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Christopher Shannon

Beyond Bricks and Mortar?

Rethinking the Catholic university

Edward Sorin

Edward Sorin

Edward Sorin
by Marvin Richard O'Connell
University of Notre Dame
Press, 2001
800 pp.; $49.95

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 sustaining a vital Catholic intellectual life.

To be fair, intellectual vitality was a luxury few Catholic leaders in Europe or America could afford in the 19th century. Edward Sorin was born on February 6, 1814, in the small French village of La Roche, and baptized on the same day in the parish church at Ahuillé. Infant baptism could not be taken for granted in revolutionary and Napoleonic France. O'Connell does a marvelous job of setting Sorin's early religious formation in the context of the violent assault on the Catholic Church in France following the revolution. At first the revolutionaries sought merely to subordinate the church to the state. Soon they attempted to replace Catholicism with a religion of reason, desecrating churches and parodying Catholic rituals. O'Connell recounts one such blasphemy in which a procession of donkeys with crucifixes tied to their tails were led to drink from chalices once used in the consecration of the altar wine at Mass. At the height of the Reign of Terror, priests who refused to leave France were hunted down and killed.

Sorin experienced these persecutions secondhand through the stories of his parents and older relatives. Not so with his spiritual mentor, Basile Moreau. Born on February 14, 1799, in a small French town a few miles south of Le Mans, Moreau had a living memory of the persecution of the Church during the revolution. Refusing to accept the legitimacy of the local state-appointed "constitutional" priest, Moreau's devout parents delayed his baptism, preferring to wait for one of the itinerant, outlawed clandestine priests who earned popular spiritual authority by their refusal to take an oath of allegiance to the state.

Violent state persecution ended with the restoration of the monarchy in 1815, but the revolution successfully de-Christianized a significant proportion of an entire generation of Frenchmen. Moreau participated in the explosion of new religious associations dedicated to the re-Christianization of France through education. In this context, education often meant little more than instruction in the fundamentals of the faith and, eventually, protection from the anticlerical secularism of the public school system. Whether cause or effect, French seminaries provided training all too appropriate to this educational mission. The Sulpician instructors who formed a generation of French priests stressed a rigorous, ascetic piety that was Jansenist in its contempt for the goods of this world, including the life of the mind.

Intellectually stagnant, this period was nonetheless one of distinct institutional vitality. As Sorin answered the call to reclaim the world for Christ, he found himself attracted to Moreau's efforts to establish an innovative teaching order that would unite teaching brothers and sisters with priests under one canonical constitution. This association, minus the women religious, would eventually become the Congregation de Sainte-Croix.

On August 5, 1841, the feast of Our Lady of the Snows, Moreau sent Sorin and six Brothers of St. Joseph off to Indiana to safeguard the faith of Catholics on the American Protestant frontier. O'Connell's treatment of Sorin's arrival in Indiana continues with the strongly contextual approach of his earlier chapters on French Catholicism. With no entrenched Protestant establishment, upwardly mobile lay Catholics mixed amicably with local commercial elites in frontier trading towns such as South Bend; the relatively thin institutional infrastructure forced Protestants and Catholics to cooperate in ways unimaginable in eastern cities. Sorin proved a master at ecumenical relations. From the very start Notre Dame welcomed Protestant students and generally exempted them from religious duties that would conflict with their own beliefs. Upwardly mobile Protestant families were in turn grateful for the presence of any institution of higher learning in the educationally challenged region of northwest Indiana.

Sorin's greatest adversaries proved to be his Catholic clerical superiors, not the frontier Protestant majority. Much of O'Connell's story focuses on Sorin's efforts to secure independence from both his local bishop and Moreau himself. Against Bishop Halilandière's desire for a seminary to produce teaching brothers to staff his schools, Sorin envisioned Notre Dame as a fee-charging boarding school that would provide the financial base for a much broader range of Holy Cross missionary endeavors. His dynamic, almost entrepreneurial vision for Holy Cross in turn clashed with Moreau's caution and rigidity. O'Connell presents the Sorin/Moreau struggle for power within the Holy Cross order as very much a battle of the New World versus the Old.

Those expecting a history of Notre Dame through the story of its founder will be disappointed. O'Connell's massive volume provides very little sense of how Sorin managed to make this one Holy Cross venture succeed so well when so many other missionary projects failed. Instead we have a portrait of Sorin as a man who delighted in the fine distinctions of canonical jurisdiction and devoted most of his energies to managing the various coalitions that enabled him eventually to gain control of the Holy Cross order. O'Connell's research is prodigious and well-organized; however, like many a biographer enthralled with his subject, he could have used more restraint in his selection of details. Sources should shape the parameters of a story, but they need not determine its length.

With respect to education, it is clear that Sorin was every bit as much a brick-and-mortar priest as any big-city Irish pastor. Under Sorin, Notre Dame was a university in name only. Trade school, high school, seminary, orphanage, and only lastly a college by 19th-century American standards, Notre Dame under Sorin was most of all a collection of buildings. Assessing Sorin's response to lay professor Timothy Howard's criticisms of his preference for campus construction to the neglect of academic instruction, O'Connell writes: "For Sorin the 'elegant buildings' that Howard disdained held an almost sacramental significance, the outward expression of all the blood and sweat and tears that had been expended in constructing them." For all his anti-intellectualism, Sorin's judgment may not have been too far off. The institutional architecture of 19th-century colleges such as Notre Dame is of more enduring value than most of the humanities scholarship produced by the intellectually "vital" research universities that replaced them.

Philip Gleason has masterfully told the story of how Notre Dame in particular and Catholic higher education in general made its peace with this new institutional model. This peace has recently been disturbed by fears that in adopting the standards of secular universities, Catholic schools have ceased to be Catholic. In response, John Paul II issued two major encyclicals, which have in turn prompted a flurry of commentary from American Catholic academics.

Dennis O'Brien's The Idea of a Catholic University is one of the more thoughtful contributions to the debate. At first glance, it eludes easy categorization. Educated at Yale and the University of Chicago, a former president of Bucknell and the University of Rochester, O'Brien is a believing Catholic who has spent most of his professional academic life in non-Catholic institutions. A true believer in the achievements of the modern secular university, he nonetheless takes issue with the standard opposition of "freedom versus dogma" that shapes so much of the secular understanding of higher education. In seeking to transcend false dichotomies, however, O'Brien falls into the rhetoric of an all-embracing "sacramental imagination" that has clouded so much of contemporary Catholic thinking. As in the work of David Tracy, O'Brien's sacramentalism ultimately offers little more than a thin Catholic gloss on a very conventional liberal pluralism.

The trajectory of O'Brien's argument is all the more disappointing for its promising beginning. O'Brien devotes the first third of his book to a nuanced account of the three distinct kinds of knowledge at play in the contemporary debate over what constitutes a Catholic university: the scientific model of objective, empirical truth; the artistic model of personalized, "signatured" truth; and the religious model of truth as presence. He is, moreover, sensitive to the shared qualities that cut across these categories as ideal types. The central place of literature in the secular university belies the claims for the privileged authority of science and would seem to offer an entering wedge for religion in the academy; nevertheless, O'Brien acknowledges that the artistic attitude shares with science a certain detachment fundamentally at odds with religious faith.

In a chapter titled "I Am the Truth," O'Brien offers a profound meditation on the particularities of the Christian understanding of religious truth as presence. Christian truth is first of all participatory, not propositional. Christians believe in a person, not a message; Jesus saves through the sacrifice of his life, not the dissemination of his teaching. In language evocative of Roberto Goizueta's theology of accompaniment, O'Brien writes: "Jesus does not map a human life; he stands beside each human life in its fullness." Writing very much in the tradition of Pascal and 20th-century French Catholic writers such as Gabriel Marcel, O'Brien stresses the nonrational, existential dimensions of religious truth. He rightly observes that "all universities explicitly or implicitly have some existential dogma" that is not open for discussion, and effectively neutralizes the tired critique of Catholic authoritarianism.

Having leveled the playing field of academic freedom, O'Brien asks the more pointed question: "How does Jesus' 'I am the Truth' relate to the veritas proclaimed on the university's shield?" Despite his claims to the contrary, O'Brien seems to answer "very little." The sketch of a Catholic—or what he boldly calls a "contrarian"—university allows for the presence of "presence," the affirmation of revelation and ample opportunities for participation, but all of this seems to take place at some remove from the classroom. It is all well and good to insist on the integrity and relative autonomy of art and science as disciplines devoted to the study of "ordinary" reality, but in holding out a sacramental model of church against what he sees as the juridical model informing Ex Corde Ecclesiae, O'Brien allows the critical detachment of science to remain the privileged standard for Catholic inquiry.

The politics of Humanae Vitae cast a long, dark shadow over O'Brien's idea of a Catholic university. Catholics of O'Brien's generation seem constitutionally incapable of getting beyond sex. For liberals, open discussion of birth control is the litmus test for intellectual freedom; for conservatives, acceptance of the ban on artificial birth control is the litmus test of orthodoxy. Addressing the issue of birth control and the whole range of sexual freedoms championed by liberals, O'Brien states that "one can well advise a Catholic university to view counterpositions in advocacy and action with love and compassion."

Not so, however, for right-wing heresies such as racism. O'Brien endorses a ban on white supremacists on the grounds that their "claim to moral supremacy beyond discussion controverts the essential spirit of the university as a place of dialogue." Such technicalities aside, O'Brien's account of the limits of academic freedom with respect to racism suggests a much deeper moral divide. Presumably, Catholics are to accept that people who believe in the killing of unborn children are basically decent folks who just happen to hold a different opinion on a certain issue, while racists are just plain evil.

Alas, if I may paraphrase that lapsed Irish Catholic Sting, racists love their children too. Unfortunately for them, they do not tend to look and talk like good middle-class liberal intellectuals. Abortion is at least as great an evil as racism, but the abortionists one is likely to confront at a pro-choice rally generally look and talk like good middle-class liberal intellectuals. Despite his earlier critique of the delusions of academic freedom, O'Brien's primary intellectual loyalty seems to lie with the civility—or what the great liberal historian Richard Hofstadter liked to refer to as the "comity"—of the secular research universities in which he was reared. A Catholic university would distinguish itself by cultivating this civility while offering students ample opportunities to study and practice their faith. This is precisely the situation that most Catholic universities find themselves in today. O'Brien's treatment of the hard cases of intellectual freedom suggests that even in an ideal Catholic university faith and reason will for the most part continue to occupy separate spheres.

When O'Brien turns to the possibility of a distinct Catholic curriculum, so much the worse. The Catholic university of the future would meet the papal challenge to bring faith and reason back into fruitful dialogue primarily through a two-semester freshman total immersion in existential Catholicism: a course on "Love, Commitment, and Decision," followed by some kind of course on the fundamental doctrines of the faith. Students would then be given opportunities to put their faith into practice through various kinds of service learning programs. (O'Brien cites the Jesuit Volunteer Corps as one successful example of such a program!) The university remains for O'Brien a place where students are trained for employment in the "real" world; a Catholic university would merely inspire students to see their job as a vocation. This is, of course, the same kind of strategy that has brought Catholic universities to their present impasse.

In a sense, not much has changed since the days of Sorin. The trade school and the business school were at the heart of Sorin's educational vision. Like most Catholic colleges of the 19th century, Notre Dame did not offer theology courses to undergraduates; it provided spiritual instruction through required daily spiritual exercises, Sunday sermons, and the presence and counseling of priests. The golden age of the neo-Thomist curriculum was relatively short-lived, roughly from the 1920s to the 1950s. Under Theodore Hesburgh, Notre Dame abandoned this curriculum and followed the lead of the secular research universities, with the addition of a new department of theology as the distinctly Catholic presence in the curriculum. Catholic colleges that were smart followed Hesburgh's lead, though few have had the financial means to support a bloated theology department. Many Catholic colleges closed their doors in the wake of the decline in religious orders and increasing competition from state university systems. A surprising number have managed to survive and grow. More than a century after Sorin's death, the bricks and mortar continue to pile up.

O'Brien's capitulation to this consensus does a disservice to both Catholicism and the university. Among Christian intellectuals, the identity crisis of Catholic and Protestant colleges has obscured the identity crisis of the secular humanities. The Victorian ideals upon which the post-classical curriculum is based have self-deconstructed. Cutting-edge scholars draw six-figure salaries for exposing the contingency of these ideals, stodgy modernists reap similar rewards for harrumphing at postmodernism, and students wonder how many credits they need to graduate. Higher learning remains hire learning. Fruitful debate on the Catholic university must proceed from an honest recognition of this state of affairs.

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