I regard Catholic higher education in this country as both a great American success story and one of the paramount achievements in the history of the church.
Why such a pronouncement now? First, because it’s true; second, because it needs saying at this time, in the bicentennial year of American Catholic higher education. In 1789 Georgetown University became the nation’s first Catholic institution of higher education; today, more than 200 Catholic colleges and universities dot this country’s educational landscape—institutions that have evolved from cultural shelters for the children of immigrants into true centers of scholarship and teaching.
Despite its achievements, Catholic higher education has often been portrayed in recent years in the narrow focus of controversy—generated by the Curran case, the proposed Vatican document on higher education and the presence of pockets of criticism in the Catholic and secular press. I understand the pull of controversy and the fascination it exerts, but a focus on controversy, like a telephoto lens, eliminates the background and distorts the perspective of events. As a result, context gets lost.
Two examples occurred within weeks of each other last spring—first, when members of the American hierarchy journeyed to the Vatican for a special meeting with the pope; shortly afterwards when Catholic educators, I among them, followed in the bishops’ wake to discuss the proposed document on Catholic higher education. In both instances, pre-meeting speculation was suffused with the smell of battle. Then, when both meetings turned out to be encouragingly open, frank and hopeful—when, that is, the anticipated clashes did not develop—interest quickly sagged.
Because I believe Catholic educators must be actively and consistently involved in any disagreement concerning their role in the church or society, I felt a special sense of responsibility when I was chosen to be one of the American delegates to the Vatican meeting last spring, and again when I was elected to serve on the commission named to consult in the preparation of the latest revision of the higher education document. One area of perennial concern between the Catholic universities and the church is the division of labor, so to speak, between the bishops—the church’s traditional teachers and preservers of the faith—and its scholars, both lay and religious, not just in theology but in every university discipline. This relationship has a history that ranges across two millennia of Christian existence.
At the best of times, the interaction of bishops and scholars is harmonious and mutually supportive; some bishops, like Saint Augustine of Hippo, have had decisive influence on theological development. But even during periods of misunderstanding, the ferment is a sign that the church truly is being forced to come to grips with some matter of faith or practice that ultimately must be resolved.
Large issues do not lend themselves to final solutions. Whenever there is change in society or the church—and when is there not?—the last balance struck is disturbed anew and the issue joined again. As far as teaching is concerned, a dual tension has been clearly in evidence from the earliest days. On the one hand, there is the tension created by differing interpretations of the legacy of Christ: Who is empowered to interpret Scripture and tradition? How far may one stretch the limits of interpretation? And who is to adjudicate when disagreements arise? At its worst, this tension has divided the church, sometimes briefly, at other times with long-lasting divisions.
The sensitivity of the theologian’s position in the church is obvious: The scholar’s work—to seek to recall and record the legacy of Christian theory and practice in all its subtleties and permutations, and to attempt the constant reformulation of this tradition in the light of contemporary understanding—is certain to collide at times with perceptions of established teaching. He or she must face a range of questions growing from trends in contemporary intellectual life, from the prevalence of positivist methodologies purportedly based on modern science to the debunking or reductionist tendency found in so much social-scientific literature. The creeping influence of such trends seems to call into radical doubt the ability of the church to teach with both truth and relevance. At the same time, the work of the scholar in tackling these currents of thought may seem to run counter to the teaching of the church. What then?
Compounding these tensions is the tendency of some to believe—not without semi-official encouragement—that the church has never changed and can never change in any significant detail. The fact is, of course, that the church, like any living body, has never ceased to change. In the early letters of Paul the picture of the infant Christian community, with its primitive organizational structure and general unsettledness, stands in contrast to the more established churches presumed in the pastoral epistles and the Gospel of John. The first-century Council of Jerusalem, which debated the imposition of Jewish cultic practices on Gentile converts, is a reminder that even Peter and Paul were not immune to the need to make hard choices in a fast-changing world.
Looking back over the span of history, it is evident that the church has never displayed complete conformity; its teachings have been reformed and refashioned over time. Difference, disagreement, accommodation and change—all elemental traits of the human condition—have been with us from the beginning.
Some change has come relatively painlessly, much has not. At various times the church has seen one branch opposing another, one bishop opposing another, even one saint opposing another. The Nicene Creed, which we revere today as one of the great orthodox expressions of faith, emerged from a council held in a period of confrontation so intense that the church appeared likely to be torn into hostile camps.
Again during the High Middle Ages, a period often popularly characterized as “Golden Era of Catholicism,” tensions were manifest. For example, Saint Thomas Aquinas, subsequently proclaimed a Father of the Church, was the target of severe criticism for his appropriation of Greek philosophy, particularly his effort to mingle the mind and methods of the pagan Aristotle with the tenets of the faith. At one point, troops had to be called onto the campus of the University of Paris to protect him from those who were protesting his teaching.
For us, Aquinas is the symbol of the flowering of the great European Catholic universities, the period of which Cardinal Newman wrote: “When was there ever a more curious, more meddling, bolder, keener, more penetrating, more rationalistic exercise of the reason than at that time? What class of question did that subtle, metaphysical spirit not scrutinize? What premise was allowed without examination? What principle was not traced to its first origin, and exhibited in its most naked shape? What whole was not analyzed?”
All this is true. In fact, that explosion of learning—of research and instruction—continues to serve as the model for Catholic higher education today. But at the same time that this great flowering was taking place, such classic texts as Aristotle’s Natural Philosophy and Metaphysics remained officially under interdict. Those prohibitions were largely ignored in the universities, and certainly by Aquinas, but the attitude of fear and mistrust they represented prompted widespread attacks on Thomism.
Examples of such conflicts can be found in every century. Many unresolved issues burst forth at the time of the Protestant Reformation, with Catholics poised against Lutherans, Lutherans against Calvinists and Calvinists against Anabaptists. The sacramental system, papal and episcopal authority, veneration of the saints and the Blessed Mother, the popular reading of Scripture—these and many other theological topics were debated not only in the academy and from the pulpit but, unfortunately, also on fields of war.
The church of the apostles and martyrs, the church of missionary zeal and the great promoter of the arts, also has been the source of jaundiced opposition to scientific exploration and callous participation in the unjust structures of privilege. It has in periods of darkness justified the Crusades, the arbitrary inflicting of torture, the institution of slavery and the subordination of women. Honesty requires that we acknowledge both the best and worst of this sometimes rocky journey to the Kingdom we seek.
Writing for The Critic about this troubling history of, as he calls it, “diversity in the Church,” John Tracy Ellis said, “. . . I know of few more helpful guidelines in this oftentimes tortuous matter than the lives of the Church’s most original and creative minds, men and women who were likewise endowed with marked personal sanctity. I think, for example, of a Saint Teresa of Avila, threatened by the Inquisition because of her innovations regarding the contemplative life, yet pushing on with her reform of the Carmelites while ever attentive to the will of her superiors.”
Ellis drew one of the critical lessons of the tumultuous history of the church. “History cannot resolve contemporary problems,” he wrote, “but it can shed light on them from previous experience. If, then, we of this postconciliar age feel anxious, uncertain, and at times perhaps discouraged by the divisiveness that obtains within our ranks as a Catholic community, we should remember that virtually every postconciliar period that followed the church’s 21 ecumenical councils was marked by a similar aftermath. Newman’s profound historical sense bore witness to this fact when as a sequel to Vatican Council I its decrees became the subject of sharp and often bitter dissension both within and without the Catholic community. In the midst of this heated controversy the great Oratorian remarked: “One of the incidental disadvantages of a General Council is that it throws individual units through the Church into confusion and sets them at variance. . . .”
And so it is in this, our postconciliar age. Nevertheless, I believe that the church possesses the resources to change and to prevail in its mission to the world. My belief is based first of all on the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit, but it is reinforced by the experiences of personal conversion and social reform, two dynamics that have been with the church since the beginning.
Resistance to change springs from certain recognizable traits in us all—a genuine reverence and devotion for the traditional and familiar modes of Christian conviction and expression; a collateral mistrust of the modern, the secular and the faddish; and a difficulty in absorbing emotionally the loss of devotions, forms of worship and catechetical formulas that were experienced in one’s youth. Such loss can make it seem as if the inner core of the self has been rendered suddenly vulnerable—or, worse, indifferent to God’s presence and call.
While none of us wants to capitulate to the alien pressure of contemporary life or to give up our rooting in the heart of the Gospel, some in the church adamantly resist even the appearance of change. Newman provided the best description of these self-appointed guardians. “In spite of the testimony of history the other way, they think the Church has no other method of putting down error than the arm of force, or the prohibition of inquiry.” And so we hear of letter-writing campaigns to the bishops and to the Vatican (much easier to organize in the era of the word processor), sounding the alarm and giving the impression that the sky is falling in the American church. Without doubt, this hostility to diversity, this insistence that change is inimical to the church, intensifies debate over the issues we face today, increasing suspicion and rendering our disagreements more confrontational than they need be.
These alarms also bring into play another tension within the church—the significant cultural differences between American and European society. Speaking at the meeting of the American bishops with Pope John Paul last March, Archbishop John May of Saint Louis summarized these differences when he said that Americans are no more inclined to accept the divine right of bishops than to accept the divine right of kings.
Again, history tells the tale. In Europe, the often-turbulent history of the church and the always-turbulent history of kingdoms and nations have been inextricably intertwined. Europe saw the rise and fall of Christendom, from Constantine and Charlemagne to the development of nation-states and the horror of successive world wars. The Renaissance and the Enlightenment, the wars of religion and the wars of revolution, the clash of feudal society with emerging and unrestrained capitalism—all these social forces profoundly affected the life and well-being of the church.
It is not surprising that many sources of bitterness and confusion remain. Europe has seen at various times hostility to the church from the working class, the gentry, and those who despise religion out of cultural or intellectual bias. The Continent has experienced pervasive anticlericalism, hostile secret societies and intense persecutions.
Our own history is different. Not that Catholics always have been welcome here—recall the nativists and the Know-Nothings and the Ku Klux Klan—yet there is an essential difference. In Europe, the church often has felt, with historical justification, that any government which does not institutionalize religion will be its enemy. Here, by contrast, our hope and protection from the beginning has been the guaranteed impartiality of the government—the twin constitutionality guarantees of individual religious freedom and the strict separation of church and state.
These guarantees inspired America’s first archbishop, John Carroll, to insist that the American church seek always to engage rather than confront society, to be a full and willing participant in the civic community. Notre Dame’s founder, Father Edward Sorin, shared Carroll’s patriotism and vision of Catholic renewal.
For Sorin and the pioneers in other religious communities, the key to realizing the church’s opportunities in America was the preparation of American Catholics to pursue their personal opportunities in society—another notion very different from the traditional European concept. Here, education was not to be the preserve of an elite but an extension of the belief that every person possesses the inalienable right to become whatever he or she is capable of becoming. It is not surprising, then, that Catholic colleges and universities—Notre Dame included—were not in their early incarnations intellectually distinguished; they were not intended to be. Rather, they were intended to—and did—take the sons (and daughters, though unfortunately to a lesser degree) of immigrants and make of them priests and lawyers, merchants and politicians, whose own sons and daughters could aspire to equal or greater accomplishments.
In short, our colleges and universities accomplished magnificently what they set out to do, for as more and more opportunities opened to American Catholics, more and more American Catholics were prepared to seize them.
At the same time, American Catholic higher education faithfully discharged its mission as a transmitter of the faith. The growth in size and influence of the American Catholic Church was not just a matter of numbers, it was a function of devotion, vocations, philanthropy and the strength of parish life. In the major cities of America, Catholic parishes often had an influence in their neighborhoods far disproportionate to the size of their congregations. And prominent in those parishes were the graduates of Catholic colleges and universities.
The success of American Catholic higher education brought with it a new challenge. As the American Catholic community has grown more affluent, more influential and more sophisticated, Catholic colleges and universities have been called upon to place themselves among the nation’s and the world’s foremost institutions of teaching and scholarship—in other words, to revive the heritage of the great medieval universities. Certainly, we at Notre Dame are pursuing this mission with relish—as are others throughout Catholic higher education. As we do so, however, we inevitably leave ourselves open to the charge that we are abandoning tradition, secularizing our institutions and, particularly with respect to theology, threatening the teaching authority of the church.
The increased public prominence of theologians serves as the lightning rod for such charges. In sharp contrast with the past, when theological research and speculation was shared only among a small circle of intellectuals, today new interpretations of tradition may become the subject of cover stories in national news magazines. This capacity for newsmaking imposes a new responsibility on theologians—the responsibility always to make clear the difference between the core truths of Christian faith and the philosophical and theological categories employed to explicate them; between the integral components of Christian teaching and those issues and problems that still elude ready solution; between the public faith of the community and the experience and speculation of the individual behavior.
But the maturing intellectual quality of Catholic higher education—in theology and in all disciplines—also requires mature support from the church at large. The essence of scholarship is to investigate, to propose and to test, which means to err as well as to discover. “There are no shortcuts to knowledge,” Newman wrote, “nor does the road to it always lie in the direction in which it terminates, nor are we able to see the end on starting. It may often seem to be diverging from a goal into which it will soon run without effort, if we are but patient and resolute in following it out.”
Happily, we in education for the most part already enjoy the support we seek. Last June, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops approved, by a vote of 214 to 9, a new document on the relationship between theologians and bishops. It cites the good cooperation between American bishops and theologians, encourages informal dialogue as a means to further that cooperation, and stresses flexibility and collaboration in resolving doctrinal disputes.
Archbishop May, addressing the annual meeting last June of the Catholic Theological Society of America, said, “Very bluntly, I think the church in the United States suffers from too many anxious, warming voices that would divide the bishops against the theologians. . . . I stress how imperative it is for you (theologians) to realize that you have the strong and grateful support of us bishops for your work in dealing with problems of enormous complexity and difficulty—problems which bear crucially upon the belief and practice of the church.”
Archbishop May’s clear and unequivocal support for our educational mission echoes that of his fellow archbishop, Rembert Weakland of Milwaukee. In the May 27 issue of America, Monsignor Frederick McManus, himself a professor of canon law at Catholic University of America, quoted Weakland’s 1985 defense of academic freedom at Marquette University: “We all must learn in a free society to discern right from wrong, truth from falsehood. . . . Of course, there are risks, but there are just as many risks in denying to teachers the freedom that has been part of our academic heritage for centuries. I, too, hope that teachers always clearly distinguish what is official church teaching from their own views. But to apply to a Catholic university any tactics that would resemble those of a totalitarian state and that would deprive it of its academic freedom would indeed be an even more dangerous process in the long run.”
To the archbishop’s statement, McManus appended his own suggestion—“in the Catholic community at large perhaps the answer is more faith and less fear”—which recalls yet another admonition of the great Newman: “I say, then, he who believes with Revelation with that absolute faith which is the prerogative of a Catholic, is not the nervous creature who startles at every sound and is fluttered by every strange or novel appearance which meets his eyes.”
What we require today in Catholic higher education is no more than Aquinas required at the dawning of the first great age of Catholic universities, no more than Newman prescribed as essential to the idea of the university. Monsignor McManus reminds us of the 17th century maxim, “Let (Truth) and Falsehood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the worse, in free and open encounter?”
Notre Dame is privileged to be a part of this grand tradition of Catholic higher education. The search for truth, beauty, justice and wisdom continues to require our best and most disciplined efforts. In pursuit of our high goal, freedom of inquiry has been our hallmark and our most effective resource. May it ever be thus.
Father Malloy was president of the University from 1987 to 2005.