Universities That Are Truly Catholic and Truly Academic

by Cardinal Francis George

Address of September 22, 1998 to the inaugural convocation of presidents and faculty members of Chicago-area Catholic colleges and universities.

I am grateful that I'm here and that you're here. I'm deeply grateful to Father Piderit for picking up a phrase in my Georgetown talk of last October where I said that one of the weaknesses in the structured dialogue between the university community and the American hierarchy in forging an identity that is truly Catholic and truly academic for our Catholic universities was that it was almost exclusively a conversation between bishops and presidents, and that missing was any kind of structured conversation between bishops and faculty.

Every university, Catholic or other, says that the faculty is the heart of the university. I'm grateful, therefore, that Father Piderit has moved in this way to create what I think is truly a historic occasion, when the presidents and the representatives from the administration and staff, as well as from the faculties of the Catholic universities of these two dioceses, are present together.

Thanks then to all of you for coming this afternoon, and beyond that, thanks most of all for your life as intellectuals, as university professors and administrators in Catholic universities and colleges.

Universities and colleges are carriers, major carriers, in any place in the world, of the culture that makes us human. The present bishop of Rome, Pope John Paul II, has put culture at the center stage of the church's internal conversation, perhaps because he is Polish and therefore comes from a nation that didn't govern itself for 150 years, was split up among three empires and still retained a sense of identity because of a culture that was born of a dialogue with the Catholic faith.

When the bishops of Indiana, Wisconsin and Illinois were in Rome last May and I went in for my 15 minutes with the Holy Father, the one question he asked me after I presented the picture of the Archdiocese of Chicago to the extent that I could after such a few months of ministry here was, "How are you influencing the culture?"

And I was taken aback. I shouldn't have been, but I was. I mentioned the dialogue with the universities that had begun under Cardinal Bernardin and was continuing, and then a number of other conversations with cultural carriers like the media and the legal profession. When I spoke about university life, of course, he was immediately very interested, as a former university professor himself and as someone who lives with the conviction not only that culture is important, but that every truth is precious and that truth is carried in languages, in cultures, but that culture is fragile, and truths can be lost.

We think of the centuries after the collapse of the Roman Empire that were needed to reconstruct the mathematical science that was common currency among the Greeks how long it took, how even until the 11th and 12th centuries academicians in the University of Paris were struggling to find ways to reexpress some of the truths around abstract quantity that they couldn't express because they didn't have a number system that carried a zero. We can think of the loss of a language that is gone in one generation. Those of us who worked with native peoples on this continent know how quickly a language will disappear, particularly if it isn't written, if the culture is disrupted by all kinds of forces, benign and not so benign.

The pope has this deep, abiding conviction that the university is a carrier of culture, but that culture and cultural richnesses of all sorts cannot be taken for granted. It is our responsibility, therefore, in the church and in the university to see that the richness of reflection that tells us who God is, who we are, what the world is like, is in fact responsibly cared for and carried on.

In his formal talk to the bishops from these three Midwestern states, the pope spoke about Catholic education and about university life. He speaks in the ad limina discourses to each section of the country, not necessarily about what is most important to the church in that section, but if you take all the ad limina speeches together you understand what he is thinking about the church in the whole country at this time.

It happened that the pope spoke about education and university life to us. He mentioned four points that are elements of Catholic identity: student activities and the quality of a university's community life (and I think Bishop Imesch is to speak to those two points), third the curriculum, which is the carrier of the vision that integrates the university community and, fourth, the faculty's own sense of mission.

I would like to speak to those last two. My purpose is not to give a policy speech. That would be impossible in such a short period of time. And also I'm not good at forging policy in a forum such as this. I want rather to speak out of a vision which sees the world through the eyes of faith and, within that world, sees the Catholic Church as carrier of a mission to teach and, within that church, from the heart of that church, the Catholic university.

The context which faith gives us, and it's the elucidation of that context that we are about now, tells us that the same God who made us free also made us smart and wants us to be holy. There is a conversation in faith among reason or intelligence, freedom and holiness. That conversation is at the heart of the church and is very obviously at the heart of a Catholic university, and therefore universities are at the heart of the church.

At this point, in the conversations that we've had so far in this country, there is no real disagreement. Who can gainsay that reason, freedom and holiness are the values that shape us as church and as Catholic academicians? The problem arises when we try to institutionalize the conversation which makes these values visible and available in the university and in the church. What is clear, however, to me and I hope to you is that the conversation is a shared responsibility, and therefore there is an accountability of each of us to the other, in very different ways, but nonetheless a genuine accountability. I see what I'm doing here and what we're doing together here as an exercise in that mutual accountability.

In that conversation, shaped, contextualized by the Catholic faith, I speak explicitly as a bishop of the Catholic Church to you explicitly as members of Catholic faculties and universities and administrations, whether or not you are personally sharers of the Catholic faith.

Bishops pastor the church, which is the community of faith, and therefore our first accountability is to the faith itself and to the mission Christ entrusted to his church. We do not govern universities, not even Catholic universities. But universities, as Catholic, are also part of the household of the faith. Catholic researchers and teachers are members of that household, within her, part of her life. Catholic universities, as I said at Georgetown, carry in large part the church's mission to teach the world not just the Gospel, although that is part of it, but all things in the light of the Gospel and the faith that is derived from that word.

Bishops, as pastors and teachers in the church, are therefore not external to the Catholic university, as I said in Georgetown, and, as Father Piderit has just recalled, we are not guests. This is part of the household of faith. We are at home. And, in fact, rather than trying to explain first how bishops should come in (and one very noted and important Catholic intellectual has said that at Georgetown I invited myself into the university), the question, I think, should be reversed: How are you in the church, rather than how am I in the university? The adjective Catholic is not a mere extrinsic denomination in any case nor is it the object of definition by any individual or group in a university or elsewhere. It is rather the possession of the household of faith.

When the church today speaks, then, of Catholic identity, genuine Catholic identity in a university, everything goes fairly well until we come to the question of how to institutionalize legally that identity. For some, law simply says control, and a university must be free. I would like to say at the beginning that when the church starts to talk about a legal expression of Catholic identity, it does not mean, as sometimes I've heard it might mean, a purge of faculty members who are not Catholic or who might even be atheists. It does not mean proselytizing the faculty or any member of the student body. It does not mean that the task of teaching is only to create a Catholic apologetics in theology or in any other discipline. All of this would be, in fact, a betrayal of the Catholic identity of a university.

But laws not only control; laws also protect. Laws, therefore, can protect, as your mission statements and your own constitutions help us to see, the mission and the identity of a Catholic university as Catholic. The concern to do this stems from the vision of faith which tells us that the Son of God has become incarnate from the Virgin Mary. A word made flesh leaves a community, a church which is itself sacramental, which goes about making invisible spiritual realities visible so they can be shared, especially in word and symbol. The church is a sacramental sign. In that kind of church, purpose is made visible in law, and therefore the question of how do we institutionalize a mission, a purpose, is inevitably going to bring us into how do we encapsulate that purpose into some kind of legal formula.

The sticking point, of course, is mandates for theologians, which are now part of the canon law of the church and which create enormous problems in talking about the Catholic identity of American Catholic universities. And yet, difficult though they might be and without saying yet how something that could be their equivalent might be put into place, there are two points that I think should inform that discussion so that it isn't just framed in terms of reactionary hierarchs vs. academic freedom.

The first point is that from the nature of the theological discipline itself, if theology receives its data from the faith, the community of faith and its pastors are intrinsic to the scientific methodology of the discipline. Catholic tradition, Catholic teaching, is not a mine of concepts to be taken out and rearranged at will by any individual, no matter how highly credentialed. Tradition is, in fact, liberating to the extent that it witnesses to and puts us in touch with the truths of faith in such a way that they speak to us in our age or any age so that, by reason of the exercise of critical intelligence, they can continue to be developed in such a way that we see more clearly the demands of faith than did those who came before us.

Second, besides the nature of the theological discipline itself, there is the role of theology in the Catholic university. Institutionally, theology has been key in a Catholic university's identity, along with philosophy and courses in history and literature, precisely because theology integrates the fusion of faith with human experience. That's why it's in the core curriculum. What other title would it have to include into a core that says here is the vision of the university itself? If it doesn't integrate, then its title to being part of the core curriculum becomes very tenuous. And if nothing integrates the curriculum, if there is no integrating vision in a university, then indeed how can a school be Catholic? How can it come from the heart of the church, which lives by a vision of faith that does hold all things together intrinsically and not just by extrinsic fiat?

At that moment a year ago during the conversation in Georgetown, I said something that has perhaps been misunderstood when I said that a university without a vision is a high-class trade school. What was forgotten is that a high-class trade school is a very important institution. Harvard and Yale are important carriers of disciplines. But if they have lost, and to the extent they have lost, any kind of truly integrating vision, then in fact they are there to serve an individual sense of mission, an individual purpose, and the demands of individual disciplines which are left unintegrated except in the desire of the students themselves and the academic vocation of those who feel accountable to their discipline and drive to carry it into the next generation.

All of that is very good, but it doesn't create a university in the classical sense. And it certainly doesn't create a Catholic university in the sense of a community that is integrated by the vision of faith given us in the Catholic Church. The fear, therefore, on the part of many is that today our Catholic universities are following a pattern that is already traced by other church-related universities. There is a new book by James Burtchaell, who used to be provost at Notre Dame University, called The Dying of the Light. It's certainly a tendentious book. He is arguing a thesis. But there's enough of reality in a paragraph I'd like to share with you now that should give us all pause. What is at stake here is not control by the hierarchy or by anyone else, even by yourselves, but rather a deep concern that our universities will continue to function in the future as places where faith and culture and individual purposes and the demands of discipline are truly integrated. Father Burtchaell says: "The elements of slow but apparently irrevocable cleavage of colleges from churches were many. The church was replaced as a financial patron by alumni, by foundations, philanthropists and the government. The regional accrediting association, the alumni and the government replaced the church as the primary authorities to whom the college was accountable. The study of the faith became academically marginalized, and the understanding of religion was degraded by translation into reductionist banalities for promotional use. Presidential hubris found fulfillment in cultivating the colleges to follow the academic pacesetters, which were selective state and independent universities. The faculty's primary loyalties were transferred sometimes from their college to their disciplines and their guild and were thereby rendered antagonistic to any competing norms of professional excellence related to the church itself."

There is enough of truth, I think, in the itineraries of the universities, most of them originally Protestant, that Father Burtchaell chronicles in his book to make us pause and to ask again: How can we come to a point of shared responsibility for the future of Catholic universities and their relationship to the church in such a way that the demands of each vocation are truly respected, that no one encroaches on anyone else's turf, but that there is enough shared vision and shared values that in deep cooperation we can support one another? This will happen, I think, if we deepen along with our shared responsibility and our shared accountability a sense of our vocation, my vocation and yours.

I would like to close (now that Bishop Imesch has finally come and has let me off the hook) with a quote from Pope John Paul II on the vocation of Catholic intellectuals:

"Through your scientific, philosophic, literary and historical professional capacities, you can offer a service of authentic intellectual charity to your colleagues, to students, to society and all its institutions. Dearly beloved, you are not only intellectuals, who reflect, evaluate and contemplate truth, closed as it were in an individualistic ivory tower.

"Do not let it be that only isolated voices launch messages to consciences and to the world. You too are solidly involved in a prophetical task of forming sensitive consciences capable of saying no to death, to hatred, to violence, to terror, to error, to evil, to degradation, but saying yes to the good, to the beautiful, to truth, to justice, to responsibility, to life, to peace, to love. You must take on your responsibility consciously. Your contribution in this field is a conspicuous and precious one. The young who have contact with you, politicians who turn an ear to what you have to say, technicians who cannot do without you, let all these be aided by you to enter sagely and rationally into a vision of life in human society which promotes the common good of all."