selection. We learn also about life and death from scholarship in political science and economics: from the historical study of the interactions of nation-states, the massive motivational and practical issues engaged by war and peace, the relationship between interest rates and inflation, between a free market economy and globalization, between welfare and the possibilities of a humane life for the poor. But as one comes to appreciate and love human life in the thousand ways in which it is exhibited in the many disciplines in which it is studied, one can be agonizingly troubled—touched—by its extinction: the death of those we love and the prospect of our own death, the annihilation of vast numbers of human beings in Darfur and Auschwitz, the massive slaughter of innocents in an abortion culture. As we study human life in its manifold richness, the question naturally arises about death: Is this all that there is to human life? Is each of life’s forms simply awaiting its end? The question is inevitable, especially as we come to love life more deeply.
At a university, the ultimate question about human life and death can be handled in many ways: You can say, the question has no meaning and is out of place in a world of serious scholarship—go see your pastor. You can say that this is a very important question, but it can’t be handled by the academic disciplines that prompt it—not by literature, history, economics, sociology, or any of the other such studies out of which it emerges. Every academic discipline raises questions that ultimately transcend it. Alternatively, you can reduce the human problematic to a question of biology or anthropology, chemistry or psychology—as the subject matter of these sciences is made comprehensive of all life. Or you can say: This is indeed a very important question, and it cannot be handled simply by the courses or the academic culture that provoke it; but there are disciplined patterns of inquiry that grow out of such questions, philosophy and theology, that give this inquiry careful attention.
I do not think it inaccurate or unfair to suggest that the contemporary secular university takes the first path. The question is perceived to be “religious” and so its claims about meaning, about truth and falsity, are dismissed as not part of the culture of higher education. On the other hand, Catholic higher education does explore the meaning of human life, through reflection upon the reality of Christ that we call theological and the myriad disciplines that constitute religious and philosophical studies. Wherever Catholic scholarship is extensive and coherent in its influence, it brings life’s promise and beauty, pathos and sorrow, intricate structures and biological drives, massive disagreements and debates about political interactions and economic forces to a coordinate set of philosophical and theological studies—metaphysics, religion, history of ideas, theology—that integrate what it means to hear the great promise of the Gospel: “I have come that they might have life and have it more abundantly.” As part of a coherent education, the concerns of the Church insistently raise issues that entail metaphysics, religion, history of ideas, and theology. They very much have their place within a Catholic university.
This contribution belongs to the life of a Catholic university. Why do I insist upon the qualification “Catholic”? Because this indicates, as honestly as possible, the course and supporting context of the university, its mission, purpose, and spirit, the texture and range of its concerns. All of these conspire to make it a great place for education, research, and debate and for serious conversations about things that matter.
Michael J. Buckley, SJ, is the Bea Professor of Theology at Santa Clara University. His essay is drawn from a talk he gave at a meeting of Boston College’s Board of Trustees in September 2006, and from his book The Catholic University as Promise and Project: Reflections in a Jesuit Idiom (1998).