Research Priorities and Discipline of Philosophy Central to Catholicity

By Allen, John L., Jr. | National Catholic Reporter, September 26, 1997 | Go to article overview

Research Priorities and Discipline of Philosophy Central to Catholicity


Allen, John L., Jr., National Catholic Reporter


As scientific lore has it, a team of physicists led by Enrico Fermi initiated the first artificial, self-sustaining nuclear reaction on a squash court underneath an old football stadium at the University of Chicago. Fermi went on to be a key figure in the Manhattan Project, the successful effort to harness his breakthrough to build the atomic bomb.

But suppose, instead of the University of Chicago, Fermi had been on the faculty at Loyola-Chicago -- or another of America's more than 230 Catholic colleges and universities. Would that have made any difference in the ends to which Fermi chose to put his research?

Jesuit Fr. John Haughey (pronounced Hoy), a professor of ethics at Loyola, thinks it should.

"Had the scientists involved with the Manhattan Project been thinking in terms of the gospel, they would have had a different research agenda," Haughey told NCR. "They would have been concerned with how their work would serve the cause of peace, what it would do to the minds and bodies and spirits of other people. They would be deeply hesitant to produce something designed to serve aggressive military purposes."

Haughey has published a call for faculty at Catholic colleges to think about how their research comports with the religious character of their institutions. His work is part of a broader national conversation on the state of Catholic higher education occasioned by Pope John Paul II's 1990 apostolic constitution on the subject, Ex Corde Ecclesiae.

Eliciting reflections such as Haughey's was a stated purpose of Ex Corde. In the furor over academic freedom and due process that still surrounds implementation o f the document, however, many observers feel these deeper questions may have been obscured (see accompanying article, page 32). An overly legalistic rendering of Ex Corde threatens to reduce the potentially sweeping notion of "Catholicity" to the lowest common denominator of doctrinal orthodoxy and overt expressions of the faith: how many Masses offered, how many priest on campus and so forth.

Monika Hellwig, executive director of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities, doesn't want to see it turn out that way. "I think Ex Corde affords us a unique opportunity to raise very fundamental questions about what it means for a university to identify itself as Catholic," she said in an NCR interview. "We can't allow this opportunity to slip away."

Hellwig sees reflection on the religious character of America's Catholic colleges and universities as an especially pressing task in light of the fate of once-religious universities such as Harvard and Princeton, whose denominational identities have gradually been lost.

Renewal incentive

A further incentive for renewal comes in the form of enrollment trends. Only 11 percent of Catholics pursuing post-secondary education attend Catholic colleges, according to the ACCU, and Hellwig believes the "snob factor," which attracts students and families to elite secular campuses, is part of the reason. "The single most important thing we could do [to reverse this trend] is to strengthen our Catholic character," Hellwig said.

So what might a revitalized Catholic university look like?

For Hellwig, the answer is multidimensional, but the core involves a renewed emphasis on philosophy.

"Historically, Catholic higher education has a tradition of philosophy as a central discipline, which provides a forum for specialists total to one another across the various disciplines," Hellwig said. One of the burning issues in higher education today is how to attack disciplinary isolation -- the tendency for faculty to become absorbed in their own fields and to pass that narrowness on to their students -- and Hellwig contends that the Catholic emphasis on philosophy provides a corrective.

"We have a tradition of a strong philosophical core," Hellwig said, "and we ought to exploit that in a day in which higher education has become technical and tends to train people in instrumental thinking. …

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