I may not be Catholic, but, like most UDers, I love our bumper sticker: “The Catholic University for Independent Thinkers.” What, exactly, is a Catholic university, and why is ours for independent thinkers?
Cardinal Newman’s “Idea of a University” clarifies the first term: the purpose of a Catholic university is “the cultivation of intellect” in students as they encounter the subjects in the curriculum, including theology, which cannot be cut without the loss of the subject of subjects since it studies He Who Created all the other subjects.
That confidence in intellect is why I came to the University of Dallas. In John Paul II’s aphorism that “truth cannot contradict truth,” I saw a capacious belief that one need not fear acknowledging any argument from anywhere or anyone since, if it is true and in apparent contradiction to the Church, then one might be underestimating the Church and it is not contradicting it at all (in historical or scientific discoveries, for example). Or it might be challenging the Church (in a good way) to develop itself (as the Reformation did during both Trent and Vatican II). Or it might actually be in an absolute contradiction with the Church (as Neo-Atheism is). In the first case, one accepts truth; in the second, one refines oneself; and only in the third does one — after understanding and with charity — reject the argument.
Tradition requires appropriation, innovation and constancy, then, and it is the Catholic university where the Church does all three. The Catholic tradition’s confidence in the cultivation of intellect allows for us to explore truth, goodness and beauty without progressive whim or reactionary anxiety, and explains the principled daring of the Western tradition: Paul’s re-imagining of the Hebrew Bible; Augustine’s of Plato; Aquinas’ of Aristotle; Dante’s of Virgil; Michelangelo’s of scripture altogether; Erasmus’ of Cicero; de Chardin’s of Darwin; Merton’s of Zen Buddhism. Every one of those innovators was Catholic, and their intellectual playfulness is a major feature of Catholic culture.
The Catholic portion of the Western tradition is only a portion, of course, and it must acknowledge those parts that cannot be ingested, but an engagement with the cultural otherness of the ancient, modern and non-Western worlds keeps the Catholic mind intelligent and vital. At its best, the Catholic cultural tradition is fearless: Its love is grounded in courage, the courage to experience the new and the alien as a possible revelation. Right now, the most startling and necessary exemplar for such fearlessness is Pope Francis, who took the name and mission of a medieval saint to remind the contemporary Church of what Christianity can be.
The second term is “independent thinker.” This ideal figure is defined by his or her intellect, and s/he is free of the very tradition inherited — no mere repeater or rejecter of that tradition, but an active participant in it — not as its tool, but as its artist. The independent thinker of intellect, imagination and spirit is the liberal artist of tradition who exercises reverent reason to question what s/he is inheriting in order to understand, imitate and revise tradition so as to renew it. Innovation is an advent of the new arising out of the old in circumstances the old could not foresee for its rejuvenation before it dies of stagnation. One can think of the liberal artist of tradition as Catholicism imagines the Christian person — oriented by a body into which it is incorporated, without ever losing distinct personhood. Liberty is a Catholic principle, which is why non-Catholics find a habitation at UD.
And what is the relationship between the tradition and the person? The tradition is for the person and the person for the tradition — without either becoming a mere instrument of the other. If tradition becomes a mere tool for use by the present, or a person a mere tool for the endurance of the past — as in fashionable public universities and banal Catholic colleges, respectively — then the dignity of the encounter is lost. The privileged leisure that faculty and student body share in that encounter allows a Catholic university to make people of liberal character. Newman, again:
“It is the education which gives a man [or woman] a clear, conscious view of his [or her] own opinions and judgments, a truth in developing them, an eloquence in expressing them, and a force in urging them.” The liberal education of “a Catholic university for independent thinkers” should endow us with the “repose of mind” that Newman sees as the fulfillment of a liberal education.
Here, that repose results from the Core, Rome and the majors in the full community of the college. UD’s Constantin College is a cosmos — with or without a bubble — which is a representation of the cosmos (containing natural, human and divine realities), a world preparing all of us to be citizens of the larger world. By a principle of subsidiarity, the reigning deity of Constantin, as a college, is Lady Wisdom, to whose pursuit we are all dedicated. She binds all of us in community. The independent thinker feels at home in the Catholic intellectual tradition because s/he can participate in its openness to wisdom. Lady Wisdom is that tradition’s beginning and end, and no earthly treasure can compare to her.