What are the marks of an authentically Catholic university?

What are the marks of an authentically Catholic university?

Cardinal Raymond Burke

The following are extracts from Cardinal Raymond Burke's address at the Thomas More College of Liberal Arts, New Hampshire, USA, on 13 December 2010. Cardinal Burke is Archbishop Emeritus of Saint Louis and head of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura.

The Declaration on Christian Education, Gravissimum Educationis, of the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council underlines the importance which the Church has consistently assigned to Catholic higher education, in order that "the convergence of faith and reason in the one truth may be seen more clearly."

Pope Benedict XVI gives clear expression to the irreplaceable service of Catholic higher education for the attainment of the necessary unity of faith and reason. In his meeting with Catholic educators at The Catholic University of America, on 17 April 2008, addressing the fundamental Catholic identity of the Catholic university, he reminded the educators:

"Clearly, then, Catholic identity is not dependent upon 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. Only in faith can truth become incarnate and reason truly human, capable of directing the will along the path of freedom (cf. Spe Salvi, 23).

"In this way our institutions make a vital contribution to the mission of the Church and truly serve society. They become places in which God's active presence in human affairs is recognised and in which every young person discovers the joy of entering into Christ's 'being for others' (cf. ibid., 28)."

Secular dictatorship

In a particular way, the Catholic university which is true to her identity will help students to be strong in giving an account of their faith in their vocation in life, whether it be the married life, the dedicated single life, the consecrated life or the ordained priesthood, and in whatever field of human endeavour they engage, resisting the secularist dictatorship which would exclude all religious discourse from the professions and from public life in general.

Quoting the Blessed Cardinal John Henry Newman, the Venerable Pope John Paul II underlined the importance of the service of the Catholic university to the Church and society, in general, in his Apostolic Constitution Ex Corde Ecclesiae with these words:

"It is the honour and responsibility of a Catholic university to consecrate itself without reserve to the cause of truth. This is its way of serving at one and the same time both the dignity of man and the good of the Church, which has 'an intimate conviction that the truth is (its) real ally チ... and that knowledge and reason are sure ministers to faith'. Without in any way neglecting the acquisition of useful knowledge, a Catholic university is distinguished by its free search for the whole truth about nature, man and God. The present age is in urgent need of this kind of disinterested service, namely of proclaiming the meaning of truth, that fundamental value without which freedom, justice and human dignity are extinguished."

The fact that the Catholic university had its birth from "the heart of the Church," to quote the beginning of the same Apostolic Constitution, demonstrates the importance in which the Church has always held higher education. During various periods of the Church's history, the service of the Catholic university has been critical to meeting the challenges of the time.

In a society which is marked by a virulent secularism which threatens the integrity of every aspect of human endeavour and service, for example, medicine, law, government and higher education itself, the service of the Catholic university is more needed than ever. How tragic that the very secularism which the Catholic university should be helping its students to battle and overcome has entered into several Catholic universities, leading to the grievous compromise of their high mission.

At the Catholic university, the student will be led to overcome the prevalent and utterly destructive error of our time that somehow faith is contradicted by reason. This error has hindered and even prevented the essential and irreplaceable contribution of the Church to the life of society, in general, that is, to the pursuit of the common good. It is only through the meeting of faith and reason that the deepest truth of the various areas of study can be uncovered.


At the Catholic university, students should be equipped, through their study and research, to address the truth of the Decalogue and of the Golden Rule to their own personal lives and to the life of the society in which they live. At the Catholic university, the very manner of study and research should manifest the bankruptcy of the abuse of human life and human sexuality, which has come to be standard on many university campuses, and the bankruptcy of the violation of the dignity of human life, of the integrity of marriage, and of the right order of our relationship to one another and to the world, in general, which is the trademark of our culture, a culture of violence and death.

One thinks, for example, of the cold and calculated advance of the experimentation on human embryos for the sake of supposed cures in our nation to see the critical need of the education in metaphysics and the doctrines of the faith at the Catholic university.

The first and chief teacher at every institution of Catholic higher education is Our Lord Jesus Christ Who is the fullness of the revelation of God to us. A Catholic college or university, at which Jesus Christ alive in His Church is not taught, encountered in the Sacred Liturgy and its extension through prayer and devotion, and followed in a life of virtue, is not worthy of the name.

The presence of Our Lord Jesus Christ on the campus of the Catholic college and university is not something additional to or even extraneous to the pursuit of truth. It is, rather, He alone, Who inspires, guides and disciplines professors and students, so that they remain faithful in the pursuit and do not fall prey to the temptations which Satan cleverly offers to corrupt us whenever we set out to attain a great good.

According to the ancient canonical wisdom, corruptio optimi pessima est, "the corruption of the best is the worst." Sadly, we have witnessed the truth of the axiom in so many Catholic colleges and universities in our nation, which once gave pride of place to their Catholic identity and the Catholic life of the campus, but now are Catholic in name only.

Catholic identity

In his ad limina address to the United States Bishops of New York State on 15 October 1988, the Venerable Pope John Paul II made it clear that the critical service of the many Catholic universities in our nation depends upon the strength of their Catholic identity. He told the Bishops:

"Catholic institutions of higher learning, which educate a large number of young people in the United States of America, have a great importance for the future of society and of the Church in your country. But the degree of their influence depends entirely on preserving their Catholic identity. This Catholic identity has to be present in the fundamental direction given to both teaching and studies. And it must be present in the life of these institutions which are characterised by a special bond with the Church - a bond that springs from their institutional connection with the Catholic message. The adjective 'Catholic' must always be the real expression of a profound reality."

Identifying a university as Catholic means identifying every aspect of the university's life as Catholic.

The Catholic university makes a lifelong contribution to the formation of the conscience of her students. Through authentically Catholic studies, students grow ever more sensitive and attentive to the voice of God, which we call the conscience, by which they know right from wrong, truth from falsehood, and beauty from ugliness.

The encounter with Jesus Christ, which takes a privileged form at the Catholic university, naturally requires the active engagement of the bishop, the successor of the Apostles, in any Catholic university within his jurisdiction. The Catholic university, for its part, will seek the fullest possible communication with the bishop. Regarding the relationship of the bishop with the Catholic university, the Venerable Pope John Paul II, in Ex Corde Ecclesiae, observed:

"Bishops have a particular responsibility to promote Catholic universities, and especially to promote and assist in the preservation and strengthening of their Catholic identity, including the protection of their Catholic identity in relation to civil authorities. This will be achieved more effectively if close personal and pastoral relationships exist between university and Church authorities, characterised by mutual trust, close and consistent cooperation and continuing dialogue. Even when they do not enter directly into the internal governance of the university, Bishops 'should be seen not as external agents but as participants in the life of the Catholic University'."

The bishop should be able to depend upon the Catholic university to be a partner with him in meeting the many challenges of the new evangelisation, the teaching of the faith in its integrity, the celebration of the Sacred Liturgy as the action of Christ, uniting heaven to earth, and the giving of the sound discipline by which the order inherent in the life of the Church is safeguarded and promoted.

The situation in which the Catholic university views the bishop as a suspect or outright unwelcome partner in the mission of Catholic higher education, unless the bishop is willing to betray the duties of his office, as the chief teacher of the faith in the territory in which the Catholic university has its seat, by endorsing its Catholic identity without regard for the high demands of such an identity, is totally anomalous.

The Catholic identity of the Catholic university is defined by the fullness of the revelation of God's love in His only-begotten Son Who became man in order that we might know and live the truth of that love. The study and research which takes place at the Catholic university finds its ultimate meaning in that revelation which is the source of all being.

Religious illiteracy

Given the importance of the teaching of Sacred Theology at the Catholic university, whether it be through a faculty or chair or designated course of studies, special care should be given to the curriculum and the hiring of professors prepared to lead students in the study of the Scriptures and the Tradition, especially the study of the Fathers of the Church and the approved theologians, above all, Saint Thomas Aquinas.

It should be kept in mind that many young Catholics are poorly catechised. It may, therefore, be advantageous to connect the study of the classic texts of Sacred Theology with the relevant parts of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Given the religious illiteracy which marks our time and in fidelity to the seriousness with which university studies should be undertaken, there is really no place for engaging in speculative theology and certainly no time to waste on superficial and tendentious theological writings of the time.

What sense does it make, for instance, to engage students in a discussion of the possibility of the admission of women to Holy Orders, when the students have little or no knowledge of the consistent teaching of the Holy Scriptures and Tradition on the Sacred Priesthood, and on the reservation of priestly ordination to men?

And special care must be exercised in the teaching of moral theology to correct the numerous and readily available articles and books which follow a proportionalist or consequentialist approach to moral questions, and to ground students in the Aristotelian-Thomistic ethics which, in turn, is grounded in a sound metaphysics.

There are many more aspects of the Catholic university which space does not permit me to address. It is my hope that this little reflection on the fundamental aspects which I have addressed will help us all to see more clearly the critical importance of the Catholic university to the Church and the world in our time.

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