There are three possible approaches to Catholic higher education. One is to retreat from the world, and be “just Catholic.” Another is to retreat from the Church and be “just a university.” The third is the hardest: to fully engage the world with the fullness of the faith.
Pope Francis spoke to visitors from Notre Dame today, and gave a ringing endorsement to that "third way."
It is not necessarily obvious that this third option is the best one, by the way.
He’s not talking about academia, but Ross Douthat sees much to recommend in the “retreat from the world” strategy that he calls the “Benedict option” (referencing both the saint and the pope) in his book Bad Religion. Home schoolers are doing it, and accomplishing great things.
And it is a constant question whether the “third way” is even possible. Is great science at a religious school fated to be science with an asterisk? Will academics ever respect research from a school with a religious mission?
Evangelical Protestant Christians are energetically answering that Yes, the“engagement” model is possible — with Wheaton and Baylor and others. Are Catholic colleges doing the same?
Pope Francis thinks we should be.
He cited 132-134 in Evangelii Gaudium in his remarks to Notre Dame. That’s the place in the document where he listed the cultures we need to reach out to, and mentioned a few close to home.
“Proclaiming the Gospel message to different cultures also involves proclaiming it to professional, scientific and academic circles. This means an encounter between faith, reason and the sciences with a view to developing new approaches and arguments on the issue of credibility, a creative apologetics which would encourage greater openness to the Gospel on the part of all.”
A Catholic college should have a great business school — but that business school should be fully Catholic. A Catholic college should teach great science — but not bracket off the faith as it does so.
Not only do they need to be both thoroughly Catholic and thoroughly academic, he says, this fusion should bring about a new apologetics. A Catholic science department should be so well respected in academia and so respectful of the Church that its success makes academia more open to the Gospel.
That’s not easy to do. But a failure to do it is a failure to be a Catholic college.
Pope Francis also told Notre Dame that, throughout the university, Catholic identity can’t be reduced to a service project or to campus ministry either.
Catholic identity has to include “the uncompromising witness of Catholic universities to the Church’s moral teaching, and the defense of her freedom, precisely in and through her institutions, to uphold that teaching as authoritatively proclaimed by the magisterium of her pastors.”
But that, believe it or not, is the easy part. Building a Catholic college that witnesses to the Church’s magisterium is a no-brainer, really. As Benedictine College’s president always puts it, that’s just truth in advertising.
The hard part is fully engaging the world of academia with the faith. That takes courage and charity: The courage to witness to the faith (and suffer for it) and the charity to fully engage theuestions and concerns of academia.
But when Catholics pull it off, the payoff will be extraordinary for the Church. Every important renewal of the Catholic faith has been accompanied by a renewal of the faith in higher education. Renew the universities, and you will renew the culture. Lose the universities, and lose everything.