Pope to Catholic Academia: Be Both

There are three possible approaches to Catholic higher education. One is to retreat from the world, and be “just Catholic.” Another is to retreat from the Church and be “just a university.” The third is the hardest:  to fully engage the world with the fullness of the faith.

Student-centered: Pope Francis at World Youth Day.

Student-centered: Pope Francis at World Youth Day. wiki

Pope Francis spoke to visitors from Notre Dame today, and gave a ringing endorsement to that “third way.”

It is not necessarily obvious that this third option is the best one, by the way.

He’s not talking about academia, but Ross Douthat sees much to recommend in the “retreat from the world” strategy that he calls the “Benedict option” (referencing both the saint and the pope) in his  book Bad Religion. Home schoolers are doing it, and accomplishing great things.

And it is a constant question whether the “third way” is even possible. Is great science at a religious school fated to be science with an asterisk? Will academics ever respect research from a school with a religious mission?

Evangelical Protestant Christians are energetically answering that Yes,  the“engagement” model is possible — with Wheaton and Baylor and others. Are Catholic colleges doing the same?

Pope Francis thinks we should be.

He cited 132-134 in Evangelii Gaudium in his remarks to Notre Dame. That’s the place in the document where he listed the cultures we need to reach out to, and mentioned a few close to home.

“Proclaiming the Gospel message to different cultures also involves proclaiming it to professional, scientific and academic circles. This means an encounter between faith, reason and the sciences with a view to developing new approaches and arguments on the issue of credibility, a creative apologetics which would encourage greater openness to the Gospel on the part of all.”

A Catholic college should have a great business school — but that business school should be fully Catholic. A Catholic college should teach great science — but not bracket off the faith as it does so.

Not only do they need to be both thoroughly Catholic and thoroughly academic, he says, this fusion should bring about a new apologetics. A Catholic science department should be so well respected in academia and so respectful of the Church that its success makes academia more open to the Gospel.

That’s not easy to do. But a failure to do it is a failure to be a Catholic college.

Pope Francis also told Notre Dame that, throughout the university, Catholic identity can’t be reduced to a service project or to campus ministry either.

Catholic identity has to include “the uncompromising witness of Catholic universities to the Church’s moral teaching, and the defense of her freedom, precisely in and through her institutions, to uphold that teaching as authoritatively proclaimed by the magisterium of her pastors.”

But that, believe it or not, is the easy part. Building a Catholic college that witnesses to the Church’s magisterium is a no-brainer, really. As Benedictine College’s president always puts it, that’s just truth in advertising.

The hard part is fully engaging the world of academia with the faith. That takes courage and charity: The courage to witness to the faith (and suffer for it) and the charity to fully engage theuestions and concerns of academia.

But when Catholics pull it off, the payoff will be extraordinary for the Church. Every important renewal of the Catholic faith has been accompanied by a renewal of the faith in higher education. Renew the universities, and you will renew the culture. Lose the universities, and lose everything.

Twitter @TomHoopes


Categories:Education Pope Francis Theology

  • sacerdos

    In practice, I cannot think of any real examples of “retreat from the world” as the article poses. Even homeschooling is hardly a “retreat” from the world in any of the homeschooling families that I have encountered. Is it a “retreat” from the world to recognize that Mom and Dad are better equipped to teach than the average public school teacher? Is it a “retreat” from the world to recognize that the public school curriculum is deficient and sometimes harmful? It seems to me that homeschooling families are, on the average, better equipped for “fully engaging the world” than most other families.
    It also seems to me that a “retreat,” in the military sense, is only a temporary maneuver, which is sometimes necessary in order to launch a successful “attack”, to engage the world and to conquer it.

  • Leslie Glaza

    I have been to Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio, which I believe is striving to fulfill Pope Francis’ requirement. Our daughter graduated from Aquinas College in Grand rapids, Michigan, (with an already shaky faith), and has totally lost her Catholic beliefs. There were no invitations to remain Catholic, and even some questionable classes (she even embraced Communism for some time). She is now attending Calvin College, receiving all of those incentives, and exploring Calvinism with true ardor. This breaks our hearts! Is there a way to send this letter of Francis to Aquinas College? Thank you.

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  • MorganB

    I anticipate, from this article, that a number of Catholic Colleges in the US, beyond Notre Dame, have ignored or quietly bypassed the church’s magisterium. I always felt that to hold the line on dogma a student was unable to “spread his wings”, especially, in science. If one takes a stance he/she is Pro-something. History reveals a telling story of scientists, like Galileo who was put under house arrest having been suspected of heresy by Pope Paul V.

    The one problem with Catholic Colleges is that one cannot be a free thinker. So much for higher education.

    • Bill

      Morgan I disagree with you. What Catholic colleges are being asked to do, is explain is not only the secular viewpoint, but to explain catholic teaching as well. One can not be a free thinker if all points of argument are not presented. For instance, on sexuality: Why is it valuable to the person and society to remain chaste until marriage? Catholic teaching has much to say about sexuality and it should not be ignored at a Catholic school. Same for abortion, marriage, adoption, NPF, contraception, just to name a few.

    • wheaton4prez


      The Catholic Church embraces science and free will is a central and re-occurring theme in Catholic doctrine.

      Your comment doesn’t seem to be rooted in the facts.

  • Mary Lou Hayes

    I agree with the above articles and the Pope, no asterisks thank you. Take a chance, it wll be respected.

  • Jack

    Maybe the Pope can talk to Georgetown University about its dismal record of preserving any semblance of Catholic identity. Not too long ago, Georgetown held a “Coming Out Day” celebration by placing a makeshift closet on the quad and inviting students to be open about their homosexuality.

    For the record, here’s the video:



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