The decline of Catholic higher education in our country should concern all Americans, regardless of their religious affiliation. (I am not myself a Catholic.) The Catholic tradition, preserved and revitalized by its own institutions, has made and will continue to make truly indispensable contributions to the intellectual and moral vitality of American life.
At the most basic level, Catholic higher education is vital to the meaning of American pluralism, which does not entail homogeneity, but a variety of lived differences. From well before the time of its founding as a nation, America has allowed distinctive voluntary communities to flourish in peace. We have created a unique society, in which we not only learn from each other—either deeply or marginally, substantively or as objects of mutual curiosity—but in which we also learn from the very possibility of that learning. If you had told our forebears, who came here from cultures all over the world, that their heirs would be living and working harmoniously with the sons and daughters of every inhabited continent, they would have found it to be beyond possibility. If you had told them, further, that their heirs would be living and working harmoniously with the sons and daughters of Catholics, Jews, Lutherans, Unitarians, Calvinists, atheists, Hindus, Muslims, and Buddhists, they would have thought you quite mad. The irenic pluralism of the American experiment in religious liberty is historically unprecedented, and, where understood, a political and social inspiration.
Two things underlie the beauty and wonder of this variety. First, it is based on a voluntary act. Whatever the effect of family and early educational influence, the reality of voluntary choice is an ineluctable part of the American experience. The Amish may choose to remain in their community or to define themselves in other ways. Jews may choose to remain in the traditions and laws of their fathers, or they may choose to redefine their beliefs and their identities. Catholics may choose to remain in the church and faith that received them, or they may choose to seek their beliefs and obligations elsewhere. We are what we are, in this astonishing land, by personal acts of the will for which we are individually responsible. Your creed, religious identity, and witness are not dictated by the state or by the absence of other real choices. In America, our pluralism itself makes us conscious, vivid, and truly volitional embodiments of our choices about ultimate things.
The precondition of making such choices, however, is the existence of the means to actualize them. The choice of an orthodox Jewish life, for example, depends upon the existence of higher Jewish education. The choice to be Amish depends upon the existence of a rich Amish cultural life. Likewise, the choice to be Catholic depends upon the existence of the depth and fullness of Catholic higher learning and education.
We have all chosen to live in pluralistic America, with people who have made private choices quite different from our own. This does not mean, however, that we choose to live only in pluralistic communities and institutions within that pluralistic society. Indeed, our society would cease to be genuinely pluralistic if we transformed all institutions and traditions within it into pluralistic ones. Most individuals thus choose to live in somewhat pluralistic neighborhoods, and most, though not all, to work in pluralistic businesses or enterprises. Virtually none among us, however, chooses to attend pluralistic churches and places of worship; in that domain of life, almost everyone wishes to participate in a community of individuals who accept one set of beliefs and liturgies and who reject others. When it comes to universities, some of us see them as more analogous, within limits, to neighborhoods, while others of us see them as more analogous to communities of belief and value. From religious Americans who make the latter choice with regard to universities there arises the rich tapestry of credal higher education.
In terms of the deepest meaning of American pluralism, those who make the latter choices enrich us all because they allow individuals to realize the fullest potentials of their choices. Where would Judaism be without its Talmud Torahs and its Yeshivas? Where would secular humanism be without its Harvard? Where would American Catholicism be without its truly Catholic institutions of higher education?
The preservation and vivification of distinct traditions of belief and value benefit American pluralism immeasurably. This gives us the ability to learn from each other at our most coherent and best informed, which means the ability to discover claims of truth in traditions into which we were not born. American pluralism not only profits incalculably from vital centers of non–pluralistic education, but, indeed, ultimately depends upon them for its cultural vitality.
John Stuart Mill, in On Liberty—a work, I fear, too casually dismissed by many Catholic thinkers—observed that if one wished to learn a belief, it was not enough to be taught it by someone who was not an adherent. One needed to hear a belief in its most forceful, persuasive form—that is, from a believer. If Protestants wish to understand Catholicism, they need to hear more than Protestant exposition of what it is that Catholicism supposedly teaches. They need to hear it articulated and defended by a Catholic mind alive to its faith and belief.
In addition to the benefits that flow from keeping pluralism alive, the philosophical and theological tradition of Catholicism enriches the life of the American mind. In particular, the Catholic tradition embodies the very foundation of the civilization of the West, the meeting of Athens and Jerusalem.
We live in an age of willful blindness and willful forgetfulness. Philistines do not know that virtually every thrust that they make against Christian belief was anticipated and articulated in the sed contra objections of the doctors of the Church themselves. They do not know that the debates of which the moderns are so proud ultimately resolve into arguments that arose in past ages among Catholic philosophers and theologians—realism versus nominalism, the limits of natural human knowledge, the tension between philosophical skepticism and rational dogmatism. To cite one example among so many, in seventeenth–century France one found scholasticism of various philosophical stripes, Thomist and Scotist revivals, an Augustinian revival, Cartesian, Aristotelian, and Malebranchist schools of Catholic natural philosophy, a flowering of mysticism as well as debates about the dangers of mysticism. There were deep disputes between Jansenists and Jesuits. Dominicans, Franciscans, and Jesuits debated each other over the nature of non–Christian cultures and the scope and limits of natural law and natural reason. Montaigne, Charron, Mersenne, Gassendi, and the singular Aristotelian Barbay; Pascal, Arnauld, Fenelon; devotees of Suarez, Salamanca, Louvain, the Sorbonne, and Port Royal—–all living and flourishing within the bosom of the Catholic Church.
Never, in the history of all creeds, has there been more intellectual dynamism, vitality, philosophical diversity, mutual criticism, and natural philosophical liberty than in the history of the Catholic Church. Every century’s or generation’s rediscovery of or encounter with Augustine and Aquinas, for example, is productive of profoundly creative thought and debate and forces anew a consideration of the deepest issues known to the human mind. Think of the rediscovery in recent times of the genius of the Catholic University of Salamanca, and of its insights, creativity, and analytic rigor on issues of natural law, economics, and politics. I do not trust the secular universities to cherish this heritage, let alone to keep it alive. If Catholic universities will not sustain in both learned and living form the immeasurable legacy and demonstrable relevance of the Catholic intellectual and theological inheritance, who will? Harvard? The University of Minnesota? My own University of Pennsylvania, which could barely be persuaded to preserve the study of religion, theology, and spirituality as an academic discipline?
The students in my courses are excellent, with minds open to thoughtful consideration of everything presented to them. Through no fault of their own, they know nothing about the following: Arius, Athanasius, the Nicene Creed, Patristics, Augustine, Boethius, the contribution of the Irish Church to Western Civilization, the Investiture Controversy, Aquinas, Suarez, or the Catholic Reformation. I have to explain, de novo, all of these references. I must explain to them the difference between an apology in the modern sense and apologetics. They have never heard of natural law. They cannot name a single Catholic pope, cardinal, archbishop, or theologian of the seventeenth, eighteenth, or nineteenth centuries. Should one care about Catholic higher education? The question answers itself.
This ignorance is rendered even more disturbing by the manifest and uninformed hostility of the secular academic world to Catholicism. At the curricular level, the truly serious study of Catholicism, let alone the recognition of the intellectual vibrancy and legitimacy of a distinctly Catholic perspective, is virtually limited to underfunded Medieval Studies programs, and even in that domain, their place is slipping fast.
Consider, if you will, the varying career trajectories of scholars at our secular universities who make the following statements about their commitments: I am a Foucauldian; I am a Thomist. I am a deconstructionist; I am an Augustinian. I am a gender feminist; I am a neo–Scholastic. I am a political and cultural radical; I am a Catholic. Colleagues at secular universities say with pride, and are rewarded for, such statements as, “My teaching and scholarship are an extension of my radical politics.” Now, imagine the reaction to a professor at the same institutions who said, “My teaching and scholarship are an extension of my Catholic faith.”
If one looks at the university in loco parentis, the situation is even bleaker. Speech codes protect feminists from any creation of “a hostile or offensive environment,” but gender feminists may say whatever they choose about the Catholic Church, its pontiff, its clergy, and its beliefs. The sign, “Keep Your Rosaries Off Our Ovaries,” is a commonplace of pro–choice rallies. Catholic–bashing hate speech is a staple of most so–called Women’s Centers. The very universities that ban antifeminist speech in the name of civility and sensitivity to the culture of “others” proclaim Catholic–bashing to be a mark of their devotion to freedom of expression. Catholic students must bear the insults of Serrano’s Piss Christ, a crucifix immersed in the artist’s urine, and Serrano is invited to university after university to exhibit his work and give speeches on art. At Carnegie Mellon University, a Resident Advisor, Patrick Mooney, asked to be excused from wearing a pink triangle during Gay and Lesbian Awareness Week on grounds of his Catholic conscience, while reiterating his contractual obligation not to discriminate in any way against gay and lesbian students. He was fired. There are many such examples of double standards.
The so–called “multicultural” agenda that dominates freshman orientations and residential programming presents itself as inviting the deep study, appreciation, and celebration of all cultures. I can guarantee that this feigned inclusiveness does not extend to Catholic culture. Indeed, multiculturalism has come to mean that the culture of which Catholicism is a part must be diminished and overcome. For many academics, multiculturalism simply means that there is one dominant, hegemonic, wicked culture that prevails in the West; Greek and Christian in its origins, it spreads arbitrary injustice everywhere. Only those voices that speak against and vitiate Western, Christian culture are deemed “multicultural.” That is why only Liberation Theology, among the full spectrum of Catholic voices, is “multicultural.” That is why the Sandinistas are “multicultural,” while the Catholic Cuban entrepreneurs of Dade County are not. It is up to faithful Catholics to break this monopoly on academic moral witness, and to demonstrate, by lived experience and vivid sincerity, the absurdity of the “multiculturalist” claim to have demystified their cultural contribution to humanity.
It is once again time for Catholic universities to serve as monasteries, preserving the deepest things, in the midst of the current barbarian ravages. They are uniquely qualified to preserve the most precious of legacies: the Western intellectual tradition, which is linked to an openness to the human condition wherever it is found. Against social constructionism, this tradition recognizes that there is a reality independent of the human will. Against the crude current academic categories of race, ethnicity, and sexuality, it affirms the moral truth of a common humanity based upon our existence as beings with rational and responsible souls. Perhaps most importantly, in an academic culture that no longer affirms individual freedom, responsibility, accountability, and dignity, Catholic universities must preserve the belief that freedom and dignity have an ontological status that is a precondition of our full humanity. They must bear witness to the belief that freedom is a gift that distinguishes us from the beasts.
Alan Charles Kors is Professor of History at the University of Pennsylvania and President of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. This essay is adapted from his Cardinal Newman Lecture, given at the annual meeting of the national Cardinal Newman Society held at Georgetown University.