The Future of Catholic Education: Maintaining the Integrity of the Catholic University

The proposed schema for a Pontifical Document on 1 Catholic Universities is sure to generate anew discussion governing the nature of the Catholic university and its relation­ship to the Magisterium. The schema has already provoked considerable opposition. For some its appearance is regarded as belated, at least as far as the United States is concerned. In their judgment, the very opposition it has created is evidence that many universities heretofore thought of as Catholic are more Catholic in name than in reality. For others the attempt of the Church to exercise authority over Catholic colleges and universities is fraught with legal and other difficulties that make the introduction of the norms proposed by the schema impossible.

If authority is the ability of the settled will to summon the unsettled, ecclesiastical authority is headed for troubled times because it cannot count on docility. The academic mind has a will of its own and seems to be distancing itself from any kind of ecclesiastical control, nominal or real. While the Church may already have lost many institutions that were once im­portant to her educational mission, there remain others that are committed to staying Catholic and for them an examination of the means of insuring institutional objectives is important.

A university community is not unlike the human body in­sofar as self-maintenance is possible only within a limited range of conditions. Body temperature may vary within a few degrees, but no more than that; atmospheric pressure does not leave much room, for lingering, either above or below the earth. Enough, but not too much, oxygen is required; enough, but not too much, liquid and nutrient intake is permitted. The list of conditions is long and the variants tolerated none too great. Similarly, a Catholic university if it is to maintain its in­tegrity must respect the sources of its nutriment and the natural telos that governs its activity. It cannot deny to itself access to authentic Catholic teaching either by challenging the magisterium or by ignoring the Catholic intellectual tradition that gave it birth. Its structure is given largely by the re­quirements of advanced research and teaching and in part by the specific requirements of its freely chosen Catholic character. The two, of course, are compatible, but maintaining that Catholic character is not an easy matter. Seasoned scholars who can contribute in a positive way are not numerous. Yet a certain number are required if the institution is to achieve its distinctive goals. Assuming professional credentials on the part of the candidate proposed for appoint­ment, other things have to be taken into consideration by the appointing institution.

At the heart of a university are both the people who com­pose it and the principles by which they choose to regulate their activity. Plato taught the unity of the virtues, and nowhere is the presence or absence of intellectual and moral virtue, and their congruence or lack of it, more noticeable than in a university community. It is a truism that moral virtue is required for intellectual virtue. The intemperate man is not likely to be a learned man, since learning requires years of self-discipline. Perceptions of a speculative order obviously influence practical judgment, not now and then, but as a matter of course. A Marxist cannot cooperate in teaching as true, doctrines, which fly in the face of propositions to which he is committed. He cannot at once proclaim that religion is the opiate of the people and advocate a strong faculty of theology. Similarly, a philosophical naturalist or a positivist will not place much importance on the role of theology in a liberal education or recognize the importance of the role of theology in a liberal education or recognize the importance of philosophy to theology. The value of classical and medieval history as well as the importance of classical and foreign languages will be appraised differently. Intellect alone is not enough.

It would be foolish not to take into consideration the moral character of a candidate for faculty membership. When a scholar becomes a member of a university faculty he becomes part of a collegium, which he will in due course come to influence, and whose tone he will help to establish. If he is without courage, there will be occasions when he will betray the ideals of the group. If he does not have his passions under control, his actions will in time affect his productivity and reliability, not to mention the attitudes of the well-intentioned young who are still struggling for self-mastery. Lack of decorum, poor grooming, poor taste will all take their toll as the ability of the person in question to represent department and university will be undermined. One doesn’t have to be a saint to be a scholar, but flaws in character will have their con­sequences.

Defects in perspective show up as the years go by. The young assistant professor that in the beginning of his career may make his contribution primarily through teaching will in due course be called to membership on committees and governing boards not only within a department but in the university and perhaps in the community as well. If his own perceptions or fundamental outlook differ from those of the institutions he will inevitably contribute to the changing of the official outlook. If he personally is not convinced of the value of a liberal education, specifically of the need to study foreign languages, the need to know history, philosophy, and theology, these convictions will manifest themselves as he votes on institutional policy. Similarly the intemperate attitude of some in sexual matters will influence their vote on policies governing student life. Others may vote against their convic­tions or assume a permissive attitude because they lack the courage or the intellectual conviction to defend a course of ac­tion they know to be right.

If faculty members as a matter of course become commit­tee members, some will in time also become deans or senior spokesmen. Even where an institution is relatively strong in its conception of itself and resolute in the execution of policy, the number of those who do not share institutional purposes or who are in other ways unreliable diminish the pool from which persons may be drawn to further institutional objectives.

It is often argued that a plurality of views is required if dialogue is to produce truth, viz., that all sides on any question ought to be represented in a university. This might be the case if there were only one university. But where universities have been founded out of every conceivable background and collec­tively represent every major ideology, there is no danger of suppressing diverse viewpoints. The danger is that certain traditions may not have the resources needed to maintain themselves. The danger is not lack of plurality but lack of uni­ty in any one institution so that it may represent well its tradi­tions in the broader context. Dawson’s remark that the secular Leviathan is vulnerable only at its brain is worth recalling. Only if Christianity can maintain itself at an intellectual level will it have any influence on society. Certain religious bodies may renounce social and cultural influence, but Catholicism has never been numbered among them.

Further, there is no need to proceed as if certain basic truths were not well known, as if basic moral and educational principles were yet to be discovered. Every generation is re­quired to appropriate these principles through its own activity, but there is a fund upon which each can draw. One generation can teach another basic truths regarding human nature and conduct. This conviction is at the heart of a Catholic universi­ty, the conviction that there is a wisdom carried within the in­tellectual traditions of the Church. The function of the Catholic university is to appropriate those traditions, criticiz­ing and developing them. With a trained and enriched mind one cannot help but think clearly about the new. It is not sup­posed that all students are called to a life of direct service to the Church or to a life of scholarship, but all are called to a minimal life of the mind. Recognizing this, it is the first task of the Catholic educator to assist in making that life as rich as possible. His first task is to clarify his own intellectual perspective, and then to help others to see and to judge. Not all that is inherited is good. Some minds, authors or figures are of greater value and deserve greater respect. Judgment is re­quired, but that judgment itself must be formed in response to the richest materials provided by the tradition.

These truisms are frequently denied in segments of the academic world. Where empiricist or positivistic attitudes prevail, there is not only an agnostic attitude with respect to the foundations of religious belief, but also with respect to moral principles, to the value of history and reasoning, and to the worth of religious institutions.

Given the diversity of intellectual starting-points as well as outlooks, it is self-deceptive to proceed as if every can­didate for a faculty position were equally qualified for appoint­ment because of professional competence alone. When an ap­pointment is made the whole man is appointed and not simply a technician. If his attitude is at variance with that espoused by the institution, it is naive to assume that he will contribute in a positive way to all the goals of the institution. An argument may be made for his “negative value,” that one of opposed outlook is useful because of his prodding or critical value. But the line between this and actively advancing radically opposed policy is one easily breached in a collegial environment. Fur­thermore, such a negative presence is unnecessary. Even a community of similarly committed scholars will produce the diversity needed for self-criticism, and no community exists in isolation. One cannot function within any discipline without meeting the range of opinions prevalent within that discipline. It is thus not essential for self-criticism to represent within a Catholic institution every range of opinion. To seek such a goal by supporting opposition is to beg self-destruction. Like- minded colleagues who share fundamental commitments are required if there is to be progress in furthering Catholic in­tellectual outlooks.

That Catholic universities are required is due to the fact that state institutions frequently have an outlook and commit­ment of their own which, if it does not exclude a Catholic in­tellectual outlook, certainly does not foster the development of such an outlook.

If secular institutions are not to enjoy a monopoly, Catholic and other religious educational institutions must not only exist, but they will have to maintain their characteristic goals and integrity. The burden of this argument is that such institutions must inform their hiring policies with a sense of the integrity of their goals.

Institutional integrity not only requires the exercise of care in the making of appointments, but also commits the universi­ty itself to certain principles, chiefly among them, the princi­ple of academic freedom. Once the work of a scholar has been judged to be of sufficient merit to warrant appointment, the scholar is entitled to be left alone to pursue his professional work, wherever it may lead, without fear of institutional in­terference. That commitment is understood to be permanent, once an appointment with continuous tenure is awarded. Only a flagrant disregard of institutional standards thereafter would sanction removal. This is the chief means by which an academic institution guarantees to the scholar a requisite autonomy in research and teaching. It is recognized that the scholar requires a certain job security if he is to speak and publish without fear of sanctions. The practice of awarding permanent tenure diminishes the possibility of arbitrary action against a scholar when his professional work leads him to a position, which might be regarded as dubious within the academic community by the sponsoring body, by society as a whole, or by other members of the faculty. While the principle may be less than absolute, it must be firm enough to hold even in the face of eccentricity and error. The conditions for free in­quiry are of such importance that they must be maintained even in the face of abuse.

It is a widely accepted principle that church related in­stitutions might specify certain conditions for continuous ap­pointment, provided these are publicly stated in advance. It is also acknowledged that any limitation of academic freedom must be essential to the religious aims of the institution. Catholic institutions need not fear the enunciation of purposes that are distinctive, nor need they be reluctant to demand fidelity to those principles agreed upon as aims. Adherence is neither an arbitrary requirement nor an arbitrary restriction on the rights or freedom of the faculty member.

Within the American context, professional associations have been diligent in their defense of the principle of academic freedom, and detailed procedures have been widely adopted to deal with alleged infringements. Little attention, however, has been given to the other side of the equation, that is, to the maintenance of institutional identity in spite of the ease with which such identity can be lost. The papal effort in the form of the proposed schema should provide a welcome framework within which serious reflection on institutional self- maintenance can take place. It should be strengthened and perfected and not regarded as an alien document. Its goal is the preservation of Catholic learning indispensable to the faith.


  • Jude Dougherty

    Jude Dougherty is Dean Emeritus of the School of Philosophy in the Catholic University of America and the editor of The Review of Metaphysics, and General Editor, Series Studies in Philosophy and the History of Philosophy, Washington, D.C., The Catholic University of America Press.

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