Witness, dialogue key in higher ed

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
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.

Papal Address
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: