A Catholic education: God’s constant presence

garvey_john    Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican’s secretary of state, recently wrote to mark our 125th anniversary at The Catholic University of America. His letter conveyed Pope Benedict XVI’s best wishes. It also offered a reminder of our obligations as a Catholic university, which the pope spelled out four years ago this month when he visited our campus.
    “The Holy Father,” Cardinal Bertone wrote, “wished to reaffirm the unique role played by Catholic educational institutions in that ‘diaconia of truth’ which the church exercises in her proclamation of God’s revealed word. …
    “It is (Pope Benedict’s) hope that, in fidelity to its founding vision, (your) university will continue to bring the church’s rich intellectual and spiritual patrimony to bear upon the critical issues of our time and thus contribute to the authentic renewal of the social fabric in accordance with the truth of the Gospel.”
A divine-human ‘friendship’
    The writings and sermons of Pope Benedict’s papacy offer a robust conception of just what Catholic education is and what makes it unique. At its center, as at the center of Catholicism, is a friendship between God and man, mediated through the tradition of the church.
    “Only in this friendship,” Pope Benedict said in the inaugural homily of his papacy, “are the doors of life opened wide. Only in this friendship is the great potential of human existence truly revealed.”
    This friendship begins with the idea that nothing we do, no matter how intellectually rigorous or scientific, happens outside of our relationship with God. From there, it forms everything about us.
    Through the study of theology and church history, Catholic education instills this basic habit of thought in its recipient. It plays the same role as the old canon of the liberal arts education, which once forced every university student to ask again and again the age-old questions that shaped Western thought.
    This Catholic habit of thought about God’s constant presence pops up in every discipline. It colors our understanding of literature and art. It helps learners resist the disturbing contemporary trend of some sciences trespassing on questions outside their area of competence, attempting, in Pope Benedict’s words, “to drive the question concerning God into the subjective realm, as being unscientific.”
Science isn’t complete
    In a 2008 conference on the changing identity of the person, Pope Benedict cautioned wisely that “no science can say who man is, where he comes from or where he is going.”
    By the same principle of divine friendship, Catholic education must also cultivate personal virtue, holiness and love of neighbor, lest it forget who we are and for whom we are made.
    The sacraments cannot be compulsory – God “did not will to save us without us,” as St. Augustine put it – but Catholic universities should keep them visible and encourage students to frequent them.
    Pope John Paul II issued the apostolic constitution “Ex Corde Ecclesiae” in 1990, as a response to the ongoing problem of waning Catholic identity in higher education and the increasing lack of interest in the contributions of faith to intellectual life. The late pope reminded Catholic schools that “it is in the context of the impartial search for truth that the relationship between faith and reason is brought to light and meaning.”
    He would later offer the more famous phrase: “Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth.”
    Pope Benedict builds on this idea with a more subtle and profound point. Faith and reason are not just two ingredients in a Catholic education, as meat and potatoes are parts of a healthy meal. Faith actually transforms reason, imbuing it with the power to contemplate the highest truths.
    If we are doing what we should, faith likewise transforms education, enriching both the intellectual and moral pursuits of the university.
    Garvey is president of The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., and is an expert on constitutional law, religious liberty and the First Amendment.

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