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What makes a university "Catholic"?

What makes a university Catholic?

The question raised is: What is a Catholic university? Or: How ought a university to be if it wants to be Catholic? Or What makes a university Catholic? (8)

8. The answer to this last question is: people. This is to anticipate the gist of a conclusion to come; also to stress right from the beginning that ultimately persons, and persons alone can make a university Catholic. (But please, do not conclude that the mere presence of persons is enough!)

We are no longer seeking an empirical answer, we want a critically sustainable definition or determination which can serve as a guideline for both the founding of Catholic universities and the assessment of the operation of the existing ones. But how to proceed? If past discussions are of any guide, they tell us that the path toward this determination can be full of pitfalls, either leading into a maze of endless discussions, or into the temptation to jump to conclusions. Caution is necessary.

A good starting point is to make clear that a university is not some kind of metaphysical substance from which its “essential definition” can be deduced. It is ultimately a complex structure of human operations, a set of relationships built upon characteristic activities; all of them ordered to a specific end. In this end is the clue for determining what a university is in general, and what a Catholic university is in particular. (9)

9. In scholastic terms: the correct definition of university comes from its causa finalis, not from its causa materialis or formalis. This is not mere playing with words; it touches the heart of the matter.

It follows that if the question “What is the essence of a Catholic university” refers to a mysterious substance in the institution, it is a misconceived and misdirected question. If it refers to the purpose of the university, it is a good question and leads to the correct answer; such as: it is of the essence of a Catholic university that its operations are directed toward the realization of Catholic values.

At this point we are at a critical juncture; our inquiry could go in two different directions. One leads into the world of abstractions, the other into the world of concrete realities.

Let us see what happens in each case.

If someone takes the path into the world of abstractions, he will raise the question about how the best values, to their highest degree, can be obtained by a university. That is, he will focus his attention on an ideal end, construed mentally. It should not be difficult for him to find an answer. From there is just one logical step to the definition of the Catholic university. Once he is in possession of that definition, he has the criterion to judge and to evaluate, with a certainty that only metaphysics (possibly combined with religious conviction) can give, all other definitions and all universities. (10)

10. This was the way Plato conceived and worked out the constitutions of his ideal state, which no one, not even himself, could ever put into practice.

The problem with this method is that the inquirer went out of the real world, and his conclusions are applicable only in an ideal world. Abstract values are no more real than abstract mountains, and abstract values are no more attainable than abstract mountains are climbable.

The other path is into the world of concrete realities. This is the correct path because it leads to real values, which can exist in the concrete world only. Therefore, the right question in every single instance when a Catholic university is to be founded or being evaluated is a prudential (that is, practical as distinct from metaphysical) question: What type of bond between the secular reality of a university and the sacred aspirations of a religious community is most suitable (most conducive to the realization of values) in a given place at a given time?

The world in which a university must take its place and carry out its operations is by no means uniform; it is full of differences originating in the mentality of the local people, their culture, their civil laws, their very perception of a university. In such an uneven world there is no uniform way of fostering values. The answer cannot be but a prudential judgment. (11)

11. That is a judgment which goes beyond the abstract perception of values and takes into account the concrete and particular circumstances.

But let me add immediately, there is a duty to reach for the very best obtainable values in the circumstances; there is no virtue in a shallow compromise. (12)

12. Our approach is not mere pragmatism either. Admittedly, the judgment about what values are attainable in the practical order is a pragmatic one; but the judgment about what values are the true and authentic ones can be based only on sound philosophy or religious faith.

Thus a Catholic university can blend in the best sense of the term into its environment, it can be the salt of the earth, or better, it can be the well-measured leaven in the mass. (If the leaven is not judiciously measured, either it remains ineffective or spoils the mass.)

Further, because a prudential judgment by its very nature is about concrete situations, the persons best qualified to make it are the persons fully familiar with the circumstances. Without their knowledge, notional and experiential, an abstract theory can be construed, but a feasible plan cannot be worked out.

Let us collect now the fragments of these terse reasonings, and (I submit) there emerges a balanced and harmonious image of what a Catholic university ought to be.

It is the house of intellect made all the brighter by the light of faith. More prosaically, it is an institution to uphold and promote human and religious values according to Catholic beliefs.

It is well-proportioned to its environment; it is adapted to its neighborhood; it blends into the social structures of the place. It provides as much opportuinity for the advancement of learning and religion as possible at a given moment of history. For its religious dedication, it relies primarily on the internal disposition of its constituencies; it is part and member of the Catholic communion but it uses a canonical framework as far as it is helpful in promoting its primary end.

Because the circumstances in which Catholic universities must fulfill their end vary, there is a great deal of variation in their structures and operations; rightly so. The task of the ecclesiastical authorities is to respect this natural order of things and to encourage such a variety. The temptation for the authorities may be to proceed in an abstract way, and to judge the concrete good by the abstract best. Once such a judgment is formed, and the necessary power of jurisdiction is at hand, it takes just one step to make “the ideal” into a common legal norm. If that happens, true values may be the victims. An attempt to impose forcibly what is the best in the abstract but unsuitable in the concrete circumstances, can destroy quickly what good and prudent persons succeeded in building over a long period of time. (13)

13. The first canon on “Catholic Universities” in the Code of Canon Law begins “The church has the right to establish and to direct universities . . . ”, Jus est ecclesiae. . . (Canon 807). One wonders if our speech would not be more ecumenical (in the broadest sense of the term) if the canon stated “The church is ready to offer the service of establishing and directing universities. .

While it made good sense for the church to claim its own rights in an officially Christian state (or in Christendom); it is hardly a suitable way of approaching a modern secularist society.

Practical consequences

Some important practical consequences flow from the proposed understanding of Catholic universities:

* To begin with, this understanding transfers the issue of “what a Catholic university is” from the abstract conceptual order (where the question is mostly handled and answered) into the concrete existential order. Now this should not be interpreted as denying the value of construing pure theories; they can be useful as far as they list “conceivable options”; what they cannot do, however, is to determine what option is the best for a given place at a given time. Thus, a theory may well set the ideal structures for a Catholic university, but in practice those structures may not be in harmony with the traditions of a culture (no culture is perfect), or may even be in plain conflict with the local laws; hence to impose and enforce them would defeat the very purposes of a Catholic university.

* Further, it cautions about universal legislation that would impose one pattern in differing situations. A law conceived on the basis of a theory may not only fail to promote the desired values but may even destroy the values which are being promoted. Since we live in an imperfect world, a perfect law can be destructive of the only obtainable values. (14)

14. In our age, in an increasing number of countries, the church is existing and operating in conditions which it has perhaps never experienced in its two thousand years of history: virtually total freedom in an indifferent state. In the pro-Constantine Roman empire it was (by and large) oppression in a religiously lukewarm state. Then it was freedom in close juridical association with the state (the age of Christendom: established church with rights and duties, various struggles between the two “perfect societies”, etc.).

Canon law, as we have it today, is the product of the age of this latter type of relationship between church and state when it was necessary to vindicate and to define the rights of the church toward the secular authority—with which it was (sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse) in permanent partnership. Hence the church claimed the right to property, to schools, to evangelize . . .and so forth. Ecclesiastical institutions had to be precisely defined canonically because otherwise their identity was not recognized by the state. E.g. there could not be a Catholic university without an ecclesiastical charter and jurisdictional ties. But how much canonical legislation is necessary in the new conditions? There is little experience to guide us. Is it too much to say that the church must learn how to define and guide its institutions in a climate of virtually unlimited freedom?

* Also, the shifting of the problem to the practical order could put an end to the endless and infertile discussions as to what the “essence” of a Catholic university is, and open the door to greater mutual understanding of different situations.

* Finally, it should bring home to all of us that at the final resort the Catholic orientation of a university rests on the judgment and decisions of persons, which cannot be made once for all. To maintain the Catholic character demands an ongoing dedication and alertness; “Catholic” structures may save appearances but not the substance if the persons are failing. In fact, the idea of Catholic university which I offer is a very demanding one. It requires a commitment of all the constituencies not only to the usual academic ideals but also to ideals known by faith alone. Moreover, because it is not satisfied with the establishment of static structures but requires an internal dynamism to keep the religious orientation alive and developing, it genuinely speaks of a living Catholic institution.

Let me add also that the solution I offer has nothing to do with an existential philosophy that builds its positions out of the shifting sand of circumstances. My thoughts are grounded in an authentic metaphysical system, rooted in Aristotle and Aquinas, both of whom hold fast to the principle that values, that is, “what is good” for a concrete living being, exist in the concrete order only.

From: The Church: Learning and Teaching, by Ladislas Örsy, Michael Glazier 1987, chapter 4. Read the whole chapter here.

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