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Integrating Knowledge at a Catholic University

by Prof. Thomas Harmon

This is part two of a series. Part 1 is entitled “The Catholic University: An Institution Dedicated to Bringing Faith and Reason Together

What I’ve just charted out is the necessary background to understand what Ex corde ecclesiae says about the integration of knowledge, which simply means to put the knowledge gained in any particular subject together into a whole that reaches toward the unity of knowledge itself, especially at its highest points, in the consideration of the human mind, human destiny, the whole of the cosmos, and God himself. It would be helpful here to turn to Ex corde ecclesiae itself to explore this integration, which is at the heart of what makes a Catholic university unique, and without which, there would be no institution that would be dedicated to the integration of knowledge that exists. As Pope John Paul II says:

Integration of knowledge is a process, one which will always remain incomplete; moreover, the explosion of knowledge in recent decades, together with the rigid compartmentalization of knowledge within individual academic disciplines, makes the task increasingly difficult. But a University, and especially a Catholic University, “has to be a ‘living union’ of individual organisms dedicated to the search for truth … It is necessary to work towards a higher synthesis of knowledge, in which alone lies the possibility of satisfying that thirst for truth which is profoundly inscribed on the heart of the human person.”[1]

At the heart of the integration of knowledge, and therefore at the heart of what not only the whole university does, but what each academic discipline does, is the dialogue between faith and reason. Theology especially serves the integration of knowledge, Ex corde says, “not only by helping them to investigate how their discoveries will affect individuals and society but also by bringing a perspective and an orientation not contained within their own methodologies.”[2] This is so, John Paul II says in Fides et Ratio, because “faith purifies reason. As a theological virtue, faith liberates reason from presumption.”[3] What he means by that is that faith orients reason to its creator and its ultimate end in God, and allows it to see itself and the various beings it studies as creatures of God. Faith helps reason to be more itself by steering it away from its characteristic mistakes. But likewise, John Paul II affirms, “interaction with these other disciplines and their discoveries enriches theology, offering it a better understanding of the world today, and making theological research more relevant to current needs” (19). Both John Paul II and Benedict say in many places that reason helps faith to purify itself of what they call mythological elements, which is frequently what happens in the intellectual effort against heresy: some aspect of Christian teaching has been taken over by a mythological account. For instance, the doctrine that Christ is true man and true God has been understood to mean that Christ is some kind of mixture of man and god, like a demigod such as Hercules, son of Zeus and a mortal woman. Seeing how the divine and human nature are united in Christ through the Person of the Word of God was the particular contribution of philosophic/scientific knowledge to purifying faith of mythological elements. Reason helps to purify faith to see that such a mixture is not only nonsensical, but unfaithful to the accounts given in Scripture.

Theology and philosophy, because of their subject matter as concerning the whole of being, are responsible for leading the task of the integration and synthesis of knowledge at the university, while yet humbly recognizing and benefiting from the genuine integrity of each of the academic disciplines. This is a complex relationship, and it can easily devolve into a discussion of turf. But if we are serious about the integration of knowledge, we are at least proposing something other than disciplinary turf wars, and we need to be serious about finding a way in which members of all the disciplines can talk and work together. The turf wars of the modern university, I would suggest, exist because we have abandoned, in whole or in part, the notion and the goal of the pursuit of the unity of knowledge, either in whole or in part. Every time you see turf wars spring up, it is evidence that some part of the university’s mission of integration has become corrupted. Nevertheless, John Paul II recognizes the appropriateness of disciplinary boundaries when he talks about the integration of knowledge being a process rather than something we already have ready to hand. That is why he II adds, “Aided by the specific contributions of philosophy and theology, university scholars will be engaged in a constant effort to determine the relative place and meaning of each of the various disciplines within the context of a vision of the human person and the world that is enlightened by the Gospel, and therefore by a faith in Christ, the Logos, as the center of creation and of human history.”[4] That constant effort is good, and appropriate.

It is this effort to integrate and synthesize knowledge, with the important contributions of theology and philosophy, which makes the Catholic university unique. Non-Catholic universities do not; But it is also what other Catholic institutions do not do. The Catholic high school simply does not have the academic breadth or depth to carry out the task of integration out to the fullest extent, while the Catholic parish and Catholic charitable organizations have different goals. It is true that a Catholic university can have a vibrant liturgical life, like a Catholic parish; but the vibrant liturgical life is not what makes a Catholic university a Catholic university. A Catholic university can sponsor ministries to serve the poor or pursue social justice (like Catholic Charities does) but serving the poor or pursuing social justice is not what makes a Catholic university a Catholic university. The way in which the Catholic university as Catholic university has Christ and Catholicism as its animating spirit and inspiration is through the integration of its disciplines, based on the unity of knowledge, enlivened by the dialogue between faith and reason, with the important (and unique) contributions of philosophy and theology, with each discipline served by theology and philosophy, and being in turn served by them.

The Catholic university’s unique work is therefore a specifically intellectual work, and its success and vitality can be measured by whether it both possesses and hands on to its students a Catholic mind, a mind animated by Christ and informed by Catholicism. There is a commandment in the Gospel to “Love the Lord with your whole mind, heart, and strength.” We are all, always, called to do each of these things. But the Catholic university has a special responsibility to love the Lord with the mind.


[1] ECE, #16.

[2] Ibid., #19.

[3] Fides et Ratio, #76.

[4] ECE, #16.

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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