Were Medieval Universities Catholic?: The question is easier to ask than to answer.

Perhaps the greatest and most enduring achievement of the Middle Ages was the creation of the university, an institution for which there was no precedent in the history of the West. It sprang into existence seemingly out of nowhere in the late 12th century primarily in two cities, Paris and Bologna. Both claim to be Europe’s first. By the early decades of the 13th century, others had emerged modeled on them—Oxford, for instance, on the Paris model and Padua on the Bologna. From that point forward universities proliferated across the face of Europe and became a standard, important and self-governing institution in larger cities.

Medieval universities, although they differed among themselves in significant ways, all quickly developed highly sophisticated procedures and organizational strategies that we recognize as our own today. The list is long: set curricula, examinations, professorial privileges and duties, a full array of officers of various kinds, division into different “faculties” (we call them “schools” today) and the public certification of professional competence through the awarding of degrees.


The invention of degrees was particularly important. A man could practice medicine without a university degree (and the vast majority of “doctors” did so), but with a degree he enjoyed greater prestige and could exact higher fees. He was a professional with documentation to prove he had passed the scrutiny of his peers. A university degree spelled upward socioeconomic mobility, whether in the church or in society at large.

Creating the Liberal Arts

In the Middle Ages there were four university faculties—law, medicine, theology and “arts.” The first three trained young men aspiring to distinction in a profession. Theology, we must remember, was a professional subject, like law and medicine. Not a single course in it, therefore, was taught in the other three faculties. (For that matter, neither was a course in catechism.) Theology was not, therefore, considered one of the Liberal Arts. A degree in theology qualified the individual for a university chair (or its equivalent in religious orders), which would enable him to, well, teach others pursuing such a career. It might also commend him as a candidate for a bishop’s miter, although a degree in canon law might better commend him.

The Arts Faculty was the entry faculty where one learned the basic skills of the trivium and quadrivium. As Aristotle’s works on physics, metaphysics, the heavens, animals and other subjects were translated into Latin, they began to dominate the arts curriculum. This faculty thus evolved especially in Italy also into a professional school where the cultivation of “natural philosophy” gradually took precedence over the other branches and became the seedbed for modern science. The professors of natural philosophy drew better salaries, attracted more students and enjoyed greater prestige than professors of metaphysics.

Not all universities had all four faculties, and even when they did, the faculties were not equal in strength and prestige. Bologna was renowned for law. It had been founded by wealthy students intent on a career in law who banded together to form a university to hire experts to teach them. Bologna did not have a theological faculty until 1364, close to two centuries after its founding. Even then the faculty consisted essentially in a kind of consortium of the “houses of study” of the religious orders in the city. Most large Italian universities had only one or two professors of theology and one or two of metaphysics in a professorate of 50 to 100. They were renowned for law, medicine and, in time, “natural philosophy.”

The pattern was different in universities in northern Europe, where theology was strong and law and medicine weak or, in many cases, nonexistent. What is important to recognize for both northern and southern universities, however, is that the faculties operated independently of one another and communicated with one another only on the most formal level.

They all, however, had the same scope: intellectual problem solving through the acquisition of professional skills. Intellectual problem solving was perhaps nowhere more evident than in the Arts and theology faculties because of their appropriation of dialectics (disputation or debate) as central to their method. Logical, left-brain, agonistic, analytic, restless and relentless questioning was the method’s hallmark, in which the resolution of every question led only to further questions. It is no wonder that virtually all the heretics from the 13th until the 16th century were Scholastic theologians. Their very method led them into asking questions that challenged received wisdom.

Catholic Mission, Secular Values

When Catholic educators and prelates speak of the origin of Catholic universities, they locate it in the Middle Ages. Although such talk is rarely free of an idealized vision of “the Ages of Faith,” it, in this instance, is not unreasonable. Catholicism permeated medieval culture. It therefore permeated the culture of the universities. Faculty and students were all Catholics. Many universities held papal charters. Theology enjoyed an uncontested place among the disciplines. And so forth.

But would medieval universities satisfy the norms held up today to qualify as “authentically Catholic”? A composite profile of such norms drawn from documents such as “Ex corde ecclesiae,” would run something like this: the university explicitly professes the Catholic faith, is unquestioning of the Magisterium, installs theology as a core subject, contributes to “the common good” of the church and of society at large and professedly fosters the students’ moral and religious formation as well as their commitment to the church. A Catholic university is a religious university.

One difficulty in answering the question is that medieval universities, unlike many universities in the United States today, did not issue mission statements. Moreover, unlike the humanist schools that developed later, they did not profess to operate out of a clearly articulated philosophy of education. They just did what they did. And what they did was engage in intellectual problem solving, which entailed the development of professional skills that led to career advancement. Intellectual problem solving and career advancement were the core values of the medieval university. They are secular values, identical with the values operative in today’s secular universities. Without a mission statement, there was no way for the medieval university to profess that it was concerned, for instance, with the common good or with the students’ religious and moral development. In fact, the medieval university, qua university, took no systemic measures to deal with such concerns. That does not mean that in the university milieu such concerns did not find expression. Although the medieval university made no provision for the morals of its students, residences of various kinds officially or unofficially affiliated with it in some cases took on such a task. The Collège de Montaigu at the University of Paris, where in succession Erasmus, Calvin and St. Ignatius of Loyola lived as students, was famous (or notorious) for the discipline it imposed.

Moreover, even though the university as such did not concern itself with “the common good,” the theological faculties in northern Europe took on at least one such task. They became the self-appointed guardians of orthodoxy, not in the least shy in condemning those who deviated from the orthodox standards of the day. These faculties, rather than obeying the Magisterium (a thoroughly modern concept), were the Magisterium. The faculties of Cologne and Louvain, for instance, condemned Luther before the papacy did.

Were medieval universities Catholic universities? It is a question easier to ask than to answer. One thing, however, is certain: the contemporary grid for an “authentically Catholic” university does not neatly fit the medieval reality. There are even grounds for asserting that in their core values medieval universities more closely resemble the contemporary secular university than they do today’s Catholic model. If we are looking for historical precedents for that model, we do not find it clearly in the Middle Ages.

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Claude Pavur
8 years ago
There's no reason to question the Catholicity of the medieval universities - or to assume that they should be taken as the ultimate norm for defining Catholic universities today.    Fr. O'Malley's real target is using medieval universities as a simple kind of model or template for Catholic universities.  Okay.  Times have changed.  Culture is different now.  But to say that medieval universities might have been closer to our contemporary secular institutions is not more accurate than saying that medieval universities were closer to religious institutions that seriously cultivated "secular values," including research and professional scholarly life and career advancement.

We can certainly say that medieval universities were more closely integrated with the Catholic religious world of meaning than many Catholic universities are today.  And perhaps something along the lines of that integration is what documents like "Ex Corde Ecclesiae" are looking for in our own particular manifestations of Catholic university existence.

One of the most important distinctions between medieval and contemporary American universities is that now almost all of our universities have institutionally integrated an academic college component.  (There is the rare exception, like UCSF.)  This means that if one attempts to think through questions about "the university" without adverting to the different teleologies of graduate and undergraduate levels, grand confusion can, and often does, result.

So to begin with the fundamental level: What will make for a more authentic, distinctive, well-grounded Catholic college in a Catholic university today?  Most importantly, we must establish and cultivate some core definite content. Then there comes the necessary functions of hiring for, overseeing, and improving the appropriate delivery of the content.  Without that, Catholic college identity is impossible.  To do this well, one needs a wise, experienced, knowledgeable, authoritative body of faculty-administrators that understands the tradition and the educational goals and can make and enact prudent judgments about how to learn from the former to attain the latter.  Where shall we find the wise, experienced, knowledgeable body of members, and who will empower them?  How will we be able to cultivate the definite content that makes Catholic higher education possible?

Vince Killoran
8 years ago
An important post from Fr. O'Malley and one that reflects the state of historians'understanding of the history of higher education.  It's difficult to rerpond to "CPSJ's" assertion since (s)he doesn't offer any evidence to refute the Professor's comparison to contemporary secular universities.

Outside of the American-style liberal arts institutions (and even those aren't "pure") most tertiary institutions have had a mix of objectives-(pre)professional, professional, vocational, and core/liberal arts.  Certainly the reception and testing of existing knowledge-and the creation of new knowledge pre-dates the Enlightenment but owes much to the 16th-20th centuries. 
Claude Pavur
8 years ago
Vince Killoran asks for evidence. My assertion is rather non-controversial, so evidence did not seem necessary.  The standard view of the non-secular quality of medieval institutions is suggested by passages like the following:

"All of the medieval universities belonged to the universe of Latin Christianity rather than to nations or kingdoms. Their corporate charters were granted by the popes, who claimed the universities as parts of the ecclesiastical realm to carry out the Church's duty to educate. University scholars were given clerical rank in the ecclesiastical order, which exempted them from the jurisdiction of all lay authorities. All scholars used the universal language of ecclesiastical Latin and all degrees were granted under the authority of the Pope."

The Economic Institutions of Higher Education: Economic Theories of University Behavior.  J Patrick Raines, Charles G. Leathers (Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar Publishing Limited, 2003), page 17.
Vince Killoran
8 years ago
My request was historical evidence to refute Fr. O'Malley's assertion that "There are even grounds for asserting that in their core values medieval universities more closely resemble the contemporary secular university than they do today’s Catholic model."  His key claim in this regard has to do with the fact that "the development of professional skills that led to career advancement. Intellectual problem solving and career advancement were the core values of the medieval university."

As for the language of instruction, the degree granting authority, etc. that is all fine but doesn't go to the issue of the everyday "practices" of the medieval university. The "Catholic world" of medieval Europe was messy and unsystematic-unrecognizable by today's standards and does not offer a clear guide to what consitutes Catholic higher education today.
Claude Pavur
8 years ago
Refutation is one thing; pointing out misleading lines of thought is another.  To suggest that medieval universities  appear *in some respects* to be more secular than religious is okay.  But to imply that they were altogether more like purely secular institutions is questionable.  Medieval universities were integrated with the ecclesial world of meaning.  That integration is a "core value" suffusing the background and meaning of the daily practices (howsoever "secular"). The secular can be absorbed into a broader and deeper reality; for example, the Book of Proverbs talks about many secular realities, but it is still part of a book of religious revelation.

Fr. O'Malley constructs a current ideal "Catholic model" and wants to say medieval universities were not so much like this. For him, the [composite ideal contemporary Catholic] university

1. explicitly professes the Catholic faith,  [But did medieval universities profess the Catholic faith? It is hard to imagine saying that they didn't, given their de facto dependence on papal and ecclesial authorities.  Perhaps Fr. O'Malley wants to stress the lack of *explicit* statements.  But such a lack does not necessarily prove "secularity."]

2. is unquestioning of the Magisterium, [Medieval universities? More yes than no.  If the theology faculties *were* the Magisterium, we could assume that they usually wouldn't be questioning themselves. (And if the universities included the Church's magisterium within themselves, as Fr. O'Malley says, then they *certainly* were not purely secular.)]

3. installs theology as a core subject, [Medieval universities? More yes than no.  It was a standard major faculty, though not every school might not have had it and though not every scholar took a "core curriculum" with theology in it at the advanced professional level.]

4. contributes to “the common good” of the church and of society at large [Medieval universities? de facto, yes: credentialed, informed professionals are all to the common good.]

5. and professedly fosters the students’ moral and religious formation as well as their commitment to the church. [Medieval universities? De facto yes, by integration with and support for the ecclesial world of authority and meaning, and by the generally assumed, long-standing connection of studies with virtue.  Again, perhaps the point is about how "professedly" this is done.]

6. A Catholic university is a religious university. [Medieval universities? More yes than no.]

Fr. O'Malley's own description therefore seems to suggest much more of a parallel than he wants to admit explicitly.


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