Be Prepared to Give an Account:
Todayís Catholic Mission in Higher Education
An address by Archbishop Francis George of Chicago
at Georgetown University in Washington, DC, October 20, 1997.

I am grateful to President O'Donovan and to Dean Douglass for the invitation to participate in Georgetown University's lecture series, "Centered Pluralism," and to address the topic, "The Catholic Mission in Higher Education." I accepted with the hope that I might contribute in some manner to a conversation already far advanced on the mission of Catholic universities in this country. I join that conversation not as someone who spent a few, very happy years teaching in a Jesuit university nor even as a former card-carrying member of the American Association of University Professors; rather, I speak as a bishop of the Catholic Church, head of a local Church fortunate enough to count among its major Catholic institutions a number of excellent colleges and universities, including a Jesuit university.

In any conversation, it is as important to spell out presuppositions as it is to make propositions. My first presupposition is carried by the possessive pronoun "its" in the second last sentence above. The Church's mission today in higher education is carried principally and most visibly, although not exclusively, by Catholic universities. There are Newman centers and other Catholic institutions on secular campuses, but a mission in higher education must imply and embrace research and teaching. There are seminaries, with many faculty members who would qualify as professors in any university in this country; but they are seen as institutions whose principal mission is one of professional development and spiritual training of seminarians rather than higher education as such. There are Catholic scholars and teachers in private and state institutions in no way related to the Catholic Church. These professors' mission flows, of course, from their baptism; but it is not exercised in a context where the term "Catholic" carries anything but a personal commitment on their part.

Our conversation this evening presupposes that there are universities, Georgetown among them, which identify themselves as institutionally Catholic and who are now examining what that self-identification must mean. If the transfer in the last generation of a large number of Catholic universities to lay ownership means that they are now secular universities, which is sometimes argued by people both within Catholic universities and others outside them, then I would respectfully thank you for supper and ask to be excused. There is no point in continuing this conversation, and I would ask you to begin a different public conversation about the consequences for the Church and the erstwhile Catholic universities themselves of their having been secularized. I am presupposing here, however, that the Church indeed has universities, not in the sense that she has parishes or members, but in the sense that her mission, which is that of Jesus Christ, is somehow institutionally carried by them in the realm of higher education in this country.

Exploring that "somehow" brings us into a complex and unique situation. In the United States, the Catholic Church has organized her ministries of healing, caring, and teaching in institutions of health care, social services, and education which are unparalleled in Church history. Positively, besides the Church's healing, serving, and teaching people in Jesus' name, these institutions allow the Church and her members to be actors of importance in each of these areas, able to influence to some extent public discourse and public policy. Negatively, it can be argued that the Church has been coopted by merely replicating patterns of institutionalization that are not her own, not totally consistent with an ethos born of faith. Parallel institutions are judged to be not only "in" the world, as they must be, but are now "of"' the world in a way that leaves them unable to foster Christ's mission to the world. The status of Catholic hospitals and health care delivery systems, of Catholic charities and social services therefore creates, in part, the context of tonight's conversation on the Catholic mission in higher education, at least in my own mind. Bishops are involved, as are sponsoring religious orders and congregations, in different ways, in conversations about all these institutions.

The fact of Catholic universities' being truly and rightfully in the world is being examined now in the light of a renewed sense of the Church's teaching mission to the world and with a certain urgency because of the history of religiously sponsored universities in this country. Often enough in recent years it has been pointed out to Catholics that Harvard University's original seal surrounded the word Veritas by pro Christo et Ecclesia. What happened? The history of the relationship of Congregationalism and then Unitarianism, to higher education is less germane to our conversation tonight than is the increased involvement after the Second World War of government and business in higher education. Their involvement has been intensified by the desire of free market enterprise for the knowledge needed to fuel global scientific and technological expansion. Government and business entered into a type of unwritten affiliation with higher education. Foundations were created, often the charitable consequences of entrepreneurial success, and they had and have the ability to funnel significant funds into the world of higher education. The purposes of government, of business and charitable foundations are most often secular, and dependency upon them for growth and even survival inevitably has had a secularizing influence on the universities themselves. In the light of this history, the protestations of academic virginity which are regularly trotted out in discussions between university personnel and bishops, the cries that any official Church influence would inevitably tarnish the pristine purity of the university, ring, I must confess, somewhat hollow in my perhaps too cynical ears.

In this recent historical context, discussions between university and church officials are marked also by significant documents. The Land O'Lakes Statement of 1967, called for the autonomy of the Catholic university and a sense of academic freedom no different from that of secular universities. In 1972, a document similar in its argument, "The Catholic University in the Modern World," was approved by the International Federation of Catholic Universities. It would be fair, I believe, to say that these documents called for a "mitigated secularization" of Catholic higher education. While retaining their Catholic identity, those institutions that followed the direction given by these documents were separated from their juridic attachment to the Church.

Directed and, in some instances, even owned by lay boards, such schools had a largely moral or spiritual relationship with the Church and to the charism of the sponsoring religious congregation that had founded them.

At the same time, the bishops of the Church were engaged in their own reflections on the Church's mission to teach and on the ministry of higher education. In 1966, the Second Vatican Council passed its Declaration on Education, Gravissimum educationis; in 1979, the apostolic constitution Sapientia Christiana was issued for ecclesiastical faculties; and in 1980, the bishops of the United States wrote a pastoral letter called, "Catholic Higher Education and the Pastoral Mission of the Church." In 1985, the Holy See's Congregation for Catholic Education initiated a formal consultation on a draft schema for a papal document on Catholic universities. After extensive consultation amid several other drafts, Ex Corde Ecclesiae was issued in September of 1990. In response to this document, the bishops and Catholic university presidents in the United States have been talking about the ordinances that apply the general norms of Ex Corde to the educational situation in this country. These conversations have vastly improved the level of trust and communication between the U.S. bishops and the university presidents, but they have left untouched relations between bishops and boards and bishops and faculty.

Although I have not been an active participant in these discussions, it seems they have arrived at the outlines of what might be described as a broad external consensus on the nature and mission of Catholic higher education. The four essential characteristics of "every Catholic institution, as Catholic," in Ex Corde are, in fact, taken directly from the 1972 statement of the International Federation of Catholic Universities, they are:

    1. A Christian inspiration not only of individuals but of the university community as such.

    2. A continuing reflection in the light of the Catholic faith upon the growing treasury of human knowledge, to which the university seeks to contribute by its own research.

    3. Fidelity to the Christian message as it comes to us through the Church.

    4. An institutional commitment to the service of the people of God and of the human family in their pilgrimage to the transcendent goal which gives meaning to life.

I believe that most bishops and presidents support these proposals as a description of the Catholic university from outside their own institution. This consensus is encouraging. But when application of them is to shape the interior life of our colleges and universities, the conversation becomes both necessary and increasingly difficult of resolution.

Conversation now is necessary not simply because of internal pressure from the Holy See but because the arrangements of the last thirty years are proving to be unstable. It is ever clearer that the religious communities which had remained present as members of administration and faculty and served as the bearers of institutional memory and purpose after the disengagements of the 70s are a diminishing presence in the 90s. Students are also changing. In some universities, especially in graduate schools, most students are not Catholic. Even where Catholic students are a majority, many do not bring a Catholic mindset or Catholic ethos to the campus. Their faith might be Catholic, but it is inchoate and not intentional. There are also groups of students on Catholic university campuses who want a much clearer Catholic institutional identity. Many faculty, hired without much attention to their supposedly embracing and participating in a Catholic mission, are bemused by the discussion and others are apprehensive. As new faculty replace those who negotiated the "mitigated secularization" of the last generation, some take a fresh look at the current situation and ask whether the price of engagement with the world on terms set by government, business, and the foundations has been perhaps too great.

Catholic identity projects and papers like your Centered Pluralism document elicit some excellent responses and create a climate where lectures such as this are acceptable, but the feeling remains in many Catholic universities that the center isn't holding. Authoritarian interventions, whether from outside the academy or by the university authorities themselves, will create resistance which can only make matters worse; but without a vision in continuity with that of the founders, major Catholic universities risk further reducing pluralism in American higher education by becoming like so many of their academic partners: high-class trade schools. It is a good thing to be a high-class trade school, providing job training for sophisticated professionals who want to live at the service of others. But such universities are without a coherent vision other than that given by the various disciplines and professions which constitute their departments and schools; and education without an integrating vision is not Catholic. 

Resolving the tensions of the present moment in this historical context is made more difficult by some of the only partially examined presuppositions of academic culture, particularly those presuppositions which are anti-ecclesial. A constant presupposition in the conversation about the Catholic mission in higher education today holds that reason itself can be enlightened by faith, that the medievals were insightful when they declared, Credo ut intelligam. If this presupposition cedes to another that faith is inevitably the enemy of reason, our conversation tonight will be silenced. Few in a Catholic university might state baldly that faith destroys reason, but there is a logic of institutions which carries assumptions not always made explicit but still powerful in shaping a conversation. As a social milieu, the university, like any other institution, both shapes and limits intellectual inquiry. Do university structures themselves tend to push to the side any integrating vision, especially one based on faith?

The dominant feature of the contemporary university's organization is the department devoted to a particular discipline. It makes specialization possible and controls the reward system for professors and students. From time to time, regrets about the absence of a common vision for the university or of genuinely interdisciplinary thinking prompt the establishment of a course of study in a field rather than in a discipline, but fields are not often taken seriously. Advancement in the university milieu is not possible except within the departmental reward system. Requirements for courses and degrees are the moats defending the departmental castle, the forts protecting the discipline's turf. Talking across disciplines often means bargaining about how large a chunk of a much-diminished core curriculum can be captured by each department.

Conversation about what reason itself might require an educated person to know is rare. Rarer still, outside a Catholic university, is talk about what reason open to enlightenment by faith might suggest about education.

Further, the social structure of the university not only defends interests; it also canonizes values. It insists, for example, that dogmatism stifles truth, but it will not acknowledge that pluralism can obscure truth. Its primary value, since the Age of Enlightenment, is Cartesian doubt masquerading as critical intelligence. Its founding myth is that of the solitary and courageous intellectual taking on obscurantist and authoritarian systems of all sorts.

In this milieu, there is silence about ultimates, unless they can be treated as the foundations of academic disciplines or traced to private choices. Pluralism as an ideal makes even academics hesitate to speak in what could be labeled divisive ways or ways contrary to the spirit of completely open-ended discourse. Faith then, of course, is no longer the basis of life but something added to it. Reason becomes so narrowly conceived that dialogue with faith is difficult and enlightenment by faith nearly impossible. If, because a university is Catholic in its foundation and heritage, dialogue with faith remains something to be pursued, the logic of the modern university responds with a department of theology. The professional theologians who staff this department might very well admit that theology draws on faith for its data and that faith is intrinsically related to the Church's teaching authority, but even the presence of such a clear-headed department leaves moot the question of how an entire university might draw on faith for illumination. And if, alas, the theology department thinks of achieving parity of academic prestige with other departments by disavowing any connection between its discipline and the community of faith, then it becomes even less useful as a primary carrier of the Catholic university's mission in higher education.

Historically among the liberal arts, and even in the Jesuit ratio studiorum, the study of theology has integrated the Catholic university's curriculum and has played the role in the Catholic university that philosophy was to play in Plato's Republic: by giving access to knowledge of the highest sort, it integrates thought and speech and life by providing all of these architectonically in the sources or natures of things. Classically, freedom in the academic republic was to preserve not an individual professor's freedom of self-expression but the discipline itself which, in preserving the truth of things, makes our personal freedom possible. In contrast to philosophy, poetry is banished from the Republic because it has no standards. Poetic speech is always innovative. This is not without personal benefit, of course, but it cannot integrate, cannot govern. For the sake of generating discussion by making an outrageous statement, I would suggest that when theology becomes religious studies, it transforms itself, in Plato's scheme of things, from philosophy to poetry. The study of religious literature of all sorts and the examination of one's religious experience are not without personal benefit, of course, but they cannot integrate a course of study and have no particular claim to inclusion in a Catholic university's core curriculum.

Reviewing the contemporary conversation about the Church's mission in higher education with some of its institutional and cultural presuppositions has, I hope, cleared enough conceptual space to insert a proposal which is obvious, I believe, but which has not been much pursued. The proposal is that clarity about the Catholic university's mission cannot be achieved without going behind university and Church and asking first about the claims of faith. The normal understanding of faith, any revealed faith, is that it unites us to God. Examining the claims of faith on an academic community identifying itself as Catholic forces us, first of all, to confess what kind of God we believe in and worship.

All of us in this country live in the shadow of a Puritan god. A Puritan god is very clear about right and wrong and declares his will in Scripture read as a code. A Puritan god does not, however, distinguish very clearly between a person and his or her actions. If the action is wrong, the person acting is bad. A Puritan god can give jaws and, perhaps, create a society, but a Puritan god cannot create an authentically human culture. A university which worships a Puritan god will have a clear organizational structure and laws and insurance to cover every contingency, but it will not be a place where faith becomes culture, as Ex Corde Ecclesiae says a Catholic university should be. It will never be a place where the ethos of faith outlines directions which do not have to be legally negotiated and are not resented as intrusions on individual or institutional autonomy because they are simply second nature to believers.

The Puritan god's brother (or sister) is a therapeutic god. The therapeutic god also has a hard time distinguishing between a person and his or her actions and, therefore, never condemns an action for fear of hurting a person. The therapeutic god is the reverse image of the Puritan god and, in accepting everyone and everything, has no sense of discrimination and no personality of his or her own. A university which worships a therapeutic god cannot create a dialogue between faith and culture, nor between faith and anything, because Faith in such a god has no proper configuration. Urging everyone to openness exhausts all of this god's resources.

The Catholic God is the Father of Our Lord, Jesus Christ. God is an agent, an actor in human affairs who calls us to see the university and the world and all its works through the eyes of a crucified Savior; faith is a vision, a way of seeing things. St. Paul asks with the prophet Isaiah: "For who has known the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?" And he answers Isaiah's and his question: But we have the mind of Christ ( noun Christou exomen) (I Cor 2: 16). A mind, a nous, a vision of things makes truth claims, but its warrants and rules of evidence are different from those for physics. The truths are always self-referential, but, in Catholic faith, referential to the community and not to isolated individuals who just happen to be within it. Christ, whom John portrays claiming to be himself the truth, left not a set of personal memoirs nor a training manual but a community with an embryonic governing and teaching and sanctifying structure which Vatican II describes as a hierarchical communion. A university which worships the Catholic God cannot separate itself from the community of faith, both local and universal. Therefore, squarely within the Catholic vision of things, central to the life and mission of the ecclesial faith community, is the office of bishop as head of a local or particular Church and teacher of the Catholic faith. I would respectfully suggest, therefore, that the office of bishop is not a problem in understanding the Catholic mission in higher education; rather, the office of bishop is part of the solution.

This is an impossible claim if there is no objective truth that is knowable to us, relates us to one another and provides a basis for the building of community. Knowledge, in the vision of faith, is an aspect, a dimension of being a human person with a destiny, and its purpose is to make possible the transformation of someone into a person of virtue and character. By contrast, contemporary secular understandings of knowledge would entertain great skepticism about personal truth being able to be objective and knowable by all humanity. Relativism and nominalism in human affairs are an unnecessary but too frequent consequence of respect for the truths of the hard sciences. Relativism and nominalism in human affairs are perhaps an inevitable consequence of treating data relevant to a particular field of study as property, capable of being put to any use by its owner.

How, then, is the bishop necessarily within the Catholic university? How does he contribute to understanding how Catholic universities carry the Church's mission in higher education? The bishop is in the Catholic university neither as a watchdog nor an academic lawgiver; not primarily as a healer or caregiver nor even as a point of reference for the chaplainís office; not as a teacher of theology, unless he happens also to have an academic appointment, and not as just one more member of the Board. The bishop is within the Catholic university as teacher of the faith.

This claim presupposes that there is a distinction between faith and any particular theological formulation which gives it voice. While every expression of the faith is theological, the sensus fidei distinguishes between those theological theses and directions which are useful in expressing the faith authentically and those which betray it. The Magisterium judges theological opinions in the light of the certitude of faith. The distinction between faith and theology is itself a matter for theological reflection; but the ability to draw the distinction makes it possible to bring the bishop into the university as a teacher without his being a professor in any particular department.

How should this relationship between the bishop as teacher of the Catholic faith and the Catholic university community be formalized? The Church is not a tyranny; she is ruled by her own law and in the context of the civil law of each country. The proper legal formulation to support the relationship between the faith community and its universities is now being discussed elsewhere, and I do not want to prejudice those discussions in any way by making suggestions here.

There are, however, ways of being present as a teacher which do not depend directly upon legal formulas. A regular episcopal sermon in the university Church would bring the bishop's teaching magisterium into the heart of the university. Structured discussions with the students about their beliefs and with the faculty about their sense of mission would acknowledge the bishop's role as head of the local faith community and bring what could be an invigorating addition to both the bishop's and the university's life. Since the mission of the university is carried primarily by the faculty, contact between faculty and bishop, structured availability of the bishop to the faculty in other than purely social or ceremonial fora would seem to be crucial. Parents and students themselves come to a Catholic university with a justified expectation that here, among the teaching faculty, there will be many professors in whom the personal dialogue between faith and reason has created a mind free because subservient to the truth. If the U.S. bishops formed a kind of accrediting association, which is as American as apple pie and a tool for many disciplines and professions, such an association could be useful to a local bishop in fulfilling his responsibilities to a Catholic university in the diocese he serves and could help the university itself find direction in its sense of mission. It could also, in an ongoing and non-confrontational way, bring the university into conversation with the body that defines the content of the word "Catholic" and gives any institution the right to use the name.

Finally, the mission of the Church has, in its heart, the desire to evangelize, to share the truths of the Gospel as widely as possible. Understandably, university officials and faculty shy away from including evangelization in their mission. The word in English sounds much like "evangelism," which sometimes carries resonances of a proselytism that insults the intelligence. However, on the occasion of Georgetown's two hundredth anniversary, the present superior general of the society of Jesus said here that evangelization is part of a Catholic university's purpose. And the Second Vatican Council taught clearly that evangelization is the responsibility of all the baptized. What could be more appropriate for baptized intellectuals than to accept responsibility for the evangelization of reason as such? Our society lives with an impoverished, instrumentalist sense of reason; we can know more than our culture tells us we can. The Catholic university, because here faith restores to reason a confidence in its own ability to know the truth of things, should work to restore to civil society a sense of reason which can undergird open inquiry, public order, and individual liberty. The university could model a use of reason which enables all to speak publicly about the common good, as well as about individual rights. In an age and place where the ultimate question seems to be: "Is it liberal or conservative?" the university should raise the truly ultimate rational question: "Is it true or False? And why?"

Both Athens, the home of reason, and Jerusalem, the home of faith, had a clear sense of mission. Socrates of Athens raised questions which forced his respondents to give reasons for their beliefs. "A man who has knowledge," Socrates says in the Phaedo (76b), "would be able to give an account (logos) of what he knows." In his conversation with Euthyphro (6b), Socrates even claims that if one cannot define piety, cannot give an adequate and universal explanation of it, he cannot be sure that he is acting piously. Socrates' mission was to show how reason is expressed in human action. If he had been a modern or even a post-modern man, Socrates would have wanted to feel piety rather than define it. Experience is most telling when feelings are mutual, and even God's presence is certain for moderns mainly through the evidence of the emotions.

In contrast to both Socrates' classical sense of human reason and the modern insistence on personal subjectivity to authenticate beliefs, Peter of Jerusalem told his followers that they should be prepared to give an account (logos) of the hope that is in them (I Pt 3: 15). The logos that Peter referred to is, in the final instance, a Person, the eternal Word of God, the ultimate explanation of our life, our movement, and our being. 

In the inmost heart of the Catholic university should lie the desire, not always explicitly expressed nor completely shared by everyone in the university itself, to help create an academic milieu, a civil society and a Church where personal faith in Christ makes good sense. There is a longing to show, by canons of public discourse, that it is reasonable, although not logically necessary, to surrender oneself to the eternal logos incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth. The Catholic university finds the foundation of its mission in the vocation to point as clearly and persuasively as possible to a Person who invites us to join our minds and hearts to his, so that we can appreciate more fully what Socrates of Athens wanted to explain and understand more deeply what Peter of Jerusalem dearly loved.