Actually Catholic Universities Print
By Bevil Bramwell, OMI   
Sunday, 07 August 2011

This year on August 15 we celebrate the twenty-first anniversary of the constitution issued by Pope John Paul II on Catholic universities, Ex corde ecclesia. This much-needed document was not popular, to say the least, when it first appeared, and still encounters plenty of resistance even today. Many people, from bishops to university administrators and faculty, chose to misunderstand it so that they could put it aside and continue with what they regarded as more important things.

Now, in John Paul’s words: “A Catholic Universitys privileged task is ‘to unite existentially by intellectual effort two orders of reality that too frequently tend to be placed in opposition as though they were antithetical: the search for truth, and the certainty of already knowing the fount of truth.’ This is what offended at the most fundamental level: The idea that the Church has a privileged role in the search for truth.

This concept went against the modern secularist grain. In the Church, the secularist trend has been to see the Church merely as an institution on a par with other institutions. Some bishops and priests see themselves through the lens of secular professionalism, efficient managers with lots of programs. Truth does not seem to play too large a role.

More radically though, faith does not seem to play a role. And out of this lack of faith in Christ and his Church comes a resignation to just go along with the other institutions, to get along with the political world, the worlds of business and medicine, culture and – of  course – education.

From another perspective, the arrogant and apathetic approach to Ex corde ecclesiae in the United States was due to the anti-dogmatic view that lies at the heart of liberalism. In John Henry Newman’s words, liberalism consists in “undervaluing or disdaining antiquity and authority of the Church in order to rest with one’s own reasonings.”

The practical solipsism of some bishops, presidents, and administrators means that the profound nature of a university and its possible service to society get viciously distorted. When John Paul says that: “The present age is in urgent need of this kind of disinterested service, namely of proclaiming the meaning of truth, that fundamental value without which freedom, justice and human dignity are extinguished,” he is indicating the crucial work of university-level institutions.

But this cannot happen if explicitly Catholic institutions are not allowed – or better obliged – to exercise their full scope. And they cannot do so when they do not grasp their symbiotic relationship with the Church in all of its dimensions.

The historical situation in which we find ourselves – one of opposition to or avoidance of the Catholic nature of Catholic institutions of higher learning – has a long history, too long to be traced here. Phillip Lawler has sketched the main lines of the collapse of Catholic culture in America in his insightful book, The Faithful Departed. It happened with the active and passive participation of people inside and outside the Church. Unfortunately, Ex corde did not lead to the much needed self-reflection that would have done great good for the whole Church.

If there had been some serious efforts to grapple with the question why people were opposed to Ex corde, given its quite traditional teaching on the nature of the Church, it might have led to some clarification about the other ways that ecclesiastical officials view institutions. It might even have led to the ultimate question: do I still believe in the Holy Catholic Church? Or is it just a meal ticket? Am I in the Church because it owns the photocopying machines, to quote one not very memorable thinker?

Pope John Paul II sketched out a truly vast project that involves universities in a very specific way – one that simply must not be hindered or polluted by those who merely live off the Church, because humanity itself will bear the heavy cost. He wrote:

Scientific and technological discoveries create an enormous economic and industrial growth, but they also inescapably require the correspondingly necessary search for meaning in order to guarantee that the new discoveries be used for the authentic good of individuals and of human society as a whole. If it is the responsibility of every University to search for such meaning, a Catholic University is called in a particular way to respond to this need: its Christian inspiration enables it to include the moral, spiritual and religious dimension in its research, and to evaluate the attainments of science and technology in the perspective of the totality of the human person.

The Church is the guardian of humanity. But for years it has allowed itself to be misled and damaged in its work by people both inside and outside. When are we going to see some leadership and the sheer moral and intellectual effort that is needed to serve humanity in the way that God intended?

Bevil Bramwell, priest of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, teaches theology at Catholic Distance University. He holds a Ph.D from Boston College and works in the area of ecclesiology.


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