The World’s Slow Stain

Thanks to the British poet Percy Bysshe Shelley for the title, which aptly fits the surrender to intellectual decline within the U.S. Church. The August 15 anniversary of Ex Corde Ecclesiae highlighted what is special about Catholic universities. Do we, for example, fall back on the hackneyed view of the 1967 Land O’Lakes Statement on the Nature of the Contemporary Catholic University? Or do we look for something better?

Land O’Lakes, signed by a large number of “Catholic” university presidents, states that: “The Catholic university adds to the basic idea of a modern university distinctive characteristics which round out and fulfill that idea.” As this brief excerpt makes clear, the primary idea here is that of the “modern university.” Catholicism is secondary, an add-on that rounds out and fulfills what already exists. The authoritative and contrary understanding of a university is found in the opening words of Ex Corde: “born from the heart of the Church, a Catholic University is located . . . .” In other words, in a truer perspective, the primary idea of a university lies with Christ and his Church.

There is a totally different Christology and ecclesiology at work here as well. For John Paul II, and the Catholic Church, Christ is the Incarnation of the Divine Word and so is all truth.  All was created through him (John 1:3). So whichever disciplines are found in a Catholic university, all its intellectual efforts are to be situated within “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.” (John Paul II)  Christ is, of course, the fount of truth.

Now the many disciplines in a Catholic university can be viewed from the perspective of power – the dominant perspective in modern society – whence the Land O’Lakes proposition that:

There must be no theological or philosophical imperialism; all scientific and disciplinary methods, and methodologies, must be given due honor and respect. However, there will necessarily result from the interdisciplinary discussions an awareness that there is a philosophical and theological dimension to most intellectual subjects when they are pursued far enough. Hence, in a Catholic university there will be a special interest in interdisciplinary problems and relationships.

In contrast, Saint Bonaventure, in his Reductione Artium ad theologiam (literally “bringing back the arts to theology”), had already realized that the relationship of the disciplines is much stronger and that they all have a strong link to faith in Christ and to the truth that he represents.

Bonaventure was pointing to the integrity of truth. As John Paul explains: “Aided by the specific contributions of philosophy and theology, university scholars will be engaged in a constant effort to determine the relative place and meaning of each of the various disciplines within the context of a vision of the human person and the world that is enlightened by the Gospel, and therefore by a faith in Christ, the Logos, as the centre of creation and of human history.”

The fact that there was no fallout after the Land O’Lakes statement and that Ex Corde has been allowed to have only minimal effect on Catholic universities in this country constitutes a lack of faith in faith itself and a lack of faith in the Church – something that all of us profess each Sunday. The secular culture, as well as its lack of faith and its relativistic treatment of the Church, is apparently seeping even into the Church’s self-understanding in America. Moreover, contained within this lack of faith is a rejection of the consequences of Christ being the Word of God and the fact that creation is through the Word.

The reason for Ex corde and later for Benedict XVI’s projected speech at La Sapienza University in Rome is that, in Benedict’s words: “it is the Pope’s task to safeguard sensibility to the truth; to invite reason to set out ever anew in search of what is true and good, in search of God; to urge reason, in the course of this search, to discern the illuminating lights that have emerged during the history of the Christian faith, and thus to recognize Jesus Christ as the Light that illumines history and helps us find the path towards the future.”

Of course, the need for this vigilance does not stop with the pope, but extends to each bishop and to the officials in the administration of potentially Catholic universities. Moving the universities to get into the nitty-gritty of being called Catholic is fundamental to the Church’s presence in the larger pagan and agnostic culture. Dioceses cannot and should not handle all of the intellectual questions that are flying about the culture, and yet they are supposed to be evangelizing the culture.

Church teaching “plays a particularly important role in the search for a synthesis of knowledge as well as in the dialogue between faith and reason. It serves all other disciplines in their search for meaning, not only by helping them to investigate how their discoveries will affect individuals and society but also by bringing a perspective and an orientation not contained within their own methodologies.” (John Paul II)

Let’s stop the slow stain of paganism and agnosticism in its tracks!