I’d like to propose that there are two fundamentally different ways of thinking about what a university is, and especially a Catholic university. At least, I should say, they can seem fundamentally different, though a closer look will show this is a superficial account of the situation.
The first way of thinking about what a university is: It is a place of witness. The second: It is a neutral place where dialogue occurs.
The first way of thinking regards the university’s most important role as bearing witness to higher values, truths and beliefs, for which the university itself, and not just individuals at the university, stand.
The second way of thinking regards the university as a place which, far from bearing witness to any particular value or truth, is neutral — a place where learned discussion and debate occur, with clarification of thought arising from such dialogue. People are then free to choose and uphold their own values and beliefs as a result, but the university as a whole is simply the neutral facilitator of such dialogue and does not stand for any of the values discussed.
Now, as soon as I identify these two approaches to what a college or university is, you can see that no one can consistently hold to only one of them absolutely and without qualification.
A university that is only a place of witness, without also having room for dialogue, will lose its credibility as a university and, as a result, its credibility as a witness, or at least as the kind of witness a university can be. People will feel that the deck is stacked, that their views were not heard, that there is only a party line.
On the other hand, can any university really be a fully neutral place for dialogue, where the only value is dialogue itself? Is there really a university, even the most secular university imaginable, that would say it stands for no values at all, not even truth or, at the very least, justice?
If there are no ultimate values worth bearing witness to, what is the purpose of dialogue? The more absolutely neutrality is claimed, the more likely, I would suspect, it is an illusion or even a delusion, and the more likely it is that one will compromise some fundamental truth or value.
Pope Francis’ recent remarks on Catholic education explode the idea that for a university to embrace a paradigm of dialogue implies that it must become a neutral space whose sole purpose is to foster dialogue, without any explicit witness value. Commenting on the university as a place of dialogue, he said Catholic schools and universities, even, and perhaps especially, when attended by many non-Christians or non-believers, still are called upon “to offer, with full respect for the freedom of each person and using the methods appropriate to the scholastic environment, the Christian belief, that is, to present Jesus Christ as the meaning of life, the cosmos and history.”
|Pope Francis speaks on education. CNS photo
This, Pope Francis is saying, is to enter this belief into dialogue, not as one position among many free to speak at a university, but as a belief to which the university is committed, convinced that it can speak to the souls of people across racial, cultural and even religious boundaries. Jesus, Pope Francis reminds us, proclaimed the good news in the “Galilee of the people, a crossroads of people, diverse in terms of race, culture and religion.”
Of course, Jesus was not preaching at a university, and Pope Francis speaks of “methods appropriate to the scholastic environment.” A university culture of “courageous and innovative fidelity that enables Catholic identity to encounter the various ‘souls’ of multicultural society” is not meant to turn the university culture into one of proselytism, of pressure to convert to Catholicism. That would hardly have “full respect for the freedom of persons,” nor would it be an authentic witness to the Gospel, which has an intrinsic power of appeal, if we can only trust it is so, when it is spoken by persons committed to allowing it to speak.
At a university this can take many institutionally backed forms, and preeminently these are required theology courses, which could be a kind of paradigm for what we are talking about in general. As Dei Verbum, the dogmatic constitution on divine revelation, characterized it, revelation is an “invitation” tendered by God to a share in the divine life. Theology “seeks understanding” of what is revealed, and in so doing, is seeking understanding of an invitation. How beautiful that God should issue such an invitation!
The Catholic university at its heart has the vocation of contemplating the meaning and the beauty of this invitation, and making this contemplation available to others in all of the venues of dialogue and teaching a university has.
This will hit different people differently: for committed Catholics it will deepen their understanding of what they believe; for lukewarm Catholics it may reinvigorate their faith or practice. For persons of other religions, a contemplation is engendered that can at minimum dispel caricatures, but beyond that provide a sharing in something beautiful in a speech that reaches deeply into souls even if, short of conversion, it does not become fully one’s own. Contemplating an invitation reveals the beauty of the invitation as such. This means not watering down its character as an invitation, and yet remembering too that, as an invitation, it absolutely “respects the freedom of persons.” How beautiful!
Pope Francis is asking us to go beyond the stale dichotomies that often characterize our thinking, and he is betting that if we do so, we will find an energy that animates an academic culture, filling it with an appeal to the imagination that is the stuff of leadership, of innovation, of interest, urgency and life, an “expression of the living presence of the Gospel in the fields of education, science and culture” that gives the lie to the myth of the conflict of science and religion, or of religion and culture. That, it seems to me, would be a powerful form of witness generative of all kinds of new forms of dialogue.
John Cavadini is director of the Institute for Church Life at the University of Notre Dame.
On Feb. 13, Pope Francis spoke to participants in the plenary session of the Congregation for Catholic Education in the Vatican. Here is a partial text of that speech:
Catholic education is one of the most important challenges for the Church, engaged as she is today in implementing the new evangelization in a historical and cultural context which is in constant flux. In this perspective, I would like to draw your attention to three aspects.
The first aspect concerns the importance of dialogue in education. Of late, you have developed the theme of an education for intercultural dialogue in Catholic schools with the publication of a specific document. In fact, Catholic schools and universities are attended by many non-Christian students as well as non-believers. Catholic educational institutions offer everyone an education aimed at the integral development of the person that responds to the right of all people to have access to knowledge and understanding. But they are equally called to offer to all the Christian message — respecting fully the freedom of all and the proper methods of each specific scholastic environment — namely that Jesus Christ is the meaning of life, of the cosmos and of history.
Jesus began to preach the Good News in the “Galilee of the Gentiles,” a crossroads for people of different races, cultures and religions. In some ways this context is similar to today’s world. The profound changes that have led to the ever spreading multicultural societies requires those who work in schools and universities to become involved in the educational programs of exchange and dialogue, with a bold and innovative fidelity able to bring together the Catholic identity to meet the different “souls” existing in a multicultural society. I think with appreciation of the contribution which religious institutions and other ecclesial institutes offer through the foundation and management of Catholic schools in contexts strongly marked by cultural and religious pluralism.
The second aspect is the quality preparation of formators. We cannot improvise. We must take this seriously. In the meeting I had with the Superiors General, I underlined that today education is directed at a changing generation and, therefore, every educator — and the entire Church who is the mother educator — is called “to change,” or know how to communicate with the young people before them.
I would like to limit myself to recalling the features of an educator and his or her specific duty. To educate is an act of love; it is to give life. And love is demanding; it calls for the best resources, for a reawakening of the passion to begin this path patiently with young people. The educator in Catholic schools must be, first and foremost, competent and qualified but, at the same time, someone who is rich in humanity and capable of being with young people in a style of pedagogy that helps promote their human and spiritual growth. Youth are in need of quality teaching along with values that are not only articulated but witnessed to. Consistency is an indispensable factor in the education of young people! Consistency! We cannot grow and we cannot educate without consistency: consistency and witness!
For this, an educator is himself in need of permanent formation. It is necessary to invest so that teachers and supervisors may maintain a high level of professionalism and also maintain their faith and the strength of their spiritual impetus. And in this permanent formation, too, I would suggest a need for retreats and spiritual exercises for educators. It is a beautiful thing to offer courses on the subject, but it is also necessary to offer spiritual exercises and retreats focused on prayer! For consistency requires effort but most of all it is a gift and a grace. We must ask for it!
The last aspect concerns educational institutions, that is, schools and Catholic and ecclesial universities. The 50th anniversary of the Conciliar Declaration, the 25th anniversary of Ex Corde Ecclesiae and the updating of Sapientia Christiana lead us to reflect seriously on the many formational institutions around the world and on their duty to be an expression of a living presence of the Gospel in the field of education, of science and of culture. Catholic academic institutions cannot isolate themselves from the world, they must know how to enter bravely into the aeropagus of current culture and open dialogue, conscious of the gift that they can offer to everyone.
Dear ones, education is a great open building site in which the Church has always been present through her institutions and projects. Today we must encourage this commitment on all levels and renew the commitment of all engaged in the new evangelization. On this horizon, I thank you all for your work and I invoke through the intercession of the Virgin Mary the perpetual help of the Holy Spirit for you and your work. I ask you to please pray for me and for my ministry. And from my heart, I bless you. Thank you!