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Blase J. CupichSeptember 18, 2023
Graduates of Regis University in Denver are seen during their commencement April 30, 2022. (CNS photo/Brett Stakelin courtesy Regis University/Illustration by America Media)

This essay is a Cover Story selection, a weekly feature highlighting the top picks from the editors of America Media.

“Catholic higher education in the United States has a unique history,” wrote the bishops of the United States in their 1999 document implementing the norms of “Ex Corde Ecclesiae,” the Vatican’s apostolic constitution on Catholic universities. “The opening of Georgetown in 1789 and subsequent growth into 230 Catholic colleges and universities is a remarkable achievement for the Church and the United States.” I think it important to begin by stressing this “remarkable achievement,” one unparalleled in the life of the church. All those who are part of this enterprise should be proud.

What does it mean to be a Jesuit Catholic university at this time in history? That larger question implies a number of more specific ones. How do these universities engage with the Catholic intellectual tradition? How do they integrate a truly Catholic imagination in their ministry of education? How do they incorporate the social teachings of the church into their identity? How do the spiritual and corporal works of mercy help define their students? Finally, how does a Jesuit Catholic university education invite students to understand our moral teachings at this moment in history? To the extent that educators can answer these questions and communicate those answers to their constituents, Jesuit Catholic universities will be able to more precisely define their identity in our present moment.

It is my contention that those in leadership positions in Jesuit Catholic universities live in three worlds: the university world, the Catholic world and the Jesuit world. Each world has its own expectations and demands. I would like to identify some of the positive resources found in each—and suggest some challenges that educational leaders might want to address as they keep in creative tension the interplay of these three worlds in pursuit of the unique mission of Jesuit Catholic higher education.

The university world

It is an expectation these days at most Catholic universities that they must interact with and be evaluated by the established expectations of the broader world of higher education in this country. A classic understanding of the mission of a university, according to norms of the American Association of Colleges and Universities, is tied to the notion that the capacity to understand ideas and issues in context, the commitment to live in society and the yearning for truth are fundamental features of our humanity. The university therefore prepares students to live in an ever-changing world by cultivating each person’s ability to think, to learn and to express oneself both rigorously and creatively. To that end, an institution should offer an education that fosters well-grounded intellectual resilience, a disposition toward lifelong learning and an acceptance of responsibility for the ethical consequences of our ideas and actions.

Those in leadership positions in Jesuit Catholic universities live in three worlds: the university world, the Catholic world and the Jesuit world. Each world has its own expectations and demands.

A university does this by providing students with an understanding of the foundations of knowledge and inquiry about nature, culture and society; by encouraging a mastery of the core skills of perception, analysis and expression; and by cultivating a respect for truth—a recognition of the importance of historical and cultural context and the connections among formal learning, citizenship and service to our communities.

As such, a university should prize curiosity, seek to expand the boundaries of human knowledge and advance equity, diversity and inclusion. By its nature, liberal education is global and pluralistic. In sum, the university is society’s best investment in our shared future.

Yet, to be honest, we are witnessing in recent years some movement away from this established understanding of American higher education, as some universities succumb to enrollment pressures and become technical schools, offering credentials designed to lead directly to employment. A liberal education is sometimes seen as a luxury that is not easily justified. But preparing future citizens and community leaders must mean preparing them for more than their first job.

As educational leaders discuss how to stay true to each institution’s identity as a university, it might be helpful to be clear about the difference between truth and information. We are an information-driven society. While more information might make us efficient, it can also leave us directionless. Claiming the truth must be a central concern of any university, and information is no substitute for it. We won’t live or die for information, but we will for truth.

The Catholic Church shares the aspirations and concerns of the higher education community for providing an education that develops an appreciation for truth, for goodness and for beauty through liberal studies, and we look to the university to continue to stress the need for a holistic education, not simply a work credential.

Jesuit universities in particular are known as places for the intellectual, social, spiritual and physical development of the student — the education of the “whole person.”

The church is grateful that Catholic universities have historically embraced a well-rounded liberal education. Jesuit universities in particular are known as places for the intellectual, social, spiritual and physical development of the student — the education of the “whole person.”

The Catholic world

The newly appointed prefect of the Dicastery for Culture and Education, José Tolentino de Mendonça, recently spoke of these aspirations: “Catholic universities are expected not only to actively guard the noble memory of past days, but also to be the probes, and the cradles, of tomorrow.” Likewise, the American bishops recognized in their document implementing “Ex Corde Ecclesiae” that while Catholic universities exist in communion and share in the mission and life of the local and universal church, they also participate in the life of “the higher education community of the United States and the civic community.”

Yet there is something unique about the Catholic university. As noted in a joint document of the Congregation for Catholic Education and the Pontifical Councils for the Laity and for Culture in May 1994, “The Church’s Presence in the University and in University Culture,” it guarantees “in institutional form, a Christian presence in the university world.” As such, in the words of “Ex Corde Ecclesiae,” this gives the Catholic university “a primary and privileged place for a fruitful dialogue between the Gospel and culture” (emphasis in original).

In carrying out its mission as a university to search for truth, the Catholic university, in the words of “Ex Corde Ecclesiae,” serves not only the people of God but the entire human family “in their pilgrimage to the transcendent goal which gives meaning to life.”

The Catholic university matures in its understanding of the pilgrimage to the transcendent goal that gives meaning to life by relying on and adding to the living Catholic intellectual tradition. This vast repository of theological and philosophical thought includes the treasury of the devotional practices, the works of literature, visual art, music and drama, the styles of architecture, the legal reasoning, the social and political theorizing, the pastoral practice and the other forms of cultural expression that have emerged over the course of 2,000 years of Christian engagement in a dialogue between faith and culture.

The premise of this dialogue is that the universe can be fully intelligible only in reference to God as its ultimate origin and end. As such, the search for truth in all aspects of life extends to the ultimate search for truth that animates faith. This dialogue also hinges on the notion of faith as a catalyst for inquiry, because faith seeks to understand itself and its relationship to every dimension of life. As the university carries out its work within the Catholic intellectual tradition, the aim, Pope Francis noted in his 2015 address to the World Congress on Education, “Education Today and Tomorrow: A Passion that Is Renewed,” is not to proselytize. Rather, its intent is to educate in a Christian way that brings young people to value all of reality, including the reality of mystery and transcendence.

Is it possible that a business major will graduate knowing more about Keynesian economic principles than Catholic social teaching?

“Today,” the pope said, “there is a tendency to a neo-positivism, that is, to educate in immanent things, to the value of immanent things. For me, the greatest crisis of education in the Christian perspective is this closure to transcendence.... It is necessary to prepare hearts so that the Lord may manifest himself, but in totality; that is, in the totality of humanity that also has this dimension of transcendence. Educating humanly but with open horizons.”

These words ring true as we think about how social media has reduced young people to live in an environment of immediacy. The sociologist Peter Berger described in his 1969 book Rumors of Angels the five “prototypical human gestures” that are signals of transcendence, for they cannot be explained intellectually: The human tendency to believe that the world is ordered in a trustworthy way; the capacity to play; the capacity to hope in the face of death; the conviction that some things are just wrong and must be condemned; and the capacity to laugh. Where are the possibilities today of perceiving those signals of transcendence?

What is the role of the Catholic university in carrying on its work in the Catholic intellectual tradition by fostering a sense of prayer and the mystery of God, by providing them experiences of the mystagogy of the sacraments and the liturgical life? Are students being deprived of gaining lasting values in favor of learning skills for higher salaries? Is it possible that a business major will graduate knowing more about Keynesian economic principles than Catholic social teaching? Recognizing that many institutions have initiated cutbacks in theology departments and theology requirements, is it possible to foster greater collaboration between all departments and theologians so that the Catholic tradition and Catholic social teaching are in some way a part of all courses?

The humanities can be one source of such experiences, but universities are even cutting back more and more on such studies. Great literature can foster empathy. Likewise, while recognizing a general anti-institutionalism among young people today, we need to ask how the contemporary university can be a place that communicates the fullness of the church’s teaching in a positive light, and to be consciously in dialogue with it. How should Catholic institutions of higher learning understand their mission as part of and in dialogue with the fullness of church life and tradition?

Those Jesuit institutions that are already doing this no doubt are demonstrating great creativity, courage and patience—and can serve as a model for all Catholic universities.

In the document I cited at the beginning of this essay, the U.S. bishops describe the relationship between Catholic universities and church leadership in a way that I believe is, at best, achieving the minimum. They note that the two are joined in complementary activities contributing to the church’s mission—the bishops have the right and obligation to communicate and safeguard the integrity of church doctrine, while the Catholic universities have the right and obligation to investigate, analyze and communicate all truth freely. As a diocesan bishop, I would value a relationship that is framed less legally and more existentially.

The starting point, it seems to me, is our common commitment to ongoing human and spiritual formation of our young people, such that we could open a dialogue about how best to integrate our young people into the ecclesial life of our communities during and after their university years. The Archdiocese of Chicago has been involved over the last six years in a renewal of our parishes, and we have done research on the spiritual and religious practices as well as the needs and aspirations of young people. That research has been attentive to data from Springtide and other firms.

Some of the findings inspire hope; others are alarming. More than 70 percent of young people say their religious and spiritual practices positively impact their mental health, while 61 percent say adults in their lives do not know how much they are struggling with mental health. We are eager to renew our parishes to be more responsive to young people by collaborating more intentionally with Catholic institutions of higher learning so that their important contribution to the formation and development of young people might have staying power to continue after graduation.

We need to ask how the contemporary university can be a place that communicates the fullness of the church’s teaching in a positive light, and to be consciously in dialogue with it.

Some years ago, I was doing some research for a talk at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Wash., on the decision by the Society of Jesus to establish universities. St. Ignatius Loyola was not at first keen to do this. But once the decision was made, he wanted Jesuit universities to be in a parish setting, so that the lived experience of church life would inform and be informed by the university. Is it time to recapture that vision?

I am convinced that the local church can contribute to the enterprise of the Catholic university, allowing the lived experience of people with all their joys and struggles to ground our educational institutions and save them from pure abstraction. Conversely, the university can serve as a “thinking heart” that takes seriously the human dilemmas and struggles and the religious aspirations of young people—and offers the local church clear and creative possibilities for engaging young people.

The Jesuit world

The third world in which educational leaders at Jesuit universities live, the Jesuit world, provides two unique sources of inspiration to guide and encourage community members as they discern what unique contribution their schools will make to American higher education and to the church’s desire to prepare global leaders who recognize we are all on “a pilgrimage to the transcendent,” one that requires us to encourage our young people to take up the challenges of our age.

The first resource is the “Four Universal Apostolic Preferences,” promulgated by the Society of Jesus in 2019 to identify where Jesuits and their partners should concentrate their energies and to guide the work of apostolates of the Society of Jesus.

The first universal apostolic preference, “showing the way to God through the Spiritual Exercises and their practice of discernment,” reinforces the ongoing commitment of Jesuit institutions to share the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius Loyola and the tools of discernment, especially with staff, faculty and students through programs for spiritual renewal. Such ministries to help souls as they seek to find God’s will for them in the concrete circumstances of their lives are indeed a gift, especially in an age when loneliness and anxiety have overcome so many.

The second preference, “walking with the poor, the outcasts of the world, and those whose dignity has been violated, in the mission of reconciliation and justice,” offers a challenge to Jesuit universities to find ways of bringing the gift of education to those who hunger for such an opportunity but have been systematically excluded. It also calls on these institutions to step up advocacy efforts for justice and reconciliation.

No Jesuit Catholic university’s mission should be reduced to the wider culture’s understanding of social justice.

The third preference, “walking together with young people to build a hope-filled future,” is aimed at those called to work with students today. It is a goal that Jesuit institutions of higher learning are uniquely able to address. For too many young people, a hope-filled future is a distant, even impossible ambition, individually and collectively.

And the fourth preference, “working together to care for the earth, our common home,” offers our young people the chance to collaborate with their teachers and mentors in the protection of the environment in a way that fulfills Gospel values. This preference aligns with the desires of so many young people today. Catholic universities ought to be leading examples of the Holy Father’s exhortations in this regard in his encyclical “Laudato Si’.”

The Mission Priority Examen

A further resource at the disposal of Jesuit educational leaders is the “Mission Priority Examen,” a self-study and peer review process for reaffirming the mission of Jesuit colleges and universities. Developed by Jesuit provincial superiors and the presidents of the schools constituting the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities, it identifies seven characteristics that confirm an institution’s Catholic and Jesuit identity.

Without any pretense of competence to speak about the specific charisms of the Society of Jesus, I would offer the following thoughts.

First, this Examen cites Arturo Sosa, S.J., the superior general of the Society of Jesus, saying that in its commitment to universities, the Society of Jesus “seeks to contribute to turn the word of Jesus into a historical truth: ‘...I came that they may have life and have it more abundantly’” (Jn 10:10). It also references having “a foundational respect for human dignity and an orientation toward the love that is evident in the life of Jesus.”

Could not more be said about knowing Jesus? Is it possible that a student will graduate knowing more about the life, times and achievements of Dante than of Jesus Christ? A friend shared with me that a student at an Ivy League university recently told him that the required reading in a literature course included the Gospel according to St. Matthew because, the professor said, “No one should be considered fully educated without knowing something about Jesus Christ.” Is it possible to develop a course that could be used as a model across all institutions and required of all students that would describe Palestine in the first century, the basic teachings of Jesus, the pivotal events of his death and resurrection and the birth of the Gospels? Is this too bold?

A second point: I recognize the importance that institutions of higher learning in our country are giving to the promotion of diversity, equity and inclusion. It seems to me that negotiating how Jesuit Catholic universities will do so must involve grounding their efforts in Catholic social teaching, lest the emphasis in promoting D.E.I. initiatives come from the wider culture and its limited view of social justice. D.E.I. as defined by the culture’s approach to social justice is not a substitute for the mission of Jesuit Catholic universities. Vigilance in this regard is needed to maintain the unique contribution of such universities, namely the mission and ability to expand, deepen and apply the rich intellectual heritage of the church, its unparalleled work in social teaching and its tradition of exploring in every age the meaning of truth, beauty and the good. No Jesuit Catholic university’s mission should be reduced to the wider culture’s understanding of social justice.

One last point: The Jesuits and their institutions have a great reputation for selecting good leaders—presidents and provosts—with talents for running a university. Cardinal Tolentino, whom I quoted earlier, noted that the role of leaders is to combine renewal with awareness. Leaders must know who they are to take up the work of ongoing renewal. This means keeping fresh some penetrating questions when their institutions onboard new staff, board members and leaders, such as: Are they prepared to share and expand on the university mission? Do they have the conviction that the seven characteristics of the Mission Priority Examen are so important that who is hired and how they will budget resources and establish institutional priorities really matter? How would they resist drifting into the same mediocrity that has captured other institutions of higher education in this country?

These questions become more urgent as Jesuit universities experience rapid turnover from religious to lay leadership in many critical positions, and as these leaders take up the task of forming leaders who understand the role and purpose of a Jesuit Catholic institution.

Let me conclude with one final word of encouragement from Cardinal Tolentino, who addressed the importance of hope (a theme not unfamiliar to the Society of Jesus) as it permeates the four Universal Apostolic Preferences:

Curiously, a theme that is never missing when Pope Francis talks about universities is hope. It is an exhortation not to be discouraged by the difficulties of this historical period and to face it, rather, enlightened by that confidence that the Christian promise radiates. Instead of globalizing fear and certainty, Francis urges us to globalize hope. Hope is not an accessory or an eventuality: it has an ontological root. When hope is missing, life is missing. There is no life without hope. Those who inhabit the university world cannot afford not to have hope. Hope is our mission. It is not superficial optimism, but it is knowing how to risk in the right way. May our Catholic universities, with the tools of renewal and awareness, always move forward in the right way.

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