19th-century saint’s observations provide hope, counsel

Archbishop Anthony Fisher, O.P., of the Archdiocese of Sydney, Australia, visited Notre Dame from Thursday, October 27 to Friday, October 28. Archbishop Fisher celebrated the 11:30am Mass in the Basilica of the Sacred Heart on Thursday and delivered a lecture titled “Newman and the Religion of the Future and the Future of the Academy” that afternoon at Notre Dame Law School.

Fisher is the ninth archbishop of Sydney, having previously served as Bishop of Parramatta and auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Sydney. Since his appointment to the episcopacy, Archbishop Fisher has also served the universal Church in Rome at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and he presently serves in the Dicastery for the Oriental Churches and the Pontifical Academy for Life.

Archbishop Fisher’s lecture offered a hopeful estimation of the role of Catholic higher education in culture for the generations to come. Drawing from St. John Henry Newman’s Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, The Idea of a University, Oxford Sermons, and more, the archbishop proposed seven roles of the Catholic university in our age: 

1) To provide a sympathetic environment where religious matters can be explored, 2) to witness to the continuing relevance of Christian faith in people’s lives, 3) to enable the healthy development of doctrine and to test putative developments for their fidelity to revelation, 4) to be centers for forming and expressing lay leadership, 5) to form sound Christian consciences, 6) “humbly and intelligently to critique truncated views of reason in liberal thought and of religion in lukewarm Christianity”, and 7) to provide to the world the wisdom of Christ crucified and risen.

These parts of the mission of the Catholic university today both arise from and are opposed by secular trends, Fisher shared. Public discourse is increasingly anti-religious; the disciplines in the university are becoming highly specialized, having lost a sense of liberal education; “staff [are] more comfortable with the secular gods of diversity, equity, and inclusion than with the much richer Catholic intellectual tradition”; and cultivation of only one precept of the good—justice, for example—leads to the decline of all others, and, in the end, to the total eclipse of the good.

The archbishop told the Rover in an interview, “I think Catholic universities have been a bit cautious about talking about [virtue] because that starts to sound like we’re engaging in propaganda or brainwashing, or we’re trying to turn the non-Catholics into Catholics.” When asked how young Catholics should attempt to communicate with their peers who have not been formed in the Catholic tradition, the archbishop offered encouragement:

“We want them to be themselves. We want them to be their best selves, and their best selves mean that they are courageous and loving and just and all the rest of the virtues. So, I don’t think we should be pulling back from that.” He added, “When we say, what we’re offering you is eternity and beauty beyond your imagining, and a truth that will actually make so much more of you and expand your mind and your heart when we’re offering some big and beautiful things, that will be satisfying in a way that these other things are not satisfying.”

In his lecture, Fisher argued that Newman’s observation of secularization and his resistance to “the spirit of liberalism in religion” was prescient and provides means for us to counter the decay of our institutions today. In response to the modern push to de-Christianize institutions and to establish doctrines of diversity, equity, and inclusion, intelligent Catholics must recover the conviction that the mind is below truth; education is about personal formation in the search for the truth, not self-confident pronouncement of secular liberal dogmas. 

On the topic of personal formation for young people, the archbishop told the Rover that, although he found it “comical” when asked several times whether he was visiting the university for a football game, sport is a rich opportunity to teach virtue: “It absolutely teaches you about courage. It teaches you about working for the team and not just working for yourself.” He continued, “It could be that some of the things that university does, whether self-consciously or unconsciously, are in fact projects in virtue development. And maybe we just need to be a bit more intentional about some of that.”

Archbishop Fisher ended the lecture with reflections on the Catholic missionary impulse and on hope. Speaking about present troubles in the Church, he said, “pruning is not the end of the ecclesial vine: it’s often the prelude to an extraordinary harvest.”

Joshua Gilchrist is a senior from Keenan Hall who now lives off campus. You can find him on the fourth floor of Geddes Hall trying to narrow his senior thesis topic. Send him cocktail recipes or theological conundrums at jgilchri@nd.edu.

Photo credit: Archbishop Fisher’s YouTube Channel