Modern campus politics make strange bedfellows. In recent years, both the Cardinal Newman Society and students at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts have sought to cancel—for very different reasons—a production of “The Vagina Monologues,” a play regularly performed at colleges across the country.
The controversy over this explicit play is just one example among many of schools grappling with the competing desires to, on the one hand, support free speech and, on the other, create “safe spaces” for students in which certain values are upheld. Watching these events unfold in 2015, it struck me that 25 years after the publication of “Ex Corde Ecclesiae,” St. John Paul II’s apostolic constitution on the Catholic university is not only relevant to contemporary debates but perhaps even avante-garde. One of the enduring legacies of “Ex Corde” has been to provide a framework for thinking about the goods of education and the identity of universities.
In the various debates spawned by the document, two ways of arguing about the identity of a university (especially, but not only, of a Catholic university) arose. The first is to think of the university as a place of witness; the second is to think of it as a neutral place intended to facilitate dialogue.
The first way of thinking regards the university’s fundamental role in bearing witness to higher values, truths and beliefs, for which the university itself, and not just individuals at the university, stand. The second way of thinking regards the university as a place that, far from bearing witness to any particular value or truth, is a neutral arena where learned discussion and debate occur, with clarification of thought arising from such dialogue. People are then free to choose and uphold their own values and beliefs as a result, but the university as a whole is simply the impartial impresario of such dialogue and does not stand for any of the values discussed.
Even before recent events on secular college campuses, it was clear that no university can consistently hold to only one of these modes absolutely. A university that is only a place of witness, without also having room for dialogue, will lose its credibility as a university and, as a result, its credibility as a witness. People will feel that the deck is stacked, that their views are not heard, that there is only a party line.
On the other hand, can any university really be a fully neutral place for dialogue, where the only value is dialogue itself? Is there really a university, even the most secular, that would say it stands for no values at all, not even “truth” or “justice”? The more absolutely neutrality is claimed, the more likely it is an illusion or even a delusion, and the more likely it is that one will compromise some fundamental truth or value.
After all, then, it seems that in practice a university must be a place of both witness and dialogue, however minimal the witness claimed, on the one hand, or however much the dialogue may be restricted, on the other. A serious university, and especially a Catholic university, is faced with both theoretical and prudential considerations regarding a balance of the two. A Catholic university can be thought of as an attempt to balance the two in a unique way, and, from the perspective offered by 25 years of implementation and debate, it seems evident that “Ex Corde Ecclesiae” presents the project of a Catholic university in just this way.
Community of Inquiry
It is fair to say that “Ex Corde Ecclesiae” features the idea of dialogue quite prominently. “Dialogue” was one of St. John Paul II’s signature words and is present in full vigor throughout the text of the document, including the introduction:
Through the encounter which it establishes between the unfathomable richness of the salvific message of the Gospel and the variety and immensity of the fields of knowledge in which that richness is incarnated by it, a Catholic University enables the Church to institute an incomparably fertile dialogue with people of every culture (No. 6).
Here the dialogue a Catholic university can foster flows from an idea of the university as establishing an “encounter” between revelation—so rich that it is never able to be fully grasped—and the various disciplines of academic inquiry in which the university, to a greater or lesser extent, is able to incarnate this richness in some appropriate way. The Catholic university is a kind of living incarnation of this encounter that takes place specifically in and as a community of inquiry, we could say, in the mode of inquiry.
What could this mean? Does it mean, for example, that there are a Catholic biology and a Catholic organic chemistry? No, of course not; but it means that the study of biology at a Catholic university should in some way present the opportunity to experience the fundamental encounter with the richness of the Gospel incarnated in the mode of inquiry. At a minimum, this will happen because these studies, without departing from their own scientific methodology, are conducted in an intellectual community where, in another department, the doctrine of creation is taught and explained in a way that resists reductionism and gives permission for the wonders that science discovers to be the occasion for genuine praise of the creator.
Or, maximally, because scientific research is carried out by believers, students are made aware that faith and scientific study can in fact be combined. Nor should we neglect the incarnation of the riches of the Gospel that occurs when scientific inquiry is carried out in a way that refuses to violate the dignity of the human person and in fact seeks to advance human dignity.
The incarnational feature of the Catholic university is thus, in “Ex Corde,” already, in implicit form, both dialogue and witness. This is because the “incarnation” of the richness of revelation in the mode of inquiry, when it becomes explicitly thematized, is nothing other than the dialogue between faith and reason, and indeed, “Ex Corde” notes that “a specific part of a Catholic University’s task is to promote dialogue between faith and reason” (No. 17, emphasis original).
Reading farther, we find that the point of this dialogue is to show “more profoundly how faith and reason bear harmonious witness to the unity of all truth.” Encountering the “incarnation” of the richness of revelation in the mode of inquiry means encountering both dialogue and witness, because the dialogue itself bears witness, in this case, to the unity of truth:
While each academic discipline retains its own integrity and has its own methods, this dialogue demonstrates that “methodical research within every branch of learning, when carried out in a truly scientific manner and in accord with moral norms, can never truly conflict with faith” (“Ex Corde,” No. 17, citing “Gaudium et Spes,” No. 36).
St. John Paul II clearly believed in dialogue. And yet this dialogue is not carried out in a neutral space or to a neutral end. The Catholic university is not a “neutral place” but “a primary and privileged place for a fruitful dialogue between the Gospel and culture” (No. 43, emphasis original). The point of the dialogue is to clarify the meaning of the human person in light of revelation so that people will be enabled “to come to the full measure of their humanity, created in the image and likeness of God, renewed even more marvelously, after sin, in Christ, and called to shine forth in the light of the Spirit” (No. 5). Out of a dialogue arises a witness to the church’s liberating message.
The text later states that a specific priority of the Catholic university in its modern context is “to communicate to society those ethical and religious principles which give full meaning to human life” (No. 33, emphasis original). Thus:
By its very nature, each Catholic University makes an important contribution to the Church’s work of evangelization. It is a living institutional witness to Christ and his message, so vitally important in cultures marked by secularism (No. 49, emphasis original).
In sum, there is no question of a university that is merely a neutral place for dialogue, but rather of a university with commitments in faith to the dignity and transcendence of the human person, ready to clarify and bear witness to those commitments and to come to understand them better through dialogue. If a Catholic university becomes so uncomfortable with thinking of itself as a part of the church’s mission of evangelization that it ceases to understand itself as called to institutional witness, it will also lose the sense of itself as a place of “dialogue,” at least in the way St. John Paul II intends.
Claiming a trajectory that goes back as far as the Second Vatican Council’s “Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World,” “Ex Corde Ecclesiae” certainly affected the way both Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis came to articulate the Catholic university precisely as a place of balancing witness and dialogue. Pope Benedict’s address to Catholic educators during his visit to the Catholic University of America in 2008 offers a good example: “To all of you I say: bear witness to hope. Nourish your witness with prayer.” Here is a clarion call for the university to be a place of witness, also sounded in other places in the address. For example: “A university or school’s Catholic identity is not simply a question of the number of Catholic students. It is a question of conviction—do we really believe that only in the mystery of the Word made flesh does the mystery of the human being truly become clear?”
And yet there is also an awareness that the university will not be able to form anyone into these values unless there is an appeal, as Pope Benedict says, to their “will.” “Perhaps we have neglected the will,” he notes, adding that it is the responsibility of teachers to...
evoke among the young the desire for the act of faith, encouraging them to commit themselves to the ecclesial life that follows from this belief. It is here that freedom reaches the certainty of truth. In choosing to live by that truth, we embrace the fullness of the life of faith.
The emphasis here on freedom, on persuasion, on choosing and on inspiration implies also the emphasis on dialogue, conversation and exchange that is so evident in other writings of Pope Benedict. No one is persuaded, the will is not moved and free decisions are not made unless there is opportunity for discussion, debate, exchange and conversation. The word dialogue itself is not used here, but it is implied. One can recognize in these remarks the balance between witness and dialogue that St. John Paul II attempted to articulate in “Ex Corde,” though perhaps one can see a certain emphasis on witness.
Power of Appeal
Pope Francis, in turn, in his remarks on Catholic education so far, certainly explodes the idea that for a university to embrace a paradigm of dialogue implies that it must become a neutral space whose sole purpose is to foster dialogue, without any explicit witness to core values. Commenting on the university specifically as a place of dialogue, he says that Catholic schools and universities—even, and perhaps especially, when attended by many non-Christians or nonbelievers—still are called upon...
to offer, with full respect for the freedom of each person and using the methods appropriate to the scholastic environment, the Christian belief, that is, to present Jesus Christ as the meaning of life, the cosmos and history.
This, Pope Francis is saying, is to enter belief into dialogue, not as one position among many but as a belief to which the university is itself committed, convinced that it can speak to the souls of people across racial, cultural and even religious boundaries. Jesus, Pope Francis reminds us, proclaimed the good news in the “Galilee of the people, a crossroads of people, diverse in terms of race, culture and religion.”
Of course, Jesus was not preaching at a university, and Pope Francis speaks of “methods appropriate to the scholastic environment.” A university culture of “courageous and innovative fidelity that enables Catholic identity to encounter the various ‘souls’ of multicultural society” is not meant to turn the university culture into one of proselytism, of pressure to convert to Catholicism. That would hardly have “full respect for the freedom of persons,” nor would it be an authentic witness to the Gospel, which has an intrinsic power of appeal, if we can only trust it is so and enter it into dialogue with that trust in mind. And yet, though it is not proselytism, what Catholics bring to the dialogue must indeed be the conviction that Jesus Christ is the meaning of the cosmos and not simply a message of justice and peace that would be at home at any good university (though that message is obviously also important).
One can see here a renewed iteration of St. John Paul II’s idea in “Ex Corde” that the Catholic university is, as such, the incarnation of an encounter between faith and reason, between the richness of the Gospel and the various modes of inquiry. Its witness, therefore, is dependent upon and executed in dialogue. Although contrasts between Pope Benedict and Pope Francis are often overdone, perhaps we can see here an emphasis on the pole of dialogue.
But in continuing and interpreting the legacy of St. John Paul II, Pope Francis is asking us to go beyond inherited dichotomies between dialogue and witness. He is wagering that if we do so, we will find an energy that animates an academic culture, filling it with an appeal to the imagination that is the stuff of leadership, of innovation, of interest, urgency and life, an “expression of the living presence of the Gospel in the fields of education, science and culture” that exposes the myth of the conflict of science and religion, or of religion and culture, as just that, a myth. That, it seems to me, is worth buying into, a powerful form of witness generative of all kinds of new forms of dialogue ex corde ecclesiae, from the heart of the church.