Sunday, October 2, 2005

Joy in the Truth: The Catholic University in the New Millenium

To many of those who identify with the mission of the Center, there is no set of issues closer to the heart than the challenges presently facing Catholic higher education. Thus we deemed it most fitting to devote our sixth annual Fall flagship conference to the theme: “Joy in the Truth: The Catholic University in the New Millennium.” The result was an enormously successful conference which took place September 29- October 1, 2005 in McKenna Hall at the University of Notre Dame.

As a mission statement for the conference we turned to Pope John Paul II’s words from the opening of his 1990 apostolic constitution on Catholic universities, Ex Corde Ecclesiae (From the Heart of the Church): “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.” So, our aim with this conference was to bring together scholars representing all the main academic fields to discuss a broad range of issues relating to the way in which the Catholic university can best perform the service of proclaiming to the present age the truth about nature, man and God. We also sought to benefit from the insight and experience of our friends from non-Catholic Christian colleges and universities, as well as from our friends at secular institutions.

The conference keynote address was delivered before a large audience on Thursday evening, September 29, by Philip Gleason, Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Notre Dame and author of the seminal Contending with Modernity: Catholic Higher Education in the Twentieth Century. Professor Gleason’s keynote address was entitled, “Through Dangers, Toils and Snares: An Historical Perspective on Catholic Higher Education.” In this lecture, Professor Gleason provided a guided tour of Catholic higher education from the founding of Georgetown University in 1789 to the present day. In regard to this history Professor Gleason distinguished four stages: the initial founding stage (1789-1889); a period of crisis and reorganization (1889-1920); a period of synthesis inspired by the neo-Scholastic revival, a synthesis that served to make Catholic higher education intellectually distinctive (1930-1965); and finally a fourth period, when the synthesis which characterized Catholic higher education throughout most of the 20th century was exploded by what Gleason called “the perfect storm” of academic, social and ecclesial factors that converged in the mid-1960s.

As for the present, Professor Gleason observed that social and academic influences continue to push Catholic colleges and universities in the direction of assimilation to prevailing secular norms. Yet he did not give up the hope that Catholic institutions could still avoid the thoroughgoing process of secularization that characterizes the history of so many of their prestigious Protestant counterparts. The influence upon Catholic institutions of ecclesial authority, Gleason claimed, as exemplified perhaps most of all by Ex Corde Ecclesiae, has done much to stem what might have become an unintended
slide ever deeper into secularization.

After a full day of invited and colloquium sessions on Friday, September 30, the conference participants convened again in plenary session that evening to hear a talk by good Center friend and advisory board member, Helen Alvaré, associate professor of law at the Columbus School of Law at The Catholic University of America. Professor Alvaré’s talk was entitled, “The Catholic University: Mediator of Grace and Truth.” While not denying there is much to take issue with in regard to the inroads that secularization has made in the Catholic academy, Professor Alvaré argued that it is crucial not to lose the trust that we should have in what then Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, called “the shape of grace in history.” For even in weak human beings and in weak institutions, grace can find a way to embolden and to renew. And there are many signs that such grace is operative in Catholic academia, Professor Alvaré contended, for example in the rise of a new crop of Catholic colleges and universities, in the impressive confidence of many Catholic intellectuals to speak the truth to our culture, in the abiding presence of the sacraments, in the pride of place still often given to the disciplines of theology and philosophy, and in the presence at many Catholic institutions of devoted clergy and religious.

The topics discussed by the conference participants over the weekend ranged widely—from academic freedom to new curricular initiatives; from spiritual aspects of the intellectual life to what Catholic universities can learn from non-Catholic. Issues involving women, families and the Christian university were discussed along with issues affecting the formation of professionals. But if one had to choose a dominant theme that characterized the entire conference, one would have to say that it was the theme of unity, unity in the truth and unity in the curriculum. Time and again throughout the presentations criticism was made of the fragmentation and compartmentalization of the disciplines in the modern academy. Our hope is that our sixth annual Fall conference helped make manifest the way toward a resolution of this problem, a resolution founded upon what St. Augustine called gaudium de veritate: joy in the truth!

The Center would like especially to thank George Maas of Edina, Minnesota, as well as the entire Maas family, whose Maas Family Endowment for Excellence played such a large part in supporting this conference.

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