The “Francis effect” offers an opportunity to appreciate the importance of Catholic higher education in our world. CNS photo

Catholic higher education at the service of humanity

By  Dr. Peter M. Meehan
  • October 25, 2014

There is a perception, which has widened in the last 40 years, that Catholic higher education is no longer compatible with the modern university. A recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education charged denominational colleges and universities should be refused accreditation for “systematically undermining… skeptical and unfettered inquiry” and “the primacy of reason.” 

But, simply, this is not the case. When we reflect on the history of Catholic higher education, from the cathedral schools and great Catholic universities of medieval Europe (from which our modern secular universities are descended) it is clear the opposite is true. Their emphasis on inquiry and critical methods in pursuit of truth and liberal arts education as the basis for learning and life-endeavour has never avoided the primacy of reason or skeptical inquiry. 

This is proven by the endless list of Catholic academics, from the philosopher/mathematician Réné Descartes and 18th-century Italian physicist Laura Bassi, the first woman to receive a professorship and a university chair in science, to Msgr. George Lemaitre, father of the Big Bang theory. The truth is that Catholic universities have, since their inception, encouraged questioning and informed discussion because, as noted in a recent First Things article: “unlike American liberalism, Christianity is not a parochial culture. A 2,000- year tradition with transcendent ambitions and a global reach, it encourages free inquiry because it has texture, nuance and depth.” 

Catholic institutions of higher education, which combine education with an emphasis on justice and service, have been important incubators for generations of leaders who reflect the values of the institutions as they contribute to the health and compassion of the community. 

Modern popes have been crucially important to bringing the various apostolates of the Church into fruitful dialogue with the world. Most recently, the impact of what journalists are calling the “Francis Effect” offers an opportunity to appreciate the importance of Catholic higher education. 

From the perspective of popular culture, the impact of Pope Francis has been remarkable. Time and The Advocate magazines have both named him their Person of the Year. Fortune magazine ranked him No. 1 in a listing of the world’s 50 greatest leaders. He made the cover of Rolling Stone, and Esquire magazine even named him their best dressed man for 2013. Business people understand the value of having a “seat at the table” in order for a proposition to be heard. Without any betrayal of Christian truth or orthodoxy, that, in the very least, is what Pope Francis has done. His message of mercy, compassion, concern for the poor, not judging but welcoming is not new, but it sets priorities for us to live lives of faith, priorities made more accessible by his living example. 

With Pope Francis, how he says things is often as important as what he says. He smiles readily and speaks genuinely and relates a remarkable identification with the needs of humanity. He is unafraid to be seen in human moments — laughing with his Jesuit confreres, or touching and embracing the most vulnerable. From the perspective of the institutional Church, he is exactly what is needed at this point in history, and his message is applicable to the discussion about the value of Catholic higher education. 

The metaphor of a journey has often been used to explain human development. It relates the search for truth and how that search unfolds over time. But somewhere along the way our appreciation for the journey has been lost. With regard to higher education, we are increasingly inclined to think of it as a short excursion that gives us what we want — perhaps the big income or the big job — at the expense of what we need. Often, losing sight of the longer journey results in frustration for students at the start of their post-secondary education. It is what people in higher education often call a “false start” and it is very common. 

The reality is that learning — real, meaningful, life-changing learning — does not have a fast track. Non-Christian sources confirm this. Read Homer. Journeys are important because they are epic, life-changing encounters with the world, both physical and intellectual. From them we emerge wiser and more able to deal with future challenges. 

It is important to understand the encounter between faith and reason on the journey to truth. In the context of a Catholic college, faith and reason are mutually illuminating, uniting the yearnings of the soul and the mind. We understand the importance of what others call the “student experience” in terms of our obligation to the development of our students as whole persons — mind, body and soul. Through our commitment to small classes, accessible faculty, the importance of critical thinking and intellectual rigour, we emphasize the value of education over what can be more ephemeral aspects of training. This is a critically important distinction in an era of rapid change where students are often preparing for careers that have yet to be invented. 

The value of this education is that it is confident in Christian truth without being proselytizing or triumphal. It imbues individuals to continue on their journey, making transitions easily and decisions wisely. It encourages discussion and investigation of tough questions, but in an environment of Christian hopefulness that makes no room for the paralyzing effects of existential angst and despair. 

In an era focused on sustainability, the radical values of this brand of education should be readily grasped by all: love of neighbour vs. love of self; giving and contributing vs taking and accumulating; acceptance of diversity and inclusiveness vs. exclusion and ostracism. 

Catholic colleges and universities are also communities of faith and worship. They are unapologetically communities. They exist and function according to the Greek term Koinonia, the idealized state of communion and sharing for Christians within the Church as the Body of Christ. At St. Mark’s/Corpus Christi Colleges, our community is animated by the Spirit of Christ, and nurtured by liturgical celebrations and sacramental life. As a community of faith and worship, our mission also includes the role of lay pastoral ministry in helping students recognize and respect the sacred, to understand the value of sacrifice, humility and gratitude, and to discover and promote the dignity of others. Understanding that “faith without works is dead” (James 2:26), our community is called to be both reactive and proactive through programs of community outreach and service learning. These respond to the need for social justice and the problems of marginalization and alienation, while also using our resources to think critically about the world, and to pose solutions to the problems facing humanity. 

Catholic higher education is at the service of humanity. It brings together people of all backgrounds and faiths to help them understand their vocation. At the heart of the Church’s sense of the word vocation is that God calls individuals differently: to priesthood and religious life, to married life, to single life, and all according to their unique gifts. In addressing the needs of adults at different stages in their lives, Catholic colleges and universities emphasize the importance of theological education as life education. This is as true of our undergraduate liberal arts programs, which lead students to various professional careers, as it is for our graduate students, those engaged in academic preparation for ordination to the permanent diaconate and those participating in our programs of continuing education. 

Catholic institutions of higher learning are immersed in faithful and nuanced discussion of topics related to traditional theological disciplines as well as to questions facing humanity — from biological and business ethics, ecumenism, aging, death and dying, to the ecology, globalization and issues of responsible citizenship and government. 

The real importance of Catholic higher education is in its role of service. As with all other apostolic work, it serves the need to encourage thoughtful discussion of faith and reason; it serves our basic need to exist as a community in worshipful celebration of that faith; and it serves people searching for truth and meaning at different stages of their lives. 

For Catholic higher education this service extends in a very conscious way to leadership formation and our role in producing leaders who, grounded in their faith, are capable of both reflection and action. In the spirit of the New Evangelization heralded by Pope St. John Paul II, it needs to be understood as a place of inclusiveness and welcoming to all those on the journey that is faith. It must bring the fullness and truth of Christianity and its precious gifts to the many, not the few. It must do so with dynamism, joy and hope and without fear of challenge or contradiction. In this way the mission of Catholic higher education will be understood ex corde ecclesiae — borne from the heart of the Church. 

(Dr. Peter M. Meehan is President/ Principal of St. Mark’s/Corpus Christi Colleges in Vancouver.) 

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