Michael Novak on the Universality of the Catholic University

Author: ZENIT



Excerpts From Address at Ave Maria College

ANN ARBOR, Michigan, 29 MAY 2003 (ZENIT).

Here are excerpts from the text of Michael Novak's commencement address at Ave Maria College delivered on May 3. Novak is the George Frederick Jewett Scholar in Religion, Philosophy and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C.

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The Idea of a University
Living a Mission
By Michael Novak

I want to say a word or two about the patron of the church in which this commencement takes place. The feast of Christ the King was established only recently in Church history, in 1925. The feast of Christ the King was established during the very decade in which nearly every actual Christian king was swept from their thrones of Europe by revolution, war, murder, assassination or exile.

The feast of Christ the King, then, symbolized the end of worldly kings and queens. It also transferred the kingly office to all ordinary laypersons, not — as you might think — to prime ministers and presidents, but really to every baptized person. Over our own lives, by baptism, we are sovereigns, as we are over those entrusted to our care. Christ the King was designed, therefore, to be the feast day of laypersons. Christ the King is the patron of the lay vocation in the world. We are to be, in our humble domains, Christ the King.

That is why it is so auspicious for the commencement of this new college, Ave Maria, to be held in this church. As Cardinal Newman explained in his famous lectures, the reason for calling for a new Catholic university in his time was to prepare young women and men for positions of rule and responsibility in the lay world, to furnish and shape their minds with a sense of method, wisdom, measure, and sober and subtle judgment.

The key to kingly rule is judgment. For a king rules by the force and wisdom of his mind, by understanding, by intellect. Similarly, the kingly role each Christian inherits with baptism calls for the exercise of rule by intellect. The lay vocation is a vocation of the mind.

What is a university? No question is more important for this community, Ave Maria. For we are building a new university, in a new millennium, and at a crucial moment, when the history of the last 50 years showed such a rapid decline in the Catholic universities all around us that Rome itself has had to call for radical reform.

A university is a blessed place, a sacred space in which persons converse in the pursuit of universal knowledge. In universities, mind speaks to mind, and — over time — heart speaks to heart. For what we learn from one another in our talks together, our lectures and seminars and discussions and question periods and exchanges, is how individual humans go about making judgments, what they count important, what they set aside as trivial or irrelevant, what they laugh at and what they take seriously, what is false even if it seems attractive, what is true and to be clung to even if it is unpopular and despised, and what is worth dying for.

George Bernard Shaw once sneered that a Catholic university is a contradiction in terms. On the contrary. The term "Catholic university" is a redundancy. Catholic means universal, and universal is another way of saying Catholic. The pursuit of universal knowledge is in fact the pursuit not only of catholic knowledge — small "c." It is also the pursuit of Catholic knowledge — large "c." To say Catholic is to say university.

As a matter of historical fact, the University of Paris at the same time as it was the first fully universal university in the world, embracing more subjects than did earlier attempts at Bologna and Salamanca, was also one of the choicest expressions of the Catholic spirit. That university was as towering in its aims as any of the tallest gothic spires of Chartres, or Rouen, or the Cathedral of Notre Dame. The very idea of the university was invented by Catholics, as an upward aspiring expression of the Catholic spirit, "Fides quaerens intellectum," Faith seeking understanding, Faith consumed with the desire to know.

All the things that are, and all the things that have been made, and will be made, come from the understanding and choosing and loving of God. That is why those possessed by Catholic faith long to know more about every detail of created things. Every detail is, as it were, a sign from God, every idiosyncrasy a way of learning about God. "Nil humanum mihi alienum." Nothing human is foreign to me. Nothing created is alien from me.

This is the spirit that first imagined universities, and built the first homes and lecture halls of universal studies. This is the spirit that animated the omnivorous, universal, humanistic collections of the Vatican Library, first established in 1451, that birthplace which spawned new empirical methodologies for sciences such as archaeology, biology, botany, geology and medicine.

Crowning the circle of universal knowledge that you graduates ought to have wrestled with in the past four years, and will continue to struggle with during the rest of your lives, you ought to have learned of the tireless efforts of the Creator of all things to burst in upon the awareness of his rational creatures, of us poor women and men of his creation. About how he has tried to extend to us his friendship, if we will freely receive it. About how he does not want the friendship of slaves, but of free women and men. About how he knocks upon our hearts, and how we keep running away, we are too busy, and how he pursues like a hound down the years and months and days, and down the corridors and halls, and down the meadows and valleys of our heart. And how he sent us his Son to die for us, to show us how to love one another, and to fall at last into the arms of our merciful Father at the end of days.

Not to know this last part of universal knowledge is not to know the reason for this whole blooming, buzzing, soaring, immensely vast and cold cosmos of all the galaxies and stars and its immeasurable light years of time. Why? What is its purpose? Why was it made?

We Christians and Jews, at least, believe that reason and faith go together; that the Creator of all things is intelligent, wise and loving; that he suffused his creation with gobs and gobs of sheer intelligence, there for us to discover it; and that he designed us to pursue the truth wherever it leads; to pursue knowledge; to build universities — for such activities would not be contrary to his nature, but on the contrary in keeping with the way he made the world, and with his own way of being. For he taught us to use of him this name: "I am the Way, and the Truth, and the Life."

To learn more, is to walk more in his light. If the Catholic faith is what it says it is — if it is true — no other university is worthy of its name but a Catholic university. Secular universities exclude Catholic theology, and by that exclusion are less than universal, and not quite full universities. By that exclusion, they also cut themselves off from the heroic efforts of the Creator to tell human beings why he created this cosmos, and to offer human beings his friendship.

The idea of a Catholic university is to be all a university can be. ZE03052922  

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