End Notes: Is a Non-Catholic University Possible?

In the decade of discussion that occurred between the appearance of Ex Corde Ecclesiae and the bishops’ resounding approval of it, one did not need particularly perceptive antennae to pick up the note of embarrassment on the part of those who sought to explain what a Catholic university is. It was as if they were saying that a university could be great, although Catholic. It was as if, suddenly in the 20th century, someone had proposed a hybrid monster never before imagined, a university that was also Catholic.

Beneath such embarrassment lies the acceptance of the notion that the default case of the university is a secular institution, at best neutral but more often than not hostile to religious faith. The assumption is that there is a necessary enmity between religious faith and the life of learning. Doubtless, it was to free Catholics of this odd assumption that John Paul II issued his magnificent encyclical Fides et Ratio. What has to be recovered is the historical fact that the university began as a Catholic institution, arising “out of the heart of the Church?’ The medieval university, a tumultuous place, reestablished the modus vivendi between faith and reason that had been disturbed by the influx of Aristotle, convoyed into the West by Arabic commentators. Chesterton, with unerring instinct, made this drama the centerpiece of The Dumb Ox, his amazing tour de force about Aquinas.

The story of the university is its declension from its Catholic origins as a result of schism, heresy, and revolution. Higher education began in this country under religious auspices and the story of its secularization has become almost a genre of the history of institutions. There remain some who, in the dim wattage of the waning Enlightenment, profess to see progress here, but such a belief has come to border on dementia. Shelves groan under the volumes devoted to the parlous condition of the academic world today. Any easy certainty that the life of the mind will flourish once freed from the bracing ambience of the faith must rely on willful obtuseness to what is actually going on. Some time ago, on this page, I discussed Harold Bloom’s The Western Canon. In the opening and closing chapters, this distinguished scholar provides readers with a chilling picture of what passes for literary studies nowadays.

The blight is not confined to one discipline. It is long past time when we should ask if a university that is non-Catholic is possible. Can institutions of higher learning survive when the influence of faith is not felt? Our present situation suggests a negative answer. It is this fact, plain as a pikestaff, that makes the diffidence and apologetic tone of the soi-disant spokesmen for Catholic higher education incredible. If ever there has been a time to trumpet and boast of the ameliorative effect of Christian faith on the life of learning, it is now. Yet what we hear are mumbled hopes that with time and money our institutions can be made to look more and more like their fallen secular sisters.

These dark days demand that we think seriously about the relationship of faith and reason, as we have been prompted to do by Fides et Ratio. The principles of ordinary rational discourse are one thing; the principles of theological discourse are another. The latter kind of discourse reposes explicitly on the faith; the former reposes on principles that are the common natural possession of all. But what might seem to be Euclidean parallel lines that will never meet have their non-Euclidean properties. The life of the mind is possible only if one has confidence in the power of the mind to grasp the truth. But it is this confidence that has leaked out of the secular academic soul. Yet only within the ambience of this confidence can discovery and learning take place. Once it is absent, how can it be recovered? If salt loses its savor, wherewith will it be salted?

The believer brings to the pursuit of the truth the antecedent confidence that the quarry can be found and caught. This confidence provides the ambience within which inquiry and discussion take place. Those who have lost religious faith have lost this confidence as well. Only the vigorous building up of Catholic universities and the recovery of the truth that the Catholic university is the normal form of the university will enable us to help our secular fellows recover their faith in reason.

For that is the most surprising, yet most obvious, reminder of Fides et Ratio. In today’s world, the Church is not only the designated defender of Christian truth; she has become almost the sole defender of human reason. And where, if not in her universities, can that defense be most convincingly made?


  • Ralph McInerny

    Ralph McInerny was a popular writer, philosopher, and teacher, as well as the co-founder of Crisis Magazine. He passed away on January 29, 2010.

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