On “Catholic” Universities Print
By James V. Schall, S. J.   
Monday, 27 June 2011

A young Brazilian, whom I do not know, sent me an e-mail. He told me that he dropped out of the Catholic University there when the theology professor denied the real presence, scorned liturgical norms, and nixed the reality of the resurrection of Christ. Who pays this teacher’s salary? But it’s been clear for a long time that one may not need to go to Brazil to find such professors – or positions.

I am often annoyed at the uncritical use of modern concepts of “human rights” and “values” as if they are perfectly compatible with either a realistic philosophy or revelation. Such notions originate in modern philosophy. Generally, they mean whatever we want them to mean, except, of course, what Christians think they mean.

When I complained of this confusion to a friend, he replied: “The heart and soul of ecclesiastical rhetoric is based on the conflation of Christianity with secular humanitarianism, with what Comte so suggestively called ‘the religion of humanity.’” This “religion of humanity,” however it is called, is the practical alternative to orthodoxy in the modern world. I would say “alternative to Christianity,” but so many Christians in practice actually worship the “religion of humanity” that I hesitate to put it that way.

Such thoughts came to mind as, with a class, I read the 1993 essay of the late Father Ernest Fortin, A. A., entitled “Do We Need Catholic Universities?” Fortin was a man of remarkable insight, much too seldom studied. He begins with a critique of Msgr. John Tracy Ellis’ famous essay of 1955, “American Catholics and the Intellectual Life.”

Fortin found the presuppositions of this essay dubious. The criterion of what a university should be was taken from the standards of the secular university. The publication of this essay, in many minds, was the justification to go about hiring and using standard evaluations that no longer had a Catholic component. “Excellence” was something that consisted in imitating what is done at the “prestigious universities.”

Fortin discovered that students from a few Catholic schools, usually small ones, were in fact receiving a much more liberal education than was found in the secular universities or larger Catholic universities. But these smaller schools mostly had to go it alone. The situation today is even more striking. The norm of the university is no longer just a “secular” university, but a “research” university. This is, as those close to it well know, where the money is.

“Why is it that the bulk of the education provided at such great cost to both graduates and undergraduates by our best schools,” Fortin wondered, “is so often perceived by the students themselves as anemic and antiseptic to the nth degree?” Fortin’s comment echoes one of Allan Bloom’s, namely, that the unhappiest students today are found in twenty or thirty “best” and most expensive universities. In their teeming minds, they find that they have arrived at the “best” schools, spent all this money, but are left basically empty of soul.

Fortin goes on with his explanation: “The reason, I suppose, is that most faculty members are themselves products of the modern research university and imbued with its peculiar ethos.” “What is this peculiar ethos?” we inquire. It is this: We do our research on man without knowing what man is. Indeed, we presuppose or claim we have proved that no human nature exists. Hence, no limits on science or on our “research” can be found.

Leo Strauss had it right in The City and Man: “The conquest of nature requires the conquest of human nature and hence in the first place the questioning of the unchangeability of human nature: an unchangeable human nature might set absolute limits to progress.” It is this “progress” to which our universities are addicted in their “research.”

We set about “creating” a new man and a new humanity. We have given up on virtue with the discipline and grace needed both to understand and practice it. We do not just “lower our sights.” In our complete autonomy from nature and reason, we accept nothing but what we first will.

“By and large,” Fortin remarked, “philosophy and theology have been stripped of their status as architectonic disciplines and survive, if they survive at all, as parts of a democratic arrangement within which the quest for first principles and the unity of knowledge are dismissed not only as irrelevant but as inimical to the modern egalitarian ideals.” We now study “diversity” for its own sake. We cannot seek the transcendent good, true, and beautiful lest they restrict our “progress” by implying that “not all is permitted,” to recall Dostoyevsky and Socrates.

We have universities that study everything but what we are and might be in reason and grace. We “research” all that is but what is. The highest things cannot be thus “researched.” This is the reason why we are free. 

James V. Schall, S.J., a professor at Georgetown University, is one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. His most recent book is The Mind That Is Catholic.
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