The Church and the Campus in the Modern World

by Hilary Thimmesh, O.S.B.

Originally published in Symposium: A CSB/SJU Faculty Journal 15(1997), pp. 38-44.

The author is Professor of English and has also served as Dean of the College (1967-69) and President of Saint John's University (1982-91).

Thirty years can be a long time or it can be a short time. If you're talking student generations, thirty years is a long time. If you're talking old movies it's just yesterday: Goldfinger, Sound of Music, Zhivago for example. If you're talking councils of the Church, which span nearly two millenia, the documents of Vatican II, 1962-1965, are virtually hot off the press. That's particularly true of the two great constitutions Lumen Gentium and Gaudium et Spes, each of them the size of a small book. We are still in the early days of exploring their implications for the life of the church.

What I particularly want to look at today is the bearing of the latter on higher education. As a commentator this summer notes, "[T]he burden of Gaudium et Spes is to locate the Church in the contemporary scene, with a view toward promoting effective participation on the part of the Church in the building of a new world."1 The English title of this document is The Church in the Modern World, and David O'Brien of Holy Cross College has already observed that it constitutes a magna carta for Catholic higher education.2 I want to explore that comment and I want to suggest how important it is that there be colleges where Christianity-including Catholicism-makes a distinctive contribution.

To allay whatever misgivings some of you may feel about the topic, let me say up front that I find merely mentioning the two words "Catholic" and "college" together tends to make faculty nervous-maybe Catholics even more than others, "Catholic college" immediately summons up visions of clerical dominance, directives from Rome, ironclad rules about sexual morality, forbidden topics of discussion, and theological sacred cows.

Even those who do not harbor these dark suspicions may greet the notion of Catholic higher education with some reservations. How can colleges link faith and learning to impart an education with a distinctive religious character without imposing religious requirements on faculty and students? And is there a reason for seeking to create or maintain a faith environment on campus that is rooted in the needs of society and not simply in the church identity inherited from founders years ago?

To explore these questions I want to look back a little nostalgically to what Catholic college education was like at mid-century, and then describe how {p. 39 begins} The Church in the Modern World presents a new paradigm for Christian presence in the world and on the campus.

Catholic higher education as it was half a century ago is sometimes taken to be the measure of what Catholic colleges should be now. Philip Gleason at Notre Dame has made himself the chronicler of that era-the 1930s, 40s, 50s-and has dubbed it the Catholic Renaissance. It was a time when Catholic students went to Catholic colleges and were taught by Catholic teachers, many of them priests or religious. They studied Catholic authors from Dante and Aquinas to such moderns as Jacques Maritain, Christopher Dawson, Graham Greene, Francois Mauriac, Pope Leo XIII, and of course always John Henry Newman.

These were minds of the first order. They were the modern flowering of the Catholic intellectual tradition and they were ours. The colleges too, were ours, well over two hundred of them, owned in most cases by the religious orders that of them-Jesuits, Mercy Sisters, Holy Cross religious, Marianists, Joser Franciscans, Ursulines, Dominicans, Benedictines ... a litany of dedicated men and women who saw their work prospering in a new class of educated Catholic were their graduates and who were rapidly putting an end to the immigrant status of the church in America.

Described in these terms the era indeed seems to have been a Golden Age, but as society and the church underwent momentous changes in the second half of the century this era came to a gradual end. It had to do so in fidelity to its own est premises. What were those deepest premises? They were two: that education at its heart is a continuing search for the truth, and that the mission of the church is to the whole world.

Gradually it became apparent in the decade following World War II that fidelity to these premises required something more than the tidy synthesis of Catholic thought and morality that was the core of Catholic higher education in America at mid-century. How could you speak of the quest for truth if whole areas of thought since the Reformation were off-limits? How could you conceive of a mission to the world if you took a defensive stance toward the non-Catholic world including own national culture?

Someone in the 1950s called it a Catholic ghetto, this self-contained mental ghetto that American Catholics had created for themselves with a little help from the siege mentality of the 19th century papacy and a little more from exclusion by the American Protestant establishment. The term was uncomfortably apt even if the treasures of the Catholic intellectual tradition did link modern Catholics to the mainstream of Western thought in ages past.

Change came partly as a result of self-criticism, partly as a result of the epochal soul-searching of Vatican Council II in response to Pope John XXIII's call for aggiornamento, updating the church to the conditions and needs of modern life. The constitution on The Church in the Modern World was a major response to this call. Let's take time now to look at the way this remarkable document altered the worldview which Catholic education of the preceding century presupposed.

To begin with, it is notable for the language it doesn't use. It does not talk about the pope of the hierarchy or the magisterium, that is, the teaching authority of the {p. 40} church. It does not talk about the structure of the church or about Scripture and tradition, much less about evangelization or catechetical instruction, liturgical practice or the sacraments. In short, this conciliar document largely avoids putting its argument in ecclesiastical terms, preferring to refer simply to the Church or to Christians or to the People of God when it wants to address the role of Christians amidst the people of the world.

It consistently achieves a view of the human family as a whole in which believers and non-believers alike share the same social conditions, have the same needs, benefit from the same advances in science and technology, long for the same security from poverty, disease, and war, aspire to the same cultural enrichment, need to be guided by the same fundamental morality in their search for justice. It is a superb vision of human solidarity and of the worth of the individual regardless of race, religious belief, or social standing.

It says in effect that we humans are all in this together. The church does not stand apart from the human family. It does not provide a refuge from the human plight. It does not exist in an adversary relationship with the rest of humanity, or with other religions, or with people of good will who have no religious belief. There is no suggestion that Christians are a beleaguered minority or that they are beset by enemies or that they need to battle the infidel or put down heretics or retreat within their own moral fastness while the rest of the world perishes. There is no toehold for a Catholic subculture sustained by its own triumphal vision, and no exclusion of human achievement by non-religious or anti-religious thinkers.

Its spirit is captured in such statements as this:

"Thus, far from thinking that works produced by human talent and energy are in opposition to God's power, and that the rational creature exists as a kind of rival to the Creator, Christians are convinced that the triumphs of the human race are a sign of God's greatness and the flowering of God's own mysterious design" (34).

This view is founded on the belief-to quote again-that "earthly matters and the concerns of faith derive from the same God" (36).

Underlying this attitude is the belief that God is manifested in finite things, that God is present in the world, in the human race, in the events that make up history. This is a sacramental view of reality and it is basic to the positive tone of The Church in the Modern World. Rather than setting the church apart as a sacred enclave, it reaches out to find God in the conditions of life. It scrutinizes the signs of the times and interprets them in the light of the Gospel (4). It aims to "recognize and understand the world in which we live" (4).

Let me quote some sentences to show how it describes the modern world:

"Never has the human race enjoyed such an abundance of wealth, resources, and economic power. Yet a huge proportion of the world's citizens is still tormented by hunger and poverty ..." (4)

"Technology is now transforming the face of the earth ..." (5)

"Advances in biology, psychology, and the social sciences ... bring hope of improved self-knowledge" (5).

"The human race has passed from a rather static concept of reality to a more dynamic, evolutionary one" (5). {41}

Urbanization, mobility, new and efficient media are noted, and along with them the problems that arise when the peoples of underdeveloped nations yearn for the advantages of an industrialized and urbanized society, when young people want to exert their own influence in society, when the laws and institutions handed down from previous generations do not seem well adapted to the contemporary world (6,7).

In short, The Church in the Modern World is an honest and serious attempt to describe the human condition as it actually is today, not as it was in the past, not even as it might be ideally. It proceeds in a series of chapters to explore the dignity and the worth of the individual, the importance of community, the right to freedom and self-expression, and the role of the church as "a force for shaping the temporal world so that human dignity can be realized more extensively and more profoundly," 3 as one commentator puts it.

Part II of the document deals with a number of particular topics: marriage and family, the proper development of culture, socio-economic life, the political community, the community of nations. It concludes with a brief summary exhorting Christians to pattern their lives on the gospel and to work together in rendering service to the human family.

I have briefly described the general tone and content of this remarkable document in order to show how it changes the framework for thinking about Catholic higher education. The document takes an inductive approach. It starts from the present and the observed characteristics of modern life. It recognizes and welcomes the benefits of science and technology. It welcomes the contributions of other religions and of all people who labor in the service of humanity. It sees the church as part of human society, not set apart from it or isolated in a closed system. It can do all of these things because it sees God at work in the world, God not limited by human categories of secular and sacred.

The document also recognizes the ills of modern society; and it recognizes the difference between good and bad in the actions of individuals, societies, or whole nations. In other words, it recognizes the need for standards of morality which ultimately derive from God. It is not naive about the dark side of human nature, but it dwells by preference on the human potential for good.

So much for a summary description of The Church in the Modern World. To see how it bears directly on education, we need to turn to what it says about the proper development of culture in Part II, Chapter 2.

The topic of this section is the cultivation of human potential. Here are some key statements: "The possibility now exists of liberating most people from the misery of ignorance" (60). "Efforts must be made to see that people who are capable of higher studies can pursue them" (60). "Everyone should acknowledge and favor the proper and necessary participation of women in cultural life" (60). It says the human spirit must be cultivated so that it grows in its ability "to wonder, to understand, to contemplate, to make personal judgments, and to develop a religious, moral, and social sense" (59).

It pays tribute to the exact sciences, to recent psychological research which explains human activity more profoundly, and to historical studies which enable us to see {42} things in their evolutionary aspects (54). It credits literature and the arts, mathematics, and philosophy with distinctive contributions to human advancement. It calls on the church to acknowledge "new forms of art which are adapted to our age" (62).

Repeated references to recent studies and new questions in various fields affirm the importance of research. Particularly in theology, the effort to formulate doctrine in terms meaningful to the times is urged (62). Without using the term, the document defends academic freedom. It recognizes the autonomy of the arts and sciences in following their own principles and methods (59), and it requires that "within the limits of morality and the general welfare, individuals be free to search for the truth, voice their mind, and publicize it" (59).

In all of this, I would argue, the church quite simply abandoned the notion that Catholic education should in any way be restricted to approved authors or schools of thought and welcomed the competition of ideas in the open forum. Subsequently Rome quietly relegated the Index of Prohibited Books to the dustbin of history. From now on Aristotle, Aquinas, and Newman would find themselves keeping company in the curriculum with such various thinkers as Luther, Freud, Marx, and a whole range of newer voices clamoring for attention. In this respect The Church in the Modern World is undoubtedly a watershed document which can have a direct and liberating effect on Catholic higher education.

But liberty must be for a purpose. If the only effect of this intellectual liberation were to put all disciplines, authors, and points of view on equal footing in the curriculum, one would simply have the formula for value-free secular education. Context makes all the difference, and so the question becomes whether this liberating document also provides a new freedom and a new incentive to join forces in creating an academic context which is distinctively Christian in its ethical and moral goals.

In looking for an answer to this question, "ecumenism" is I think the key word. If the term "Catholic ghetto" is an apt description of the academic world that American Catholics once inhabited, that condition was in part the result of a kind of exclusivism by Catholics themselves. If the academic establishment disregarded Catholic claims to intellectual and moral distinction because Catholic colleges stood apart from what Alasdair MacIntyre calls the Protestant engagement with culture which formed the dominant nineteenth-century college curriculum in the United States, 4 Catholics for their part took pride in being the heirs of an older and larger synthesis of learning extending from Aristotle to Aquinas and the medieval universities, and tended to view the Protestant tradition of learning as marginal.

The intellectual ecumenism of The Church in the Modern World renders the historic exclusivity of Catholic and Protestant traditions of learning obsolete. More than that, it opens the door to serious dialogue between Christians and non-Christians, between believers and non-believers, not because it regards religious faith as unimportant but because it rests on a superb confidence that God is greater than any of our formulations and is at work in the world in a thousand guises besides those that are explicitly religious. It rests on a dynamic conception of truth as that ultimacy toward which research and exploration in every field of knowledge is always striving as it seeks fuller understanding of the human condition. It finds its sufficient {43} motive in the interdependence of the human family, whose advancement has to transcend differences of race, nationality, and culture.

How can a college take advantage of this new spirit in the church to contribute a religious perspective to the intellectual and moral development of its students? I think the answer lies first of all in the dynamics of the faculty rather than in the structure of the curriculum or the role of campus ministry, important as both of these are. Brought into focus on an actual campus, the core question about integrating faith and learning is whether the faculty can dialogue about its common purpose, can transcend differences in religious background and the limits of particular disciplines.

I emphasize dialogue in the faculty because it is in the mind of the faculty that the effective values of the institution reside, values which affect not so much what students are taught as the climate of learning. If there is consensus in the faculty that over and above teaching individual disciplines their collective concern must be about the human condition, about how life is to be lived, about what principles will advance the common good, about what god or gods are to be served, then faith and theological thought will be seen to be relevant to the faculty's purpose and genuinely welcomed in its discourse.

A possible role for theology in faculty discourse is described in the 1990 Vatican document on Catholic higher education, Ex Ecclesiae Corde. Pope John Paul II speaks of a process of search and dialogue: search for a synthesis of knowledge, and dialogue between faith and reason.

Note that these terms are dynamic. They suggest a continuing process in which theology "serves all other disciplines in their search for meaning, not only by helping them to investigate how their discoveries will affect individuals and societies but also by bringing a perspective and an orientation not contained within their own methodologies" (19). Moreover, theology is also enriched in the process as other disciplines offer it "a better understanding of the world today" (19). In other words, the presence of theology among the disciplines represented in the faculty can be the source of a genuine dialogue from which all parties benefit.

The Pope envisions a faculty "particularly well versed in the individual disciplines and . . . at the same time adequately prepared theologically" to take part in dialogue about "epistemological questions at the level of the relationship between faith and reason" (46). If this lofty goal seems unrealistic, more modest but nonetheless important conversations between the other disciplines and theology can still be characteristic of Christian colleges. One need not probe the epistemological roots of either science or theology very deeply to acknowledge in every field moral and ethical issues that bear on the human rights and moral restraints which are constitutive of the deepest freedom.5 To achieve a faculty united in its concern to explore such issues in the light of the Judeo-Christian ethic would powerfully affect a college's educational goals and sharply distinguish a Christian college from its secular counterparts.

In the end, that distinction is crucial to our understanding of what Catholic higher education is about. It is different from secular education. Secularism has been defined as "the ideological denial of the reality of transcendence." 6 Well, Catholic education is about providing an academic {44} environment where people talk seriously about the transcendent, about the meanings and values that give worth to the individual and assure justice and freedom in society. Catholic education is not about having all the answers. But it is about entering into dialogue with all who seek to better the human condition. It is not about Catholics talking only to Catholics. In fact, the religiously mixed composition of the typical faculty and student body will be an advantage in this dialogue, just as diversity in other respects is an advantage in the search for meaning and truth.

The Church in the Modern World puts this search in the broadest perspective and implicitly poses the fundamental questions that must guide it. What kind of education will foster that freedom which paradoxically entails moral restraint and regard for the common good? What kind of education will transcend partiality and advance the human condition? Is it possible to embody in education the magnificent vision of a single human family united in its deepest longings?

I come back to that singularly catholic perspective on the world of our time, catholic with a small "c" in its unswerving sense of human solidarity, Catholic with a large "C" in its faith that the dignity of the individual and the foundations of human community derive ultimately from God. This is the vision that lends urgency to rediscovering the intellectual excitement and the moral challenge of bringing deeply grounded religious thought to bear on the conditions of life in the modern world.


1. Maurice Schepers, "There is common ground," The Tablet (26 July 1997), 946.

2. From the Heart of the American Church (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1994), 49.

3. Kenneth R. Himes, O.F.M. "The Church in the Modern World: A 30-year Perspective," Woodstock Report (June 1995, no. 42), 4.

4. "Traditions and Conflicts," Liberal Education (vol. 73, no. 5; Nov.-Dec. 1987), 11.

5. See Jonathan Sacks, "From slavery to freedom: the journey of faith," The Tablet (June 10, 1995), 732-734. "Freedom inescapably has a moral basis. Judaism talks of a covenant built around a set of interlocking duties towards God and our fellow human beings (732).

6. Michael J. Himes and Kenneth R. Himes, O.F.M., Fullness of Faith: The Public Significance of Theology (New York: Paulist Press, 1993), 3.