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A Catholic Vision Of The World



I returned to campus in early February in the midst of often animated debates about the core curriculum review.  I would like to contribute to the discussion by focusing on the essence of Catholic higher education as being directed to wisdom.

Father Theodore Hesburgh, CSC, in his first faculty address as president in 1952, wrote the following: “To know wisely, is to know all that one knows in proper order and perspective.  To be educated in this wisdom is to know how and why to love God.  We who presume to educate young men could not aspire to less than this sort of wisdom ourselves.  And who is better prepared to educate others than he who himself possesses the riches of Christian wisdom?  The whole wide world is his to impart, and God is at the very heart of this world, to be known and loved.”  I would hope that his words might be heard again today, especially as the landscape of higher education has moved away from a sapiential perspective.

Universities have become centers of the prodigious production of knowledge.  Researchers in specific fields produce new knowledge, the fruit of the 19th-century German model of university mission living out Wilhelm von Humboldt’s doctrine of the best intellects freely pursuing their research “wherever it leads.”  The breadth of subjects, each with its own depth, results in specialization and fragmentation of knowledge pursued and generated by undergraduate, graduate, and professional communities whose end goal is primarily research, graduate/professional training, and the social applicability of such new knowledge.

Universities have become Clark Kerr’s multiversities, which lack a central animating principle or vision of the human person.  The faculty and students at such places seem best identified as homo sciens, the knowing human, but this is ultimately a depauperate anthropology because the knowledge gained in each distinct field is only a partial view of reality.  The vision of homo sciens distorts reality to the extent that it is based on a partial view rather than a view from the perspective of the whole, which is the domain of theology, as John Henry Newman argues in The Idea of a University.  What is lacking in multiversities is a unity and universality of knowledge which comes from theology.  The subject of a university for Newman is not the knowing human but the wise human, homo sapiens.  For example, political economy, or the science of wealth, gives knowledge of how to gain and dispose of money, but if isolated from theology and revealed truth, this science is bound to lead to “unchristian conclusions.”  Political economy in itself is subordinate to ultimate considerations and revealed truths about the human person and communal relationships, for example the sin of covetousness, true happiness, and the universal destination of goods.  Theology at a university reveals the “sapiential vocation of intelligence.”

Notre Dame, as a Catholic university, should have the goal of forming men and women in wisdom and not just in knowledge.  From a scholastic perspective, science (scientia) is knowledge of causes such that science (in the modern sense), philosophy, and theology are all sciences or ways of knowing.  Wisdom is the knowledge gained by the highest cause or principle of the particular order in which one operates.  Thomas Aquinas calls that architect wise who knows the principles and causes of building. The contemporary scientist can be considered wise who knows the natural causes which explain the phenomena of that particular field of study, but the scientist qua scientist lacks a higher or proper wisdom because of this partial perspective of reality.  Philosophy, the love of wisdom, is more properly wisdom because it is the scientia of all things considered from the perspective of the highest cause of the entire universe, God, as can be understood through the light of reason.  Saint Thomas defines wisdom succinctly as “knowledge of divine things.”  The highest wisdom comes from reason enlightened by faith and grace.  Theological wisdom is a discursive knowledge of God and the world as revealed by God and received in faith.

Theological wisdom requires faith, and thus the foundation for Catholic university education rests upon the pursuit of truth as discovered by both faith and reason.  “In promoting this integration of knowledge, a specific part of a Catholic University’s task,” as identified by Pope Saint John Paul II in Ex Corde Ecclesiae, “is to promote dialogue between faith and reason, so that it can be seen more profoundly how faith and reason bear harmonious witness to the unity of all truth.”  Not only does a Catholic university seek to integrate faith and reason in the one human person, but it seeks to educate the entire human person as a spiritual being.  Blessed Basil Moreau, CSC, understood this holistic education to be of both mind and heart.  He was aware of the connection, disbanded by Enlightenment anthropology, between the intellectual ability to understand reality and one’s moral character.  Catholic teachers do not merely slake human thirst for knowledge but seek to enflame hearts with divine love and wisdom.

Wisdom is not merely an isolated intellectual property but calls forth a response from the person to worship and to act in the world.  At the beginning of the academic year, the Notre Dame community celebrates a Votive Mass of the Holy Spirit asking that the Spirit make us “truly wise.”  A Catholic vision of the education of the human person, created in the image of God, recognizes that education is not only found in the classroom but is also liturgical and ascetical.  Saint Bernard teaches that “the Spirit teaches not by sharpening curiosity but by inspiring charity.”  The student is awarded by the Holy Spirit “with the choice repast of knowledge and the seasoning of grace.”

Notre Dame seeks to integrate mind and heart, intellect and moral character through formal coursework, residential life, and liturgical life.  All should contribute to an understanding of the human person, nature/creation, and God.  Who are we?  How do we understand the world?  Who is God?  Philosophical and theological wisdom provide the highest answers to these questions.  Father Hesburgh, however, wrote over 60 years ago of the need for wisdom at the university which embraces a unified, Catholic vision of the human person as created by and ordered to God:

“[The] prime challenge is the need for wisdom … the age-old Christian wisdom that understands the whole pattern of creation and man’s place in this pattern.  Our work is the perfecting of human beings, drawing out and developing all the human potentialities of our students.  Certainly this requires of us as educators some clear concept of what is good for men, for his body and for his soul, for his mind and his will, for only what is good for man will perfect man and assure him of the good life.”

This challenge at Notre Dame is even more acute today.  As the Catholic composition of the undergraduate student body and of the faculty is the lowest in a century, as the lure of secular approval (which disregards theology) intensifies, as the utilitarian pull for universities to produce people who know and do (without necessarily being wise), the need to maintain and strengthen the core curriculum of philosophy and theology becomes more urgent.

I suggest that these three areas—human person, nature/creation, God—be the focus of the core curriculum in philosophy and theology.  I hold that Notre Dame’s core curriculum should maintain at least two courses in both philosophy and theology with the possible addition of a third for each.  These courses of each discipline would present an integrated coherent vision of the human person and one’s growth in wisdom and knowledge.  A possible scheme might be as follows: Philosophy: Option 1, philosophical anthropology, ethics, and metaphysics; or Option 2, ancient philosophy, medieval philosophy, and modern philosophy; Theology:  Foundations of Theology (Scripture and Tradition), Dogmatic theology (Catholicism: Teachings and Practice), and Moral Theology (or perhaps an integrative course).

Though I am a firm believer and thinker that every department of a Catholic university should be in conversation with theology and a Catholic vision of the world, this should not be at the expense of reducing the core requirement of theology proper.  I think a third theology course could be one in which the student engages one’s own particular area of study with a theological perspective.

The Congregation of Holy Cross proclaims an education of the whole person in which God is known, loved, and served.  Saint Bonaventure expresses this truth but more explicitly in the context of a university, the Church, and the Trinity:

“And this is the fruit of all sciences, that in all, faith may be strengthened, God may be honored, character may be formed, and consolation may be derived from union of the Spouse with the beloved, a union which takes place through charity: a charity in which the whole purpose of sacred Scripture, and thus of every illumination descending from above, comes to rest—a charity without which all knowledge is vain because no one comes to the Son except through the Holy Spirit who teaches us all truth, who is blessed forever. Amen.”

Fr. Terry Ehrman was a visiting professor in Notre Dame’s theology department from 2012-14 and is now a visiting scholar at the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology in Berkeley, California.  

 

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