The Identity of Catholic Universities
Throughout the history of the Church, including today amidst persecution in the Middle East, we have had those inspiring witnesses who stand fast in the faith and resolutely proclaim, “I am Christian,” even knowing that they will be condemned. It is no less important for the institutions of the Church such as universities and social ministries, as it is for individuals, to offer this testimony of their Catholic identity.
In particular, Catholic institutions of higher learning play a special role in the Church and in the wider society. Growing out of the heart of the Church, a Catholic university exists to provide not only an academically excellent education, but also a structured context where students can encounter and experience the transcendent truth and love of Jesus Christ.
Jesus came to tell us of a truly good, wholesome and right way to live. He taught us that we are made in the image and likeness of God, that there is a God-given plan to human living and that we are all responsible for each other and responsive to God’s law. The Catholic university provides a unique forum where this Good News can be explored, more deeply understood and lived. If the moral climate and ethical texture of a Catholic university is no different than any secular institution of higher education, it loses its claim to distinctiveness and the label “Catholic” becomes simply a reference to an earlier era.
Faith in God’s word – and an identity rooted in that word – lead Catholics to a distinct appraisal of the meaning, value and orientation of life and therefore how they should live. And they will necessarily look at things like human sexuality, human dignity and marriage in a very different way than people who do not share the same faith and reading of creation and human nature. A Catholic university brings to the discussion a vision rooted in the Gospel that necessarily challenges other ways of life.
“The wider community benefits from the presence of authentically Catholic institutions and faithful Catholic disciples because the richness of Catholic teaching can engage the secular culture in a way that the light of the wisdom of God is brought to bear on the issues of the day” (Being Catholic Today: Catholic Identity Today in an Age of Challenge, 14). Conversely, students, faculty, and the community at large are all impoverished, not enriched, when the institution’s Catholic identity is diluted or called into question by seemingly approving of ideas that are contrary to moral truth.
For example, the Second Vatican Council, charged with renewing the life of the Church in our time, noted in its pastoral document on engaging with the modern world that whatever is opposed to life itself, such as abortion or suicide, or otherwise insults human dignity is an infamy that poisons human society (Gaudium et Spes, 27). Thus, it is neither authentically Catholic nor within the Catholic tradition for a university to provide a special platform to those voices that promote or support such counter values.
In our present culture, we have seen an antagonism against Catholic teaching. It is precisely in these times that Catholic institutions of higher learning are called to continual self-examination to ensure an authentic Catholic identity.