Wednesday, September 28, 2005
I would like to accept Rick’s kind invitation to respond to Fr. Jenkins’ inaugural address at Notre Dame. At the outset, I concur with Fr. Jenkins that his responsibilities as president are “awesome.” But then again, one could say the same thing about those faced by any disciple. He points to the need to be humble, and this is an important step forward for him and those who will be monitoring his progress as President. For with humility, any person will likely seek the counsel of others, including God, in the execution of the duties that will be encountered. Humility also carries any of us to the pursuit of a higher wisdom to address responsibly the challenges of today and tomorrow. These attributes are also a part of any scholar’s pursuit of knowledge and the research undertaken in this objective. Perhaps Fr. Jenkins intended to say that all of this background is a way of using the mind to prepare the soul for the union with the communion of saints and God—the inevitable human destiny each person has but of which the individual may not be aware. Cultivating this awareness is also a part of the responsibility of the Catholic university.
Fr. Jenkins’ reference to that which is “distinctively Catholic” is an important and relevant assertion. And he prudently refers to the writings of John Paul II including his Apostolic Constitution Ex Corde Ecclesiae. He also properly notes that the pursuit of knowledge must be twinned with reflection on the ethical implications of what is right and what is wrong with that discovered in research, teaching, and discussion. This does not always happen in the work of research and teaching universities these days. I think that this is implicit in his alarm about the dangers of technical knowledge outpacing moral wisdom. Without the latter, the former can lead many down a problematic path. And this union he identifies is a part of the intellectual tradition which the Catholic university is charged to pass on.
I would like to fortify his brief discussion and warning about how the great western universities of the world were generated by the activities of the Church but today have little connection with their religious foundation. It comes as no surprise to me that several well-researched books on this very topic have emerged from the pens (and computers) of scholars at Notre Dame! The manner in which the three principles Fr. Jenkins identifies that define the Catholic university become the common charge of all who come to Notre Dame or any other educational institution that calls itself Catholic. One of the most serious contemporary challenges to this charge is found in the hiring process of faculty and administrators. If this hiring process does not adequately take account of these three principles and others related to them, no single human being, including the president of the institution, will be able to stem the tide of the secularism or the indifference to Catholic identity and soul that has claimed other institutions. If we expect truth in advertising about the products we purchase and the health care we receive, for example, we should also demand the same from those institutions which claim they are Catholic. Catholics and other people of faith have been the victims of hiring committees who did not see the institution’s Catholic identity and the principles defined by Fr. Jenkins as essential to their charge. This is not only a pity; it is a tragedy that must be confronted by Fr. Jenkins and those who share his perspective.
My final comment at this stage is to offer a brief reflection on his statement that the Catholic university’s research, indeed all its activities I would hasten to add, must not be separated from the Catholic mission. The Catholic educational enterprise must draw its strength from the mission and continue to enhance it as he correctly asserts. Perhaps one way of reminding ourselves that this is the common charge of those who are in some way members of the Catholic university is to take to heart Saint Matthew’s Gospel and the charge given by Jesus to his earliest disciples: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations…” The ways in which the Catholic university executes this charge are diverse, but the command for us all is the same. RJA sj