November 11, 2005


The purpose of a Catholic university

Holy Cross Father John Jenkins has begun his presidency of the University of Notre Dame with a bold statement: “My presidency will be driven by a wholehearted commitment to uniting and integrating these two indispensable and wholly compatible strands of higher learning: academic excellence and religious faith.”

We applaud Father Jenkins’ vision. It is fully consistent with Notre Dame’s founding purpose. It continues the work of his predecessors during the past 163 years. But, above all, it is the kind of countercultural witness that we desperately need today—when the forces of a secular, atheistic humanism confront diverse forms of blind or unreasoned religious fundamentalism.

According to Father Jenkins, “A Catholic university rejects a faith that trumps all claims of reason and rejects a rationalism that pre-empts all claims of truth. Instead, a Catholic university is a place where scholarly inquiry based on reason engages a theological tradition grounded in revelation.”

God created human beings in his image and likeness, and he has given us the power to think, to discover, to know and to understand. To fulfill our mission as children of God, and to grow in holiness, we must develop our minds. We must use them to learn more about God, about the wondrous world God has made, and about ourselves as stewards of all creation.

At the same time, Christians believe that God has spoken to us definitively in the person of Jesus Christ (the incarnate Word of God). The voice of faith speaks the truth—telling us who we are and who we are called to become. Reason uninformed by faith is severely limited. It takes us only so far in the quest for wisdom and understanding. And it invariably distorts all efforts to find real and lasting solutions to the problems that confront us today—and every day—including war, poverty, stewardship of our environment, spiritual hunger and hopelessness among people of all nations, races and socio-economic classes.

In his inaugural address as president of the University of Notre Dame (Sept. 23, 2005), Father Jenkins called attention to three principles that define a Catholic university:

  1. Knowledge is good in itself and should be pursued for its own sake.
  2. There is a deep harmony between faith and reason.
  3. The role of community and the call to service are central to Christian life.

“At Notre Dame, we have much to be proud of in our embrace of these principles,” Father Jenkins said. “But complacency has never characterized this university and it must not now. During my presidency, we will give fresh emphasis to the distinctive strengths of Notre Dame, and we will build on these strengths as we move toward a pre-eminent position among the world’s universities.”

All Hoosiers have reason to be proud of Notre Dame’s accomplishments during the past 163 years. The university that would become Notre Dame started out in Vincennes (when it was the diocesan see for all of Indiana and Illinois). Its founder, Holy Cross Father Edward Sorin, wanted the new college to be “the most powerful means for doing good in this country.”

Like Saint Meinrad School of Theology, Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College, Marian College and all the other Catholic colleges and universities in Indiana, Notre Dame was founded “from the heart of the Church.” (ex corde ecclesiae, in the words of the late Pope John Paul II). Their purpose, according to Father Jenkins, is to be “a place of higher learning that plays host to world-changing teaching and research, but where technical knowledge does not outrun moral wisdom, where the goal of education is to help students live a good human life, where our restless quest to understand the world not only lives in harmony with faith but is strengthened by it.”

We celebrate the University of Notre Dame’s new era of leadership and the conversation that will continue on the South Bend campus between faith and reason. We agree with Father Jenkins that this dialog will challenge some intellectuals who see no need to acknowledge the claims of religious faith. We also agree that a Catholic university that is true to its mission will reject “a complacent and false understanding of faith.”

In Truth and Tolerance: Christian Belief and World Religions, Cardinal Jospeh Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) wrote: “Christian faith is not a system. It cannot be portrayed as a complete, finished intellectual construction. It is a path, and it is characteristic of a path that it only becomes recognizable if you enter on it and start following it.”

Catholic universities exist to help humanity discover and follow the path to truth and holiness. In the words of Father Jenkins, “This is our goal. Let no one ever again say that we dreamed too small.” †

— Daniel Conway

(Daniel Conway is a member of the editorial committee of the board of directors of Criterion Press Inc.) †


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