How Can We Renew Catholic Higher Education? There are Four Key Principles

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The challenges are real but there is great cause for hope.

Most of us know families who have entrusted their children to Catholic educational institutions only to see them grow lukewarm in their faith. This is one of the greatest betrayals a family can experience.

Sometimes this loss comes about through no fault of the institution. No school, college, or university can override the freedom that each of us—including our children—have been given.

Yet when young faith encounters scandal—in the form of a conscious rejection of the settled teachings of the Church in an institution founded to guard and hand on those teachings—we recall Christ’s words about millstones: “It would be better for him if a millstone were hung round his neck and he were cast into the sea, than that he should cause one of these little ones to sin.”

But there is hope. The good news is that today, more than ever before, many Catholic colleges, universities, and schools are renewing their commitment to and practice of faithful Catholic education. As the rot sets in more deeply in some institutions, the fidelity of others is cast in greater relief.

But more than good will, the wise hiring of faithful Catholics, and the support of donors is required. A more comprehensive vision must inform planning and implementation over time if these institutions are to rise on a solid foundation and be sustained for generations. And a hidden element is often overlooked: the truth of the human person.

Pope Saint John Paul II surprised many when he observed that communism fell because it was based on a false understanding of the human person, a false philosophical and theological anthropology. Anyone seeking to build a strong institution for Catholic education should attend carefully to the classical understanding of what it means to be a human person created by God, an understanding given careful articulation by the Church and through the sources of the Catholic intellectual tradition.

Four pillars, each rising from this created nature of the human person, must support Catholic education in all of its forms.

1. We are created for wonder and with a desire to know the truth. Education is so much more than a transfer of knowledge or training in a technical skill. No matter the age of the student, Catholic education must begin by cultivating wonder in the hearts and minds of each student. Aristotle observed that “all men by nature desire to know.” This desire is already present and often must simply be channeled. But more often it must be reawakened. Think of how young children constantly ask “why?” This wonder and desire for truth remains buried deep within and is never completely lost.

2. We are created for worship. This worship must be beautiful, reverent, and timeless, speaking to both the heart and the mind. If worship is seen as peripheral or is too closely tied to the styles and popular modes of the present age, the student will someday set it aside as something from his childhood or adolescence that he has outgrown. Worship we will. Worship we must. Our Catholic institutions of learning must integrate this dimension in the full formation of those in their charge.

3. We were made for virtuous communion in love. Just as we were made for communion with God—expressed primarily through prayer and worship—we were made for communion with others. We are, to paraphrase Aristotle, “social by nature.” Catholic colleges, universities, and schools—if they seek to offer an integral Catholic education—will give their students opportunities to experience a communion that is virtually unknown in any secular context, a communion that is a foretaste of heaven.

This communion will be ordered to goods—natural and supernatural—and will call upon students to build up the virtues needed to achieve those goods. Where friendship—one of the four classical loves—may not have been present at first, it can grow over time. Many institutions find that small groups are the ideal way to create this communion if they build on natural affinities, are led by a competent guide, and are stable over time. In this context, students can experience trust, share achievements and struggles, and form both their intellect and imagination among their peers.

4. We were made for the reception and creation of culture. Faithful Catholic education looks beyond the school to students’ lives and work in the world. Just as Adam and Eve were placed in the garden “to till and keep it” so we and our future students are given a part of the garden of the world that is ours to till and keep. This work involves receiving creation and cultivating it as culture—culture being what we do with nature—for ourselves and for future generations.

Part of this education involves forming our students to be wise judges of culture, carefully determining what they will and will not receive into their lives. It involves learning which tools and technologies, as well as the content of those technologies, degrade them and make them less human. And it involves helping them to see how deeply “cultus” or worship, is tied to “culture.” Of course, this all requires us to do more than merely flee the bad. It involves embracing, building up, and bringing into existence the good. Imagine a gardener that only pulled weeds but never planted anything!

In this time of exciting renewal, often taking place just beyond our range of vision, Catholic education will form its students by attending carefully to each student’s created nature as well as to good hiring and steady funding. This nature manifests itself in (1) our created capacity for wonder and truth, (2) our need for worship that is beautiful, reverent, and transcendent, (3) our desire for purposeful communion in love that is animated by virtue, and (4) the desire to receive, create, and wisely cultivate the garden of the world.

Let us be courageous in our callings as Catholic leaders, educators, and parents but also wise in our building and renewal of Catholic institutions.

Please pray for us as we cultivate our garden and our students in these ways.

George Harne serves as a member of the faculty and as president of Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts in Warner, New Hampshire where students are called to “Set out into the Deep.”

For a more extended treatment of this topic, listen to president Harne’s presentation at the Institute for Catholic Culture in 2016.

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