Omaha, Nebraska
Spring 1999
Volume 10, Number 2

The University as an Expression of the Catholic Imagination

Wendy M. Wright
Associate Professor of Theology

On September 21, 1998, Monika Hellwig, Executive Director of the American Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities, spoke at Creighton's Skutt Student Center on the topic "The University as an Expression of the Catholic Imagination." She was joined on the platform by two respondents, Dr. Maryanne Stevens, President of the College of Saint Mary, and Dr. Patrick Murray, Chair of Creighton's Department of Philosophy. The program was sponsored by Catholic Imagination Project and the Center for the Study of Religion and Society.

Dr. Hellwig began her remarks by suggesting that universities are indeed expressions of the imagination because the imagination is the faculty that enables human beings to interpret experience, empathize with the experience of others, and envision things that do not exist but might come to be. Catholic Universities are such institutions which, permeated by the past and present experiences of the faith community, bring that tradition into conversation with the fund of human knowledge thus allowing us to imagine new ways we might build society and live in a more humane way.

She then went on to explore the roots and history of universities and suggest the challenges that face us today. Universities, she asserted, have from their inception been "places of conversation." Dr. Hellwig pointed to the 12th century origins of universities, which were chartered by the Holy See yet not dependent on it, where scholars met to bring the wisdom of the Christian tradition into conversation with other great wisdom traditions, especially Judaism and Islam. During the sixteenth century, when Christendom split into Protestant and Catholic camps and institutions of higher learning polarized, universities lost some of that quality of open exchange.

In America, universities were founded in the wake of the Enlightenment when wisdom traditions, such as Catholicism, were dissociated from the intellectual life. Catholic universities at that time tended to remain isolated from the common intellectual life. This changed radically during Vatican II in the 1960's. Catholic universities then began to engage with the great modern questions of industrialization, democracy, the social and natural sciences, modern philosophy and technology. This rapid shift into the modern intellectual world as well as the "profes-sionalization" of faculty, hiring practices and accreditation to make Catholic Universities meet high academic standards caused some tension arising both from within Catholic Universities and from without, from the Holy See. Both are presently seeking answers to the questions: "What is the Catholic character of a university?" and "How do we practice fidelity to a living heritage (which has always grown) and also creatively imagine a future that may call for creative change?"

Dr. Hellwig proposed that to be truly Catholic, universities need to do two complex things. First, they need to cherish the treasury handed down to us from the past: the great texts of literature, philosophy, theology, the artistic, musical and ritual expressions of Catholic life. Second, they need to engage dynamically with changing circumstances. She then suggested five aspects of the Catholic imagination that could help us in this enterprise.

First, Catholicism has always stressed the continuity of faith and reason. Faith should rest on credibility. Thus the exercise of faith includes questioning. It also includes drawing from faith practical implications for life.

Second, Catholicism is a tradition that honors its cumulative heritage. We should cherish the wisdom of the past rather than assuming (as do much contemporary science and scholarship) that what is newest is always best.

Third, Catholicism at its best has been non-elitist. We must also honor other classes, races, cultures, and opinions. We must be self-critical of our prejudices.

Fourth, Catholicism has stressed that the human enterprise is essentially communal. Sin and redemption are not individual. Thus education and research are not only for the benefit of individuals but must be undertaken for the common good.

Fifth, Catholicism is based on the sacramental principle: the idea that to communicate with the divine, the mediation of visible things is necessary. Thus we must surround ourselves with visible reminders of the true possibilities of life. We must raise our spirits through art, architecture, music, and the stories of those who have lived bravely and deeply.

Like the earliest universities, Catholic universities today must bring the wisdom of the past into open and creative conversation with the intellectual traditions of the present day in order to imagine together a just and humane world. Dr. Hellwig stressed that to carry out this project Catholic universities must have a significant number of faculty, administrators and staff who look for this integration of past wisdom with new intellectual challenges.

In response to Dr. Hellwig's remarks, Dr. Murray stressed the obligation of the Catholic university to honor the exercise of the mind in the pursuit of truth, to exercise our God-given liberty and rationality in a spirit of humility and dialogue with the plurality of cultures in today's world and to emphasize the common good. Dr. Murray also pointed out a major challenge he saw in the increasing hegemony of the "commercial imagination" and the danger of students coming to see themselves as investors upgrading their human capital through education, and education becoming a"product" to be sold and packaged for consumption.

Dr. Stevens augmented Drs. Hellwig's and Murray's thoughts with insights about the origins of Catholic universities in America. They were organized by the Catholic community whose members were excluded from access to public life in a dominantly Protestant culture. These universities became "family owned businesses" whose missions and identities were identical to the missions and identities of their sponsoring religious orders. There was no need to ask about what it meant to be Catholic. With the assimilation of Catholics into mainstream American life came the loss of a Catholic subculture, a resistance to modernity and the unquestioning acceptance of patterns of authority. Gone were the clear signs which massaged our imaginations into knowing who we are over against others. Left was the task of "inventing a life." Dr. Stevens concurred with Dr. Murray that the "exchange mentality" threatens the project of the Catholic university and enjoined those present to embody the mission of Jesus who has so loved us and who calls us to love one another, especially the poor.