Review: Building Catholic Higher Education, Part II

by Michael Sean Winters

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Yesterday, I began looking at Building Catholic Higher Education: Unofficial Reflections from the University of Notre Dame by Christian Smith and John Cavadini. I only got as far as Smith’s survey of the relevant official and unofficial statements about Catholic higher education from the university. Today, I will look at how Smith examines the implications for those statements as well as Cavadini’s closing chapter on the role of theology at a Catholic University.

It is all well and good to walk about how Notre Dame, and by implication other Catholic colleges and universities, can integrate its Catholic mission with its role as a major research university and provider of an excellent undergraduate education in the more abstract manner appropriate to official statements. But, Smith spends the bulk of the book looking at the “how” questions and suggests some practical implications of what this integration means.

Smith dedicates a chapter to what all this means for faculty members, laying out ten statements he believes flesh out the claims found in the official mission statements and speeches. Some require little explanation such as Item #2: “Notre Dame is determined not to become secularized.” Other items on his top ten list are more intriguing and complicated. Item #4 states, “Very many US academics outside of Notre Dame will not understand, appreciate, or value Notre Dame’s mission; indeed, many are suspicious, if not antagonistic toward it. That does matter, but it cannot become the most important fact influencing Notre Dame’s activities and goals.” In explaining this item, Smith makes some slightly sweeping but more or less accurate comments about the ambient culture. He writes, “Liberal political theory and culture have largely succeeded in the West in defining ‘religion’ as an exclusively private matter of personal opinion that bears no epistemic authority, contributes nothing to the knowledge of humankind, and cannot justly influence policy of any public or (in some people’s minds) even private institutional importance.” I wish he had acknowledged the complicity of too many Christians in this privatization of religion: It was not all the liberals fault. And, he is right to assert that for us Catholics, religion is not a private matter, although it is deeply personal.

The public character of our faith makes specific claims on the business of a university, as Smith makes clear later in the book, when discussing six ways faculty who do not understand or endorse Notre Dame’s Catholic mission can nonetheless tactitly support it. The first four items are non-controversial, e.g., faculty should not be “covertly or openly undermining, resisting, or attacking the Catholic mission,” which is simply a matter of personal integrity. But, his fifth item has a different flavor: Tacit support from faculty means “not believing that truth does not exist and so cannot be intelligently pursued in an academic context.” Catholic belief requires an understanding of human reason that is not compatible with some of the sillinesses of post-modernism. His sixth item is similar, requiring that criticisms of Notre Dame be constructive, not destructive, of the school’s Catholic theological orientation and culture, and that such criticisms be based on the school’s “own standards and goods, not some alien tradition.” When academic freedom is used to justify permitting any and all professorial claims and behaviors, it is good to remember, as Smith elsewhere reminds us, that a Catholic university sees itself as a community of scholars not a grouping of autonomous smart people. These two items are the crux of the matter, no? Our faith affects just about everything about our intellectual life, not in a predetermining way, but similar to the way that a deck of cards consists of four suits of 13 cards each, and the rules of the game, dictate the way a bridge hand will play itself out. You might get a partner whose bidding is atrocious, but a side Ace and a bunch of trump cards are always useful.

Returning to his list of ten ways faculty can assist the mission of Notre Dame, Smith unleashes what would likely be the most controversial item. He writes that “the choice to serve as faculty at Notre Dame implies by way of an informal but real social contract, a readiness to constructively come to terms with Notre Dame’s Catholic character and purposes (as well as other features of its mission).” He argues that “ex-Catholics and dissenting Catholics on the faculty at Notre Dame who may be embittered or antagonistic toward the Catholic Church need to exercise particular self-reflexivity and prudent restraint in order to contribute to Notre Dame’s mission in constructive (even if also critical) ways.” The problem with drawing such lines is, of course, deciding where to draw them. I am sure many readers would draw the lines of acceptable critique further out than Smith or I would. We can always debate those issues. What should be beyond question in an academic institution, however, is that there are lines to be drawn. Education is not blogging. A teacher has responsibilities to present a range of material, even the material with which she disagrees. A teacher is forming students whose parents shelled out a lot of money in full knowledge of the university’s stated purposes. Social contract indeed.

One of the ways that Catholicity can benefit an institution of higher learning Smith details in Item # 9 which calls for a familiarity with Catholicism, even among non-Catholic scholars. He writes, “Faculty in various disciplines are called to explore the particular dimensions of the interface of faith, knowledge, and reason that pertain to their areas of expertise. For that reason, Notre Dame faculty have extra cause to pursue ongoing inter-disciplinary learning, insofar as broad familiarity with theology, philosophy, history, ethics, law, social theory, and so on helps advance the university’s mission. By contrast, hyper-specialization will inhibit the kinds of discussions required by that mission.” Alas for the modern secular academy, hyper-specialization is the norm, and not merely by chance or whim. The need to publish on ever more discrete subjects pushes scholars in that direction. If Notre Dame can resist that trend, on account of its Catholic character – or for any other reason – more power to them.

Smith’s chapter on Catholic identity and the social sciences considers many of the issues I addressed in my review of another of his books, The Sacred Project of American Sociology, which review can be found in three parts here, here and here. And John Cavadini’s closing chapter on the role of theology at a Catholic university is well worth the read and raises some of the same questions I discussed a few weeks back when discussing the issue of theology requirements in core curricula. One quote from the present volume warrants inclusion in this essay. Cavadini observes:

Theology affirms the truths of other disciplines even as it integrates them into a realm of discourse that transcends their methodologies and results. This theological discourse generates a kind of thick intellectual culture, shot through at once with mystery and with reason, with irreducible mystery always in the lead, shining beneath and giving the culture its shape, even as that culture takes on life in its puzzling over the results of all other disciplinary research.

This observation requires us to pose the questions to secular institutions: What in your intellectual culture provides a similar function and, if there is nothing that does so, in what sense is your university truly universal in its search for truth? Cavadini’s entire chapter is filled with similar incisive commentary. He is a gem in the crown of Catholic intellectual life.

This book touches issues are near and dear to my heart. It is not without its shortcomings. When Smith writes that, “At Notre Dame, unlike every other university in the world, when it comes to an orientation toward Catholicism in higher education, not everything goes,” he is engaging in a bit of hyperbole. And, in his chapter on social science in Catholic education, the very first reason he gives for on-going engagement between the Catholic intellectual tradition and the social sciences is “First, Roman Catholicism actually invented the university as an institution in the Latin West…” Well, yes we did. We also invented anti-Semitism. And just because the Wright Brothers invented the airplane doesn’t mean others haven’t change and improved it since. There are better reasons for the engagement he wants.

But, then, all is redeemed because Smith and Cavadini do make such a strong case for Catholic intellectual engagement, as Catholics, and indeed this book shows how fruitful such engagement can be. Smith is right to quote Peter Steinfels who penned words that should make any reflexively liberal Catholic nervous: “ Liberal Catholicism has failed to match its understandable concern for preserving academic freedom in Catholic colleges and universities with any comparable passion about preserving the distinctive mission and character of these institutions as places where Catholic thought, art, literature, perspectives on society and reflections on science could be freely pursued at the depth unlikely to occur in secular institutions.” If I had written that sentence, the combox would fill up fast. In this work, and indeed in the scholarly work of Smith and Cavadini more generally, we see that “comparable passion” Steinfels finds wanting, and the results should quell the critics. We just need more of it – at Notre Dame, and at every Catholic institution of higher learning.





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