The Magazine of Marquette University | Summer 2006



Catholic and Jesuit

What does it mean at Marquette?


If you want to start a lively conversation with Rev. Robert Wild, S.J., ask him to define Catholic, Jesuit education at Marquette University. Even before being named president of the university in 1996, Father Wild had been working from his perspective as a professor and later as a provincial to ensure the preservation of the religious identity and core values that have characterized Jesuit colleges and universities for centuries.

Now looking forward to his 10th anniversary in the office of the president, he enjoys the satisfaction that comes from having worked tirelessly and successfully with students, faculty, staff and alumni to ensure that Marquette fulfills its promise to provide a transformational education so that students graduate not only better educated but better human beings.

Here, he talks about how Marquette continues to strengthen its Catholic, Jesuit identity.

Fr. Wild

Marquette Mission Statement
Ex Corde Ecclesiae
Office of Mission and Ministry
WI Jesuit Province of the Society of Jesus
PDF version of this story

Before coming back to Marquette, I was from 1985 to 1991 the provincial or regional head of the Chicago Province of the Jesuits. There are 10 such Jesuit provincials in the United States, and when we gathered together as we did several times a year, the thing we talked about most was preserving the religious identity of the 28 Jesuit colleges and universities in this country. Jesuits, we knew, would in the future be fewer in number, and so key to this effort would be the lay men and women who would be assuming more and more leadership responsibility. So when I came on as president here, I knew I'd better walk the talk and look carefully at the whole question of how we can best ensure Marquette's religious identity over the long term.

I realized very quickly that to succeed we needed to be very explicit about our goals and mission. We therefore formulated, with the help of the university community and Board of Trustees, a formal mission statement expressing our value commitments and established an Office of Mission and Identity to help oversee its implementation. These values, excellence (a term encompassing not only academic excellence but also all the virtues and values that belong to human excellence broadly understood), faith, leadership and service, we talk about constantly, and we have a consistent, ongoing expectation that every faculty member, every university staff member has a contribution to make in living out and making visible the values enunciated in this mission statement.

To explain that a bit more, we seek to instill in students a passion for pursuing knowledge not simply for self-betterment but also so that they are better prepared to serve the world and its needs. Furthermore, in both the core courses and in the specific academic major or majors that our students choose, as well as in their experience of campus life apart from the classroom, we want them to understand better and reflect upon the demands, not least ethical demands, that will be placed on them both in their professional careers and in ordinary human life.


Universities essentially began as gathering places where teachers and students could come together to share knowledge and to explore questions of fundamental human importance. To carry out its proper work of intellectual inquiry and discovery, a university must be autonomous and self-governing. Furthermore, it must maintain and foster academic freedom. Its very nature, that is, demands that it function as a sort of privileged public square in which faculty members and students can freely advance ideas of all sorts, some of great value and others perhaps foolish or even wrong-headed, subject only to the critical assessment of their peers.

In many ways, our being a Catholic and Jesuit university allows for greater academic freedom than can be found at state or nonsectarian private schools where, for example, topics like religion are ruled out of bounds either by the demands of the law or more often by a sort of accepted community wisdom that such matters are not “scientific” and so do not belong in a serious way to the education process.

"In both the core courses and in the specific academic major or majors that our students choose, as well as in their experience of campus life apart from the classroom, we want them to understand better and reflect upon the demands, not least ethical demands, that will be placed on them both in their professional careers and in ordinary human life."

A Catholic institution — and frankly all religiously affiliated institutions — will disagree with that sort of restriction. We say religion is a very central part of human experience and whether you are a believer or not, as an educated person you should at least have some understanding of this phenomenon and how it works. And certainly a university community ought to be able to talk about religion, about God, about all such matters as a normal part of human inquiry.

On the other hand, some think that the emphasis on autonomy and academic freedom that I just underscored is somehow contrary to the expectations the Roman Catholic Church has for Catholic universities. That most certainly is not the case. To the contrary, in his foundational statement about the characteristics of a genuine Catholic university, a document entitled “Ex Corde Ecclesiae,” Pope John Paul II affirmed the necessity for these institutions of both autonomy and academic freedom. Because Roman Catholicism lays great stress on the fundamental goodness of creation and views the Incarnation, God's becoming in Christ Jesus a concrete human being, as a core doctrine of the faith, it tends to be optimistic about the ability of human reason to attain the truth. In other words, because God created the universe, the universe can be analyzed and understood by human reason. And when, as in the case of evolution, there might seem to be an apparent contradiction between faith and reason, the emerging discoveries made by scientists on the basis of this theory will, Catholics believe, ultimately turn out to be, if verifiable by the methods proper to science, in harmony with the teachings of our faith.

Throughout history, Catholic universities have been asked why they would permit something to be studied or discussed that seemingly contradicts accepted church teaching. I can best respond to that with a story:

Once upon a time there was a Catholic university and at that university was a certain theology professor. He was truly brilliant and he was in touch with all the latest trends both in theology and in other relevant academic disciplines. He began to teach several viewpoints that were unfamiliar to many contemporary Catholics, and soon his name came to the attention of the local bishop. The bishop, disturbed by what he read and heard, began to believe that what this theologian was teaching his students was at odds with traditional Catholic doctrine. With that decided, his duty was clear. He would publicly condemn these teachings as false, an action that would lead, he presumed, to the university removing this professor from the faculty since he was not teaching authentic Catholic doctrine. And so the bishop did. But the university faculty, upon receiving the bishop's decree of condemnation, refused to expel the theologian from their membership since they were not convinced by the bishop's arguments and believed that decisions about faculty membership were theirs alone to make.

That sounds so much like what we hear from time to time these days, doesn't it? But in fact these events took place in 1270; the bishop was the then archbishop of Paris, Étienne Tempier; the university was the University of Paris; and the theologian in question was Thomas of Aquino, better known as St. Thomas Aquinas.

Ironically, the supposedly heterodox theologian that Thomas was thought to be, not only by his archbishop but also by other contemporary Catholics, became recognized over time as perhaps the greatest of all Catholic theologians. All of which is a helpful reminder that the debates we have about the Catholicity of our universities are not at all a new thing in the life of the church. And it is also a reminder that the principal work of a university, the discovery of truth, is not a simple business but proceeds by fits and starts, with some gaining insight well before others do.


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