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The Catholic University: An institution dedicated to bringing faith and reason together

by Prof. Thomas Harmon

This is part one of a series. Part 2 is entitled Integrating Knowledge at a Catholic University

Pope John Paul II’s apostolic constitution Ex Corde Ecclesiae contains in its name the key to understanding the Catholic university. Ex Corde Ecclesiae is a Latin phrase that means “From the Heart of the Church.” That the university was born from the heart of the Church is the key to understanding its nature. That it was “born” indicates that it had a particular beginning in a particular place and time. That place and time was medieval Europe. The university was a Catholic invention designed to meet a specific purpose, and therefore bears a specific design so that it can meet that particular purpose. Ex corde affirms that the university’s purpose is “to unite existentially by intellectual efforts two orders of reality that too frequently tend to be place in opposition as thought they were antithetical: the search for truth and the certainty of already knowing the fount of truth;”[1] in other words, of faith and reason.

Christianity first and foremost understands and presents itself as a faith, rather than a law or a code of conduct. Law concerns actions, but faith concerns beliefs which have intellectual content. In Christianity, therefore, there is a high degree of importance placed on “correct belief,” or orthodoxy.

Christianity places a high premium on doctrine, or teaching, which has intellectual content. In the absence of an overarching law or constitution, Christianity secures unity through commonality of belief. Because of the nature of Christian revelation, there is a powerful movement toward understanding what is already held by faith. As Pope Benedict says, “Education is integral to the mission of the Church to proclaim the Good News. First and foremost every Catholic educational institution is a place to encounter the living God who in Jesus Christ reveals his transforming love and truth. This relationship elicits a desire to grow in the knowledge and understanding of Christ and his teaching.”[2] This is especially true because of the nature of the Scriptures, and because Christianity inevitably encounters modes of thought and life that present alternatives to its own modes of thought and life that are not always compatible, and sometimes in deep tension.

The university therefore has its birth from the heart of the Church because it is an elegant, institutional solution to the problem both of how to use disciplined reason in order to explore, expand, and defend the Christian faith, and also how one ought to organize and carry out a disciplined study of the created world in light of the understanding we have of what God revealed to us and by using our minds to inquire freely into the things that are.

The Catholic university is a specific type of university, with its own proper work, which no other institution carries out. How does a Catholic university (like UST) understand and pursue its proper work that makes it distinct from non-Catholic universities, on the one hand; and from other Catholic institutions, on the other—like a Catholic parish, or Catholic Charities, or a Catholic high school.

In different ways, both Pope Benedict and Pope John Paul II address these issues with the same starting point. Pope Benedict says, “Clearly, then, Catholic identity is not dependent on statistics. Neither can it be equated simply with orthodoxy of course content. It demands and inspires much more: namely that each and every aspect of your learning communities reverberates within the ecclesial life of faith.”[3] John Paul emphasizes that the Catholic university must be “an academic institution in which Catholicism is vitally present and operative” (#14). What is meant is that the particular institution that is a university is animated by Catholicism; that, in fact, this institution animated and inspired by Christ even has a “coherent world vision,” as John Paul II says.[4]

The Catholic university will be different from a non-Catholic university through the permeation of its life by Catholicism, by the spirit of Christ. This may be clear enough in a discipline like theology; but what about other disciplines, and what about the whole university? A university as envisioned by the two popes is a whole. University means “One turning”: envision a kind of dance, in which each dancer has his or her place in the dance, but whereby all are turning in unity with a single goal. The dance respects each constituent part and does not impose monolithic sameness, but rather harmonizes complementary participants. The Catholic university is therefore like a dance. It is a community with differentiated parts that, while respecting their complementary differences, also recognizes their unity in one, common, organically linked purpose. The communal life of the university is made possible by what Ex Corde calls the “unity of all truth” (17), which might remind us of similar formulations from Fides et Ratio (#34, #51, #53, e.g.).

So how does the Catholic university function? Through its academic disciplines. Because of their nature, philosophy and theology have a particular concern for the integration of knowledge, which leads from the subject matter of each discipline out to a view of the whole of being. Each academic discipline studies some aspect or compartment of being. Biology studies living being; medicine studies living being that is sick; communications studies media, messages, and the beings that produce them; politics studies the beings who congregate to live and act in a common way of life toward complete ends; economics studies beings that engage in commerce; art studies being that serves as an imitation of something else, etc. There are already hierarchical orderings we can see among certain disciplines. Biology has its own integrity because living beings obey certain necessities proper to them, but also, for instance, requires chemistry—for all life is made up of chemicals. Likewise, psychology requires biology, especially as we study it nowadays, because the beings under study by academic psychologists—that is, beings with minds—also have biological bodies. There are some disciplines that are more and some that are less generalized, abstract, and fundamental. Every discipline, by thinking through its own scope and limits, moves of its own nature toward other disciplines and the whole unity of knowledge. Of the hard sciences, physics seems to be most general, abstract, and fundamental, for it studies all of material creation. The most general, abstract, and fundamental of all academic disciplines is philosophy, for it includes within itself metaphysics, which is the study of being itself; not as limited to one category of being (living, thinking, political, etc.), but being itself, as common to anything that has a share in being. Philosophy therefore uniquely studies the whole of being, because its proper object is being itself, which includes the nature of each being and its relations to other things. Theology studies the source of being, God, and being as created by God. It, too, therefore, has a universal scope; although it depends very strongly on the other disciplines, as we will see.

This is the first part of a two-part series on the nature of the Catholic university.

Dr. Thomas Harmon is an Associate Professor and Scanlan Foundation Chair in Theology at the University of St. Thomas. He lives in Sugar Land, Texas with his wife and five children.

For two recent podcast interviews with Prof. Harmon, visit “Spelunking with Plato,” UST’s School of Arts and Sciences podcast.


[1] ECE,#1.

[2] Benedict XVI, “Address to Catholic Educators,” #2.

[3] Ibid., #9.

[4] ECE, #22.

About the Author — Dr. Thomas Harmon

Dr. Thomas HarmonDr. Thomas Harmon is an Associate Professor and Scanlan Foundation Chair in Theology at the University of St. Thomas. He lives in Sugar Land, TX with his wife and five children.

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