Truth is the Telos of a Catholic University

Is truth the telos of a Catholic university?  I’m using telos here the way social scientist Jonathan Haidt does in an influential essay. (Available by clicking here.) The telos of a thing is its inherent, pervasive, and even dominant purpose.  It is dominant in the sense that it trumps other purposes in cases of conflict.

Looking at the many recent cases of “canceling” and blackballing scholars, Haidt wonders whether for many universities some conception of social justice has become the telos. (One must say “some conception of” because once detached from truth, who can say whether that conception really does represent social justice?)  Universities must choose either truth or social justice as their dominant telos, Haidt says.

Which must a Catholic university choose?

As a classical scholar and expert in John Henry Newman, my first instinct is to answer from the nature of the case.  Every university, I think, from its nature must have truth as its telos; therefore, so must any Catholic university.

A university is a place of universal knowledge.  All human beings by nature desire to know, as Aristotle rightly said.  We can properly be said to know only truth. But this natural desire can be met adequately only through cooperative effort, just as our natural needs for food, clothing, and shelter can be met adequately only cooperatively, through what is called the economy.  That is what the university is, then, any place where human beings come together in order through common effort to arrive at all truth that human beings can attain.

The university is precisely a natural institution – it will never become obsolete – by which the human race arrives at, curates, passes down, shares, and more broadly assists others in applying, all attainable truth.  The Church has care for universities in the first instance, then, because she has care for all natural institutions, such as the family and political society.  She wants to see each flourish according to its proper telos.

Newman, in his Idea of a University, holds the same thing, although he concentrates more on the “passing down” – the education of students in truth – and the unity of truth.  He famously says a university is not a seminary; it aims to cultivate the intellectual, not the moral virtues.

The latter must be taken for granted, while supported by a system of tutors who, in the manner of friends, exercise “personal influence” over students.   But all intellectual virtues have truth as their telos.  The beauty of intellect, which Newman famously extols, is an effective elegance in discerning truth.

Newman reading, learning

For Newman, too, a genuine university must study God, who truly exists as the first and final cause, and therefore is the sole unifying reason for all truth, as if in the manner of a highest form.  Take away the highest form of anything, and you are left with a “heap” (Aristotle would say), lacking unity.

Nothing can exist without unity.  In a sense the reality of truth is denied because the reality of truth as a whole is subverted, once God is taken away.  The university becomes bereft of its object.

Thus far I consider the nature of universities. But what if as a Catholic I turn to authority, in this case, Ex Corde Ecclesiae, the great charter on Catholic universities set down by St. John Paul II the Great?

His teaching is unequivocal.  Right at the start of the document, he emphasizes:

With every other University, it shares that gaudium de veritate, so precious to Saint Augustine, which is that joy of searching for, discovering and communicating truth in every field of knowledge. A Catholic university’s 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.”

Along with every other university, the purpose of a Catholic university is truth.  But a Catholic university enjoys this further advantage over other universities, that it also strives for truth through revelation.

This last point is highly important.  Sometimes members of Catholic universities are put on the defensive, as if the Catholicity of their institution was a limitation or “fetter” on the search for truth. But it really works as the opposite of this.

A true Catholic university cares so ardently about truth that it will not neglect any reliable path of truth.  It won’t scruple that some fundamental truths (about the Trinity, about the Incarnation) are in effect handed to it, not attained through human efforts alone.

Truths of theology will never be named after the scientist who formulated them, as if the scientist created certain laws and didn’t just discover them. That they are important truths is enough.

Sometimes critics of genuine Catholic universities use weapons that make no sense and could be turned against any university and any individual.  Surely it makes sense to search for truth only because we can find truth, and surely when we find truth, as we think, we are right to treat it differently from some as yet undetermined matter of speculation.

It would have made no sense for the mathematician Andrew Wiles, for instance, to remain in doubt about Fermat’s last theorem after he found a proof of it.  It makes no sense for a convert to Catholicism to treat the truth of the Catholic faith as always up for grabs.

But freedoms that hold for individuals hold too for voluntary associations.  What hinders many, each persuaded of this fundamental truth, from coming together and pursuing all attainable truth within this framework?

If “the mystery of man is made manifest in the mystery of Christ,” and if “once the Creator is lost, the creature is lost as well” (Gaudium et Spes), maybe such an association has even greater powers to find and curate truth.


You may also enjoy:

Randall Smith’s On What Foundation is the University Built?

Stephen P. White’s The Synod Comes to Catholic University

Michael Pakaluk, an Aristotle scholar and Ordinarius of the Pontifical Academy of St. Thomas Aquinas, is a professor in the Busch School of Business at the Catholic University of America. He lives in Hyattsville, MD with his wife Catherine, also a professor at the Busch School, and their eight children. His acclaimed book on the Gospel of Mark is The Memoirs of St Peter. His new book, Mary's Voice in the Gospel of John: A New Translation with Commentary, is now available.