Saturday, August 21, 2010
What is the university? What is the Catholic university? These questions are at the core of three of Rick’s recent postings (here, here, and here). While each of these postings raises different issues about the nature of the university which, I believe, claims to be Catholic and American, they draw on common themes. Rick’s discussions take place in the context of: the Boston College brochure entitled “The Catholic Intellectual Tradition: A Conversation at Boston College”; Randall Smith’s study of the implications of John Paul II’s encyclical Fides et Ratio for Catholic universities; and R. J. Snell’s examination of universities and the graciousness of being. Some might ask the question: what has all this got to do with Catholic legal theory? Like Rick (I think), it has a great deal to do with how those of us who teach law and who teach about what law is about (or should be about) in educational institutions that claim to be simultaneously the academia and Catholica.
From my perspective, the Boston College document presents important questions (but not all the answers) which frame my replies to the questions to which Rick has sought responses. At the outset, I realize that this document includes some thoughtful discussion beneficial to the enterprise of the Catholic academy; but, it also generates some problems. The Boston College text uses at least six times an important word—conversation—to explain the role of the Catholic intellectual tradition (which is not defined) in a university that identifies itself as Catholic, or is it catholic? Both the capitalized and lower case words are employed in the BC brochure. The document asserts that the “conversation” at stake is the use of the Catholic intellectual tradition as a guiding influence in the “complex, contemporary university” that claims to be “Jesuit” and Catholic, or at least has the heritage described by both these latter monikers. This “conversation” maintains the objective of searching for “truth, meaning, and justice.” Here it is prudent to take stock of what this text means by the “conversation” to which “All are invited.” The authors rely on one particular definition of this crucial term: they assert that to converse originally meant “to live together” or “to share a life.” While this is one basis of the term’s meaning, I suggest that this understanding is problematic in the context of explaining the Catholic intellectual tradition: I can live with others or share my life with others with little or no discourse that engages and proposes ideas. But is this what the university and the C/catholic tradition are about? I don’t think so. I believe that the Catholic university’s raison d’être involves engagement of ideas and propositions about why some ideas and propositions are correct and true but others are not. So, I think the better understanding of converse and, therefore, conversation, is the interchange of thoughts and ideas that lead to the recognition of what distinguishes truth from what is false.
So, what might some of the core thoughts and ideas be that are to be proposed in this endeavor? Let’s try these for starters: the nature and essence and purpose of the human person—quid est homo; the proper relation between and among persons—the common good; the relation between the person and one’s societies; the relation between the person and one’s surroundings; the relation between the person and God; and, the big question about what’s it all about—salvation. These are some of the crucial issues that are at the root of finding the truth (the Truth) about which the Boston College pamphlet briefly speaks.
I am encouraged by the fact that this document concludes by stating that, “The true Catholic university, then, is a community of teachers, scholars, students, and administrators sharing an intellectual journey and conversation in the pursuit of truth.” But how is “truth” understood by its authors? The answer is ambiguous insofar as the text also asserts that the Catholic university is challenged “to engage all people, cultures, and traditions in authentic conversation—conversation undertaken in the belief that by talking across traditions we can grow in shared understanding that opens all parties to the possibility of changing their views.” Well, if any view can be changed, I gather that would include the Catholic one. One of my principal concerns with elements of this document, then, is that the Catholic view may be viewed as flawed, at least in part. To justify this claim about shortcomings of the document I rely on two statements from the Boston College text. The first is that, “The Catholic intellectual tradition can thrive only with the participation of all who seek the truth, including those whose inquiry leads them to question whether the search reveals purpose, meaning, or God, or to conclude that it does not.” Well, what happens if the skeptical view prevails or that the doubter or atheist wins the discussion, the engagement, and the debate not by reasoned argument but by force of numbers and the votes that go along with these numbers? So much for the Catholic intellectual tradition!
The second problematic statement is this: “The Catholic tradition of inquiry includes...a resistance to reductionism and an openness to analogical imagination—a disposition to see things in terms of ‘both/and’ rather than ‘either/or.’” This seems to me to be analogous to the clarion call often proclaimed in the American and western academy today to pluralism and diversity. I say “yes” to this if the discussions about pluralism and diversity engage the minds of one and all so that there is an appreciation that, notwithstanding the diversity and pluralism, there are universal answers to the questions examined and debated in the context of quid est homo rather than answers which proclaim only difference and nothing beyond differentiation. The proclamation of inflated difference and the abandonment of the universal remove man from man and man from God. Civility and graciousness can then easily disappear, and the objective reasoning critical to the discourse, the debate, and the inquiry necessary for discovery of both truth and the Truth in the institution that claims to be Catholic becomes the sacrifice on the altar of the academy the revels in fragmentation.