Pursuing the Truth: On Catholic Higher Education

The purpose of higher education is the pursuit of truth, and throughout history men and women have devoted their lives to it. One such man was Mohandas Gandhi. Born in 1869, the son of uneducated parents, he was a mediocre student and a self-described coward who feared ghosts—into adulthood, he slept with a light on in his bedroom. And yet he became a fearless war­rior for human rights and the independence of his people. How did this transformation happen? Because he sought the truth his whole life. In his words, “The passion for truth was innate in me.”

One cannot speak of a passion for the truth and not think of Pope John Paul II. He is one of my heroes—an admirable man in every sense. In fact, my wife and I wanted to honor him in some way, and so we decided to name one of our sons after him. But this posed a problem since our last name is Towey, and that would have made him John Paul Towey. (We settled on John Mariano Towey.)

Without question, John Paul II was a sincere seeker of the truth, and he loved the halls of academia. He wrote in Ex Corde Ecclesiae, “It is the honor and responsibility of a Catholic University to consecrate itself without reserve to the cause of the truth.” He went on, “Without in any way neglecting the acquisition of useful knowledge, a Catholic University is distinguished by its free search for the whole truth about nature, man and God. The present age is in ur­gent need of this kind of disinterested service.”

Great words from a great man. Throughout his papacy he contrasted the “splendor of the truth” with the decline of modern culture, and challenged us to fearlessly pursue the truth and proclaim it in order to transform our culture.

The “urgent need” for such a reform in this present age is all too evident. Pilate’s sad question—What is truth?—reverberates through time. So many today have become accustomed to—perhaps comfortable with the lies and distortions that masquerade as truth. Moral relativism and moral cowardice have dulled our senses and damaged our culture.

A culture that does not revere life and hold it sacred from conception until natural death; a culture that does not esteem marriage and family life and the complementary na­ture of the sexes; a culture that abandons its elderly, dis­cards its poor, and defaces its environment; a culture that is so highly sexualized and violent that God-given human dignity is routinely degraded—this is a culture in desperate need of renewal.

More than 1,500 years ago, St. Benedict found himself living in a culture that was decadent, lawless, and godless. It was said of Roman society at that time, “It is dying and it laughs.” In the face of a collapsing civil society and culture, Benedict devoted himself to its reform. Holding tight to the hand of Jesus Christ, he founded a family of religious men and, by the time of his death, had laid the foundation upon which Western culture and civilization still stand.

One area in need of urgent renewal is that of popular culture: Our youth spend hours each day being molded and entertained by the media. We cannot look at the images and moral messages of many daytime television programs or PG-13 movies and not wonder what poisonous values are being force-fed to our children—and to what effect.

Indeed, a culture that puts the interests of adults before children must be challenged in the same way Benedict con­fronted the culture of his time, or we risk falling into the same dissipated state of pagan Rome that saw no need for God or truth. Dostoevsky once wrote, “If there is no God, everything is permitted.” I think that accurately describes the trajectory of a society beholden to secular orthodoxy. It also is worth pointing out that if, in fact, there is a God, then everything is not permitted—that there is right con­duct and wrong conduct, and that the Holy Spirit guides us in our discernment.

Modern society may reject distinctions like right and wrong, sin and grace, truth and falsehood, but history does not. At sundown on Yom Kippur, our Jewish friends begin their observation of the Day of Atonement. For thousands of years, Jews have interrupted their routines on this holy day to take stock of the moral quality of their lives, to atone for their sins, and to rediscover their desperate need for God. Yom Kippur, like Good Friday, is countercultural be­cause it challenges us to remember God and be mindful of the moral quality of our conduct.

It would be easy to look around us at a world marked by violent conflict, terrorism, and religious tensions and worry about the future or become discouraged. We must resist this impulse. Our Faith tells us that the truth will ultimately win out. Further, the youth of today hunger for the real, the authentic—they want the fullness of life, not the emptiness they see around them. Every young person faces the same questions: Who am I? Why am I here on this earth? What is my purpose?

Catholics, Protestants, and youths of other faiths (or no faith at all) seek answers to these questions. We must be worthy guides. Rabbi Abraham Heschel, a great thinker and teacher of the 20th century, once said, “For the essence and greatness of man do not lie in his ability to please his ego, to satisfy his needs, but rather to stand above his ego, to ignore his own needs; to sacrifice his own interests for the sake of the holy.”

I saw how true this was with Mother Teresa of Calcutta, with whom I was honored to work. Even though she labored among lepers and the destitute, she was not discouraged or fearful about the future. In fact, she was quite cheerful.

I remember once driving Mother Teresa and Sandy McMurtrie—her close friend—around Mexico and seeing Mother stare out of the van window at the huts in which the poor lived. Her eyes burned with compassion and con­cern but conveyed no sense of despair. Throughout her life she had witnessed misery and yet she was filled with joy and hope.

She knew, as St. Paul’s letter to the Romans says, that the sufferings of the present are as nothing” compared to the glory to come. She knew, like Paul, that “the world itself will be freed from its slavery to corruption and share in the glorious freedom of the children of God.” Her response to human anguish was simple: She loved. If you were to visit her tomb in Calcutta, you would see the simple inscription of John 15:12: “Love one another as I have loved you.”

It is my belief that this command of Jesus must be at the heart of a liberal arts education. We must help these young men and women emerge as bright, hopeful, helpful people. Without sacrificing academic excellence, we must long for their spiritual development—never coercing but always advancing our proud Catholic heritage. His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI said recently, “When we bring people only knowledge, ability, technical competence and tools, we bring them too little.” He correctly identifies the failing of many institutions of higher learning—including many prominent ones that have strayed from their faith-based origins—to prepare young men and women for the broader purposes of life.

Students graduating from Catholic colleges and univer­sities should be prepared to make a living for themselves and a difference for others. They should burn with a passion for the truth in order to confront and change our culture rather than simply conforming to it. In so doing, they will join the good company of Catholic graduates who have made great contributions as inventors, doctors, writers, and teachers—and better still, as fathers and mothers, priests and religious.

St. Thomas More, on the night before he went home to God from the Tower of London, took a piece of coal in his hand and wrote to his beloved daughter Margaret these tender words: “Fare. well, my dear child and pray for me, and I shall for you and all your friends that we may merrily meet in heaven.”

May we all merrily meet in heaven one day. Until such time, may we follow the advice of Boniface Wimmer, Benedictine monk and founder of St. Vincent College, and “move forward, always forward, everywhere forward.”


  • James Towey

    James Towey is the president of Ave Maria University and former president of St. Vincent College. He served as Director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives and as Assistant to President George W. Bush from 2002 to May 2006.

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