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The idea of a Catholic university

| Monday, April 27, 2020

Writing a senior thesis can actually be kind of fun, if you select an interesting topic and an excellent advisor like Professor Daniel Philpott. Of course, this large academic project may not be “fun” in the same sense as hiking or surfing or playing baseball or watching the New England Patriots win countless Super Bowls, but I have discovered that thesis-writing is rewarding far beyond just the feeling of relief that comes with a final submission. Even though I have no immediate plans to wade into academia (Notre Dame Law School awaits me in the fall), I now deeply understand why the lifestyle of researching and writing is so appealing. But still, as I mentioned above, perhaps this is because I chose a thesis topic that is difficult to not enjoy: Notre Dame’s identity as a Catholic university, a concept which personally affects my everyday life as a student (read all about it here!).

At the beginning of last summer, I acquired a big stack of books in search of answers to two simple yet profound questions: What is the purpose of a Catholic university, and what is required to bring this kind of institution into practice at Notre Dame? I soon realized my 21st-century perspective had been seriously underdeveloped compared to not only the immense volume of books, essays, speeches and articles on the subject, but also the soaring rhetoric with which great Catholic figures like St. John Henry Newman and Fr. Ted Hesburgh had conceived of the Catholic university’s conceptual purpose and practical mission. Contemporary debates about Notre Dame’s Catholic identity become both more intelligible and more complex in this context.

In “The Idea of a University,” Newman considered the purpose of universities in general as well as the unique mission of Catholic universities. This eloquent series of discourses, which Newman delivered to a Dublin audience in 1852 to argue for founding a new Catholic University of Ireland, can be summed up in four main points: 1) The university’s chief purpose, communicating “universal knowledge,” is intellectual and not moral; 2) Theology occupies an essential space within the circle of universal knowledge, and thus any university worthy of its name must teach it; 3) this knowledge is its own end, which a liberal education exists to serve; and 4) The Church’s guidance is necessary for any university to fully achieve these purposes.

In other words, Newman believed the Catholic university has a special role to play as a work of the Church in the modern world, a role which is both similar to and different from the purpose of any other university, secular or religious. It is a place both “to fit men of the world for the world” and is characterized by “a direct and active jurisdiction of the Church” over its intellectual endeavors, especially in theology.

Newman’s model was largely though not exclusively based upon his experience at Oxford in the first half of the 19th century, a model which he adapted for “Catholics in a Catholic form” and which emphasized teaching and learning far more than contemporary research universities do today. Although Notre Dame’s traditional strength in liberal arts education largely reflects Newman’s vision, Notre Dame under Hesburgh’s tenure moved toward a novel research orientation that created an inherent tension with ideal of Catholic liberal education.

Indeed, Father Hesburgh believed the 20th-century Catholic university must add additional functions to Newman’s model, a model with which Hesburgh claimed to disagree, even though I argue in my thesis that both men agreed more than they disagreed about the purpose of a Catholic university.

Hesburgh’s writings and speeches present a mostly compatible but nevertheless mixed picture of the Catholic university in the modern world, compared to Newman’s idea. In his collection of speeches from the 1950s entitled “Patterns for Educational Growth,” Hesburgh emphasized what I gather to be three features of a Catholic university which agreed with Newman’s more ancient vision: 1) the primacy of Christian wisdom, 2) the centrality of liberal education and 3) the university’s goal to prepare students for the world beyond the classroom. As Hesburgh stated a few years later in 1967, the contemporary Catholic university “is, in a sense, a re-creation” of premodern Catholic university environments like “Paris, Oxford, Cambridge, [and] Bologna.”

However, Hesburgh affirmed not only that the 20th-century Catholic university had “inherited Newman’s Idea of the British University as an exclusively teaching institution,” but also that it had “added on the concept of graduate and research functions from the German university model.” In his mid-20th century context, Hesburgh coupled these new functions with the spirit of institutional autonomy and academic freedom that increasingly pervaded secular and religious universities alike. Crucially, Hesburgh contended “the reality and terms of this world are well established and must be observed,” a mindset which reflected larger trends in 20th-century Catholic higher education, which historian Philip Gleason criticizes in his 1995 book “Contending with Modernity”: “We can say that what happened in the 1960s climaxed the transition from an era in which Catholic educators challenged modernity to one in which they accepted modernity.”

Although some folks are entirely at peace with Catholic universities’ transition into progressive modernity, I maintain deeper reservation. I agree with Hesburgh insofar as Newman’s basic Oxford model of teaching and learning should be expanded. However, Hesburgh did not sufficiently manage the difficulty of adapting the modern secular university model to the ancient wisdom of the Catholic intellectual tradition. I identify three key areas in which Hesburgh largely failed to guard Notre Dame’s Catholic foundations in this manner: 1) not hiring faculty that promoted Notre Dame’s Catholic mission, 2) not integrating disciplines in the core curriculum and 3) not strengthening Notre Dame’s relationship with the Church. What does all this mean for the 21st century, especially regarding the juicy contemporary controversies we all know about and love to debate, often in the pages of The Observer? You will have to read my thesis to find out.

Full disclosure: I rely heavily upon Gleason’s work as well as that of Fr. Bill Miscamble, C.S.C., whose recent biography “American Priest” captures far more about Hesburgh the man than I could ever hope to accomplish in less than a year, balancing my thesis with four or five other classes each semester. Still, placing these secondary sources in conversation with a voluminous array of primary sources from Hesburgh’s tenure as Notre Dame president has been an invaluable experience for my own academic development, if nothing else. I can only hope my effort gives glory to God just as Father Hesburgh so eloquently challenged Notre Dame faculty and students to aspire to achieve in his 1954 speech “A Theology of History and Education”:

“We do not rest in human reason, or human values, or human sciences—but we certainly do begin our progress in time with all that is human in its excellence. Then, after the pattern of the Incarnation, we consecrate all our human excellence to the transforming influence of Christ in our times. Our prime concern must be to offer a worthy gift to the service of God and man.”

Brennan Buhr is a senior Juggerknott from Albany, NY who studies theology, political science (but really, just theory) and history. He loves drinking cold glasses of skim milk and eating salad for dessert when he is not consuming “the living bread that came down from heaven” (Jn 6:51) at the Basilica. He can be reached at [email protected] or @BuhrBrennan on Twitter.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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