Catholic universities and secularism

Catholic universities and secularism

Achbishop Charles Chaput

The following are extracts from an address given by Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, OFM Cap, at Assumption College, Worcester, Massachusetts, on 10 November 2011. His analysis of the situation in the US has a relevance for Australia. Archbishop Chaput was recently appointed the new Archbishop of Philadelphia.

Roughly 80 percent of Americans still self-identify as Christians. By European standards, American religious practice remains high. But America's religious terrain is steadily changing.

A quarter of Americans aged 18-29 now have no affiliation with any particular religion.

Too many people who claim to be Christian simply don't know Jesus Christ. They don't really believe in the Gospels. They feel embarrassed by their religion and vaguely out of step with the times. They may keep their religion for comfort value. Or they may adjust it to fit their doubts. But it doesn't reshape their lives because it isn't real. And because it isn't real, it has no transforming effect on their personal behaviour, no social force and few public consequences.

Instead of Catholics converting the culture, the culture too often bleaches out the apostolic zeal in Catholics while leaving the brand label intact. Plenty of exceptions exist to that trend, but so far not enough of them to make a difference. This is why the large number of Catholics in political and economic leadership in our country has such limited effect on the country's direction. And the lack of a vigorous Catholic witness goes beyond politics and the economy. It applies in a uniquely hurtful way to Catholic higher education.

It's impossible to reread the 1967 Land O'Lakes Statement on the nature of the contemporary Catholic university without noticing that the word "faith" appears nowhere in the text. In effect, the statement is a declaration of independence from any authority outside the academic community itself. This might make some sense for a secular institution. But it's odd for any scholarly community committed to serving both faith and reason and it creates real problems of honesty for any school wishing to cast itself as part of a living Catholic tradition.

The easing away of Catholic universities and colleges from their Catholic identity can have various causes. One cause is the decline in religious personnel available to staff faculties. Another is economic survival. But another cause is the discomfort too many Catholics feel with a scholarly tradition that can be made to seem shabby and primitive in an age of scientific doubt.

This is the worst sort of falsehood - the kind that steals a treasury of wisdom, imagination and hope from emerging Catholic leaders.

The genius of Catholic higher education is the schooling it gives in the mutual dependency of faith and reason. At its best, it refuses to separate intellectual and moral formation because they are inextricably linked. It gives primacy to the disciplines that guide the formation of a holistic view of reality - philosophy and theology. It aids in the creation of a Christian culture and explains what this means for human thriving.

Catholic patrimony

Catholic higher education offers a coherent anthropology that treats the human being as a whole, and actually gives meaning to the words "human dignity" instead of turning them into a catch-phrase for the latest version of individualism. It offers an immersion in the virtues, and an appreciation of humanity's material and spiritual realities - the visible and invisible world - all of which get their life from belief in Jesus Christ.

To put it another way, Catholic higher education is heir to the greatest intellectual, moral and cultural patrimony in human history. It has a deeply satisfying answer to who and why man is. It's beautiful because it's true. It has nothing to be embarrassed about and every reason to be on fire with confidence and apostolic zeal. We only defeat ourselves - and we certainly don't serve God - if we allow ourselves to ever think otherwise.

One of the reasons I'm grateful to be here is that I share with the community that founded Assumption College a very deep love of St Augustine. For bishops, Augustine is the model of what it means to be a pastor. But he's important for another reason as well.

Augustine embodies the Catholic ideal of personal holiness lived in a community of virtue and the integration of faith and reason at the very highest level. He reveres the past as a tool for teaching us, and also as a tradition on which we depend. But he combines this with an awareness of the passing nature of this world and the culmination of the human story outside of time. Augustine is a man between two worlds, which is exactly the condition we all share.

Augustine reminds us that the City of Man and the City of God intermingle. We have obligations to each. But our final home and our real citizenship are not in this world. Politics is important, but it's never the main focus or purpose of a Christian life. If we do not know and love Jesus Christ, and commit our lives to him, and act on what we claim to believe, everything else is empty. But if we do, so much else is possible - including the conversion of at least some of the world around us.

The only question that finally matters to any of us is the one Jesus posed to his apostles: "Who do you say I am?" Everything depends on the answer. Faith leads in one direction the lack of it in another. But the issue is faith - always and everywhere, whether we're scholars or doctors or priests or lawyers or mechanics.

The vocation of a Catholic college is to feed the soul as well as the mind to offer a vision of men and women made whole by the love of God, the knowledge of creation and the reality of things unseen to see the beauty of the world in the light of eternity to recapture the nobility of the human story and the dignity of the human person.

This is the work that sets fire to a young person's heart. It starts the only kind of revolution that really changes anything: a revolution of love.

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