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Patrick Reilly's Speech to the Catholic Citizens of Illinois

Address to the Catholic Citizens of Illinois

Patrick J. Reilly

President, The Cardinal Newman Society

Given May 9, 2008 in Chicago, Illinois

Thank you, Mary Anne, members of Catholic Citizens of Illinois, and good friends of The Cardinal Newman Society.

I am thrilled to be back in Chicago and to be with all of you, especially in what is shaping up to be an extraordinary year for American Catholics and for Catholic educators.

We started the year anticipating Pope Benedict’s visit to the United States, and the exciting news that he had summoned every Catholic college president in the U.S. to a meeting at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.

The Holy Father did not disappoint. Three weeks ago on April 17, Pope Benedict delivered a challenge to the college presidents and to diocesan educators that I am certain will have a significant impact on Catholic education in this country.

The Masses, the Holy Father’s address to seminarians and young people, the meeting with the bishops, the United Nations address, the visit to Ground Zero – all of these, I am sure, were opportunities for grace and important steps toward the evangelization of the West that Pope Benedict so eagerly seeks.

But, in terms of long-term impact on the Church in the United States, I submit to you that the Holy Father accomplished two important things:

First, he brought us a long way toward what resolution is possible regarding sexual abuse by some of our Catholic priests. He set an example of genuine compassion for the victims that will, I hope, characterize the American bishops’ response as we go forward.

Second, he restored the renewal of Catholic education to the top of the agenda for the Church in America, where it was briefly prior to the sex abuse scandals.

But more on this in a moment.

There is another reason this year is so exciting for the Church and for Catholic education – and that is the likelihood that the great English convert and author of The Idea of a University, John Henry Cardinal Newman, will be beatified before the year ends.

It is Newman’s thought that underlies much of Ex corde Ecclesiae, the apostolic constitution for Catholic higher education issued by Pope John Paul II in 1990, which lays out minimal standards for Catholic colleges.

It is also Newman’s thought which nicely coincides with the vision for Catholic education presented by our new professor-pope, Benedict XVI, in his address on April 17.

The Holy Father makes the argument that today there is a great “crisis of truth,” and it is rooted in a “crisis of faith.” As the West continues to secularize, faith is increasingly viewed as contrary to reason and truth. But Jesus Christ is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Faith in Christ, Pope Benedict reminds us, is the only sure way to essential truths about God and His creation which cannot be attained only by observation, no matter how rigorous the method and the reasoning.

Even before April, Pope Benedict over the past year has repeatedly referred to an “educational emergency” in the West,lamenting the loss of hope among many young people because they do not know the truth about God and man as His creation.

This is more than the theme of one or more papal addresses. It appears to be the central theme of this papacy, and of Pope Benedict’s priesthood.

When Joseph Ratzinger was named Archbishop of Munich and Freising in 1977, he chose as his episcopal motto “Cooperators of the Truth”. He explained: “On the one hand I saw it as the relation between my previous task as professor and my new mission. In spite of different approaches, what was involved, and continued to be so, was following the truth and being at its service. On the other hand I chose that motto because in today’s world the theme of truth is omitted almost entirely, as something too great for man, and yet everything collapses if truth is missing.”

Compare that to Cardinal Newman’s dispute with what he called “physical philosophers” in 19th-century England. These secularists trusted only those truths that are discovered by observation and the scientific method, and they rejected truths that are revealed by God, and therefore the understanding of those truths that human reasoning yields through the practice of theology. They scoffed at Newman’s argument that theology is central to any legitimate university’s search for truth in all areas of knowledge.

Newman writes in The Idea of a University:

“[N]o wonder, then, that [these “physical philosophers”] should be irritated and indignant to find that a subject-matter remains still, in which their favorite instrument [observation and inductive reasoning] has no office; no wonder that they rise up against this memorial of an antiquated system, as an eyesore and an insult; and no wonder that the very force and dazzling success of their own method in its own departments [of science] should sway or bias unduly the religious sentiments of any persons who come under its influence. They assert that no new truth can be gained by deduction; Catholics assent, but add, that, as regards religious truth, they have not to seek at all, for they have it already.” (Newman,The Idea of a University, p. 223-224)

In Newman’s time 150 years ago, as Pope Benedict observes in our own day, the “crisis of truth” was rooted in a “crisis of faith.” Newman writes:

“The Rationalist makes himself his own center, not his Maker; he does not go to God, but he implies that God must come to him. And this, it is to be feared, is the spirit in which multitudes of us act at the present day. Instead of looking out of ourselves, and trying to catch glimpses of God’s workings, from any quarter—throwing ourselves forward upon Him and waiting on Him, we sit at home bringing everything to ourselves, enthroning ourselves in our own views, and refusing to believe anything that does not force itself upon us as true.” (Newman, Essays Critical and Historical, Vol. 1, p. 33-34)

Doesn’t this remind us of contemporary academia? As teaching and knowledge become increasingly fragmented… as genuine academic discourse on our college campuses gives way to advocacy and power politics and the tyranny of political correctness… as both students and professors feed on opinions and advocacy rather than exploring truth in an objective manner… the intelligentsia of America increasingly is, as Newman describes it, enthroned in their own views and refusing to believe anything that does not force itself upon them as true.

It is a “crisis of truth” rooted in a “crisis of faith.” And by confronting this fundamental problem in Western academia, Pope Benedict on April 17 moved one step beyond the Church’s minimal expectations—which are still very much disputed in the United States—and toward an agenda for the complete renewal of Catholic education.

I have heard very good people express disappointment in the Holy Father’s April 17 address. They hoped for a scolding of the presidents of wayward Catholic colleges—a scolding that all of us here know is well-deserved, but which is not the style of Pope Benedict XVI. The complaints also note that not once, in Pope Benedict’s entire address, does he mention Ex corde Ecclesiae, although he certainly echoes and endorses its key themes.

I wondered at this myself, but upon reflection I see the genius in it. After weeks of media speculation that Pope Benedict might “bring down the hammer” on the college presidents, many of them arrived at The Catholic University of America braced for it, and probably ready to once again dispute the mandatum or the appropriate number of Catholic faculty or the virtues of dissent in Catholic theology courses.

For the Vatican, though, Ex corde Ecclesiae was the final word on those issues. It is still very much the law of the Church and ought to be implemented. But rather than engage impetuous American educators on minimal standards 18 years after Ex corde Ecclesiae was issued, Pope Benedict struck at the heart of secularization, and his words must have pierced the hearts of many of the college presidents whose own personal crises of truth and faith are too often reflected in their policies and public statements.

The “crisis of truth” is rooted in a “crisis of faith”—from this key insight, Pope Benedict develops a vision for Catholic education that I can only summarize briefly today. I encourage all of you to read the complete address, which is posted at the Cardinal Newman Society’s website at www.CardinalNewmanSociety.org. If you prefer, you can write or call and we’ll be happy to send a hard copy.

To put it simply, Pope Benedict argues that it is the special privilege and obligation of Catholic education to unite faith and reason, and to teach both observed truth and that which is revealed by God. But faith is not just understood, it is lived. Therefore the Holy Father insists that in addition to orthodoxy—and not instead of it, as some college presidents have tried to distort the Pope’s meaning—Catholic identity of schools and colleges “demands and inspires much more: namely that each and every aspect of your learning communities reverberates within the ecclesial life of faith. Only in faith can truth become incarnate and reason truly human, capable of directing the will along the path of freedom.”

Catholic academic institutions, therefore, are not focused only on the intellect, but bear responsibility for the spiritual development of their students, even and perhaps especially at the college level.

Again, Pope Benedict says:

“A particular responsibility therefore for each of you, and your colleagues, is to evoke among the young the desire for the act of faith, encouraging them to commit themselves to the ecclesial life that follows from this belief. It is here that freedom reaches the certainty of truth. In choosing to live by that truth, we embrace the fullness of the life of faith which is given to us in the Church.”

Faith, then, is both at the root of Catholic education and its product. A Catholic education that acknowledges the unity of faith and reason opens the student’s mind and heart to God. It invites an entirely different way of observing reality, full of hope in the promises of Christ.

Contrast this to the typical approach of many Catholic colleges today. They assert Catholic identity because they have historical ties to religious orders, they offer Catholic-oriented courses not often available elsewhere, they have a dedicated Catholic campus ministry, perhaps some Catholic artwork.

But what Pope Benedict requires is so much more: An intellectual journey into the life of faith. He says that “first and foremost” educators should provide students “a place to encounter the living God who in Jesus Christ reveals his transforming love and truth.”

So how does this get translated into practical change for Catholic colleges by leaders who share the Holy Father’s vision and courage? A few thoughts:

Moral relativism: Pope Benedict perceives that the “crisis of truth” is rooted in a “crisis of faith.” The solution to moral relativism in Catholic colleges begins with the conviction of faith, most importantly among Catholic theology professors.

For many colleges and universities, this calls for replacing many officials, faculty and staff with others who share Pope Benedict’s vision—starting from the top, and replacing tenured professors over the long term. It requires trustees who will support “hiring for mission” even when challenged by disgruntled professors and interfering secularists like the American Association of University Professors.

Publicly disclosing which faculty members have the mandatum—a formal recognition from the local bishop that a theologian intends to teach authentic Catholic doctrine—would help students choose genuine Catholic theology courses.

Disintegrated curriculum: Restoring rigorous core requirements that were once the hallmark of Catholic higher education would teach what Pope Benedict calls the “unity of truth.” In particular, Pope Benedict says that Catholic colleges “have the duty and privilege to ensure that students receive instruction in Catholic doctrine and practice”—which to my reading calls for Catholic theology courses for every student. The best Catholic colleges graduate students with an understanding of the Catholic intellectual tradition including theology, ethics and philosophy—and a healthy dose of the liberal arts.

Intellectual anarchy: Perhaps most important to the reform of American colleges, Pope Benedict calls on educators to reject limitless academic freedom—now sacrosanct within most of American academia—explaining that “any appeal to the principle of academic freedom in order to justify positions that contradict the faith and the teaching of the Church would obstruct or even betray the university’s identity and mission.”

This means insisting that professors limit their teaching and public advocacy to areas of their own expertise, without wading in to moral issues that are properly reserved to the theological disciplines. It also means that academic freedom does not justify a Catholic college or university endorsing or simply providing resources and facilities to advance views contrary to Catholic teaching—with clear implications for The Vagina Monologues and political rallies for pro-abortion politicians on Catholic campuses.

Moral decline on campus: Pope Benedict calls for fidelity to Catholic teaching “both inside and outside the classroom.” He also laments the common approach to sexuality that emphasizes “management of ‘risk,’ bereft of any reference to the beauty of conjugal love.” Catholic college officials can build a Christian campus culture by reclaiming responsibility for helping students’ spiritual and personal development and consistently encouraging chastity.

I have gone too long, and yet I have only begun to consider the implications of this important vision which Pope Benedict has presented to our Catholic college presidents and diocesan officials, with an implicit challenge to restore a commitment to faith and truth in Catholic education. As you read the full address, which I hope you will do, I welcome your correspondence and your own insights.

The renewal of Catholic education is an enormous challenge, but we can hope in the power of the Holy Spirit, and in the many signs of renewal that is already underway. For me, Pope Benedict’s address at The Catholic University of America was akin to raising Moses’ staff on the mountain while the battle rages below. We have a real struggle before us, but with the assurance of our Holy Father’s leadership and God’s grace.

And more than ever, we should pray for Cardinal Newman’s intercession. I will end with a final quote from Newman relevant to the project that Newman began 150 years ago and continues today:

“…[T]his is our hour, whatever be its duration, the hour for great hopes, great schemes, great efforts, great beginnings… to recommence the age of Universities.”

Catholic Education Daily is an online publication of The Cardinal Newman Society. Click here for email updates and free online membership with The Cardinal Newman Society.

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