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The Identity of a Catholic University

Interview With Notre Dame's Father John Coughlin

NEW YORK, JUNE 13, 2006 (Zenit) - Questions about the nature of Church-related universities resurfaced after a commencement speaker at a Catholic institution was booed when defending Church teaching on premarital sex and contraception.

For insight into the identity of Catholic colleges in general, we turned to Franciscan Father John Coughlin, a law professor at the University of Notre Dame.

He shared with us the essential characteristics of a Catholic university as laid out in canon law and the 1990 apostolic constitution "Ex Corde Ecclesia," and the need for a commitment to the priority of Catholic truth over all other claims.

Q: What does it mean that a university is Catholic? What are the ways Catholic identity should manifest itself on a practical level?

Father Coughlin: A Catholic university is a community of scholars and students who are united by the love for truth and the desire to integrate faith and reason. The university is not simply a collection of individuals but a community grounded in Catholic faith.

From an academic perspective, a Catholic university requires a critical mass of committed Catholic scholars who are dedicated to the search for truth. It should be a place of lively and open intellectual discussion, and the discussion ought to be guided by the rules for rigorous intellectual investigation.

It engages the wider culture but always in accord with the truth of Catholic faith. It should not in any way be closed in on itself but should participate in a dialogue with the wider culture.

In particular, it contributes to the dialogue by explaining the great wisdom of the Church's tradition about the value of human life and the need for social justice.

From a liturgical perspective, it also offers ample opportunities for its faculty, staff and students to nourish their spiritual lives through the celebration of the sacraments.

From the perspective of Church's social justice teaching, the Catholic university not only sponsors academic discussion and research but should also afford opportunities for practical implementation of Gospel-centered service, truth and love.

From the perspective of canon law, a Catholic university must exhibit at least seven essential characteristics.

First, according to Canon 807, the Catholic university "promotes the deeper culture and full development of the human person in accord with the Church's teaching office."

Second, the majority of the faculty members consist of practicing Catholics, as explained in "Ex Corde Ecclesiae."

Third, Canon 810 states that the president and other officers of a Catholic university have the responsibility to ensure that faculty members are appointed who are "outstanding in their integrity of doctrine and uprightness of life."

Fourth, the president of the Catholic university must make the profession of faith at the start of his or her term of office, according to Canon 833.

Fifth, the bishops' conference and the diocesan bishop have the duty and right of ensuring that the principles of Catholic doctrine are faithfully observed.

Sixth, in line with Canon 812, theology teachers in a Catholic university must have a mandate from the local ordinary.

Finally, the use of the title "Catholic" is only with the consent of the competent ecclesiastical authority, as outlined in Canon 808.

Q: A recent Wall Street Journal article described the growing trend within Christian universities to "hire according to mission," generally meaning that schools will focus on hiring faculty within their faith tradition. What are the benefits and shortcomings of such a method?

Father Coughlin: As mentioned above, "Ex Corde Ecclesiae" requires that at least a simple majority of the members of a Catholic university be practicing Catholics. This juridic requirement reflects the understanding of a Catholic university as a community of persons who are committed to Catholic faith.

Catholic belief is necessarily normative within the Catholic intellectual community. Catholicism is not just another "good idea" sometimes at issue and to be batted around in the ongoing intellectual debate at the Catholic university.

Without the recognition of the primacy of Catholic truth claims, the university's own internal dialogue will fail to ensure integration of faith and reason; and in its dialogue with wider culture, the Catholic university will be a weak partner with little of its own to offer.

The phrase "hiring in accord with mission" means that there can be no fruitful internal or external dialogue unless the majority of the faculty members are committed Catholics and that others on the faculty at least show a genuine respect for the integration of faith and reason.

Q: Is there a downside to hiring according to mission? For instance, a professor at an evangelical Protestant school, Wheaton College, was recently dismissed because he converted to Catholicism.

Father Coughlin: The Catholic tradition respects individual conscience, and not every individual who is a member of a Catholic university community needs to embrace Catholic faith.

However, all members of a Catholic university community are asked to respect faith and the truth claims that flow from it. Truth claims based upon faith and safeguarded by proper authorities remain integral aspects of the Catholic approach to reason.

On an institutional level, the proper authority must express the university's commitment to the priority of Catholic truth over all other claims. Although they teach in diverse disciplines each of which enjoys its own methodology, Catholic faculty members approach reason in a way that enables its integration with faith.

Catholic thinkers as diverse as Augustine and Thomas Aquinas have recognized the need for intellectual humility in light of sacred Scripture, Tradition and the magisterium of the Church.

The Catholic approach to reason stands in contrast to the hermeneutic of suspicion and skepticism, which seems to be all too characteristic of contemporary academic culture.

Such a rationalist approach labors under the burden of an Enlightenment myth in which rational inquiry is thought to exist independent of viewpoint, tradition and community. To say the least, this myth has long been exposed by scientists, philosophers, cultural anthropologists and theologians alike.

The rationalist approach is incompatible with Catholic faith. It demands a divorce between faith and reason. In this sense, the problem is not whether or not one is a Catholic person, but rather whether one demands adherence to the rationalist approach to reason.

In a large Catholic university, it would not be helpful to exclude non-Catholics from the faculty. Such persons offer diverse points of view. The students need to be exposed to a wide variety of beliefs, values and cultures.

However, the integration between faith and reason ought to remain always a primary goal of all the intellectual discussion at a Catholic university.

Q: How might non-Catholic faculty members contribute to the mission of a Catholic university?

Father Coughlin: As mentioned, non-Catholic members of a Catholic university play a vital role.

First of all, the mission of a Catholic university often involves both religious and secular aspects. I do not intend this word secular with any negative connotation. Many of the disciplines at a Catholic university are secular in nature.

For example, I teach in a law school, and law is primarily a secular occupation. Secular fields of study enjoy a rightful autonomy from religious claims. At a Catholic university, it is probable that most of the faculty, Catholic and non-Catholic, will teach in a field other than theology.

Moreover, the non-Catholic members of the faculty each bring their own perspective that enriches the Catholic university's internal dialogue. Although a non-Catholic faculty member does not adhere to Catholic faith, this person may nonetheless be fully committed to a search for truth which is at the core of a Catholic university's academic life.

Q: How does "Ex Corde Ecclesiae" address this issue? Is "Ex Corde" analogous to a statement of faith that may be found at many Protestant colleges?

Father Coughlin: "Ex Corde Ecclesiae" is an apostolic constitution issued by Pope John Paul II in 1990. It contains a strong affirmation of the value of Catholic universities in the life of the Church and in proposing Gospel values in a dialogue with contemporary culture.

As explained above, this task involves many different perspectives, including those of non-Catholic faculty and students. "Ex Corde" recognizes the validity of a certain pluralism within the Catholic university. It is not a document intended to create an academic community closed-in on itself.

Rather, while accepting the pluralism necessary to academic freedom, "Ex Corde" fosters the life of the Catholic scholarly community at the center of the Catholic university.

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