A Magnificent Restoration

When Daniel Coit Gilman became the founding president of Johns Hopkins University in 1875, he called for a policy of intellectual freedom based on the principle of “open academic discourse” liberated from “ecclesiastical and political control.” He wasn’t opposed to religiously affiliated universities per se, but he criticized abuses of academic freedom and unwarrantedrestrictions on rational inquiry that he experienced at Yale.
Gilman deeply admired John Henry Cardinal Newman’s The Idea of the University, despite the churchman’s arguments for faithful Catholic higher education and theology’s central place within the university. Gilman described Cardinal Newman’s call for academic freedom as “emancipating” and his defense of liberal education as “reassuring.” Both men were leaders in promoting academic freedom in their day and thereby helped forge an understanding of academic discourse that has remained one of the chief characteristics of modern quality higher education.
Or has it?

It’s my guess that Gilman and Newman would be alarmed and utterly baffled by the paradox found at most religious and secular colleges and universities today. They celebrate open-mindedness, tolerance, and diversity, but in reality they have become increasingly narrow-minded, intolerant of ideas outside of a constricted field of thought, and ever more ideologically homogeneous — albeit in an entirely different direction than the old religious restrictions. “Academic freedom” has become a solipsistic cry for liberty that belies a prevailing environment of intellectual timidity, shamefully like that of the universities in the former Soviet satellites of Eastern Europe or of the People’s Republic of China today.
But the pendulum may very well swing back in favor of genuine religious institutions of higher education — especially those colleges and universities that have held on to the great Catholic intellectual tradition, the cultural patrimony of the West. It is a tradition that profoundly respects the dignity of the human individual and his or her capacity to seek and find truth, thereby giving meaning and value to the very notion of intellectual life itself. This is perhaps best expressed by Pope John Paul II in an address he gave at the University of Krakow in 1998: “The search for truth, even when it concerns a finite reality of the world or of man, is never-ending, but always points beyond to something higher than the immediate object of study, to the questions which give access to Mystery.”
Although their secular counterparts regard Catholic colleges and universities as the most restrictive and least academically free, ironically the opposite is true at those Catholic institutions that have maintained their core mission. As Catholic University of America sociologist Rev. Paul Sullins recently observed, the most faithfully Catholic universities are actually the most intellectually open-minded and academically free. The Catholic intellectual tradition asserts that there is a universal truth knowable by human reason. The recognition of the unity of faith and reason is thus a necessary component of the search for truth, and academic freedom is a necessary means for this search within the confines only of truth itself.
It is no coincidence that the university Gilman founded has a motto that Cardinal Newman would also have selected: Veritas vos liberabit (the truth shall make you free). And it is evidence of the Catholic Church’s welcoming embrace of reason that Pope Benedict XVI will beatify the cardinal in September, putting him one step away from sainthood.
Meanwhile, even Catholic higher education today is divided by those who clamor for the values of secular institutions, all but abandoning their great intellectual tradition. In the process, they have embraced an academic culture that denies the very idea of universal truth knowable by human reason. While promising “academic freedom,” this distorted view actually narrows the scope of intellectual activity and forces each person into creating his or her own reality different from that of others, which can be no basis for the search for truth.
The result? Phenomena at many Catholic colleges and universities that Cardinal Newman would find bizarre: pro-abortion rallies, plays like The Vagina Monologues, Planned Parenthood internships, a sexual “hook-up” culture. All of this is tolerated under the rubric of “academic freedom,” but in reality it has developed into an orthodoxy of its own that is anything but free. At many colleges and universities today, the truth will not make you free — but it will get you into a lot of trouble with your colleagues.
Fortunately, the abandonment is not wholesale. Some Catholic colleges and universities have rediscovered their roots, while new colleges and universities are founded expressly to reclaim the great Catholic intellectual tradition. At the same time, there are scholars, both Catholic and non-Catholic, who sometimes feebly but resolutely struggle within hostile environments to restore academic integrity at Catholic universities that appear to have lost their way. These individuals form a saving remnant of the intellectual strength, personal courage, and academic freedom that once were the hallmarks of these institutions. A magnificent restoration may be quietly occurring.
Those who care deeply about real higher education should not give up in despair, but rather put their energies, talents, and financial support into those colleges and universities that are salvaging the Catholic intellectual tradition, as well as to those working in anguished solitude at Catholic colleges and universities that have gone astray. It may be a long, slow struggle, but it may ultimately be a successful one with great benefit to all of academe. Gilman and Newman would be proud.


  • David B. House

    David B. House is executive director of the Center for the Advancement of Catholic Higher Education and former president of Saint Joseph’s College of Maine.

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