University of Notre Dame

The Story of Notre Dame
My Fifty Years at Notre Dame / by Leo R. Ward, C.S.C.

CHAPTER XII: A Catholic University

I am far from sorry that I keyed, as the football powers say, on "Catholic university" as a question more than an answer. Fortunately for me when the question was first hitting me, Robert M. Hutchins was beginning to harass the academics with the question, "What is a university and what does it do?" Hutchins was clever and tart, and academics had to respond even if by vilifying him. His answer followed the medieval idea that the university is a community of scholars. Summarizing centuries from Plato's and Aristotle's time, I also say that the university is the community of scholars: it is a get-together of scholars, and where there is such a gathering in a "university" or a private club, a group of friends, or a governmental or commercial body, there is a university. Because man naturally desires and needs to know, schools and universities are easily justified, and modern science, going far to meet the desire and the need, is an exciting as well as fruitful university enterprise.

Scholars help to achieve knowledge, at once a terminal value and a means to other values such as health and an acquaintance with the ways of mankind, and therefore the university's scholarly men ideally make toward a community of peoples. For the mind, already a quasi divine good, to know is a good thing, schools on all levels are among the dispensers of knowledge, and on the higher levels the chief discoverers of knowledge. Students need freedom to know, and professors need freedom to find out and to teach. So much, then, for the first principles of educational theory.

It warmed my heart to learn that the classic declaration of the university's function and its sacred and secular right to freedoms was made by a pope. This was Pope Gregory IX, and some ideas from his Magna Carta of the university are these: The university is the mother of sciences, the city of letters, where, as in a workshop of wisdom, skillful men give a special decor to the spouse of Christ, and therefore these men should be free to pursue their work.

Grant that the university is the community of scholars, what if anything is the special function of the Catholic university? What justifies the modifier "Catholic" and possibly justifies the Catholic university? In 1969-1970, men speaking for Notre Dame convened on three continents ostensibly asking that question. The famous educator, Jacques Barzun, asked why this roundabout hullabaloo? I suggest that it was an elaborate attempt to escape the question. Does the Catholic university have some other function than to discover and disseminate knowledge? I say that it does not. It goes for and disseminates knowledge. Is it therefore a "secular" enterprise as an "ordinary" university presumably is? If so, may not the modifier "Catholic" be stricken out?

Catholic colleges and universities exist for a learning not readily available at secular institutions. Edward Sorin, founder of Notre Dame, said in a letter in the 1840's that he wanted to start a "boarding school conducted according to Catholic principles." His attempted specification needs refinement. While I was writing my Blueprint for a Catholic University (1949), two declarations helped me toward specification. The 20th century statements on Catholic intellectual life that have done good to many people were Gilson's "The Intelligence in the Service of Christ the King" and the matching statement by D. von Hildebrand in "The Conception of the Catholic University."

Two points are unforgetable in Gilson. First, the Christian scholar must be an excellent scholar: "If he wishes to practice science for God, the first condition is to practice science for itself . . . He is bound . . . to become a good savant, a good philosopher or a good artist." Secondly, it is insufficient if, noticing a Catholic savant on campus, people say: "You see, he is a great scholar in spite of being a Christian," or "He is a Christian, and believe it or not, he is a scholar!" On the contrary, precisely because he is a Christian, he is ex professo bound to be a scholar. Von Hildebrand discovered the best word to say "why Catholic universities." The word is "adequacy." Catholic universities should be promoted for adequacy of knowledge. What did he mean?

In Japan as well as in the Occident, modern universities make great discoveries, have great men and equipment, have vision and freedom. Up to now, almost outside their comprehension has been a fully Christian knowledge, and this is the case also with lower-level public schools in which I taught for four years. High or low, they are not free to raise the issue of a possible Christian dimension of humanity knowledge. In America, there are historical reasons for this situation. In colonial and post-colonial times, American colleges spread Christian dogma on with a trowel. As is evident in the documentary work edited by Richard Hofstadter and Wilson Smith on American Higher Learning (1961), Protestant clergymen running universities were more dogmatists and propagandists than inquirers, and as the clergy's dogmatism and propaganda went down, scholarly quality went up. Those 18th and 19th century college and university people, clergy or lay, did not sense that learning may have a Christian dimension. Neither did Hofstadter and Smith sense the Christian dimension question; it was closed to them, and at the same time they uncritically assumed that to drop Christian thought was to gain ground. Another way to see the "secular" impasse is to note that Harvard scholars reporting on general education (1945) regretfully had to bypass the crucial and historical question of what the theological side of learning has to do with schools and universities.

There may be a Christian dimension worth investigating; perhaps the question is not a priori closed. That is one way to state the issue. But it was not the way the issue was hitting me in the thirties and forties when I was suffering from it. Rather, and my "Blueprint" would suggest this, I was more or less uncritically assuming such a dimension and then going in search of a way to formulate what I had assumed. It took me ten or twelve years to see that my position on this question put the concept "Christian philosophy" into a wider context. If it is correct to say that a philosopher believing on God's word theoretic truths XYZ and practical truths ABC, may, other things being equal, have a better chance to understand some of those truths than a philosopher not so believing, then conceivably some truths may in varying degrees enter into other areas of learning, e.g., the social sciences and the content of arts. What a man believes about God and man may have something to do with what he will be able to say in poetry and painting, and how a man will or will not respect nature in man and in "nature" may depend on what he believes on the word of God and his church about man and nature.

Newman glamourly said that the university is open to all knowledge. It has to be. Once it closes its mind to some knowledge, it ceases so far to be a university. I am saying with Newman and all qualified spokesmen that if, due to whatever causes, some university is closed to some available knowledge, that university so far falls below "university" level. When we say that to come to full stature a university must be open to Christian and Judeo-Christian knowledges, belief-knowledges or at least alleged belief-knowledges, and to their implications for other knowledges and open to their personal and social implications, we include Hindu and Moslem and other theologies and how these may possibly relate to and affect other knowledges and also persons and societies. Obviously knowledges are developing and will continue to develop and all the more so as Orient and Occident become one. We are obliged to speak strongly in regard to our historical situation, in regard to such light as Jewish, Christian, Hindu and Moslem philosophies and theologies may throw on all knowledge and hence on the proper work of universities.

However, in this personal recalling of how I as merely one observer struggled with the problem, it is enough to state that at some unidentifiable time, probably 1960, I scribbled some notes under the heading "inadequate." The reference was to American public education, although it could apply to all American education on all levels. Here are the notes:

  1. Inadequate
  2. Never did approach the state of being adequate
  3. Overnight, going to become vastly more inadequate

The third point was intended to emphasize that public and private, high and low education, must include Oriental learnings in history, theology, sciences, social studies, philosophy, literature and arts. A university is obliged to try to be a "university," ideally open to, seeking, inquiring about, advancing and diffusing knowledge. Where the knowledge comes from, Orient or Occident, from theology, psychology or physics, is irrelevant.

We already mentioned Flexner on "islands," groups of scholars dedicated to excellence in American universities. A problem is that scholars can scarcely speak interdepartmentally with each other. To try to overcome this situation we kept interdepartmental groups going, and these happy groups, I am sure, proceeded on the assumption that there is a roughly identifiable meaning of "university" and "Catholic university." Our earliest group was launched in 1936, and was a prototype of "University Seminar" launched in 1944 by Frank Tannenbaum at Columbia University. We aimed at what Tannenbaum says his group aims at: "The search is for wisdom, for the essence of meaning in human experience." Scholars need a chance to emerge from specialized isolation and "to talk freely about things that mattered." Here I add that I was pleased to learn from Tannenbaum's A Community of Scholars (1965) about the existence and prosperity of the group, but in their Seminar report on what goes on, I am surprised to find little reference to or use of any specifically Christian ideas. The contributors are enthusiastic for the Seminar idea, the wonder is that in working together on the meaning of human experience and on things that matter most, those men, operating in a world whose thought and action have been deeply influenced by Judeo-Christian ideas, seem to speak as if those ideas never existed.

Those ideas should automatically make a difference to thinking in universities. We are tempted to say that Catholic universities are not only legitimized by this hiatus or vacuum among scholars, but are seriously needed. That is, on the assumption that they can and will try for adequacy of knowledge. If universities not called "Catholic" go for what we allege as adequacy of knowledge, good for them.

No university is any longer equipped to go for all knowledge in all its depth and dimensions. But given modern communications with scholars and scholarly documents being so mobile, a "universal university" is conceivable; and there is a case for tying Catholic universities in pluralistically with other universities.

In the 1960's the attempt was made to substitute the notions "presence" and "Christian presence" for Catholic learning. A danger for one who is "Christian presence" plus "scholar" is schizophrenia, the scholar in one compartment and "Christian presence" in another. Like scholars of all sorts in many areas, he is positivist and he is a believer, positivizes strongly and fideizes more strongly. Catholic scholars do not like what I have just said.

Any scholar today is pluralist, his learning is e pluribus unum. He learns from many sources, many groups of quite divergent philosophies and theologies. The Catholic or other university has variations of philosophy on its faculty, it invites scholars of many persuasions to lecture, its library is free of censors, its concerts and art displays representative of many cultures. After World War II, the philosopher Josef Pieper of Münster University was happy to join us in singing songs by Heine forbidden in Hitler Germany. Are some songs and learnings verboten in the university, whatever its faith or skepticism?

I must bypass many questions -- whether there are any Christian or Catholic universities in America, whether "Christian" and "secular" play back and forth in a sort of pingpong on the same campus, whether some professors and universities are in some aspects Christian and in others secular and whether various so-called "secular" universities may be, at least in some islands, as Christian as some so-called "Christian" universities. Ideally, any university can go for all knowledge and diffuse all knowledge. But any particular university is unlikely to do it because the order is too big and because of depth assumptions, and it may be short on well-prepared scholars. Universities are progressively becoming free to investigate a more complete knowledge; for decades the School of Religion at the University of Iowa was like an academic lone wolf, but this is no longer the case.

A priest colleague forty years younger than myself keeps asking me if my theory of a "Catholic university" is what it was in the 1940's. I think it is. Perhaps my expression of it is less wooden than it was, and it takes account of Moslem and Hindu. Otherwise it seems to me a footnote to the chapters cited above from Gilson and von Hildebrand and an extension of "Christian philosophy." The question becomes what teachers, deans and rectors of universities will do. The Christian, Judeo-Christian or Hindu-Judeo-Christian university can, in its proper capacity, do excellent things. But of course any of them could be the least adequate house of learning. They need to be "resiliently on their toes" (Blueprint, p. 375), or so the Socratic investigating spirit would say. Freedom for inquiry, a sense of inquiry, faith in and habits of inquiry -- all this goes with the community of scholars. That formula is like the sum of what I have said for many years.

The idea of Christian faith (we now add Moslem and Hindu faith) integrated with knowledge became so routine with medieval thinkers that they scarcely noticed it, and Duns Scotus (d. 1308) casually embodied it in a prayer. Setting out to write a book on the First Source of All Things, Scotus prayed:

O Lord, our God, when Moses asked of Thee as a most true Teacher by what name he should name Thee to the people of Israel, knowing well what mortal understanding could conceive of Thee and unveiling to him Thy ever blessed name, Thou didst reply: I am who am. Wherefore art Thou true being, total being. This I believe, but this I would also know. Help me, 0 Lord, to seek out such knowledge of the true being that Thou art as may lie within the power of my natural reason, starting from that being Thou Thyself has attributed to Thyself.

After class one day a boy asked if I'd like to hear this "prayer of the Christian philosopher" turned into music, and he played and sang it. That is what we would like to hear and perhaps what to some extent we do hear -- the integration of all knowledge set to music in students' lives. The idea was, of course, expressed in the formulas, Fides quaerens intellectum and Credo ut intelligam. Michael Polyani has best translated the idea when in his Faith, Science and Society (1946) he noted that if a child was a total skeptic, unwilling to believe that words can have any meaning, he could not even learn to speak. Unless he believed, he would never learn.

Copyright ©2000 by the Indiana Province of the Priests of Holy Cross. All rights reserved.

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