Figure of Speech: Catholic values drive universities’ goals

  • October 22, 2018

When we speak of Catholic education it is almost a cliché to begin by saying that universities were born from the Church and to give Bologna and Oxford as examples of the foundational role the Church played in the development of higher education. 

It is, of course, both an accurate record of historical origins but also an obvious attempt to validate the Catholic lineage of universities in an age of secularization.

The next invocation is Cardinal John Henry Newman’s dated but still remarkably influential The Idea of the University, a treatise that argued for the value of knowledge for knowledge’s sake, and a work that simultaneously warned of the dangers of narrow specializations and the importance of separation between Church and school. Again, one can see why this text resonates for most champions of Catholic education.

A great number of Catholic colleges and universities, both in Canada and throughout the world, are liberal arts-based, and so any work that intelligently makes the case for a comprehensive understanding of knowledge that provides students with what Newman called a “clear, calm, accurate vision and comprehension of all things,” will strike an important note for those wishing to support the liberal arts model of education at a time when these values are clearly under attack.

 It is not unusual, therefore, to find mission statements from most of our institutions that speak of our commitment to serving students in a way that is arguably unique to the Catholic intellectual tradition. 

It is a tradition intent on producing citizens of the real world who are well-rounded, academically rigorous, fully formed in mind, body and spirit, and keen to give back to society.

 The reality is that Catholic higher education in Canada and around the world is booming. Far from a marginalized space under siege by secularization, Catholic universities and colleges have carved out important niches in society to deliver the very highest standard of education within a model of care and ethical behaviour that is second to none.

The Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities in Canada represents 22 such institutions that span the length of the country. All of these institutions, small and large, pride themselves on presenting a values-based education that reminds its stakeholders — our students — that their success will be measured more by what they give back to society than by what they gain personally through their accomplishments. 

Given this mandate to model dynamic and responsible citizenry, it is not surprising to find Catholic colleges and universities championing key social issues, from access to education for the disadvantaged to shaping the response to Indigenous reconciliation. 

At St. Mary’s University in Calgary, for example, we have pioneered an award-winning program that has opened doors to further educational opportunities, and that is provided free of charge, to the city’s most marginalized citizens. The Humanities 101 program has allowed countless students — recovered addicts, migrants, vulnerable populations — to re-enter the workforce or pursue higher educational programs.

Many of our institutions have similarly committed to developing powerful and enduring collaborations with First Nations, Inuit and Métis communities through rigorous and expansive programs. A number of these initiatives were outlined in a report, “Dialogue Together with Action: Canada’s Catholic Colleges and Universities and the Road to Reconciliation,” launched by Sen. Murray Sinclair in Ottawa last November.

This work is being undertaken from the heart of Catholic post-secondary institutions because we recognize that places of learning must help to illuminate the path to healing. 

In his inaugural speech as the new president of St. Michael’s College in Toronto earlier this month, David Sylvester reminded the assembled that a university — especially a Catholic university — “requires a recommitment to our historical strengths: the uncompromising search for the truth in all things; the pursuit of excellence in our teaching and research; the nurturing of a campus that is marked by diversity, inclusiveness and justice; the courage to listen to and serve the marginalized and voiceless; and the honesty required to recognize when we must change.”

Pope Francis, in similar fashion, noted that Catholic universities, “by their very nature, are committed to demonstrating the harmony of faith and reason and the relevance of the Christian message for a full and authentically human life.”

Surely that is the objective of any Catholic post-secondary institution.

(Turcotte is the president of St. Mary’s University in Calgary.)

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