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The Symphony of Wisdom (or How Should We Interpret Magisterial Teachings About Catholic Education?)

In over a decade of conversations about magisterial teachings regarding Catholic higher education, I’ve found that there are often two conversations happening at the same time, a kind of polyphonic discourse unfolding simultaneously.

These conversations are “polyphonic” in that on the surface (and in the center) of the dialogue, we were discussing the content of the document.  At the same time, just below the surface and at the margins we are considering (often silently and to ourselves) the larger questions about the relevance and applicability of a given document to our college or university. 

In this secondary conversation, we may be wondering: “Does this document or this part of the document apply to us?

At the same time within this secondary conversation—particularly when we come face-to-face with a teaching with which we are unfamiliar or uncomfortable—we may search for an “escape exit.”

At both levels certain questions can arise:

“Does it apply to us since …. we are a university, not a secondary school?”

“Does it apply to us since …. it was written a long time ago or before ‘the Council’?”

“Does it apply to us if …. most of our students are not Catholic?”

“Does it apply to us if …. many of our faculty members are not Catholic?”

“Does it apply to us if …. our accreditor requires …?”

“Does it apply to us if …. we receive federal funding?”

“Does it apply to us since …. we are located in a diverse neighborhood?”

All of these are legitimate questions and can be fruitfully transposed from the secondary conversation—the one just below the surface—to the primary conversation.

As we do, it can be helpful to keep several principles of interpretation in mind that can guide us, even as we refine these principles

As a first principle, let us seek to be as receptive and docile as possible.  Let us assume that the principles articulated by the Pope or magisterial body about Catholic education in general do apply to postsecondary education and examine with docility the specific applications proposed.  Through this process of “thinking with the mind of the Church” (sentire cum ecclesia), we may come to see not only how the principles but also many of the applications can be brought to bear—with active fidelity, good will, and prudence—on our own situation.

As a second principle, let us consider—and at somewhat greater length—how we think about Catholic universities in relation to other universities.  This will affect how we receive the teaching on Catholic education. 

Are Catholic universities simply variants of what would otherwise be “secular” (= neutral) universities? 

Is a “secular university” truly neutral? 

When we think of secular institutions, whether they be universities or other institutions, we may assume that an institution can be neutral in its most basic commitments and the culture that flows from those commitments.  Yet every institution participates in a tradition, which in turn entails commitments about right and wrong, nature and purpose, categories of thought, and ways of thinking.  In a recent op-ed. for the Washington Post, Cornell West wrote:

As German philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer emphasized in the past century, traditions are inescapable and unavoidable. It is a question not of whether you are going to work in a tradition, but which one. Even the choice of no tradition leaves people ignorantly beholden within a language they didn’t create and frameworks they don’t understand.

Thus, according to Gadamer, there would be no category (in reality) of a secular university that stands outside of a tradition without fundamental commitments, whether they be religious, philosophical, or something else.  Just as the University of St. Thomas exists within a tradition, the apparently “neutral” institutions in our area—the University of Houston for example—also exists within a particular tradition and all that entails.  (Alasdair Macintyre has quite a bit to say about these traditions.)

How might this second principle of interpretation about tradition be applied at the University of St. Thomas?  

One way would be that we would recognize that while yes, calculus and chemistry will be taught in largely the same way no matter what institution you are at, almost any discipline that touches on the human person—whether in the context of nature, culture, or metaphysics—must be approached very thoughtfully and with care. 

These near-the-person disciplines can be illuminated by the integration of faith and reason but also distorted and darkened by its absence.  Looking at things through the eyes of fully integrated faith and reason should be the norm at UST, particularly as we approach the nature of the human person, rather than an exception that is tacked on as an after-thought because we are a Catholic institution.

As the third principle of interpretation, let us engage with the whole magisterial text.  It is easy, when reading a magisterial document to simply scan the document to find things with which we agree.  For example, when applying for a position at the University of St. Thomas it is easy for applicants to read Ex corde ecclesiae and cherry pick certain passages that they understand and with which they can easily agree while passing over those that challenge conventional academic dogmas and contemporary social pieties.  Such an approach will only plant the seeds of future difficulties, if such applicants were to be hired without fully understanding the mission of Catholic higher education or being unable to support that mission.

Fourth, let us not forget that our mission is primarily about intellectual charity as it was articulated by Benedict XVI in his Address to Catholic Educators.  That is, we must remember that proposing the “truth of things” (illuminated by the light of faith), even when it may be countercultural and unpopular in today’s society, is one of the greatest, life-giving gifts that we can offer to our students and our colleagues.  Proposing the Catholic vision of reality is not “proselytizing” in the sense in which one manipulates or deceives a person to secure assent to something that is not understood.  Rather, it is like freely guiding someone in an underground cave to the sun-lit world above.

Fifth, let us interpret the document within a “hermeneutic of continuity.”  Too often we may be tempted to treat Vatican II as if it were the beginning of Church history.  Rather, let us take the approach of Benedict XVI who suggested that we read the documents of the council in the light of previous teachings and history.  This applies equally to conciliar and post-conciliar documents on education.

Sixth, let us recognize that as a Catholic university we are offering an integrated narrative and vision of reality.  There is a Catholic vision of reality and magisterial teaching on Catholic education proposes and articulates that vision, indicating how to make that vision a reality for our students in a given historical moment.  Everyone—faculty, staff, et al.—is called to support the university’s proposal of this integrated narrative and vision for our students.  To use a musical metaphor, we are all playing the same piece with the same conductor, even if we do not all play the same parts.

The above is admittedly a rough sketch in need of development.  What other principles and insights would you offer that would help us read, interpret, and apply magisterial teachings to our work at the University of St. Thomas? Please do send along your thoughts and ideas.

About the Author — Dr. George Harne

Dr. George HarneAs Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences, Harne brings a vision of Catholic education to his work that is animated by the thought of Plato, Cardinal Newman, Josef Pieper, John Paul II, and Benedict XVI. In his role as Dean, Harne cultivates the treasures of the School—its faculty, students, and programs—ensuring that it flourishes in light of the greater mission of the University and draws ever more deeply on the sources of that mission: particularly the great Catholic intellectual and spiritual traditions. He also champions the School within Houston, regionally, and in the nation at large.





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