The Idea of a Catholic University

Article excerpt

At a time when there is so much in this part of the world to depress and trouble us as to our religious prospects, the tidings which your circular conveys of the actual commencement of so great an undertaking on the other side of the ocean on the part of the Church will rejoice the hearts of all educated Catholics in these Islands."

John Henry Cardinal Newman wrote these words in 1885 to James Gibbons, the archbishop of Baltimore. The circular Newman referred to had announced the creation of The Catholic University of America, founded two years later. When he wrote this letter, Newman was nearing the end of a long life in the twilight of English Christianity. British intellectuals felt a growing freedom to reject the faith as unfounded, if not actually immoral. Charles Darwin compared the biblical God to a "revengeful tyrant."

This helps explain what depressed and troubled Newman, and why The Catholic University of America's founding delighted him. Catholic University was not precisely the sort of institution Newman envisioned in The Idea of a University. He frowned on the idea of a research university. (He believed that "to discover and to teach are distinct functions.., not commonly found united in the same person.") Catholic University began as a graduate research school that did not admit its first undergraduate until seventeen years after its founding. But such details mattered less to Newman than his grand vision. "The object of the Holy See and the Catholic Church in setting up Universities," he said in an 1856 sermon, as rector of the Catholic University of Ireland, "is to reunite things which were in the beginning joined together by God, and have been put asunder by man"--namely, faith and reason.

More than a century after Newman's death, many American Catholic institutions are experiencing the same process of secularization that Oxford and other English institutions (including Parliament) experienced in his day. This has made the idea and role of Catholic universities less clear. With faculties far less clerical, indeed less Catholic, than in decades past, Catholic schools often struggle to identify what makes them unique.

Some schools identify their Catholic mission with the good works their students perform in a volunteer capacity, serving faraway missions and inner-city youth, the elderly, and the ill. Others conflate it with a fastidious practice of the faith--frequent opportunities to receive the sacraments, chapels in every dormitory, and so on.

No Catholic university can survive without these essential elements, but they are not sufficient to constitute a Catholic university. What unique purpose is served by a school where young Catholics learn to serve others and frequent the sacraments outside the classroom, only to learn in classes that their faith is irrelevant; that God is dead? Or that scientific truths about the world he created prove in fact that he does not exist? How would a school like that differ from a large state university with a good Newman Center and a flourishing culture of volunteerism?

What makes a Catholic university unique is the Catholic intellectual tradition that suffuses its academic work as well as its campus life. In our classrooms at Catholic University, we begin with the premise that we do well always and everywhere to serve God, and that all human knowledge works toward this end. We approach our work through the lens of faith--not only in our ecclesiastical faculties of philosophy, canon law, and theology but also in art, music, history, literature, law, architecture, and even the hard sciences.

Newman's 1856 sermon, preached on the feast of St. …