Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

Valparaiso University had an inestimable part in shaping my understanding of the Church and its mission in the world, as it did for many Lutherans of the time. There at Valparaiso was the Lutheran Human Relations Association under the leadership of the sainted Andrew Schulze. There was the annual Liturgical Institute, which strove to advance a Lutheran understanding of what Valparaiso’s Ernest Koenker described as “The Liturgical Renaissance in the Roman Catholic Church.” There was the journal The Cresset , under the skillful editorships of John Strietelmeier and, later, of my cherished colleague at First Things , James Nuechterlein.

But, above all, Valparaiso was O.P. Kretzman. Please permit a measured indulgence of nostalgia. As a young boy in a Lutheran parsonage, I avidly read his column “The Pilgrim,” and in it I glimpsed a world of faith and devotion joined to learning and beauty. Always with O.P., as he was called, the autumn leaves seemed to be falling to the strains of Bach’s Mass in B Minor, and a melancholic wisdom was tempered by the shimmering promise and high good humor reflected from a light and a light yet to be.

In luce tua videmus lucem . “In your light we see light.” The words of Psalm 36 and the motto of Valparaiso University. Which raises the inescapable questions: Is that still Valparaiso University? And will that be Valparaiso twenty-five or forty years from now?

In his 1990 apostolic constitution on Christian education, John Paul II insisted that the university is ex corde ecclesiae ”from the heart of the Church. He spoke of the Catholic university, of course, but the vision challenges every Christian university. In Ex Corde Ecclesiae , John Paul wrote: “With every other university [the Christian university] shares that gaudium de veritate , so precious to Saint Augustine, which is the joy of searching for, discovering and communicating truth in every field of knowledge. [Such] a university’s privileged task is to unite existentially by intellectual effort two orders of reality that too frequently tend to be placed in opposition as though they were antithetical: the search for truth, and the certainty of already knowing the fount of truth.”

There are”or there should be”different kinds of universities. At least that is the case if there is no such thing as a university pure and simple. John Henry Newman’s much and rightly admired The Idea of a University is the idea of a university, which is a way of saying that a decision must be made, and constantly remade, to be a particular kind of university. It is sometimes said that a Christian university has a “dual identity,” one by virtue of being a university and another by virtue of being Christian. I suggest that is seriously mistaken, since it assumes that the term university is neutral or self-explanatory. Every university is, whether by careful deliberation or by accident, a university of a particular kind.

The origins of the university are ex corde ecclesiae . From the Middle Ages to the present”from Bologna and Oxford to Yale and Princeton”the university was explicitly constituted and inspired by Christian faith. In Harvard Yard one can still see the original seal with the word Veritas surrounded by the words Pro Christo et Ecclesia , for Christ and the Church. By the beginning of the twentieth century, that motto was reduced to just the one word, Veritas , and at Harvard there is obviously no consensus on what that truth might be, or even on whether there is such a thing as truth. (The long and steady retreat of American universities from their Christian founding is brilliantly analyzed in James Burtchaell’s The Dying of the Light , a book that must be read by everyone who cares about the future of the Christian university.)

When Harvard changed its seal and the constituting conviction reflected in that seal, it did not become more of a university. Nor did it become less of a university. It became a different kind of university. It became what we are accustomed to call a “secular university.” A secular university is not a university pure and simple. Secular is not a synonym for neutral . Secular, which easily turns into the ideology of secular ism , is more often than not a repudiation of an institution’s constituting understanding of Veritas .

When a university decides not to say that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life, it is not saying nothing. Rather, it is saying that adherence to this way, this truth, and this life is not necessary to, or is a hindrance to, being the kind of university it wants to be. The idea that the word university has a univocal meaning results in an American circumstance in which all universities are measured by Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford, and perhaps a few others, such as Duke and Berkeley. All other universities are in the second, third, or fourth tiers. They are, not to put too fine a point on it, second, third, or fourth rate. This way of thinking is both reflected and reinforced by the way that faculty members calculate the arc of their academic success or, as the case may be, of their failure. The achievements of the great research universities are not to be belittled. But they are not universities pure and simple.

It is a pleasant thing when U.S. News & World Report ranks a school in “the top twenty” or “the top fifty” in the country. But what does U.S. News & World Report know about what that school intends to be? What does U.S. News & World Report know about what Valparaiso University intends to be? Of course, if it is merely a matter of recruitment and marketing, or of developing what is called a niche market, there is no problem with such rankings. There is, however, an unattractive word for people who can be bought on the market, and the same word applies to universities that are for sale. If I may be permitted to paraphrase: What does it profit a university to attain the second tier but lose its soul?

Institutions have souls that reflect the souls of those who brought them into being with a definite intention and reflect the souls of those who keep faith with, and build upon, that intention. A university born ex corde ecclesiae ”from the heart of the Church”must decide, and then decide again every day, whether or not to keep faith with the Church of Jesus Christ. Many schools describe themselves as being church-related. Church-related ”it is a phrase suggestive of tenuousness and ambivalence. Some Catholic schools that are uncertain about Catholicism delicately describe themselves as being “in the Catholic tradition” or, even more tenuously, “in the Jesuit tradition.”

Some years ago, First Things sponsored a conference on higher education. One of the participants was the president of a major university tenuously affiliated with the United Methodist Church. He said that, in speaking to certain audiences, he sometimes referred to the school as a Methodist university, but, he added, “If I said we were a Christian university, all hell would break loose.” Any talk about being church-related frequently refers to something vestigial; it says something about the school’s past rather than its future, something about what the school used to be rather than what it hopes to be. It can present itself as Methodist merely by pointing to its history, while to present itself as Christian it must believably point to its governing convictions.

That president and his constituency are made nervous by the phrase Christian university, for it brings to mind Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University or Pat Robertson’s Regent University, with their lingering taint of fundamentalism. But should we let schools such as Liberty and Regent have a monopoly on the venerable title of Christian university ? Without denigrating those schools, which are to be respected for their determination to be a particular kind of university, one may suggest that leaders who have a firmer and more comprehensive understanding of the Christian intellectual tradition have the responsibility to demonstrate a different way of being a Christian university.

It is not enough to be a church-related university. Governing conviction is more important than church affiliation, but church affiliation can help sustain governing conviction. In 1967”in what is called the Land O’ Lakes Statement”a number of Catholic universities declared that they were not accountable to any authority outside the institutions of the academy. They were born ex corde ecclesiae, but now they declared that they were cutting the umbilical cord. In the past ten years or so”prompted by the pope’s exhortation of 1990, or by alumni discontent and recruitment problems, or by a mix of these and other considerations”many of the more than two hundred Catholic colleges and universities in this country have been scrambling to reassert what is called their “Catholic identity.” Catholic identity is usually something short of governing Catholic conviction. For Catholics and other Christians, the community of conviction is the Church, however variously structured.

The Christian university requires a structured form of conversation, both affirmative and critical, with a particular community of Christian faith. In the absence of such accountability”an accountability that is not imposed but freely sought”the Christian university will most likely succumb to the institutional and ideological dynamics of other kinds of universities. It is not enough that there be a department of theology or a vibrant student chaplaincy. Indeed, as James Burtchaell’s research demonstrates, the schools that ended up in repudiating their Christian founding began by assigning the responsibility to be Christian to theology departments and the chapel. The result was that they lost their connection with “the Church’s heart for learning” and, along with it, the responsibility of inviting students to enter on the high adventure of the Christian intellectual tradition”a tradition ever so much richer than the reductionist Enlightenment embraced by schools that claim to be universities pure and simple.

A prominent professor at an Ivy League school recently wrote on the op-ed page of the New York Times that he tells his students that, “if they are not more confused and uncertain at the end of my courses than they were at the beginning, I have been a failure.” Imagine that: a well-credentialed and tenured grown-up whose purpose in life is to increase confusion and uncertainty in the minds of undergraduates.

It seems to me that the great majority of young people entering college are sufficiently confused and uncertain as it is. The idea that it is the task of the university to debunk the certitudes and orthodoxies of young people is quite wrongheaded”unless, of course, one means by certitudes and orthodoxies the intellectual incoherence and mindless relativism that the young imbibe from the general culture. The task of the university is to form and inform minds by arousing curiosity about, as Matthew Arnold put it, the best that has been thought and said. The goal of the Christian university is to arouse and direct such curiosity about the unparalleled synthesis of Athens and Jerusalem, of faith and reason, that is the Christian intellectual tradition. Faith and reason, John Paul said in his encyclical Fides et Ratio , are the two wings by which the mind rises toward wisdom. The goal of the Christian university is wisdom. This is as true of those parts of the university that are most in danger of becoming merely trade schools as it is of the humanities and arts.

A Christian university is not a church, although, absent a vital relation with a particular community of faith, it can become a church unto itself. (Of course, a church that is designed to graduate its members, and that observes holy communion chiefly through alumni donations, is not much of a church.) A church has many tasks, including worship, evangelizing, catechesis, and works of mercy. All these tasks may be pursued within a university, but the specific task of the university is the cultivation of the life of the mind.

There are those who say that the phrase Christian university is an oxymoron, and, if the life of the mind is not understood as an integral part of Christian discipleship, they are right. And if forming the minds of disciples is not integral to the university’s mission, that mission will”sooner or later, but inexorably”become alien to the mission of the Church. Most Christian universities today have “mission statements,” and they trend toward ever-increasing vagueness and generality, reflecting a desire to be a university pure and simple. A student of the contemporary academy tells me that when a school is haggling over its mission statement, it is a sure sign it has already lost its way. That may be saying too much, but it is not without an element of cautionary truth.

At the same time, the worry is expressed that anything smacking of Christian mission is an “imposition” on the integrity of the university. John Paul II notes, in his encyclical Redemptoris Missio , that some are offended by the very idea of communicating the faith. “Who are you,” they say, “to impose your religion on me?” To which John Paul responds, “The Church imposes nothing. She only proposes.” She proposes respectfully, winsomely, persuasively. What she proposes she believes to be the truth, and the truth does impose itself, for human beings endowed by God with the gift of reason are, as it were, hardwired for the truth.

Let me put it bluntly: A student at a Christian university who has not encountered the proposal of the Christian intellectual tradition”from Paul to Augustine, from Irenaeus to Dante, Aquinas, Luther, Milton, and moderns such as Lewis and Polanyi, along with those who have challenged and now challenge that tradition”such a student has been grievously short-changed in his or her university education. This is true not only for students majoring in theology, philosophy, or the liberal arts. It is true, to varying levels of intensity, for all students. If, that is, the Christian in the claim to be a Christian university refers to governing conviction and not merely to a hangover of historical accident.

Of course, there is no university without the faculty. Ex Corde Ecclesiae says a majority of the faculty should be Catholic, but that hardly seems sufficient. More important, I would suggest, than whether faculty be Catholic, Lutheran, Baptist, or even Christian is the consideration that faculty support, or at least do not actively oppose, the idea of a Christian university. Certainly, the institution-defining decisions must be made by those who understand and support the nature of the institution. Discrimination”a much-abused but invaluable term”must be exercised in faculty appointments; not necessarily discrimination on the basis of religious belief but discrimination on the basis of belief in the great good of being a Christian university. The university is better served by an agnostic who understands and supports the idea of a Christian university than by a devout believer who does not.

The Christian university is unqualifiedly devoted to the truth. Jesus said, “You will know the truth and the truth will make you free.” Academic freedom and freedom of inquiry are not in tension with truth but are themselves grounded in truth. Contrary to Pontius Pilate and many thinkers of our time, the question “What is truth?” does not preclude but invites the search for truth. When academic freedom is divorced from truth, it is no longer possible to make a truthful argument for academic freedom. One may suggest that the only person disqualified from teaching in a Christian university is a person whose truth, so to speak, is that there is no truth to be sought and known and served. But of course this assumes that there is a critical mass of faculty composed of those who persuasively propose the truth of Christianity and those who believe that truth should be proposed.

Today there is an intense interest, almost an obsession some would say, in diversity and pluralism. Within the worlds of higher education, a Christian university serves the great good of diversity and pluralism by being a different kind of university. It does not mimic the false pluralism and diversity that pretends our deepest differences make no difference. Rather, it engages within the bond of civility the differences that make the deepest difference. The Christian university, if I may use today’s academic jargon, does not fear the otherness of the Other. It very deliberately is the Other. As the Other, it respectfully engages and defines itself in relationship to the other kinds of universities to which it is other.

A Christian university is a profoundly humanistic university that embraces, far beyond what are called the humanities, all knowledge of the three transcendentals”the good, the true, and the beautiful. No humanism is so radical as the humanism premised on the truth that God became a human being. This does not mean that everybody will agree on the meaning of these transcendent realities. On the contrary, the Christian university nurtures thoughtful disagreement. As Fr. John Courtney Murray observed, disagreement is a rare achievement; most of what we call disagreement is simply confusion.

A Christian university will have no truck with the dichotomies that pit truth against truth. In this connection, there is an often unrecognized alliance between anti-intellectuals in church communities outside the university and intellectuals within the university. Both subscribe to there being a dichotomy between faith and reason, between heart and mind, between facts and values, between belief and knowledge, between devotion and learning. The most foundational premise of the Christian university is that all truth and all ways to truth are one because the Author and the End of truth is One.

Ex Corde Ecclesiae insists that “it is essential that we be convinced of the priority of the ethical over the technical, of the primacy of the person over things, of the superiority of the spirit over matter. The cause of the human person will only be served if knowledge is joined to conscience. Men and women of [learning] will truly aid humanity only if they preserve the sense of the transcendence of the human person over the world and of God over the human person.”

If the truth of Christianity does not support, illumine, and elevate every quest for truth, it is questionable that Christianity is true. The God who gave us reason and who keeps faith with the orders of his creation requires us to respect the integrity of every way of knowing. Different subjects and different disciplines have their own integrity. It is neither possible nor desirable to teach Christian mathematics, or Christian geology, or Christian chemistry. But a Christian university will not lose sight of the truth that these and other disciplines have their own integrity because they are an integral part of the Creator’s order. That at least is the Christian proposal that, in the Christian university, is ever present”sometimes explicitly, sometimes tacitly, but never ignored. As is evident in the breadth and depth and variety of the Christian intellectual tradition, that proposal is not a conversation-stopper but a conversation-starter, and not least in the conversation about what it means to be a university.

Today the Christian university is in crisis. At least in many institutions, there is a dying of the light. The crisis is often described as a crisis of secularization. But that, I would suggest, is not quite right. The secular, the saeculum , is the world of God’s creation and redeeming love. The crisis of the Christian university is more accurately described as a crisis created by the ambition to imitate other kinds of universities that falsely claim to be universities pure and simple. It is a crisis created by competing to belong to the second tier, or even the third tier, of schools that do not aspire to be Christian universities. It is a crisis created by envying excellence divorced from truth. Enough can never be said in favor of excellence, but it is small comfort for a Christian university to be recognized as being moderately good at being what it did not set out to be in the first place.

The crisis is most accurately described, I believe, as a crisis of faith. The question that those who lead a Christian university must answer, and answer again every day, is whether the Christian proposal limits or illumines the university’s calling to seek and to serve veritas ”to seek and to serve the truth.

In speaking about the crisis of the Christian university, I have been generalizing, and I am assured by some that Valparaiso University is an exception”that it is determined to be what it was founded to be. I pray this is the case, for I cannot forget the Valparaiso that helped form me and innumerable others in the high adventure of responding to the the Church’s heart for learning. I cannot forget those chords of the Mass in B Minor and O.P. Kretzman’s pilgrim pondering of the falling autumn leaves, prelude to winter and the promise of a new springtime. Yes, this is in part nostalgia, but it is in much greater part hope and anticipation of what a Christian university can be in imaginative fidelity to its motto””In your light we see light.”

Richard John Neuhaus is editor in chief of First Things . This essay is adapted from the Albert G. Huegli Lecture on Church-Related Higher Education, given at Valparaiso University in February 2007.

Dear Reader,

We launched the First Things 2023 Year-End Campaign to keep articles like the one you just read free of charge to everyone.

Measured in dollars and cents, this doesn't make sense. But consider who is able to read First Things: pastors and priests, college students and professors, young professionals and families. Last year, we had more than three million unique readers on

Informing and inspiring these people is why First Things doesn't only think in terms of dollars and cents. And it's why we urgently need your year-end support.

Will you give today?

Make My Gift