Shortchanging Catholic College Students

If you have not yet come across Fr. Richard John Neuhaus's article "A University of a Particular Kind" in the April edition of First Things, try to get your hands on it. I recommend it highly. Neuhaus has drawn the line in the sand for the administrators of our modern Catholic colleges who are transforming their schools into carbon copies of the country's secular universities.

We know what the secularizers of Catholic colleges would say, if someone could persuade them to respond to Neuhaus. They would tell us they are in pursuit of academic excellence and intellectual honesty, and that being "restricted" by Church-defined teachings would hinder their academic freedom. This was the logic behind the so-called Land O' Lakes Statement in 1967, with which a number of Catholic universities stated openly that they were not accountable to any authority beyond the university community.

The question is whether there is merit to that position. Neuhaus doesn't think so. He makes clear that there has to be something else going on. Why? Because maintaining a college's Catholic character does not limit a university's search for academic excellence. It enhances it.

Neuhaus: "Let me put it bluntly. A student at a Christian university who has not encountered the proposal of the Christian intellectual tradition — from Paul to Augustine, from Irenaeus to Dante, Aquinas, Luther, Milton, and moderns such as Lewis and Polanyi, along with those who have challenged and now challenge that tradition — such a student has been grievously short-changed in his or her university education."

 Re-read that sentence. Neuhaus is not calling for what some call the "seminary model" of a college, one where students are forced to learn by rote a strict and formulaic litany of catechism maxims and where ideas contrary to Church teachings are censored. He wants the students at Catholic colleges to be aware that serious-minded dissenters exist. But he also wants the students to be aware of what these dissenters are dissenting from. A Catholic college has a patrimony to preserve. Why else call itself Catholic? Why else would a Catholic family choose a Catholic college?

Neuhaus is too polite to say this but I will: One cannot help but get the impression that the people who run our modern Catholic colleges are either unaware of the glories of the Catholic intellectual tradition that Neuhaus describes — or are actually hostile to it, without being honest enough to say so openly for fear of turning away the Catholic parents of prospective students, whose checkbooks keep their universities in business.

What other reason would there be for a modern professor or university administrator not to applaud Neuhaus' assertion that the "task of the university is to form and inform minds by arousing curiosity about, as Matthew Arnold put it, the best that has been thought and said. The goal of the Christian university is to arouse and direct such curiosity about the unparalleled synthesis of Athens and Jerusalem, of faith and reason, that is the Christian intellectual tradition. Faith and reason, John Paul said in his encyclical Fides et Ratio, are the two wings by which the mind rises toward wisdom."

The new left Marxists and deconstructionists who control the countries' secular universities would respond to Neuhaus openly and candidly. They would reply that the "synthesis of Athens and Jerusalem" that Neuhaus extols is precisely what they seek to liberate us from. They saw Pope John Paul II as a voice from our benighted past. They prefer Jacques Derrida to C.S. Lewis, Freud to St. Augustine. What we are left to ponder is how many people employed by Catholic colleges are on the same side as the secular humanists, but who put up a different front, much as they don their clerical collars on parents' weekends or for pictures for their school's admissions brochures.

Neuhaus refers to John Paul II's encyclical Redemptoris Missio to deal with the charge that a university with a forthright Catholic mission would be a contradiction in terms; that such an identity would close the door to honest scholarly inquiry and "impose" its religious views on its faculty and student body. "The Church imposes nothing. She only proposes," wrote John Paul. Neuhaus adds: "A Christian university is a profoundly humanistic university that embraces, far beyond what are called the humanities, all knowledge of the three transcendentals — the good, the true, and the beautiful."

Precisely. A Catholic university, proud of its heritage, will not offer its students less knowledge. It will offer more, a far richer education. Permit me a personal anecdote to make the point. I went to both private and public graduate schools, after getting my undergraduate degree and master's degree from Catholic universities. I went on to teach in a public high school for over 30 years. I had some very bright and well-read colleagues over the years. But what always struck me was how much more I learned in my Catholic education than they did at some very prestigious secular schools, including Harvard, Brandeis, and Columbia.

My Catholic college education in the 1960s made me familiar with the same writers and theorists as my colleagues. I knew as much, for example, about Marx, Nietzsche, John Dewey, William James, Freud, behaviorism and logical positivism as they did. But I had also been introduced to a wealth of knowledge about which my colleagues knew virtually nothing: St. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Jacques Maritian, Gerard Manley Hopkins and John Courtney Murray, for starters.

I am not exaggerating for emphasis: I think that, even if I were a secular humanist in the full sense of the term, I would hold that my Catholic education gave me a fuller and richer understanding of the intellectual heritage of Europe and the United States than my colleagues possessed. The question is why so many of the people in charge of our modern Catholic colleges seem to prefer the shallower education of my non-Catholic colleagues over what Neuhaus callsĀ "the high adventure of the Christian intellectual tradition — a tradition ever so much richer than the reductionist Enlightenment embraced by schools that claim to be universities pure and simple."

That choice just doesn't make sense. Unless, I repeat, they are either ignorant of the Catholic tradition or hostile to it. Either case would be a sad state of affairs.

Subscribe to CE
(It's free)

Go to Catholic Exchange homepage