The Catholic University of America

This article was first published in the November 2010 issue of FIRST THINGS. Reprinted with permission.

November 2010

The Idea of a Catholic University

“At a time when there is so much in this part of the world to depress and trouble us as to our religious prospects, the tidings which your circular conveys of the actual commencement of so great an undertaking on the other side of the ocean on the part of the Church will rejoice the hearts of all educated Catholics in these Islands.”

John Henry Cardinal Newman wrote these words in 1885 to James Gibbons, the Archbishop of Baltimore. The circular Newman referred to had announced the creation of The Catholic University of America, founded two years later.

When he wrote this letter Newman was nearing the end of a long life in the twilight of English Christianity. British intellectuals felt a growing freedom to reject the faith as unfounded, if not actually immoral. Charles Darwin compared the biblical God to a “revengeful tyrant.”

This helps explain what depressed and troubled Newman, and why The Catholic University of America’s founding delighted him. Catholic University was not precisely the sort of institution Newman envisioned in The Idea of a University. He frowned on the idea of a research university, for example. (He believed that “[t]o discover and to teach are distinct functions . . . not commonly found united in the same person.”) Catholic University began as a graduate research school that did not admit its first undergraduate until 17 years after its founding. But such details mattered less to Newman than the grand vision he held. “[T]he object of the Holy See and the Catholic Church in setting up Universities,” he said in an 1856 sermon, when he was rector of the Catholic University of Ireland, “is to reunite things which were in the beginning joined together by God, and have been put asunder by man” – namely, faith and reason.

More than a century after Newman’s death many American Catholic institutions are experiencing the same process of secularization that Oxford and other English institutions (including Parliament) were experiencing in his time. This has made the idea and role of Catholic universities less clear now than it was then. With faculties far less clerical, indeed less Catholic, than they were in decades past, Catholic schools often struggle to identify what makes them unique.

Some schools identify their Catholic mission with the good works their students perform in a volunteer capacity, serving faraway missions and inner-city youth, the elderly and the ill. Others conflate it with a fastidious practice of the faith – frequent opportunities to receive the sacraments, chapels in every dormitory, and so on.

No Catholic university can survive without these essential elements, but they are not sufficient to constitute a Catholic university. What unique purpose is served by a school where young Catholics learn to serve others and frequent the sacraments outside the classroom, only to learn in classes that their faith is irrelevant; that God is dead; that scientific truths about the world He created prove in fact that He does not exist? How would a school like that differ from a large state university with a good Newman Center and a flourishing culture of volunteerism?

What makes a Catholic university unique is the Catholic intellectual tradition that suffuses its academic work as well as its campus life. In our classrooms at Catholic University we begin with the premise that we do well always and everywhere to serve God, and that all human knowledge works toward this end. We approach our work through the lens of faith – not only in our ecclesiastical faculties of philosophy, canon law, and theology, but also in art, music, history, literature, law, architecture, and even the hard sciences.

Newman’s 1856 sermon, preached on the feast of St. Monica, treated of that mother’s solicitude for her son Augustine, whose formidable intellect grappled with her faith for possession of his soul. Adrift from the lessons he learned in his youth, he dabbled in Manichaean thought and indulged his carnal desires for many years before becoming a great saint himself.

Monica’s concern for Augustine had a lot in common with Newman’s concern for his Catholic university: “It will not satisfy me,” he said, “what satisfies so many, to have two independent systems, intellectual and religious, going at once side by side, by a sort of division of labour, and only accidentally brought together. . . . I want the same roof to contain both the intellectual and moral discipline. Devotion is not a sort of finish given to the sciences; nor is science a sort of feather in the cap . . . an ornament and set-off to devotion. I want the intellectual layman to be religious, and the devout ecclesiastic to be intellectual.”

The goal of the Catholic university, then, is to unite intellect and virtue, which man’s fallen nature has allowed to drift apart. We engage the whole person and point him or her toward knowledge and true happiness. The two lie along the same axis, and are best sought in concert.

This notion is more counter-cultural today than it was in Newman’s time. The modern university (not unlike first amendment law of the late twentieth century) lives by a creed of separationism – in this case the separation of knowledge and belief. Its patron saint is John Dewey, not John Newman. Dewey thought that religious education caused unnecessary social division. He saw the Catholic Church specifically as “a powerful reactionary world organization” whose role in education resulted in the “promulgation of principles inimical to democracy.” This was not a simple prejudice but a part of a consistent educational philosophy which held that “apart from participation in social life, the school has no moral end or aim.” Education, Dewey believed, equips us with the ability to get along with others and a set of intellectual building blocks. Students are then free to choose their own adventures – to form religious and moral opinions apart from their intellectual instruction.

Catholic universities take a different approach. We are not in the business of serving up facts and ideas, then leaving students to grope in the dark for direction. As Psalm 119 says, we view God’s word as a lamp to our feet and a light to our path. When we speak (as academics are wont to do) about the search for truth, we really believe that there is a truth we are searching for. The search for truth goes hand in hand with the pursuit of virtue. They are most successful when we do them together. This is the quality in the art of Fra Angelico and Josef Albers; the music of Verdi, Olivier Messiaen, and Dave Brubeck; the poetry of Dante, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and Dana Gioia; the writings of Shusako Endo, Flannery O’Connor, and Mary Karr; the philosophy of Augustine and Alasdair MacIntyre, that sets them apart and marks the Catholic intellectual tradition.

At Catholic universities we strive to provide students with the full intellectual harmony Cardinal Newman referred to – to teach them that knowing, loving, and serving God are part of the same enterprise. They represent not just one option in a universe of equally good ideas, but our fulfillment. As Saint Augustine ultimately discovered, “Our hearts are restless until they rest in You.”