Editorial: Alma mater, magistra

In both “The Joy of the Gospel” and a talk to the board of trustees of the University of Notre Dame, Pope Francis laid out a bold challenge to Catholic universities and colleges, stressing the “missionary dimension of Christian discipleship” in the lives of Catholics and Catholic institutions.

“This commitment to ‘missionary discipleship’ ought to be reflected in a special way in Catholic universities,” the pope said, “which by their very nature are committed to demonstrating the harmony of faith and reason and the relevance of the Christian message for a full and authentically human life.

“Essential in this regard is 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.”

It is clear from the passion of Pope Francis’ words that he believes, as we do, that Catholic higher education is needed today more than ever.

It is clear from Pope Francis’ words that he believes, as we do, that Catholic higher education is needed today more than ever. The moral relativism that afflicts contemporary society and the straitjacket of political correctness — of both the liberal and conservative varieties — that accompanies this relativism have made a hash of public thought and discourse. The profound internal coherence of Catholic moral and social thought is in desperately short supply, and the institution best suited to teach and engage future leaders is the Catholic university.

The challenge for Catholic universities is how to maintain such an “uncompromising witness” in contemporary society when everything — from government regulations, to large numbers of non-Catholic students and professors, to parental focus on academic prestige alone — all militates against it. Pope Francis clearly believes that the Catholic university can respond to these challenges without subverting its identity or losing its sense of mission. More than that, he wants the university to play an evangelizing role, dedicated to the missionary discipleship to which he has called the entire Church.

The Catholic university should be the ideal place where faith and reason live in harmonious balance and where Christianity’s relevance should be primary for faculty, administrators and students. This means that religious identity comes not only from community service projects, important as those are, but also from the intellectual outfitting of young adults for the challenges and debates that will surely confront them in the future.

Today’s Catholic schools face many threats, from the external pressures by the government through funding, as well as coercive laws, to the internal temptation to compartmentalize professional development as if it has no connection with Catholic identity. One of the more disturbing developments is the university’s retreat from service to the Church itself. Theology departments are shrinking or being replaced by “religious studies” programs, and training in catechetics have disappeared from many curricula. Catholic universities need Catholic teachers not just for religious subjects, however. They need witnesses who can show how faith can be integrated with professional development, no matter the field.

It is our hope that a new generation of Catholic academic leaders — both in the smaller and newer institutions as well as the larger and established — will embrace the vision of Pope Francis and demonstrate “the harmony of faith and reason and the relevance of the Christian message” for the next generations.

Editorial Board: Greg Erlandson, publisher; Msgr. Owen F. Campion, associate publisher; Beth McNamara, editorial director; Gretchen R. Crowe, editor