Two weeks ago, our Editor-in-Chief, Sarah Ortiz, wrote her editorial about how the university’s recent decision to provide contraception in its insurance policy infringed upon its stated goal of seeking out and defending truth. This issue, I would like to dive into the purpose behind such a goal and offer a reminder of the noble end of a liberal arts education.
I think it is a fairly uncontroversial claim that the purpose of the university is to seek to understand and teach “truth” to its students. However, what an institution means by truth varies between schools, departments, and even professors. There are scientific truths, the empirical facts through which we can understand how physical phenomena occur and manipulate them for our own health and benefit. There are pragmatic truths, the understanding of how to live, work, and operate in our economic society. There are interpersonal truths, uncovering the methods by which societal ills are promulgated and how they can be healed. And then, of course, there are the liberal truths.
I use liberal here not in its political connotation, but in its academic one. The liberal arts are a section of human inquiry dedicated to the cultivation of human knowledge, freedom, and culture in its philosophic sense. What is truth? Beauty? Liberty? The answers to these questions constitute “truth” in a different sense than the other pursuits; it is less a compilation of facts and more a grasping of first principles, the foundation by which we answer the question “Why?” instead of “How?”
In light of this fundamentally different perspective between the sciences and the liberal arts, many universities, Notre Dame included, find it necessary that all students receive, at the very least, a basic liberal education in literature, philosophy, history, theology, etc.
But why should all students receive a liberal education? There are many potential answers: some believe that it forms better citizens; others, that it preserves culture; others, that philosophical knowledge is the highest form of knowledge (I’m looking at you, Platonists and Aristoteleans!). Each of these potential answers are interesting, and could be (and are) the focus of any number of editorials. However, I am not going to address any of them today.
Why not? Because, while these answers might inform us about the purpose of liberal arts universities in general, they fail to inform us about Notre Dame in particular. This is for the simple reason that Notre Dame prides itself not on being a liberal arts institution, but a specifically Catholic liberal arts institution.
Blessed John Cardinal Newman, a man who quite literally wrote the book on liberal education, wrote that, “Knowledge is one thing, virtue is another … Liberal Education makes not the Christian, not the Catholic, but the gentleman.”
In other words, a liberal arts education is not, of itself, enough to constitute a Catholic education. Rather, a Catholic education requires of itself an additional duty separate from mere liberal education.
The late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia articulates the character of this additional duty in his acceptance speech for the Catholic University of America’s James Cardinal Gibbons Medal in 1994. “Part of the task of the Catholic university,” Scalia states, “ … must be precisely moral formation.”
According to Scalia, this task of moral formation places two strains on the Catholic university: on the one hand, if the university upholds this duty, they will undoubtedly lose faculty members and prospective students. On the other hand, if the university shirks this responsibility, they “betray the expectations of tuition-paying Catholic parents.”
Further, Scalia held that the duty of a Catholic university to form the morality of her students was so vital to the Catholic identity of the university that to shirk such a duty meant losing its Catholic identity.
Such a high importance placed on moral formation in Catholic education makes little sense unless one understands the end. To understand this end, we turn to a story recounted by Scalia during a 1999 commencement address, again at Catholic University of America:
“A friend of mine once told me of his experience in returning to a boys’ boarding school in England … Most of his teachers were gone, but one elderly brother was still there, the headmaster of the place … he asked the brother how the school was fairing today. ‘Oh, I think we are preparing our boys quite well,’ he said. ‘And what are you preparing them for?’ my friend asked … he was surprised by a question that had such an obvious answer. ‘Why,’ he said, ‘for death.’”
This conception of Catholic education as preparation for death is not merely a notion shared by Scalia, his friend, and this particular headmaster. It is, in fact, a notion deeply embedded in the foundational thought of Notre Dame.
Blessed Basil Moreau, founder of the Congregation of Holy Cross which created and oversees Notre Dame, wrote, “We shall always place education side by side with instruction; the mind will not be cultivated at the expense of the heart. While we prepare useful citizens for society, we shall likewise do our utmost to prepare citizens for heaven.”
Perhaps this notion, the preparation of citizens for heaven, is more palatable language than preparation for death. Nevertheless, the two ideas are the same, and both point to the same conclusion: the moral formation of a Catholic institution is vital because it is connected with the salvation of souls. Therefore, to shirk the responsibility of moral formation is tantamount to ignoring the Church’s ministry to protect the souls of her flock.
I would like to end with one final thought regarding the importance of moral formation in Catholic education, one which relies on a word used all too frequently and often incorrectly: conscience.
In his February 7 letter, Fr. Jenkins referenced that “among the values in our Catholic tradition is a respect for other religious traditions and the conscientious decisions of members of our community.”
This is true; in fact, the Catechism of the Catholic Church states that, “Man has the right to act in conscience and in freedom so as personally to make moral decisions. ‘He must not be forced to act contrary to his conscience. Nor must he be prevented from acting according to his conscience, especially in religious matters.’”
However, the Catechism also states that, “Conscience must be informed and moral judgment enlightened … The education of conscience is indispensable for human beings who are subjected to negative influences and tempted by sin to prefer their own judgment and to reject authoritative teachings.”
In other words, though the Catholic Church affirms one’s freedom to make decisions contrary to Catholic moral tradition, she also affirms the need to inform and enlighten individual consciences—moral formation. Notre Dame must not continue to ignore or shirk this responsibility; to do so is to abrogate her dedication to her students and to neglect our preparation as citizens of heaven once so central to her heart and mission.
Evan Holguin is a senior in the Program of Liberal Studies. You may contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.