A Catholic University in the 21st Century

Author: Most Reverend Thomas Collins

A Catholic University in the 21st Century

Most Reverend Thomas Collins
Archbishop of Toronto

Archbishop Thomas Collins of Toronto addresses alumni of St Michael's College

Published below are excerpts of the talk given by Archbishop Thomas Collins of Toronto, on Saturday, 30 May [2009], during a colloquium for alumni at the University of St Michael's College in Toronto.

The Foundation and the Goal

Ever since 1852, when Bishop Charbonnel invited the Basilians, his childhood teachers in France, to found a Catholic College in his Canadian diocese, St Michael's College has played a central role in 'the life of our Catholic community. Over the years the College has grown, and has become a University, and has developed ever closer ties to the University of Toronto. For many years, in the context of the wider university, it has worked closely with other religious colleges in the Toronto School of Theology. Beyond the confines of the Archdiocese which is its home, St Michael's is a leading force in Catholic higher education in our whole country. I acknowledge with gratitude the devoted service of the Basilians, and of the other religious communities, and laypeople, who have engaged in the mission of Catholic University education at St Michael's, and at the Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies.

As the successor of Bishop Charbonnel as bishop of this diocese, I am deeply interested in Catholic education, and particularly in the University of St Michael's College. As Pope John Paul observed in Ex Corde Ecclesiae,his letter on Catholic Universities, "Bishops have, a particular, responsibility to promote Catholic Universities, and especially to promote and assist in the preservation and strengthening of their Catholic identity, including the protection of their Catholic identity in relation to civil authorities. This will be achieved more effectively if closer personal and pastoral relationships exist between University and Church authorities, characterized by mutual trust, close and consistent cooperation and continuing dialogue. Even when they do not enter directly into the internal governance of the University, Bishops "should be seen not as external agents but as participants in the life of the Catholic University" (Ex Corde Ecclesiae, 28). Because of my apostolic office, and also because of my own personal background, I am committed to be fully engaged in the life of St Michael's, and to support in every way its development as a Catholic University.

As Ex Corde Ecclesiae notes, all Catholic Universities have a relationship to the universal Church, for each is a partner in the international mission of Catholic scholarship. But a Catholic University always is at home in the local Church where it exists physically, and from which in so many ways it derives sustenance. Its presence and its activities have an enormous effect upon the local Catholic community. So many people throughout that community, and beyond, are shaped by the education that they receive at the local Catholic University. The programs of the university enrich the whole community, and allow the university to play a central role in the local Church's mission of evangelization. As all of the members of the university exercise their responsibilities as disciples, for that is what they are first of all, their witness is a blessing for the whole Church. Universities arose out of the heart of the Church many years ago; a Catholic University remains at the heart of the local Church....

A good starting point may be found in the mottos of the two most famous universities in the English speaking world, Oxford and Harvard. I do not say that their mottos accurately express the nature of the present institutions, but they do give us insight into the nature of a university, and especially of a Catholic University.

Oxford, of course, began as a Catholic University, in the middle ages when universities across Europe arose out of the heart of the Church. With Paris, Cambridge, and Bologna, Oxford set the standard for university education. It was assumed in those days that faith and reason were not in conflict, and so it is appropriate for a university founded at that time and dedicated to the exercise of reason to affirm: The Lord is my light.

An authentic Catholic University needs to affirm confidently what those great medieval universities assumed: faith and reason are the foundation for a university education. The mission of a university is to use the gift of reason to examine the natural world around us, and the world within the human person. Grace builds on nature, but does not overwhelm it. Creation itself is good. Much of what occurs at a university will not relate directly to matters of faith, but rather to the study of nature. In the middle ages, St Albert the Great led the way in attentiveness to that....

A Catholic University must hold to the highest and most rigorous standards of scholarship, partly because what we do we must do well, for we do it for the glory of God, and partly because, as Newman insisted, Catholic Christianity is intellectual. Faith and religion are not just subjective emotional experiences. Perhaps in some religious traditions they are, and certainly a flippantly secular mindset dismisses religion as an emotional security blanket needed by some to cope with a threatening world. What is gratuitously asserted may simply be denied: that is not what the Catholic faith is. Secularists have no monopoly on reason.

In any case, there is no such thing as a clinically pure academic institution, devoid of foundational premises. The question is simply whether an institution's intellectual foundations are solid or sandy. Here are some sandy foundations which will not impress or intimidate those whose academic enterprise is based on the fruitful harmony of faith and reason:

A) Agnosticism — the idea that we cannot know anything for sure, and that the ultimate point is to have many questions but never an answer — sort of like a game in which the players are always shooting but never scoring — this may seem superficially attractive, but a fruitful intellectual life cannot be based on that.

B) Utilitarianism — the idea that education is simply or mainly a matter of preparing people to do useful things, rather than forming people to be free — this will draw plenty of funding, but there is no future in that.

C) Relativism — the idea that education is not a search for truth but rather the random collection of ideas of many flavours and many colours, but of no meaning. This is chaos, and is no sure foundation for anything worthwhile.

We need to reflect carefully upon the foundation of our Catholic University, and be sure that our intellectual enterprise is built not on sand but upon the bedrock of faith and reason. From that comes the serene confidence that will allow a Catholic University to flourish.

As the full vision of reality revealed by both faith and reason forms the foundation for a Catholic University, the goal of any university is the search for truth. Pope John Paul in the opening paragraph of Ex Corde Ecclesiae states that "with every other University [a Catholic University] shares that gaudium de veritate, so precious to St Augustine, which is the joy of searching for, discovering, and communicating truth in every field of knowledge. A Catholic University's privileged task is 'to unite existentially by intellectual effort two orders of reality that too frequently tend to be placed in opposition as though they were antithetical: the search for truth, and the certainty of already knowing the fount of truth'" (Ex Corde Ecclesiae, 1). We all seek to know, and from childhood it is a natural joy to discover the truth about the world around us. The spirit of joyful wonder which is enhanced in the excitement of discovery is the mark of any wholesome intellectual institution. It is found in the solitary work of scholarship, and in the communal experience of the classroom, as also in the conversation of those who together seek the truth.

The whole life of a Catholic University is oriented to the search for objective truth, and in this endeavour it, like the Church itself, is counter-cultural. The splendour of truth is not highly valued in a society which is mired in the swamp of subjectivism. In such a toxic environment a healthy Catholic University is all the more necessary.

A basic distortion in our contemporary worldview, as pervasive and invisible as the air we breathe, is the assumption that what really matters is how we personally feel, and not what is objectively real whatever we feel. Truth in such a view is whatever we feel it to be, whatever is pleasing to our taste. This approach infiltrates religion as well, and Newman already was dealing with that: religion becomes mere sentiment, the excitement of religious emotion. That kind of religion will always be immensely and immediately attractive, but it cannot address the deepest matters of the human condition. In all things, feeling follows fact: there is an objective reality to which the human subject relates; reality is not something generated out of our subjectivity....

Truth is the goal of a Catholic University. It can always be found, although with difficulty, and often not completely. The search for objective truth brings joy to life, even when the truth challenges, dispelling our illusions and rebuking our false pleasures. The search for truth can be as uncomfortable as it is exhilarating.

The Paradox of a Liberal Education

There is an essential connection between Libertas and Veritas: between freedom and truth. Whatever else it does, such as to give training in various useful disciplines, a university must offer a liberal education, one which sets us free to be fully human, and that freedom is rooted in truth. All who are engaged in a Catholic University can attain the most profound experience of a liberal education, for they are liberated not only through the use of reason in the search for truth, but also by encountering through faith the one who is "the way, the truth, and the life" On 14:6). As Jesus says in the Gospel of John: "If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free" (Jn 8:31-32). In the worldview uncritically accepted by our secular society, this is counter-intuitive. How can the truth makes us free? The truth always limits us, and a superficial definition of freedom is that it means to live without limits, to be free to choose anything.

As we journey down the road of, life, however, we are most free when we know where we are going, and do not get bogged down in the mud on each side of the road. The great obstacle in life is illusion, in which we deceive ourselves about what is truly valuable and what is not. Pride is the surest pathway to illusion, and intellectual pride is a particular danger in an academic world which has lost its moorings. There is no sure protection against that, but a Catholic University should be able to assist its members to keep their lives rooted in reality.

Here we can look to the example of saintly scholars like Thomas Aquinas and John Henry Newman. Humility in the presence of God grounded them, and allowed their awesome intellectual power to be fruitful and not destructive. The Prayer before Study of St Thomas Aquinas reveals the wholesome effect of humble faith that allows a scholar to be free:

"Ineffable Creator, who from the treasures of your wisdom have established three hierarchies of angels, have arrayed them in marvellous order above the fiery heavens, and have marshalled the regions of the universe with such artful skill: You are proclaimed the true font of light and wisdom, and the primal origin raised high beyond all things. Pour forth a ray of Your brightness into the darkened places of my mind; disperse from my soul the twofold darkness of sin and ignorance into which I was born. You make eloquent the tongues of infants. Refine my speech and pour forth upon my lips the goodness of your blessing. Grant me keenness of mind, capacity to remember, skill in learning, subtlety to interpret, and eloquence in speech. May You guide the beginning of my work, direct its progress, and bring it to completion. You who are true God and true man, who live and reign, world without end. Amen"....

Freedom and joy are described by Chesterton, who speaks of children who are free to dance at the edge of a cliff, because a fence protects them from falling to their death. Without the liberating limits they huddle in fear, and so do we all in a world of intellectual and moral relativism, with no trusty lines or fences.

There is neither freedom nor joy in chaos and disorder. Order and harmony are the signs of joyful freedom in music and in life; disorder and random choice, irrational choice, are just noise. A university is the concert hall for the music of reason. That is the point of a liberal education.

A reductionist view equates freedom with chaos; but no human is free in chaos. A university which really gives a liberal education, as all Catholic Universities must, enriches society and provides a bulwark against injustice. In social chaos, it is the most vulnerable who are most at risk. Then the tyrant brings a perverse order based not on reason but on the will, and all freedom ceases, and the music stops. A University that forms people to be truly free, by introducing them to the order and harmony which reason discovers in the search for objective truth, will as a side effect produce good citizens for a democracy....

A false freedom based on passion and the random urges that are disordered and in rebellion against reason leads only to misery. ... Freedom requires a humble awareness of human sin and frailty. The imperial ego is not free, and enslaves both self and others. Because the freedom which is the foundation of a liberal education is not mere random chaos, but arises from the search for truth, in the ordered harmony of a reason that is in touch with the objective world, it always draws the individual into community. This means a real community, not a mob of egoists. True freedom is to false freedom what a community is to a mob, for a community is based on a principle of order while a mob is just a chaotic assembly of individuals....

Veritas is the real source of Libertas: a university forms its members and sets them truly free from the forces of chaos within and without, those forces which seem to embody freedom, but which ultimately bring nothing but the slavery of illusion, and the loneliness of the ego lost in the confusion of the world, or trapped in a world within the head, a subjective hell out of touch with the sanity of objective reality and the wholesome community of the children of God.

The Idea of a College

A priest is ordained to the episcopate by a single bishop, but all the other bishops join in ordaining him, for he is not just a bishop on his own, but through ordination is entering into the college of bishops. Something analogous happens when all the priests join in ordaining a deacon who is entering the local college which is the presbyterate of the diocese. We tend to think of a "College" as simply a smaller form of a university, and the University of St Michael's College rejoices in being a University and not simply a College, but the collegiate dimension is fundamental in the life of a Catholic University, and indeed is valuable in any university.

In the Roman system of higher education, students study at various universities, but they live, and eat, converse, and pray together in their college. They are formed by the community experience of the college. In the Oxford system, at least in its traditional form, the examinations are taken at the university, but each student is enrolled as a member of a particular college. The University of Toronto has at least vestiges of that system in its several colleges, of which St Michael's is one.

The point of being a member of a College is not simply to enjoy a more homey and humane existence in a smaller entity in the midst of a massive university, an escape from anonymity in a welcoming place where, as in Cheers, everybody knows your name. That is all to the good, but the community experience of a Catholic College is much more than that: it is meant to shape the student socially, morally, intellectually, and spiritually. It does this through friendship, intellectual conversation, common acts of service, meals together, the secular ceremony of communal life, and most profoundly through the Eucharist in the Collegiate Church. Note that one of the first things Newman did when he was setting up his university was to build a Collegiate Church. A formative dimension is essential to a liberal education, and the college is the prime forum for that. Newman got fired as a young College tutor because he insisted on the formative dimension of a college education. Education is not just from the neck up, in the abstract world of the isolated intellect....

A Catholic College, of course, is not meant to be the same kind of community as a monastery; it is a community in which young men and women receive a liberal education to prepare them for life in the secular world. It should be a lively place of joy and laughter, as well as of serious study. Here are two good Catholic mottos: "Wherever a Catholic sun does shine, you will find music and laughter and good red wine". And: "The faith that is sad or mad and not glad is bad". We should note that Jesus in the Gospel is frequently found at parties, and that itself should put an end to a puritanical disposition. In a Catholic College, this vibrant and at times even uproarious communal experience should simply be wholesome, reflecting a joy that is in harmony with the Gospel. The student newspaper can sparkle with lively features and still be totally in accord with the foundational values of a Catholic College. The student clubs provide all kinds of opportunities for the members of the College to be engaged in creative activities, while at the same time living with absolute fidelity to the Gospel vision that is the bedrock of a Catholic College. The student residences should be a real home in which the residents can grow socially, intellectually, and spiritually in an atmosphere of mutual respect based upon faith. In any effective educational environment students learn from one another as well as from their professors. In the physical setting of the college community, the ubiquitous iconography of faith reminds everyone of what the Catholic college is about. The chapel is at the center of the campus, and in every way all members of the academic community live under the sign of the cross of Christ.

We are blessed with a rich tradition of reflection upon the identity of a Catholic University. John Henry Newman's "The Idea of a University" is the classic articulation .of the essence not only of a university education, but of a Catholic University education. It is the primal text which must be addressed by anyone who considers higher education, and in it are woven together the experience of a scholar formed in the fabled University of Oxford, the insight of a brilliant believer in whom faith and reason dwelt in harmony, and the pastoral concern of a priest who sought to lead to eternal salvation those entrusted to his care. In the Idea of a University Newman famously expressed the classic definition of a gentleman, but his aim was higher than the formation of gentlemen. So too is that of a Catholic University....

We can look profitably as well at the sad history of the many Catholic universities which have slowly died, leaving behind nothing but a shell. They give us a warning about what to avoid. In the last century there have been several examples of formerly Catholic universities whose identity has evaporated in the face of the toxic influences of a. secular world. Sometimes Catholic universities, embarrassed at being counter cultural, and seeking to facilitate the assimilation of their students into the surrounding secular society, have dropped their Catholic identity bit by bit. Sometimes a university decides to compromise its Catholic identity in order to gain acceptance in the world of contemporary academia. Sometimes financial pressures lead a university to give up its Catholic identity. Sometimes a Catholic University is pressured by the forces of political correctness to trade the clear vision of the Gospel for the murky substitute of moral relativism. This is all so sad.

Faced with this phenomenon, Pope John Paul, in Ex Corde Ecclesiae, outlined the key points that define a Catholic University: "Born from the heart of the Church, a Catholic University is located in that course of tradition which may be traced back to the very origin of the University as an institution. It has always been recognized as an incomparable centre of creativity and dissemination of knowledge for the good of humanity. By vocation, the Universitas magistrorum et scholarium is dedicated to research, to teaching and to the education of students who freely associate with their teachers in a common love of knowledge".

Pope Benedict obviously has a profound awareness of the nature of a Catholic University, and in his visit to the United States he addressed Catholic University educators and said:

"A university or school's Catholic identity is not simply a question of the number of Catholic students. It is a question of conviction — do we really believe that only in the mystery of the Word made flesh does the mystery of man truly become clear (cf. Gaudium et Spes,22)? Are we ready to commit our entire self — intellect and will, mind and heart — to God? Do we accept the truth Christ reveals? Is the faith tangible in our universities and schools? Is it given fervent expression liturgically, sacramentally, through prayer, acts of charity, a concern for justice, and respect for God's creation? Only in this way do we really bear witness to the meaning of who we are and what we uphold".

We all need to have a clear idea of the nature of a Catholic University, and we have plenty of help in that. Without vision the people perish, and without a vision of a Catholic University, and the will to be faithful to it, we will find that the catholicity of a university can easily fade over time. If, however, we see clearly what is needed and act with a joyful boldness arising out of faith, then by God's grace we can participate in the flourishing of a great Catholic University, second to none in its creative academic achievements and utterly faithful to its evangelical mission at the heart of the Church.

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
17 June 2009, page 9

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