The Survival of Catholic Higher Education

As a fellow theologian, Jon Nilson has my great respect. As a soothsayer and prophet of doom (America, 5/28) he has my respectful but well-considered disagreement. Catholic higher education is so vigorous as a result of wrestling with ill-matched, superimposed rules that it would take much more than a few further tussles over the mandatum to extinguish it. In fact, it seems rather that attempts to pummel and squeeze the Catholic universities and colleges of this country unceremoniously into straightjackets has roused them from a kind of dazed sleepwalking.



In my observation, these institutions were Catholic in the 1950’s in an inattentive kind of way because it could not have occurred to them to be anything else. It was so obvious what it meant to be Catholic in higher education that few bothered to think about it. Chapel, prayer before class, crucifixes on the walls, classes on Thomistic philosophy, religion lessons located somewhere between catechism and seminary, no meat on Friday and confessions heard on Saturdaythe externals were all in place, so one did not need to question what constituted the inner reality. One assumed the train was moving in the right direction. Those who are quite sure they are right do not need to consider other points of view. No wonder that in American Catholics and the Intellectual Life (1956), the historian John Tracy Ellis (1905-92) found it so clear and so bitter that no great scholarship was coming out of these institutions. When everyone has predetermined answers, who needs to ask questions?

Then came the 1960’s. Many individuals were roused from their slumber, but not yet the institutions. Institutions are more difficult to rouse to full awareness. The individuals who constitute them need a new common language, and that takes time to generate. Moreover, those individuals come to new and startling realizations at different speeds and are in fact apt to get into fights over them. Higher education in general in this country went through a time of stringent professionalization, and the Catholic colleges moved along in the stream. One consequence was sharper academic and administrative specialization and a certain centrifugal effect in the formerly coherent governance and community life of each institution. Neither the Second Vatican Council nor Roman Curial shenanigans had much of a role in bringing this about.

Vatican II had its own impact, however: return to Scripture and a certain freedom of thought in matters religious; vindication of historical consciousness and its far-reaching implications; ecumenical relations with people and thought of other traditions; the realization of the baptismal vocation of the laity in world and church; the reawakening of Christian hope for this world and its ongoing history; and much more. This, of course, could also be seen as a turbulence of centrifugal forces, with the unleashing of many creativities, freedoms and initiatives not planned from the top of the organization of church or institution. It could, however, be seen alternatively as the outpouring of the Holy Spirit in a new and bewildering Pentecost. In any case, it certainly looked quite remarkably like chaos, albeit a very fertile chaos.

In this context, the colleges adapted their governance, their recruitment, their curricula and so forth. And this did not happen according to any master plan. Did we lose some of the integrity and sharp definition of the 50’s? I think so, but rather in the way that children must sooner or later become adolescents, losing the old certainties and securities for adventures, discoveries and heart-stopping risks. Not everything that happened in those years was good. But it had to happen sooner or later; the sleepers had to wake up and deal as responsible people with the real world. They had to realize that their own experience was valid knowledge even in matters of the faith and of Christian life. They had to realize that risk and change are essential to growth and thus to human and Christian existence. Not only the colleges, but thoughtful Catholics in all walks of life were enjoying a kind of spiritual adolescencean awakening of personal discernment and a deeper level of personal responsibility. They were awakening to what the German theologian Romano Guardini (1885-1968), far in advance of his time, had called prophetic obedience.

And then came the 1980’s. In the Catholic universities and colleges, voices from within were asking where, in the midst of the prevailing plurality, the Catholic identity of the institutions was to be found. When all was in motion, where was the center? When every viewpoint is to be respected, by what criteria is truth to be found? On many campuses faculty and administrative groups conversed seriously, persistently and systematically on the question of the Catholic identity of their schools. There were ongoing efforts to understand the Catholic tradition not in its externals and organizational constraints but in its intellectual coherence and in its spiritual and world-building thrust. There were critical excursions into the history of the church and the churches. Serious contemporary theological works were read and discussed. Those who participated in such discussions were forging a common language to deal with challenges never met before in a world that never existed before and in an ecumenical context never experienced before.

Those who participated in this movement were few but influential, and they were deeply committed to the project of realizing the potential of a Catholic university or college in circumstances so new as to demand new and creative responses. Indeed, with the exception of leading administrators, these people were so busy dealing with the substance of what makes a Catholic university or college Catholic that they scarcely noticed in 1983 the distinctly mismatched regulations that triumphed their Curial way into the new Code of Canon Law. Many of us assumed that rules so oddly out of touch with the reality of civil laws, cultures, academic expectations and structures around the world would simply be ignored.

Then came 1990 and the apostolic constitution Ex Corde Ecclesiae, and increasingly shrill demands from the Roman Curia that universities around the world be reshaped to fit inside the predetermined rules. But while life structures itself inevitably and universally, structures do not beget life. Nor can structures control life, as the letter cannot hold the spirit captive. Creative expressions of faith in quest of understanding can be reprimanded, punished and exiled, but they cannot be killed by such means. Thrown out at the door of the hierarchic church, and forbidden the designation Catholic, they flow back through the windows to find themselves at home among the people of God. Long before the attempt to legislate a resurgence of Catholic scholarship and higher education by tight rules, the scholars and their administrative leaders had seized the initiative by a deeper quest for the inner reality of the tradition. Catholic higher education is alive and well in its corporate expression on our campusesnot everywhere, not always, not in every professor or administrator, but predominantly and very actively. Where the religious congregations are diminishing, a new generation of lay leadership has come to the helm with considerable energy, good will and sense of purpose and direction.

Now we are in the third millennium. Those of us who have lived through the history of the last half century have more reason to be grateful and optimistic concerning the project of Catholic higher education than we have reason to project gloom. Some of us are convinced that the reality of the church goes on no matter what the organization does. We remember the Crusades and burnings at the stake, the Renaissance popes and Galileo, the Syllabus of Errors and the Decree Against Modernism. And looking back through the centuries, we see the eventual triumph of the prophetic voices and the triumph of reality over regulation. And we see that officially the application of Ex Corde Ecclesiae went into effect on May 3 of this year. No colleges have closed or seceded in consequence. As a wise voice argued long ago in a hostile environment, it is well to be cautious in censorship and repression; what is not of God will perish on its own, and what is of God can in any case not be suppressed (Acts 5: 34 ff.).

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