The Pope, Portugal and American ‘Catholic’ universities

A few days ago, Pope Francis delivered a message of support and congratulations to the Catholic University of Portugal on the 50th anniversary of its founding in 1967, itself the 50th anniversary of the miraculous and portentous events at Fatima in 1917.

His comments ought to be burned into the minds of all presidents and deans at Catholic and formerly Catholic colleges and universities in the United States. Here let me lay out the four main points the Holy Father made.

First: If reason does not have for its aim the heights of truth itself, including the ultimate things, the truth of God and man and creation, it will bow to mere utility, and as a consequence the very freedom of man must sicken and die. In this case, the university becomes merely a tool, a device for the procurement of prestige and wealth.

Second: “A Catholic academic institution is distinguished by the Christian inspiration of its members and of its own communities, helping them to include the moral, spiritual, and religious dimension in their research and to value the achievements of science and technology from the perspective of the human person as a whole” (emphasis mine). Nor will its Catholic character be an obstruction in this enterprise, since “it is the Gospel which reveals the full truth about man and his moral journey.”

Third: The Catholic university does not stand alone, but is founded upon a community of believers extending back to the time of Christ, and preserving for man a rich heritage, a “treasure trove” of knowledge and moral wisdom that “is important for all humanity.”

Fourth: The principle of the Incarnation of Christ, who took flesh and dwelt among us in a particular place, at a particular time in history, among a certain people with their history and their culture, instructs us in yet another way to “come down to reality,” which means, in this case, that the Catholic University of Portugal ought to be, consciously, a Portuguese university, giving itself and its riches to the land that has fostered it.

I am now teaching at Thomas More College of the Liberal Arts, a school that flourishes precisely because we desire to live out the Pope’s good counsel. As for the Catholic University of Portugal itself, if its stated mission is any evidence, the Pope’s words serve rather as confirmation and encouragement, not as warning or remonstrance.

If I may try my hand at the Portuguese, the university places itself in conjunction with the Church’s mission, serving the ecclesial community and the human community. It devotes itself to culture and its development, as the integral realization of man, a realization inspired by Christian values. It aims to promote the mutual enrichment of the sacred sciences, the human sciences, and the exact sciences, from the synthesizing embrace of Catholic doctrine, always promoting the dialogue of faith and reason. It assists at the formation of those who will be called to serve the Church in a special way. It will take part in the reality of Portugal by studying its problems and by promoting cultural values in the national community. It aims to prepare its graduates for society, having been nourished by an authentic university community, founded upon principles of truth and respect for the human person. And it aims, as best it can, to stand in the vanguard of scientific and technical progress.

The devil, they say, is in the details. I do not know whether the university lives up to its mission. I do know that in that mission, until that business about being in the vanguard, there is not one word of advertising talk, not one current cliché; and I admire the frankness of the first statement. The university is supposed to be in harmony with the Church.

It would make an interesting study, alas, to consider to what extent the Pope’s words and the university’s declaration could be reconciled with the mission statements of quasi-Catholic, semi-Catholic, pseudo-Catholic, and un-Catholic Catholic colleges and universities in the United States.

The mission statement of Stonehill College (Easton, Mass.) is buttered with clichés about “diversity” and “inclusivity,” with the Church relegated to being the bearer of a long “tradition of free inquiry,” not the bearer of wisdom, knowledge, and truth. Georgetown University’s mission is as slippery as a tomato seed; it must be guessed at from a series of intimations and self-advertisements. But again, the Church is not the bearer of truth; rather, it seems, she waits patiently, miter in hand, for the word to come down from the university heights, for said university “serves as a forum where issues of importance to society and the Church are considered in a spirit of mutual respect and dialogue.”

At the College of the Holy Cross (Worcester, Mass.), the school’s mission statement contains nothing about the Holy Cross. It, too, is a tissue of chic vagaries. It does get around to this minimal demand, wrested from the god of secular moral vacancy: “In a special way, the College must enable all who choose to do so to encounter the intellectual heritage of Catholicism, to form an active worshipping community, and to become engaged in the life and work of the contemporary church” (emphasis mine).

The strict meaning of the sentence implies that only if you choose it will you, at Holy Cross, “encounter the intellectual heritage of Catholicism.” I will give the college the benefit of the doubt, and guess the committee that drafted the statement was merely inattentive and inept. I will assume that in some minor way, all of the students at Holy Cross will brush up against that intellectual heritage. What comes across quite clearly even so is that the Church is not at the center of the college, and the college does not spring from the heart of the Church.

Now if we are Catholic, we believe that the Church has urgent truths to bring to the world; that the world, which is always mad for something or other, will always be in some degree of enmity against the truth it so desperately needs; that though history shows the madness is not always the same (money, sex, national glory, “progress,” land, autonomy, money, sex, money), the Church’s “treasure trove” remains the same because “it is the Gospel that reveals the full truth about man;” that the Church will always be arraigned by the world, and dispatched by the indifferent Pilate to the rage of the madding crowd.

Pope Francis has in mind a genuinely Catholic university. Those who drafted the Catholic University of Portugal’s mission seem to have that in mind too. I do not believe that those who run America’s quasi-Catholic, semi-Catholic, pseudo-Catholic, and un-Catholic Catholic colleges have that in mind at all.

Catholicism for them is a comfy chair, an aura of moral respectability, a “tradition,” like ivy climbing up the side of an old wall. It is not the organizing principle of the institution’s life; it is not its soul. It does not bring vigor and warmth to all that the institution does; it is not its heart. It is not the repository and the promulgator of truth; it is not its mind. It is not even the most visible feature of the institution’s buildings, social events, parades, and celebrations; it is not its flesh. It may be an old aunt in a rocking chair in the corner, smiled upon and borne with for her venerable age and her occasional glints of a mind long passed by. It may be a gladhanding uncle with a wink and a cigar.

I don’t know. Nor do I know why any faithful Catholic should give a dime to such a place. No more pretenses, please.

ANTHONY ESOLEN is professor of English Renaissance and classical literature at Thomas More College of Liberal Arts in Merrimack, N.H. He is a prolific author and has translated several epic poems of the West. He is a graduate of Princeton and the University of North Carolina. He is on the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.

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