Catholic Universities

What Are They And What Should They Be?

by | Oct 13, 2012

Catholic universities should help students with intellectual abilities but without the economic means to pay for a good education; they should also provide spaces like the pastoral counseling center shown above where interested students and faculty can practice their faith. Photo courtesy of Pablo Quintanilla.

On July 20, when this article was already sent to the editor, Vatican State Secretary Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone prohibited the Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú from using the words “pontificia” and “católica” in its name. Reasons were given—some false and others ludicrous. For example, Bertone falsely claims that the university’s statutes collide with the Apostolic Constitution Ex Corde Eclessiae. As anyone can see by comparing both documents, this is simply not true. In the second category, Bertone provides an abundance of ludicrous details: that the university paid homage to Father Gastón Garatea and that students and faculty read the book Liberation Theology by Father Gustavo Gutiérrez in their courses. Both Garatea and Gutiérrez are practicing Catholic priests, although probably Cardenal Bertone doesn’t like it.

What should a Catholic institution be, and what should a good university be? Is there any relevant difference between a good university and a good Catholic university? What does the word “Catholic” add to the word “university”? Answers to these questions may help clarify our understanding of both.

A good Catholic institution—or person, for that matter—is one that simply follows what Jesus taught, that is: treat your neighbor, the other person, as though he or she is an end in itself, not a means for anything else. Be compassionate, cooperative and strive for equity. If we take those aims in consideration, it is clear that most of us don’t always behave that way and that most institutions don’t either, not even, as we all know, the Catholic Church itself. Thus, we should regard those objectives as regulative idealsin Kant’s sense, that is, as something that we will never fully reach but  that compels our actions in a particular direction. These objectives, therefore, become the criteria to judge our behavior.

A good university also has some high objectives, especially the search for truth in all domains, the responsibility to pass knowledge from one generation to another without gaps or distortions, and the moral obligation to be relevant to society. In this context, what should a Catholic university be and in what sense should Catholic universities be different from non-Catholic ones? The most important requirement for a Catholic university is to be an excellent university, that is, to have international standards of excellence for research, teaching and social responsibility.

Both kinds of institutions look for the truth and are concerned about transmitting it to younger generations, being relevant to society in the quest of knowledge and equity. They also seek to be cooperative and compassionate, providing good role models for other institutions and people. “Role model” is a key word. A good Catholic university has as a model an ideal community of responsible truth-seekers who respect other views and work to make the world a better place for all, regardless of their faith and background. If a Catholic university is good enough to be a role model for even non-Catholics, then it is likely doing a good job. If it is only a good role model for Catholics, you might suspect something is wrong.

To the extent of doing a good job in the sense described, no important differences exist between a Catholic university and any other good secular university. One important requirement, which should apply to all universities concerned with a wide horizon of research and education, is that a Catholic university has to guarantee not only a professional technical education but also a broad humanistic background. Through its curriculum students become familiar with the history of classical human culture, as well as the role the Church played in it, both in the good aspects and the bad. The university should be a critical institution of the system, not another means for its survival. Just as the Gospel incarnates a revolutionary view of morals and human living by criticizing, sometimes radically, the system and the Church of its time, a Catholic university should also always be critical enough of the established system to remind us of its errors. It also always has to leave open room for the dialogue between reason and faith, that is, between science and religion. Sometimes science and religion confront each other with skepticism. There is no reason for this, and with a more open attitude, both would learn from one another.

Furthermore, the Catholic Church has an explicit preference, especially, but not solely, for the poor and the excluded—those who need more from God. A Catholic university, then, should help students with intellectual abilities but without economic means to pay for an expensive and good education. At the same time, it should provide the opportunity to hold academic and religious activities where interested students and faculty can practice their faith. However, what is essential to true Christian education is to educate students within religious and philosophical freedom, so that they can choose autonomously what to believe and how.

Probably the most important goal of any, but particularly Christian, education is to facilitate autonomy and self knowledge. Both of these goals are possible only where there is intellectual freedom, pluralism and academic excellence. In that sense, a Catholic university has to open lines of research and debate, not close them by assuming we have some kind of truth that others don’t have and that, therefore, we must teach it to them. That is why a Catholic university that admits only Catholics is not Catholic at all. Pluralism, respect for others views and beliefs, intellectual freedom and support for all intellectual and social initiatives, are essential elements for a true Catholic education. Therefore, all or most intellectually relevant views have to be present in a Catholic university, as part of the dialogue the institution has to foster, even if these views are regarded as non-Catholic, because self criticism and improvement are only possible when we are familiar with views we not only don’t share but view as contrary to ours.

The question now is whether Catholic universities hold these standards, especially in Latin-American countries. In order to answer this question we have to review a little history. As it is well known, most European universities began as part of the Church. They started to diverge, however, around the beginnings of modernity and Enlightenment. At that time, the Catholic Church projected the image of an institution that could limit intellectual creativity and scientific research. Of course it didn’t have to be that way, because most scientific developments of the time didn’t threaten faith at all, as proved by the fact that nowadays those scientific developments are fully accepted. However, members of the Church’s hierarchy wrongly considered scientific thinking to be dangerous and the logical consequence was that the very image of the Church was severely affected. This situation had a perverse outcome: many academics made false professions of faith, which is already bad enough, and many others lived scared of being prosecuted or fired for not being orthodox enough. Instead of being Mater et Magistra, the Church became the typical fairytale bad stepmother.

Thus secularism, understood as a progressive separation from the Church, was the rule for intellectuals and academics of the Enlightenment. For this divergence, not to call it divorce, between the academic culture and the Church, both parties are to blame. However, in most cases the hierarchy of the Church didn’t see things that way. In fact, Pope Pius X (1835-1914) called modernism the source of all evils, which meant that for many people to be an academic and also a Catholic started to be seen as incompatible. Pope Leo XIII (1810-1903), an intellectual himself, was the first to suggest establishing Catholic universities as a way to confront the pervasive intellectual secularism of the time. The famous University of Louvain was founded anew with such objectives in mind in 1835. And many North American and Latin American universities began to open at the time, such as the Catholic University of America (1887), the Catholic University of Chile (1888) and the Catholic University of Argentina (1910). In some cases, these universities were founded by the local bishop or the Church itself, but in other cases they were founded by a group of Catholic people with the leadership of a priest, as was the case for the Catholic University of Peru that was founded in 1917 by Father Jorge Dintilhac and a group of Catholic gentlemen.

It is fair to say that Catholic universities in Latin America fall into two big groups. In the first, most follow the criteria of excellence, pluralism and academic freedom that I have mentioned before. This is especially true for Brazilian and Mexican Catholic universities, many of which are run by Jesuits, who have a long experience with excellence in education. Another important institution is the Catholic University of Peru, autonomous by Peruvian law, which has shaped most of the intellectual life in that country as well as produced many of its most important academics. These universities tend to believe that their main obligation to society is to produce good scholarship, teaching and social responsibility, rather than be the guardians of doctrine.

The other group consists of Catholic universities that tend to privilege their role as institutions devoted to educating in the doctrine of faith. They tend to be rather conservative and run the risk of becoming too alienated from contemporary society to really be relevant to it. Becoming an academic and religious island in the sea of contemporary diversity can be seen in two ways. It might be regarded as a fortress of truth and doctrinal purity in a world of heterodoxy, therefore being the key to maintaining truth in times of confusion. But it might also be regarded as a relic of a time gone by, in which the Church believes it is the sole keeper of truth and has nothing to learn from non-Catholics. If such is the case, these institutions run the serious risk of succumbing to new manifestations of fundamentalism, which are the real enemies of Catholicism. In fact, what has done more damage to the Catholic Church in former times is its own fundamentalism, rather than other religions or beliefs.

A curious example of this tension between two ways of understanding Catholic universities is the case of the Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú. As mentioned before, this university was not founded by the Church itself, but by a group of Catholic gentlemen and a priest in 1917. Many years later, the Peruvian intellectual José de la Riva Agüero donated most of his inheritance to this university. Later on, the Pope gave it the title of “Pontificia” for its excellence in education and for its Catholic values. Now, almost a hundred years after its foundation, what started as a small and rather poor university is already the best academic institution of the country and a highly regarded one in Latin America. It is also fairly rich. It always kept its Catholic identity, reflecting the teaching of Ecumenical Council Vatican II, which opened the doors of the Church for more pluralism, freedom of belief, and respect for all views and strict defense of human rights and ethical values.

Nevertheless, at present the PUCP is in a legal dispute with the Archbishop of Lima, Cardinal Juan Luis Cipriani, a member of Opus Dei, who claims that the university’s budget should be controlled by the Archbishop himself. In the recent past, his activism has been suggestive: Cardinal Cipriani strongly supported Alberto Fujimori’s dictadura from 1992 to 2001, explicitly and publicly expressed his disdain about human rights, and now wants to control the best university in the country. The conflict here is about what a Catholic university should be: either a pluralistic place for religious freedom and Catholic thought, or a dogmatic guardian of one particular way to understand faith. Furthermore, most Peruvians think (84 percent in a recent independent poll by Grupo Apoyo) that what the Archbishop is really after is the economic budget of the University. In fact, Cipriani has managed to divide the Peruvian Catholic Church to the point that many priests and nuns oppose his attempts to control the University, and favor its autonomy. In times when the Catholic Church doesn’t need more problems, Cipriani has deeply split the Catholics of this Andean country. Rather than being a symbol of unity, he has become a divisive factor among Catholics. But this is just a symptom of the kind of recent problems the Church has to face worldwide.

Latin America strongly needs more good universities and also more good Catholic universities, in the sense I have spelled out earlier. This is true not only because education is the only way in which social and economic troubles of these countries can be overcome, but also to continue the task of building a Catholic Church in the spirit of Jesus, which is something we Catholics still have in our agenda. It is said many times that Latin America is the most Catholic continent in the world, because it has, with Africa, the largest number of practicing Catholics. In fact, Pope John Paul II used to call Latin America the “continent of hope.” Certainly we do have hope, but I seriously doubt that this is the most Catholic continent, given the terrible rates of inequality, unfairness, violence and poverty. Countries with these calamities can certainly try to live up to Christian standards, but they definitely are not models of Catholicism. Yet these countries—and their universities—are still places of hope, where better and different ways to understand Christianity may appear.

Fall 2012Volume XII, Number 1

Pablo Quintanilla is a Professor of Philosophy and Dean of General Studies in the Humanities (Estudios Generales Letras) at the Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú. He holds a doctorate from the University of Virginia.

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