Remarks at the John Carroll Society’s Annual Brunch
Jan. 8, 2012
Following the Mass on the Baptism of Our Lord
Thank you to the John Carroll Society for the invitation and to Monsignor Peter Vaghi for an inspiring homily.
It’s certainly fitting to be here as a guest of the John Carroll Society as we consider the challenges and future of Catholic Education. Given his accomplishments, it can be easy to overlook the tremendous difficulties Carroll — and Catholicism — overcame around the time of this country’s birth.
When he returned to Maryland in 1774, his religious order, the Jesuits, had been suppressed and disbanded everywhere. He was essentially a freelance chaplain. Anti-Catholic bias ran deep in the American colonies and in the early confederation of states.
The anti-Catholic bias was only topped by the specifically anti-Jesuit bias seen in the rant John Adams delivered in a letter to Thomas Jefferson. Adams wrote:
I do not like the reappearance of the Jesuits… Shall we not have regular swarms of them here, in as many disguises as only a king of the gypsies can assume, dressed as printers, publishers, writers and schoolmasters? If ever there was a body of men who merited eternal perdition on earth and in Hell, it is this society of Loyola's. Nevertheless, we are compelled by our system of religious toleration to offer them an asylum.
Still, Carroll was undaunted.
- He remained convinced that Catholicism had much to offer America. “An immense field is opened to the zeal of apostolic men,” he said when our first laws against religious discrimination were passed.
- He saw Catholic education as one of his highest priorities and described the establishment of a Catholic college on the American continent as “the object nearest to my heart.”
We, too, live in a time of great global change and challenge. And no surprise, given my day job, I believe John Carroll was on to something when he described our system of Catholic colleges and universities as a necessary and key part of the response to the signs of the times.
I was privileged to hear Adolfo Nicolas, current Superior General of the Society of Jesus, speak about the future of Jesuit and Catholic higher education in Mexico City in April 2010. He outlined how our rapidly changing world presents key challenges to Catholic and Jesuit universities that require us to re-establish and re-found our institutions:
1. First Challenge: The Globalization of Superficiality
In our age of rapid global communications, Father Nicolas fears that our students and, in fact, all of us are losing the ability to engage with the real. This is not just a challenge for our students. Whether it’s the attraction of Wikipedia and Google, or the constant stream of email and texts, we all feel pressed for time and see how easy it is to trivialize knowledge.
I could offer several mea culpas about my own contributions to this problem. As one example, this semester I am teaching Renaissance Literature at Marquette. That’s Shakespeare, Spenser, Marlowe, More, Drake, Southwell, Campion — just for starters. How can I teach a century’s worth of literature in 16 weeks without being “superficial” some of the time?
Nicolas is convinced that the antidote — for me and for everyone else — is “depth of thought and imagination.” And in our tradition, depth of thought and imagination must involve “a profound engagement with the real.” In his words, “Picture in your mind the thousands of graduates we send forth from our Jesuit universities every year. How many of those who leave our institutions do so with both professional competence and the experience of having, in some way during their time with us, a depth of engagement with reality that transforms them at their deepest core?”
At Marquette and at the other Catholic universities I know, we take this challenge very seriously. The cornerstone of our methodology is what Jesuit schools call cura personalis. Similar concepts can be found in other Catholic traditions. When Ignatius of Loyola experienced his own conversion, he described the clear sense that God was dealing with him as a unique individual with his own hopes and dreams and aspirations — not as a generic human being or a generic Christian. We strive to interact with our students with the same care and respect for their individuality. These days, they often thank us for getting them to turn off their Iphones or IPads for a while. They’re moved by how transformative a Catholic education can be.
2. Second Challenge: Universality
Father Nicolas observed other sweeping changes that call us to redefine what we do. Our world is rapidly becoming more international. Globalization is obscuring traditional boundaries and redefining old understandings of identity, belonging and responsibility. “Now, more than ever, we see that in all our diversity, we are, in fact, a single humanity, facing common challenges and problems,” he reminds us.
What an inspiration that should be to Catholic educators and Catholic universities. We are a global network, spanning every continent and country. We are ready to think of ourselves as a universal church. But to do so effectively, we must also commit to more than a family resemblance among our institutions; instead a common commitment to shared values is needed.
3. Third Challenge: Learned Ministry
Which brings us to the challenge of asking ourselves for what purpose do our institutions exist? For what reasons have we accumulated these vast stores of knowledge and expertise across the full range of academic disciplines? The faculty at Catholic universities, no less than those at any other university in the country, pursue truth and knowledge through research and scholarship and find themselves taking part in the global “production of knowledge.”
But to what end? Who benefits from it? To the extent that the research enterprise strengthens the educational infrastructure and learning resources, it can certainly be worthwhile. But, as Catholic institutions, we must stay in touch with the roots of our institutions in early modern humanism. We must reflect the insight of Ignatius and other Catholic educational leaders that teaching and research offer opportunities to encounter the mystery of God and simultaneously to make our world more gentle, more just.
We need to ask: “How do our students and faculty become “voices for the voiceless?” How do they become “sources for human rights for those denied such rights [and] resources for the protection of the environment?” How do they become “persons of solidarity for the poor?”
At our universities today, this challenge takes on a number of dimensions.
We feel the pressure of faculty professionalism. We want our faculty to be professional absolutely. We strive to hire tremendous faculty, but we find that people coming out of graduate schools right now, brand new PhDs are trained in a culture where their primary identity is to their academic discipline. Their primary loyalty is not always to Marquette, Georgetown or the University of Scranton, not to Catholic higher education; it’s to English, Philosophy, Biology, Chemistry.
So we have to work very hard to bring them into our culture. We say we want you to be the best chemist you can be, but how about doing so with regard for who we are, what’s our mission, what animates this place? Maybe you’ll want to get engaged with it. Maybe you’ll even become enthusiastic about it with our help.
At Marquette, I was pleased to see a group of faculty come forward with the idea for a new interdisciplinary research project to benefit the Milwaukee community. And in their proposals for it, they carefully expressed how this program would further Marquette’s mission as a Catholic and Jesuit school. They even showed how it related to the challenges outlined by Father Nicolas. That kind of faculty engagement follows deliberate, intentional efforts over many years to embed the Catholic and Jesuit identity of Marquette deeply into its academic mission.
As we struggle with these sweeping challenges — including the superficiality and the culture of secularism that seep into our campuses — we realize that we are also uniquely equipped to address them.
Because the great work of the Catholic University is the work of hope. We are pushing hope along with faith and love and the pursuit of truth, but hope, most of all. And our hope can be grounded in the richness of the Catholic intellectual tradition: 2000 years of really bright women and men wrestling with the ultimate mysteries: God, love, death. Other universities can’t tap that legacy. Think of the towering figures that illuminate the way that we imagine the world: Augustine, Aquinas, John Carroll, people who really got down into the nitty-gritty, and who wrestled with reality and came up with some ways of making or finding meaning.
A lot of people in our post modernist predicament would tell us that meaning is inaccessible. That is a prevailing point of view on many college campuses across the United States. But that can never be the prevailing point of view on a Catholic campus. We are people of conviction — intelligent conviction — who really wrestle with life’s great issues.
So I firmly believe that the answers to the significant challenges I’ve mentioned will be found on the campuses of Catholic universities — and in rooms like this one. For the greatest resource for Catholic education are people like you: people who are willing to take up this mantle, the spirit of the university, and own it. That will require some work, that will require some study, that will require some time, some effort, some energy on your part, but the rewards are amazing.
I want to end with a quote from Father Tim Healy, the president of Georgetown when I was a student. He writes:
While universities are great at collecting gross results, averages and other statistical information, in our hearts of hearts that information and those statistics don’t matter to us. What does matter is the individual contact, the teacher in the classroom, the head on head between student and faculty member, the arch across which our learning bangs into the energy of the young, that interchange is more important for us then all the statistics, rules and regulations issued by the office of the dean of students, or the provost or all the fallen nations of the president and the board of trustees or anyone else on the good ground on which we serve. Only individuals grow. For that growth in mind and heart is the preoccupation of Catholic education.
Thank you for everything you do. God bless Catholic education and God bless you.