As I write this, the most virulent pandemic in more than 100 years sweeps the globe. COVID-19 haunts communities and countries, bringing fear, isolation, death, and grief on a scale not seen since World War II. The human family is at once separated, yet ironically united in common practices that seek to stave off the virus. Those not sick, nervously watch the reports and dread if or when the “spike” will impact their communities. For most, anxiety and a hope that disappoints fills the future.
The pandemic and its human response provide both context and metaphor to grasp the challenges ahead for Catholic higher education. As we start the third millennium of Christian life, secularization and anti-religiosity are sweeping the cultures in many parts of the world. Often characterized by moral relativism and consumerism, the communities and countries where such archetypes can proliferate may have surging suicide rates (especially among youth), end life in the womb or with euthanasia, and leave vulnerable community members with record levels of mental illness, loneliness, and despair. Although the specific forms may be novel, these afflictions of our human family are not new. Throughout each Christian millennium, the Church has innovated and prevailed over much worse. We will answer the call this time too and here’s how Catholic higher education will help lead the way.
Catholic higher education must answer the call with two imperatives. It must uphold an innovation legacy of more than 2,000 years and it must be the New Evangelization’s cultural catalyst for the modern world. In the former instance, these institutions will endeavor to vivify the Gospel of Matthew where Jesus Himself gives the Great Commission (MT 28:20). In the latter instance, they will respond, in a particular way, to the direct calls of the last three Holy Fathers.
Catholic education over the millennia is remarkably innovative. The Lord Jesus’ teachings speak for themselves. Saint Paul used letters to teach and inspire in what may be considered an early example of distance education. The writings of the early Church Fathers further establish the continuity of Catholic thought. The monasteries of the “Dark Ages” have been credited with keeping learning alive during a period of societal disruption. Universities themselves were products of the Catholic Church. Almost all early advances in science (Copernicus, Kepler, etc.) were Catholic. Moving to more recent times, the United States saw significant proliferation of Catholic colleges and universities in the 19th and 20th centuries in particular, many led by Religious women. In the current age, Catholic universities are found on every continent (except Antarctica) and in cyberspace. This litany of educational advances over time always compels and gives new energy to Catholic higher education.
Inspired by that beautiful legacy of innovation over the millennia, we now seek to emulate it. With the Holy Spirit, we can craft compelling modes for higher education. We have for our use tools never before conceived to educate students from all communities. Augmented reality, virtual labs, cyber classrooms with students from around the globe are just a few of the assets at our disposal. The challenges of cost, disability, distance, language, and culture can be won. Even the COVID-19 pandemic that closed most American university campuses, cannot stop education from happening online.
The aim of Catholic higher education, regardless of modality, is truth. The means matters much less than the human connection in the pursuit of truth. As St. Pope John Paul II writes in Fides et Ratio, “Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth; and God has placed in the human heart a desire to know the truth—in a word, to know himself—so that, by knowing and loving God, men and women may also come to the fullness of truth about themselves.” It is that understanding and connection with the divine that distinguishes Catholic higher education from all others.
Pontifical attention to and urgings on culture and Catholic higher education abound over the last three papacies. St. Pope John Paul II spoke often about the role culture plays in human and societal composition. In 1982, he shared with the faculty at the University of Coimbra in Portugal: “Culture is for man. He is not only the creator of culture, but he is also its principal beneficiary. In the two meanings, fundamental to the formation of the individual and to the spiritual formation of society, culture has as its aim the realization of the person in all his dimensions, with all his abilities. The primary objective of culture is the development of man as man, man as person, or rather, each man as a unique and unrepeatable example of the human family.”
As the author of the apostolic constitution on Catholic universities, the great saint wrote in 1990 about science and technology and a Catholic university’s role vis-a-vis the individual and society: “…Catholic Universities are called to a continuous renewal, both as ‘Universities’ and as ‘Catholic’”. For, “What is at stake is the very meaning of scientific and technological research, of social life and of culture, but, on an even more profound level, what is at stake is the very meaning of the human person.” (Ex Corde Ecclesiae 7) Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI spoke on what is particular for a Catholic university in the Church’s primary role of evangelization, “The Church’s activities stem from her awareness that she is the bearer of a message, which has its origin in God himself: in his goodness and wisdom…” He went on to say,”…only in the mystery of the Word made flesh does the mystery of man truly become clear (cf. Gaudium et Spes, 22)” “(Speech at Catholic University of America, 2008). And Pope Francis wrote in his first apostolic exhortation in Evangelli Gaudium: “Universities are outstanding environments for articulating and developing this evangelizing commitment in an interdisciplinary and integrated way. Catholic schools, which always strive to join their work of education with the explicit proclamation of the Gospel, are a most valuable resource for the evangelization of culture, even in those countries and cities where hostile situations challenge us to greater creativity in our search for suitable methods . (134 Evangelli Gaudium, Pope Francis) Culture and evangelization are key themes of the recent Holy Fathers and each, St. Pope John Paul II, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, and Francis have urged Catholic universities to play key roles in the New Evangelization. The New Evangelization should not be confused with proselytizing. It is primarily friendship, dialogue, and accompaniment. As the Church has shifted after the Second Vatican Council from an institutional Church to a missionary church, it is incumbent upon Catholic universities to exercise their rightful role in the New Evangelization. How that manifests from each institution will likely offer the variance and distinct beauty that is the mosaic of Catholic higher education worldwide.
Catholic universities are special gifts of the Holy Spirit. The women and men, Religious and lay that serve the Church, their students, and humanity have responsibilities and receive graces for their work. University of St. Thomas in Houston, TX, is a Catholic university founded by the Basilian Fathers (CSB) in 1947. It is faithful to the Magisterium and serves a student population that reflects the coming demographics of the Catholic Church in America. It seeks to innovate as it educates students for an eternity with God and for the opportunities of in the current culture.