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Christopher Shannon

Beyond Bricks and Mortar?

Rethinking the Catholic university

After generations of dutiful assimilation, American Catholics remain befuddlingly out of step with the cutting edge of American Protestantism. During the heyday of liberal Protestant ecumenism in the 19th and early 20th centuries, Catholics were stubbornly sectarian and separatist; amidst the contemporary conservative evangelical rage for confessional, faith-based organizations, Catholics have remained guardedly ecumenical. This conundrum is perhaps nowhere more evident than in the field of higher education. Robert Benne's recent Quality With Soul: How Six Premier Colleges and Universities Keep Faith with Their Religious Traditions examines only one Catholic institution, an underrepresentation that at least in part accurately reflects the fairly thorough secularization of the Catholic educational system. Pope John Paul II's efforts to address this problem, most notably through his encyclicals Ex Corde Ecclesiae and Fides et Ratio, have met with mixed reviews among influential American Catholic educators.

The Idea of a Catholic University

The Idea of a Catholic University

The Idea of a
Catholic University

by George Dennis O'Brien
Univ. of Chicago Press, 2002
239 pp.; $28

Two recent works speak to the past and future of Catholic higher education in ways that help to illuminate the current debate. Historian Marvin O'Connell's massive Edward Sorin chronicles the life of the 19th-century founder of the University of Notre Dame (the sole Catholic institution to have made it into Benne's sweet six). Philosopher and former university president George Dennis O'Brien's The Idea of a Catholic University takes the debates surrounding John Paul II's encyclicals as an occasion for reflecting on the possibility of Catholic institutions reclaiming their distinct religious identity without sacrificing a humanist universalism he sees as itself rooted in the Catholic tradition. These very different books, in sometimes unintended ways, show the distressingly persistent failure of American Catholic educators to create or even envision institutions capable of ...

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