The challenge of integrating faith, reason

Professors at Catholic colleges and universities play a unique role in the academic and spiritual makeup of the campus. Our Sunday Visitor recently spoke to Dr. Michael Galligan-Stierle, president of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities, about the opportunities and challenges professors face on campus and how they can best integrate faith into their classrooms.

Our Sunday Visitor: What should be the goals of a professor at a Catholic university?

Dr. Michael Galligan-Stierle: I think the primary responsibility of the faculty member is to teach the course material in a way that enhances the student’s learning. Regardless of the topic or the subject matter, it’s important that the professor stay within their competency and to pass onto the student what the course material or syllabus is designed to do. Connected to that is a recognition of the context of which that professor is employed. One of the tremendous advantages of a Catholic university is that there is an opportunity to connect the spiritual and the religious with the course material, because we are free in a way that public universities are not, which is pretty special. So the professor therefore is, on one hand, a person who is simply instructing or passing on wisdom of a field of knowledge and, secondarily, connecting it to the larger realities of the environment in which they are, which is a place where the Catholic intellectual tradition, or the wisdom of the ages, can interact with in a dynamic way the course material. So whether we’re teaching economics or we’re teaching history, there’s something that has transpired in 2,000 years that the Catholic Church would have to say about that subject matter. And where appropriate, the professor is free to engage the students in that material.

OSV: What opportunities do professors have to integrate faith into their classroom?

Galligan-Stierle: Let me give a little bit of context. Eighty-eight percent of the 21 million students that are involved in higher education at this very moment want to grow spiritually during their time of college. That means almost 9 out of 10 students that are sitting in a classroom have some desire to connect the spiritual and the religious with the course material that the professor is bringing forward. The truth of the matter is, studies have shown, that only 1 out of 20 professors are willing to do that. The wonderful news is that of the faculty at Catholic universities 6 out of 10 are willing to do that instead of 1 out of 20, which is an enormously different figure. Those professors that feel a comfort level and an expertise to do that probably have connected their course material with some kind of deeper integration, and so they look at their teaching as a calling. It’s more than a career, but it’s a place where maybe their passion meets the world’s hunger. Does this happen with every faculty member? Of course not. Does this happen in every class? No. Do statistics tell us that 6 out of 10 faculty are willing to do this and are engaged in it? Yes.

OSV: How is this integration beneficial for the students?

Galligan-Stierle: Another study shows that 55 percent of alumni from our schools benefited very much from the emphasis on personal values and ethics they received from their professors. This is more than every other student on the other end after they graduate looking back and going, ‘It was more than just learning a course, or material, but there was some integration that was going on between rights and wrongs and the moral life and what I was learning, and that has helped guide me in my path forward.’

OSV: What are the advantages that professors have at Catholic colleges and universities?

Galligan-Stierle: We have 2,000 years of people who have been deep thinkers in the Catholic Tradition, and we have over 1,000 years of university teaching. Catholics started universities. We’ve always embraced the intellectual with our faith more than the norm. This is very helpful in why we believe faith and reason go together — that one helps to illuminate the other and vice versa. This is not the norm for all religious people, but it is one of our premiere characteristics, and that’s why I think certain faculty are drawn to being engaged in our world.

It isn’t just that we have 2,000 years of wisdom; we’re also a living tradition that continues, as Ex Corde Ecclesiae says, to look at the culture and to speak bold truths. This is a great freedom to have.

OSV: What are some of the best ways Catholic professors can be supported?

Galligan-Stierle: What has happened in a number of our schools is that they have recognized that faculty who feel a sense of calling, who have a desire to integrate course material with the Catholic understanding of the human person, probably didn’t have any classes or previous experience while they were doing their graduate work in making the connection. So how would they be able to teach it if no one has ever shown them what the connection is? To that end, our schools have created something called Collegium. Then a number of our colleges have summer seminars where faculty ... look at one of the classes they’re teaching and connect it to a Catholic worldview in a way that they think would be appropriate to their course material. There’s a lot of creative ways that our schools are bringing this forward.

OSV: How do these opportunities further assist professors?

Galligan-Stierle: Part of it is a personal renewal. Part of it is creating a learning environment where this is seen as appropriate, normal and the way we do things. Again, this is not the norm for the 4,000-plus colleges and universities that exist in the United States. This is very, very unique to how serious the Catholic colleges take their call to integrate faith and reason. But most of all it creates a sense about how we really picture learning and our embrace of reason, and, at the same time, of not being afraid to say ‘how does the spiritual journey interact with this reason or this knowledge that you’re bringing forth in your course material,’ which is very important.

OSV: What are the biggest challenges for Catholic professors?

Galligan-Stierle: The biggest challenge is that [professors] have developed an expertise in a subject matter, but as they’ve developed that, it may not have been coordinated with the spiritual journal or the riches of the Faith along the way. So there can be this either/or mindset that is advanced in the public sector, which is faith is over here, reason is over there, and they don’t go together, and they don’t complement or affirm one another — that faith is just what you believe and has no basis in truth and fact, and reason is what you can use your mind about. Since they’ve studied for years and years, and now they’re at a Catholic university and now they recognize they have this freedom — it’s good to have the freedom, but you have to be able to have an expertise in this material and how you would proceed.

Gretchen R. Crowe is editor of OSV Newsweekly.

Additional Reading
  •   Professors incorporate faith into their classes 
  •  Schools help in combining faith, academics
  •  Passion fuels professors outside the classroom
  •  Francis outlines key challenge for professors
  •  The Road' to Scripture is paved with opportunity
  •  Pupils share praise for their professors
  •  8 tips to becoming a more dynamic educator