Some friends said, “Ho, hum.” They thought Pope Benedict’s recent address to Catholic educators during his U.S. visit was a nonevent. My reaction was different. Benedict brought home to me the daunting challenge of Catholic education. He observed that Catholic universities should not simply inform minds but also change lives by fostering a “personal intimacy with Jesus Christ.” “A particular responsibility” of Catholic educators, he said, “is to evoke among the young the desire for the act of faith, encouraging them to commit themselves to the ecclesial life that follows from this belief.”

Personal intimacy with Christ! It gave me pause. It’s not that I lack for support. Where I teach, most folks see that you can’t have a Catholic education without a fairly robust exposure to the Christian way of thinking. An official statement of educational mission wants us to encourage students “to engage in reflection that contributes to the renewal of Christian witness in the contemporary world.” And it’s not just rhetoric. We have an extensive sequence of courses¯eighteen hours (six courses) of required classes in theology and philosophy

It’s all very well and good, but Benedict pushes the issue: The deepest difference that makes the biggest difference in Catholic education is the proclamation of Christ as the way, the truth, and the life. Are we making that kind of difference? It’s a hard, searching question.

Let me put the problem plainly. The lecture hall is not a church, and the laboratory may give us access to the mysteries of the natural world, but it has no saving sacraments. Nearly all the work of higher education involves intellectual training, and as John Henry Newman realized in his own reflections on education, mental refinement often has little influence on the will. “Quarry rock with razors, or moor a vessel with a thread of silk,” he wrote in his masterful lectures The Idea of a University , “then you may hope with such keen and delicate instruments as human knowledge and human reason to contend against those giants, the passion and pride of man.”

Reason is a great gift, but the will that Pope Benedict wishes us to excite toward faith seems terribly remote from our professorial strategies of argument and analysis. We see this in our students¯and, if we are honest, in ourselves. This is why we rightly worry that we’re not really making a difference with our well-crafted mission statements, centers for Catholics studies, and required classes in theology.

Proper self-doubt is not the same as despair. Newman was utterly convinced that education can be transformative, and he pointed the way toward the real source of influence. The will is engaged, thought Newman, by personality, and institutions have personalities. By his reckoning, a university is not simply a matter of classes and assignments, lab reports and carefully argued seminar papers. It’s not just about what students learn¯and so quickly forget. Instead, a university is a culture unto itself. It’s a place¯or at least it can be a place¯that has what he called an “ethical atmosphere” that provides a “living teaching.” A college or university can have a genius loci.

So strongly did Newman feel that true education involves a culture with constant and often insensible influence over the lives of students that he expressed a preference for an undergraduate education with stimulating peers and no professors or classes at an Oxford college over a carefully planned-out and well-taught curriculum designed as if students were interchangeable, disembodied minds. (One can easily imagine his disdain for the idea of distance education over the Internet!)

The contrast was meant to be hyperbolic. Newman’s own arguments for the necessary role of theology in higher education show that curriculum matters, as do the men and women who teach the courses. But the point holds. Professors and students have individual goals and projects, and only collectively and in concert with an inherited past do they constitute the alma mater. And she educates in the deepest sense of the word.

Newman’s realistic sense of the limits of mental training and the importance of personality has helped me see the true nature of the problem Catholic educators face in living up to Benedict’s rightful call for an evangelical core to a genuinely Catholic university. In the past, the genius loci of American Catholic colleges and universities came from the distinctive charisms of the religious orders that ran them. Their drastic decline is the simple, devastating fact that explains nearly all the aimlessness and uncertainty in contemporary Catholic higher education. Half-hearted half measures have produced, at best, half successes. The retreat of Catholic identity into campus ministry, social-justice programs, and courses on ethics has kept the flame alive but at the cost of giving up on the classroom and the professoriate. Many institutions are seeing the secularizing results, which is why the question of Catholic identity has become so important in the last decade.

There is no blueprint, no ten-point action plan for renewal. Benedict’s call for Catholic colleges and universities to evangelize can only be realized by building and sustaining living Catholic intellectual cultures. A genius loci, a real institutional personality, cannot be made by formula any more than a child can be raised by checking off boxes in a how-to manual. Instead, the future will be made at each college and university by way of thousands of decisions: whom do we recruit as students, to whom do we offer scholarships, whom do we hire, whom do we tenure, who gets the endowed chair, who is made dean or president. People matter, and, as Newman points out, when it comes to influencing the will, people matter most.

I can be dyspeptic. I blame it on my mother, who at times had a dry and jaundiced view of life. As a result, I can be rather negative about where I teach, so much so that at this very moment I’m tempted to begin a great list of our collective failures to live up to our mission as a Catholic university. But I won’t, because it’s spring, the season of renewal, and a graduating senior recently made me think otherwise.

Alan is a talented young fellow with a mobile mind and a sharp, ironical wit¯just the sort of postmodern twenty-something who will be running the world after we finally wheel the senescent baby boomers out of power a few decades from now. He was visiting me with some friends, and looking at his watch he suddenly said, “Oh, hey, gotta go.” “What’s up?” I asked. He answered sheepishly, “Nine o’clock Mass.” I was surprised: “But I didn’t think you were Catholic¯or even religious.” With his usual wry grin, he replied: “Oh, I’m not. But hey, it’s my bookend. Keeps the week in line. And anyway, you never know what the president might say in the homily.” It was an evasive answer (not unlike the kind I often give). I was gathering myself to make a wry comment about how, indeed, one is often surprised by what Jesuits have to say, to say nothing of Jesuits who are university presidents. But he was already up and out the door with his friends in his wake.

In one of his most famous lines, Newman once said, “It is as absurd to argue men, as to torture them, into believing.” He’s right. I could have gotten out my books and argued with Alan about every Christian doctrine under the sun, and all without much chance of changing his mind. And yet there he was, going to Mass on a Sunday evening in the final week of his senior year when the warm weather so easily tempts seniors toward a Dionysian worship instead. There was something about the alma mater that was guiding him there, something about the remarkable fact of a university president celebrating Mass, a student culture that cares about the spiritual life, teachers that seem actually to believe, and courses that deal directly with Christianity as a real possibility for belief. A living teaching was exercising its influence.

I have no idea what God plans to do with that young man. Maybe he’ll be a cardinal some day. It has happened. Or maybe he’ll remain a skeptical observer on the periphery of the Church. But of this I am fairly sure: He will not betray his alma mater by adopting the arrogant, ignorant attitude of spiritual superiority that characterizes our elite culture and its dismissal of Christian faith. In this day and age, when so much of the secular academy presumes that we should all be commencing on the dangerous, unprecedented experiment of a culture without religion, that’s no small difference for a Catholic university to make.

R.R. Reno is features editor for First Things and professor of theology at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska.

Articles by R. R. Reno

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