In every place and time, the Catholic university or college has a distinct role to play in the transformation of culture. Culture is the cultus animi, or the cultivation of the human soul in the splendor of the truth. Since the Church is firmly committed to the integral growth of all men and women, the Catholic university or college must itself be a community of persons devoted to becoming ever more excellent persons—spiritually, morally, and intellectually. Since culture takes root in the minds and hearts of people, by carrying out its role consistently, the Catholic university or college contributes to the transformation of culture at its very foundation.
Of central importance to this task is the Catholic university’s or college’s being true—that is, remaining faithful to its living in, pursuit of, and teaching of truth. Being true enables the Catholic university or college to be the living presence of truth. This living presence of truth transcends any utilitarian aim or pragmatic goal, just as the molten core of culture itself is to be found invigorating the character of individual persons.
My description of the culture-transforming role of the Catholic university or college is easily—perhaps inevitably—misunderstood in today’s culture. The Catholic university or college should not be an “ivory tower.” Institutions that inevitably treat persons as means are ultimately oblivious to the proper ends of culture. Against this, the Catholic university or college should challenge society’s insistence that it serve only the body and pretend that the soul can take care of itself.
The Catholic university or college encourages the integral growth of men and women in the light of the Gospel. Members of a Catholic university or college cannot rely upon the lights of today’s impoverished culture; rather, they must champion the genuine cultus animi.
Reduced more often than not to self-seeking utilitarianism, our culture needs the fullness of life only cultivated by authentically Catholic institutions. A culture such as ours not only fails to cultivate human excellence, it contains within itself the seeds of its own demise. There is no purpose to an education divorced from the transcendental realities of truth, goodness, and beauty.
Thus, in keeping with the purpose of a liberal arts education—which itself was born from the heart of the Church—the Catholic university or college must keep alive the most important questions. Key to this effort is the pursuit of the liberal arts of the Magisterium of the Church, the continual and indefatigable effort of discovering, exploring, and demonstrating the moral, spiritual, and intellectual excellence demanded of human persons—and therefore of authentic human culture—for an accurate and thorough understanding and “incarnation” of the Church’s teaching.
It should go without saying—but today it must be stated in no uncertain terms—that this culture-transforming role of Catholic higher education promotes the “New Evangelization,” which is precisely the transformation of culture.
In more ways than one, like St. Benedict, today’s Catholic university or college faces a “dark ages.” As it was for Benedict, the challenge is to hand on to posterity the “flickering flame” of the possibility of spiritual, moral, and intellectual excellence. The darkness will not quench that flame.