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Cardinal Burke: Catholic Universities Must Be Catholic to be 'Worthy of the Name'

By Deacon Keith Fournier
December 17th, 2010
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

'How tragic that the very secularism which the Catholic university should be helping its students to battle and overcome has entered into several Catholic universities, leading to the grievous compromise of their high mission.'

CHESAPEAKE, VA. (Catholic Online) -  On my 56th birthday, in Boston, Massachusetts, my birthplace, one of the most heroic Catholic leaders in the world, Cardinal Raymond Burke, spoke on one of the most important topics of the hour, the Catholic University. In his characteristically refreshing manner, he did not mince words. He spoke to those gathered for the President's Council dinner of the Thomas More College. I have a special affection for this little New Hampshire College.Years ago they awarded me their "Patron of Catholic Higher Learning". The Cardinal said:

"In a society which is marked by a virulent secularism which threatens the integrity of every aspect of human endeavor and service, for example, medicine, law, government and higher education itself, the service of the Catholic university is more needed than ever. How tragic that the very secularism which the Catholic university should be helping its students to battle and overcome has entered into several Catholic universities, leading to the grievous compromise of their high mission."

The Cardinal praised the Thomas More College of Liberal Arts for helping students resist what he called a "secularist dictatorship." So do I. I thank God for their important missionary work and the work of a growing number of new and renewed Catholic Colleges and Universities. The future of the Church and the world depends upon their fidelity, courage and mission.

The Cardinal explained that "A Catholic college or university at which Jesus Christ alive in His Church is not taught, encountered in the Sacred Liturgy and its extension through prayer and devotion, and followed in a life of virtue is not worthy of the name." To which I add my heartfelt "Amen!"

The challenges faced by Catholic Universities is one more instance of the broader contextual challenge the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council called a "separation between faith and life." This separation was addressed in their document on the Mission of the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes) There is a disconnect between the faith many Catholics profess and the way they live their daily lives. This separation is very clear in Catholic higher education.

Building Catholic identity in our Universities entails the building of a Catholic culture within an academic community which understands its fundamental ecclesial nature. Catholic Identity in an institution, just as in persons, begins from the inside and works its way throughout like leaven or yeast. Catholic identity must be the beating heart of a Catholic school, providing the infrastructure for the entire educational mission.

This is the first obligation of a Catholic College or University President. He or she must understand, believe, live and seek to integrate the Catholic faith in a way that enables them to impart it to others, through both word and witness. They are first a disciple, a lifelong learner, one who is following the Teacher, Jesus Christ, within His Body, the Church.

In 1997, the Congregation for Catholic Education summarized this mission in its seminal document entitled "The Catholic School on the Threshold of the Third Millennium". They addressed the ecclesial identity of the Catholic School and how the integration of faith, culture and life should characterize its ethos.

"It is from its Catholic identity that the school derives its original characteristics and its "structure" as a genuine instrument of the Church, a place of real and specific pastoral ministry. The Catholic school participates in the evangelizing mission of the Church and is the privileged environment in which Christian education is carried out."

In 1990 the Venerable John Paul II, released his apostolic letter entitled "Ex Corde Ecclesia" (At the Heart of the Church) affirming the Catholic educational mission in the mission of Catholic Colleges and Universities.

The Catholic University is not simply a private College with a church affiliation. It is a Catholic University. In his masterful letter to the Romans, the Apostle Paul calls all Christians to a "renewal of their minds". (Romans 12:2) This renewal of the mind is the essence of Catholic education. It affirms that there is a constitutive connection between truth, freedom, education and the ability to form an authentically human and just culture.

We need truly educated Catholic men and women, with renewed minds and transformed lives, who can take their place in service to furthering the work of the Church in every segment of human culture. Christianity is the new and true humanism which is needed in this urgent hour.

The Purpose of a Catholic University is to teach, form and prepare students in Christ, through Christ, and with Christ, who has been raised and continues His redemptive mission through His Body, the Church. It is that Church which is vested with His authority to teach. In the words of the great Western Bishop Augustine: 

"Let us rejoice then and give thanks that we have become not only Christians, but Christ himself. Do you understand and grasp, brethren, God's grace toward us? Marvel and rejoice: we have become Christ. For if he is the head, we are the members; he and we together are the whole man. . . . The fullness of Christ then is the head and the members. But what does "head and members" mean? Christ and the Church."

Catholic Universities are an extension of the teaching work of the Catholic Church. This living Christ still teaches, and directs His Church. Through that Church he continues to influence all of human culture. The faithful of the Church are called to inculcate and live the truth as articulated under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit by the teaching office of the Church. At the forefront of the mission of the Catholic University is this education of the next generation of Catholic men and women. It is Christ the Teacher who teaches His Children in the Catholic University.

The Venerable John Paul II said to educators in 1979 "Catholic education is above all a question of communicating Christ, of helping to form Christ in the lives of others." In short, forming students with a Catholic world view is not a "part" of the curriculum; it is the heart of the curriculum. Faith is not simply taught in religion or theology class. Catholic identity provides the hermeneutic, the lens, through which the entire educational mission is viewed. It should also structure the framework for all curriculum development.

The Catholic educational mission is to inform and educate the whole student, who is an integrated human person, in the teaching, "the mind" of the Catholic Church, thus preparing men and women with a profoundly Catholic anthropology which permeates the meaning of human life. In the words of the Congregation for Catholic education:

"The Catholic school is committed thus to the development of the whole man, since in Christ, the Perfect Man, all human values find their fulfillment and unity. Herein lies the specifically Catholic character of the school. Its duty to cultivate human values in their own legitimate right in accordance with its particular mission to serve all men has its origin in the figure of Christ. He is the One Who ennobles man, gives meaning to human life, and is the Model which the Catholic school offers to its pupils."

Catholic education exists to put students in touch with the source of all Truth and Beauty, who is the Living Trinitarian God, revealed in Jesus Christ. For example, instruction in the sciences, though certainly pursuing and utilizing all available methods for scientific inquiry, should present that science is to be at the service of truth, the dignity of the human person from conception until natural death, marriage and the family and the common good. Math should be presented as a language with which we are enabled to plumb the depth and beauty of God's creation.

Building Catholic Universities for the Third Christian Millennium requires a clear vision, mission and leadership. The President of a Catholic University must be able to articulate this mission and vision in a way that inspires the entire academic community to join together in a singular educational missionary purpose. Students at Catholic Universities deserve a fully Catholic Education.

We need a new generation of Catholics who understand the implications of their faith on the entirety of their lives and are motivated by their faith to take their place within every segment of society in order to build a better future. These kinds of men and women do not appear on the scene through happenstance; they must be properly educated and then enlisted in the mission of the Church.

This is the mission of the Catholic University. I am currently working on a PhD dissertation in Moral Theology for the Catholic university of America, a wonderful school which has taken Catholic identity to heart. I hope to someday help a Catholic College or University respond to the challenge proclaimed by Cardinal Burke on my birthday in my hometown; to be fully, unapologetically and happily Catholic. To me, there is no more important work. 

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