Mark W. Roche, The Intellectual Appeal of Catholicism and the Idea of a Catholic University. University of Notre Dame Press, 2003. 51 pages. ISBN 0-268-01196-6
"One of the strengths of Catholicism is that it has always been a great defender of reason in religious belief, of the attempt to show that belief in God is a rational belief, and that religious belief is more rational than any atheistic alternative. In his recent encyclical Fides et ratio ("Faith and Reason"), Pope John Paul II made a very interesting point when he noted the irony that it is now the Church who is among the foremost defenders of reason and truth, of the objectivity of knowledge, of common sense, whereas many times throughout history those who claimed to defend reason and truth ridiculed the Church for being on the side of superstition and myth. The Catholic Church, in particular, has always insisted on a significant role for reason in religious belief and in theology. It has always defended the view that faith and reason are compatible--that the truths of faith are compatible with reason, and, more significantly, that religious faith is a rational response to the ultimate mystery of the universe and of human life. The Catholic Church has great resources to defend its worldview and its philosophy of the human person against secular opposition and criticism. This is one of the reasons the Catholic Church is much disliked by many intellectuals--because it represents a serious rational alternative to their worldview, and hence is a threat to their worldview."
--Brendan Sweetman, "A Rational Approach to Religious Belief"
"It is not a small thing, either, to turn your back on two thousand years of rational thinking and hard work and science and art and the Judeo-Christian tradition."
I like Roche's title: The Intellectual Appeal of Catholicism and the Idea of a Catholic University. This review will attempt to ask at least two questions: What is a Catholic University and Why choose a Catholic University? What motivated me to ask these questions is that my daughter is considering attending a Catholic University next year. So, I have weighed the pros and cons in my own head for why should a Protestant attend a Catholic University. Many Protestants and others are attracted to Catholic universities. Why?
Previously, I wrote a review on Why Choose the Liberal Arts by the same author. Mark Roche was Dean of the College of Arts and Letters at the University of Notre Dame. He is currently Professor of German Language and Literature and Professor of Philosophy. The author's book is ecumenical, in the sense, he points out the positive contributions made by Secular, Protestant, and Catholic Universities.
Roche in this essay seeks to clarify the mission of a catholic university. Why does it exist? He states that many Protestant universities "have divested themselves of their Christian heritage, the Catholic university has become one of the few places where religious scholarship can truly flourish alongside secular scholarships" (5). Some Protestants seem to think the church fell at the end of the New Testament period and did not come into being till the Reformation. Maybe, this is the reason some Protestants tend to neglect Christian history before the reformation. For example, it bothers me extremely when Protestants make blanket condemnations of the Middle Ages by calling it the Dark Ages. It seems the real dark ages is modern times.
The author states that Catholic universities emphasize liberal arts education. He believes that Catholicism "enriches" the liberal arts experience. In addition, "religion brings to the liberal arts ideal a strong existential component" (6). Both values and "existential aspirations shapes intellectual inquiry" at Catholic universities. A second main point is that "religion is not separated from the curriculum or from scholarship but is fully integrated into both areas" (7). In other words, faith and religion is not an add-on to the curriculum. However, these things are not the main aspects of what differentiates Catholic Universities from other universities. Roche there are four main characteristics of a Catholic University: universalism, sacramental vision, elevation of tradition and reason, and its emphasis on the unity of knowledge.
First, the author emphasizes the communal aspect of Catholicism verses modern individualism. Roche asserts that Catholicism "elevates to an unusual degree the embeddedness of the individual within a collective identity. Catholic students, therefore, may find it easy to identify with larger institutions and with tradition" (11). There seems to be an overemphasis on the individual in Protestantism and the secular university. The author argues, "America has been fertile ground for the Protestant elevation of individuality. Indeed, individuals and autonomy are distinguishing dimensions of American culture" (12). There is a tendency to put loyalty to the American religion of democracy over Christianity.
Catholic Christianity recognizes the equality of persons before God. From this belief, the concept of "universal human rights" were developed were developed by Christianity "with its emphasis on the dignity of the individual and the value of the common good. This concept and the concomitant obligations toward other persons, especially the underprivileged and underserved, are the inspiration behind the scholarly focus on social justice issues, including issues of poverty and development, that we find in Catholic universities" (12-13). Individual human rights must be balanced with the common good. Jesuit institutions, for example, emphasize service to others as part of the mission of the Catholic university.
The second characteristic of the Catholic university is a sacramental vision "that finds God in and through the world; correspondingly, it upholds the innate dignity of every human being and argues for the binding nature of the moral law"(18-19). The creation witnesses to God's being. The author contrasts different parts of this emphasis with Protestant views. Some Protestants think of God "as wholly other; in contrast, the Catholic emphasize the "presence of God in reality." Even when Catholics "rightly stress that the mystery of God is inexhaustible, there is a greater optimism about our ability to make discoveries about God" (19). For example, the Catholic position is that the existence of God can be proven by reason. The author states that Protestants tend to emphasize the fallenness of humans. For example, the teaching that states the total depravity of man. Roche argues, "Protestants tend to be skeptical of the view that through human inquiry we can approach the knowledge of God. The Catholic position argues that divine truth, beauty, and goodness are reflected in this world and that effects of original are not so severe as to prevent humans from knowing this reflection and through such knowledge, coming closer to God" (19). One is reminded of Thomas Aquinas' statement that grace perfects nature.
Two teachings emphasized by Catholic Christianity are the incarnation and the trinity. Roche asserts, "The Catholic tradition seeks to celebrate both of the defining features of Christianity: the incarnation, or God's entering the world as a human being, which gives rise to the sacramental vision of Catholicism; and the trinity, including not not only the concept of God as a relation or community, but also the idea that the Holy Spirit infuses the world with divinity in ways that extend beyond the singular appearance of Christ" (20). In addition, these beliefs argue for the importance of studying about God's world. Catholicism emphasizes both transcendence and immanence, God is both in the world and above the world. This balanced position contrasts with "two mirroring elements of modernity: the secular tendency to see only immanence and no higher meaning in the world, and the Protestant tendency to project meaning beyond this world and so, by a different route, to divest this world of its higher meaning" (20). Basically, in my Protestant tradition we were taught that the only world that mattered was in the next life, heaven. In addition, we were taught that the only reason God leaves us here is to win souls.
The sacramental vision also teaches about the moral law that is open to reason and how the different disciplines reveal God. Roche states, "The Catholic intellectual sees the moral law as independent of human invention and as sacred. At the same time, it can be discovered via reason and is tested by argument; it not need not simply on faith" (21). This is important in a disoriented age. The sacramental view argues for the importance of the different disciplines in the university. The author argues that "Biology, chemistry, and physics give us windows onto the divine structure of reality" (21). In other words, there are natural revelation and special revelation. Ultimately, these two books do not conflict. The social sciences provide important knowledge about humans and society. Roche states, "the customs, institutions, and interaction of human beings have a hidden wisdom, which we are invited to explore through the social sciences" (22). In addition, the sacramental vision "ennobles the arts" (22). The arts, like the sacraments, "Not only gives us a window onto the transcendent, it leaves us with a sense of mystery and multivalence" (23). Art is also "inexhaustible".
The third characteristic of the Catholic university is the "elevation of tradition and reason" (25). Roche asserts, "Through the centuries Roman Catholicism has placed great emphasis on philosophical argument and historical tradition. Instead of basing its claims solely on the Scriptures, it has attended to the philosophical development of the Church, guided by the Holy Spirit" (25). This is another area where Catholicism and Protestantism differ from each other. Protestants tend to emphasize individual, private interpretations of scripture. They also promote the Bible "as the singular source of religious wisdom" (25). I have thought often about this difference over the years. It seems like that some Protestants think of the Bible as an exhaustive revelation. That it speaks on every possible issue in life. For example, I pulled this book off the shelf: Politics: According to the Bible: A comprehensive Resource for Understanding Modern Political Issues in Light of Scripture by Wayne Grudem. The author of this book is a research professor of theology and biblical studies at Phoenix Seminary. I do not know if he has any degrees in Political Science, but it seems to imply that one can be a theologian and discuss the issues of a particular discipline solely from a knowledge of the Bible. I mean no disrespect to Grudem. I just want to show how Catholics and Protestants think of this issue differently.
There are four consequences to the elevation of reason and tradition. First, philosophy and theology "have always played central roles in the Catholic Church." For example, students at Catholic Universities are required to take both philosophy and theology courses. In the past, I think they were required to take more philosophy courses than they do now. Spring Hill College in Mobile requires their students to take eighteen hours of philosophy and theology. In contrast, at evangelical Christian colleges, the students are required to take multiple courses on the Bible. This just shows a different emphasis by Evangelical and Catholic schools. I used Evangelical, instead of Protestant because. many Protestant colleges require little if any Bible, philosophy, or theology courses.
A second consequence of elevating reason and tradition "suggests that the Catholic intellectual is eager to learn from other traditions and new perspectives" (27). The Catholic view of the value of all persons lead a Catholic university to welcome persons of diverse faiths" (27). Catholic universities believe other views can complement the Catholic university. Roche writes, "Such a university gladly embraces those who, with intelligence and respect, can challenge and complement the Catholic character of an institution" (27). An example of this is the Medieval scholars "from the three great montheistic religion who so elevated reason that they sought out competing traditions in order to see what was of value in them and to ask how these might relate to their own" (27). It seems the willingness of the Catholic university to entertain other views strengthens the education of the college student. Catholic universities practice religious and intellectual freedom and allows room for students to develop their own views. Roche writes, "A great Catholic university pursues alternative positions either to ensure that its own positions measure up to reason, or to adjust them accordingly. The Catholic university challenges its students in ways that requires them to weigh the strengths and weaknesses of the Catholic tradition and to confront Catholic values with other religious values and with contemporary cultural values" (27). This encourages dialogue and respecting the views of others.
A third consequence of emphasizing tradition, "the Catholic Church gives us a rich array of intellectual and artistic works to study" (28). The student finds at a Catholic university great respect "for artistic creations and the wisdom of the ages" (28). The Catholic church was often a patron of the arts. The study of law at Catholic universities "has drawn considerably on the natural law tradition in order to shed light on modern dilemmas" (28). This emphasis on the wisdom of the past enables the student to discuss with others the great achievements of the past.
A fourth consequence of the emphasis of tradition and reason is that the Catholic university "cannot shy away from philosophy and science, as they lead to unexpected insights" (29). The Catholic university believes that truth will "prevail". This is the reason that the Catholic university emphasizes academic freedom. Academic freedom can originate from the Protestant emphasis on the autonomy of the individual; but, it can also arise "from the Catholic elevation of truth as that which is best discovered by our having listened carefully to all possible solutions" (30). We discover truth in conversation with others. The Catholic tradition gives the student a foundation in their search for truth.
The last characteristic of the Catholic university is its emphasis on the unity of knowledge. Roche asserts, "The modern secular university has become 'an intellectual department store', a 'multiversity', where disciplines develop side by side and scholars pursue independent pursuits with no connection or overarching purpose" (34). In other words, in the modern university you have fragmentation, instead of the unity of knowledge. The author writes, "The Catholic tradition, inspired by the concept of the unity of knowledge, seeks in contrast to cultivate meaningful and integrative thought across the disciplines and argues that morality is not one sphere separate from the others but that it infuses all spheres: one can and should ask moral questions of architecture, art, business, engineering, law, politics, science, society, even religion" (34). It does seem the Catholic university is able to counteract the modern fragmentation of knowledge dominant in the secular university. The idea that truth is one is a belief that has been held in the Catholic church throughout its history. It includes that all truth is from God, and truth is truth, no matter where it is found.
Christopher Dawson, in his book, The Crisis of Western Education, highlighted some of the problems of modern education: utilitarianism, careerism, specialization, and the expanse of the state over all areas of society. A major solution to this crisis Dawson argued was to introduce"the study of Christian culture as an objective historical reality into the curriculum of university studies." Mark Roche has given us four characteristics of the Catholic university: its universalism, its sacramental vision, its elevation of tradition and reason, and its emphasis on the unity of knowledge. It seems that Dawson's solution can work in the Catholic university, but it can also work in universities willing to institute a Christian studies program as an academic discipline.