One of the most impressive men I have known during my years as a college teacher is for me, the best example of what an education in a Catholic university should achieve. Let me call this young man "John" and briefly outline for you something of his history. John came from the deep South, of Catholic parents, the graduate of a Catholic high school. When he entered college, his native brilliance caused him to question the religion in which he had been raised and the truths of Catholic faith which he had been taught. When John first came to my attention during his freshman year, I noted that he avoided studiously anyone wearing a Roman collar. He avoided all religious practices -- shunned them, indeed -- and was toying with Agnosticism.
There came a day during the second semester of his sophomore year when John disappeared from the campus. He had left without a word. Those professors who were close to John were alarmed. Had he gone off on a narcotic binge? Had he thrown in the towel and gone home? Had he been the victim of foul play? Eventually -- after only a few days -- John returned. He had been to Galveston where he had spent considerable time walking the beaches and contemplating the sea. All the while rehearsing the critical issues of his past life, assessing the values that ought to shape his life. From Galveston he returned to the campus a new man. "All right," he was saying, "I do submit to the values that you have shown me through the several courses of the curriculum, through literature and history and philosophy, I do see the barrenness of that Agnosticism with which I was flirting." Progressively then, John took up again the practice of his Catholic faith; but now with a maturity and a vigor that expressed his emergence into maturity. Today, John is a marvelous young man, firm in the faith of his fathers, intellectually alive to all of the currents in Catholicism, and self-assured that all of the values which are important to him, temporal and eternal, are consistent with one another, together constituting that "truth" which makes one free.
John's experience was to be sure, a bit more dramatic than is the case of most talented young people. Yet in their respective experiences, all serious young men and women must pass from a juvenile appreciation of religion to a mature one, and the passage is usually dark. The journey may not be even a minor epic, but it is always a trying experience in which the feelings of loneliness and of estrangement are dominant. In observing this experience in greater and lesser degrees in many students over a period of years, I am confident that it is a beneficial trouble, a classic example of things having to get worse before they can get better, a suffering out of which is born a mature joy. Most young people who are balanced and who have been reared in religious families will enjoy this experience -- not all of them, but most. For many who do, the experience proves fatal; the end result being, as we see so often today, a seemingly final estrangement from religion and from the proposition that there are objective norms, or values, against which one ought to devise his own life.
Because the last adventure between adolescence and maturity can prove fatal, it seems imperative that the adventure be controlled. It cannot be suppressed, and ought not be. But it can be set into a proper framework wherein the individual's struggle can be gently directed, his epic journey be assisted by guideposts, his internal warfare between competing value systems be supported with appropriate arms. Here then, is the reason for the urgency of establishing in our age a college curriculum that enhances the individual's student struggle to make sense out of his life. The college campus ought to be the place of control in which every man's life is held in awe and in which it is acknowledged that one's personal struggle for the consistency of truths, especially including religious truths, is respected and assisted with exceeding care and reverence for the individual.
There have been many arguments over the past two or three decades about what constitutes a Catholic college or university. The statement of the arguments usually is indistinguishable from the vexing question of academic freedom in all universities, public and private. Usually, where Catholic institutions are in question, the issue comes down to this: What is the role of theology in a Catholic institution? Does the Catholic theologian enjoy the same academic freedom as his peers in other disciplines? Must he answer to the local bishop? May the bishop forbid a given theologian to teach in a Catholic institution? Ought the creeds of all religions be presented with all due objectivity in a department of theology in a Catholic college? If I may say so, I think this entire argument is barren of any significant results; it will ever be void. The reason why the argument is thus unimportant is that it asks the wrong questions.
Now I happen to think it is true, as Don Cowan [President, University of Dallas] likes to assert, that the purpose of any university ought to be, quite simply, the pursuit of wisdom. The institution ought not to exist precisely for the students; but neither ought it exist merely as a base of operations for, or a job opportunity for, the faculty members. Rather it is true to say that faculty and students come together, and strive together, toward the renewal and the advancement of wisdom. But in the advancement of the great traditions of the Western world, there is a long Catholic tradition of learning -- of the search for wisdom. Respect for this tradition among faculty, students, trustees, and the rest is, I am confident, what constitutes a Catholic university.
In the first century of the Christian era, the pristine leaders of the Church baptized much that was pagan, much that was part of Greek culture, much that was part of Roman life. By incorporating those newly baptized elements into their growing appreciation of the meaning of Christ's atonement and into the structure of the Church, they set Catholic thought upon an irreversible course. They set out to incorporate into the revelation of Jesus Christ all that was wholesome in the milieu of their age.
In its own way, a Catholic university ought to have the same ambition in this final moment of the second Christian millennium through which we are living. Clearly, it is not the purpose of a Catholic college to indoctrinate into the truths of faith the students who enter. Everybody knows that now -- it wasn't so clear twenty years ago -- but that is only to say that everybody knows what is not meant by a Catholic university. The more important question: "What is meant?" remains the difficulty. I think the young man, John, of whom I was speaking earlier indicates the answer to that question. If the purpose of any university is -- or ought to be -- the search for wisdom, for unified knowledge, for a unified set of values by which human life, publicly and privately is shaped, and through which life becomes cohesive, then the purpose of a Catholic university must be the same, but with the provision that it will be enlightened by the long tradition of a wisdom that is identifiably Catholic. Thus, in any university, faculty and students together ought to explore the unifying values of human culture which can be found in any intellectual achievement that searches for the universal truths, for the constants, for the larger principles which endure as history unfolds. Not everything which we can study is a "discipline" in this sense. The study of a profession, in law, medicine, traffic engineering, business, is not a discipline -- not a way in which the mind views all that is real but is rather a methodology for achieving important goals. The development of a personal "discipline of knowledge" is, in fact, the development of a personal wisdom. Through this, one can make satisfying judgments about competing issues, about positions which claim to be important values in life. One thereby achieves an intellectual consistency, an inner harmony, that shapes the remainder of his life.
Some disciplines are more co-natural to those students who are at the end of their teens. Literature, principally, but as well, political philosophy, metaphysics, art, drama are the most adept at challenging the student's mind and feelings. Through these, when they are approached historically, students enter into the travail of those who have gone before; and they begin to sense the meaning -- and the hopefulness -- of a personal epic. They learn to sift the changing from the unchanging, the passing event, the faddish, the merely ephemeral from the abiding value, from the enduring truth. Curiously, and even in a Catholic institution, the discipline of theology is not one of the more effective disciplines. As with youth, so with theology; it is wasted on the young. But much with which theology deals is also dealt with in other disciplines. Literature, for example, treats of such issues as a sense of honor, magnanimity, the experience of grace, the moral consequences of the passions or the emotions. Recently, I asked the prominent novelist Caroline Gordon about the theology of her novels. "They are," she replied, "always about the Trinity." One finds unfolding before his mind, as he studies the history of the American political tradition, the real meaning of magnanimity. When he compares this with his appreciation of the values which shaped early Greek and Roman society, the task of the theologian is enormously simplified.
To summarize, I am sure that the values which ought to suffuse the life of an educated Catholic derive from the pursuit of wisdom in a number of disciplines beyond theology. For the young who are twixt immaturity and maturity, this pursuit of wisdom is most often successful when every intellectual discipline is, in fact, a common, humble searching for the truth -- for those abiding truths of which theology is the capstone. The student who is shown the history of the grand search for wisdom in many disciplines, within a historical framework, will have the best opportunity to verify for himself the religious truths which his parents and teachers had so often asserted during his adolescence.
When my friend John walked the beaches of Galveston, he was walking through the dark night of his soul. No one had brainwashed him; but he had been shown the great moral and religious truths which have shaped the Western experience. He had thus come to see that his rebellion against the truths of faith could not be supported together with his mature convictions about other enduring truths. He had emerged as the successful product of university education. He had become, as ought all of us to become, men of intellectual vision, apprenticed to the truth, and fully aware that we capable of knowing the harmony between truths temporal and eternal -- that we are indeed like thresholds set between the unseen and the seen.