Catholic Studies at the University of St. Thomas

By Briel, Don J. | Catholic Education, March 2009 | Go to article overview

Catholic Studies at the University of St. Thomas


Briel, Don J., Catholic Education


The phenomenon of Catholic Studies cannot adequately be understood without a prior consideration of certain fundamental tensions that mark modern higher education as a whole. These broader tensions characterize Catholic universities in specific and important ways. One may hesitate to affirm Lammenais' judgment that Napoleon's creation of the modern French university was the most pernicious act of his reign, although he had no hesitation in insisting that Napoleon "raised this monstrous edifice as a monument of his hatred for future generations; it was as though he wanted to rob the human race even of hope" (as cited in Burleigh, 2005, p. 133). Nonetheless, in recent years many well-known academics and external critics have begun to question both the coherence and the relevance of the contemporary university. Several years ago, both in a widely publicized lecture delivered at Georgetown and later in a paper delivered before a meeting of scholars in Chicago, Cardinal George (1997, 1998) argued that a university without a unifying vision is merely a high-class trade school. He argued that many of the most important institutions of higher learning in the United States had moved far in this direction. In his account of the decline of American undergraduate education, the former dean of Harvard College, Harry Lewis (2006), agreed with this general assessment in arguing that although it is true that "old institutional structures survive," nonetheless, "many have lost their meaning. The curriculum is richer than ever, but it is no longer wrapped around any identifiable ideals" (p. xii).

Similarly, C. John Sommerville (2006) has argued that the modern university's resolute commitment to an ideological secularism, one which reduces the perennial human questions of meaning and ultimate concern to arbitrary private values, has produced a crisis not only of confidence but also of coherence. "If our universities are to become more than professional schools," Sommerville argues,

   then rationalism needs to be in dialogue with other "traditions of
   inquiry." For the most important matters in life include such
   matters as hope, depression, trust, purpose, and wisdom. If
   secularism purges such concerns from the curriculum for lack of a
   way to address them, the public may conclude that the football team
   really is the most important part of the university. But if they
   are taken up, we will find ourselves using terms that seem to
   belong in a religious discourse. We have dodged this issue by
   saying that true, good, just are all political, meaning that they
   can't be discussed but only voted on. But in fact they could be
   discussed, if our discussions were to recognize a dimension of
   ultimacy. (p. 22)

Several decades earlier Christopher Dawson (1961) had described the basic framework of modern culture as "unitary" for in such a culture, he argued,

   there is little room for the concepts which are fundamental to the
   Catholic or Christian view--the supernatural, spiritual authority,
   God and the soul--in fact, the whole notion of the transcendent. So
   unless students can learn something of Christian culture as a
   whole--the world of Christian thought and the Christian way of life
   and the norms of the Christian community--they are placed in a
   position of cultural estrangement--the social inferiority of the
   ghetto without its old self-containedness and self-sufficiency.
   (pp. 146-147)

And so it was necessary, he insisted, that students have an integrated and comprehensive sense of Christian culture as a whole so that the Christian way of life could be seen "not as a number of isolated precepts imposed by ecclesiastical authority, but as a cosmos of spiritual relations embracing heaven and earth and uniting the order of social and moral life with the order of divine grace" (p. 150). But both modern culture and the modern university are far more modest in their commitments.

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