Sunday, November 19, 2006


This week's Musing is not addressed to the usual visitors to this site, but to friends and colleagues who are concerned about the mission and identity of Catholic institutions of higher education. Much of what I say will be familiar to regular readers of Science Musings.

These thoughts are inspired by an article in last Sunday's Boston Globe about the search for identity by Roman Catholic colleges and universities. On the one hand, these institutions aspire to the academic excellence and free inquiry that characterize the great secular institutions -- Harvard University and Wheaton College (Massachusetts), for example -- many of which started out as church-related schools. On the other hand, they are reluctant to go the way of faith-based schools that have no hesitations about their religious identities -- Bob Jones University and Wheaton College (Illinois), for example.

Meanwhile, the pressure from Rome is clear: retrench, shore up, hire more Catholic profs, teach more orthodox theology, wear your Catholicism on your sleeve.

I have spent most of my adult life associated with Catholic higher education, mainly with two wonderful institutions -- the University of Notre Dame and Stonehill College -- founded and maintained by the Congregation of Holy Cross, a community of brilliant and compassionate men and women dedicated to education. Many of these men were my teachers and friends, and never in 40 years in their company did I experience anything but support for my teaching and writing, even as I lapsed from formal communion. The atmosphere in which I worked was liberal, tolerant and supportive of diversity.

Yet Stonehill, like the other institutions profiled by the Globe, is concerned about its identity. Yes, it calls itself a Catholic college, as it must if it is to maintain its applicant pool -- mainly the children of devout or nominal Catholic families. But the faculty is increasingly non-Catholic, and the formal trappings of Catholicism that I experienced at Notre Dame in the 1950s -- prayers before classes, courses in apologetics, teachers with Roman collars, etc. -- are mostly nonexistent. A casual visitor to the campus would be hard pressed to recognize the place as Church-related.

Meanwhile, the college is about to invest in a splendid new science building, the most ambitious project in the school's history.

And there's the rub.

Science and religious faith are the two greatest forces in the world today, and the tension between them is palpable and real. In Catholic higher education, the battle with the content of science has been mostly won; the science taught in the best Catholic colleges and universities is identical to that of any of our great secular institutions. But the clash of orthodox theology with the spirit of the empirical way of knowing is generally swept under the rug or rationalized with wishful thinking. The tension will become more acute as we learn more about the genetic, chemical, and anthropological origins of religion.

Theologically speaking, it's as if the Scientific Revolution never happened.

While we teach 21st-century science in the classroom, in the chapel we recite a Creed based on neolithic cosmologies, and tell ourselves that there is no contradiction because science and faith belong to separate domains. But knowledge is a single domain, and it was the singular triumph of Christian Europe (with significant assists from elsewhere) to devise a way of knowing that is more reliable than tradition or "revelation." No wonder it is so difficult to find and hire top-notch Catholic scholars. We are asking them to live in two contradictory conceptual worlds at once -- the 21st-century universe of the galaxies and the DNA, and the medieval universe of the Great Chain of Being.

Towards the end of the 19th century, forward-looking Catholic theologians and philosophers sought to reformulate doctrine in ways that were consistent with empirical learning, undoing a long tension between science and faith that stretched back to Galileo and -- more recently -- to Darwin. The movement was condemned as the Modernist heresy, and formally crushed with the 1907 encyclical Pascendi Dominici Gregis and Syllabus Condemning the Errors of the Modernists. The oppressive influence of these documents, together with the stultifying doctrine of papal infallibility promulgated in 1870, rendered serious discussion of the intrinsic conflict of science and faith mute throughout the 20th century.

I submit that Catholic educational institutions will not achieve their potential until the Modernist condemnation is consigned to the trash heap of history. This means that Catholic theologians would again openly examine the relevance of archaic doctrines to the modern world. Body-soul dualism, personal immortality, heaven and hell, the Resurrection, the divinity of the historical Jesus, miracles, Catholic triumphalism: all are in thrall to an understanding of the world that has been scientifically obsolete since the 17th century. Also up for examination are the Church's historic paternalism, jansenism, misogyny, anti-Semitism, and homophobia.

But didn't Paul say, "If Christ did not rise from the dead, then your faith is in vain."

Well, yes, and if Jesus did not rise from the dead then faith that he was consubstantial with the creator of the universe and literally triumphed over death is indeed in vain.

But identification with the Jesus of the Sermon on the Mount is not in vain. Identification with the Jesus who died for what he thought was the good of humankind is not in vain. Identification with the Jesus who embraced sinners, lepers and the poor is not in vain. Identification with the Jesus who suffered very human doubt on the cross is not in vain. Nor does it matter if these events happened as recorded by the evangelists. That is to say, everything that is good and transforming about the Christian tradition depends not a whit upon the two-thousand-year-old supernaturalist myths that were contrived, perhaps sincerely, by Jesus' admirers and immediate successors and codified at Nicea.

In place of the spirit-haunted world of our prescientific ancestors, a renewed Church would embrace the evolving empirical cosmology of the 21st century -- what the cultural historian and Redemptorist priest Thomas Berry calls "the New Story." The antagonisms between science and faith are deeper than they might appear to be, writes Berry. The older redemptive stories of the Judeo-Christian tradition simply do not meet the most basic tests of rational knowing, he says. But the newer, scientific story of creation has not yet acquired a spiritual aspect: "An integral story has not emerged."

It should be part of the mission of Catholic colleges and universities to help forge the integral story -- to make sacred and holy the world described by science. No mission can be more important to our future.

But if we jettison what most Catholics consider to be the dogmatic core of their faith -- Nicean dogma -- what remains to identify our colleges and universities as uniquely Catholic?


The sacramental and liturgical life of the Church will survive, gracious and transforming. Human nature hasn't substantially changed in 10,000 years. We still sense the world as sacred. We still long for communities of shared celebration and praise. We still want rites of passage. We still need the experience of contemplative prayer. We still must attend again and again to the lessons of the Sermon on the Mount. Sanctity does not require a supernatural referent for its definition. Nor does grace.

There is a vast tradition of uniquely Catholic literature, art, and music that takes us to the heart of the human search for meaning. Gerard Manley Hopkins, Mary Gordon, Walker Percy, Sigrid Undset, Georges Bernanos, Evelyn Waugh, Flannery O'Connor, Andre Dubus, Graham Greene, Shusaku Endo, and countless other Catholic writers rank with the best the modern age has to offer.

There is a tradition of Catholic social justice that needs to be brought to the fore. Catholic religious communities and lay people have made monumental contributions to medicine, education and service to the poor that can inspire our students to similar selflessness. The modern mystical tradition, exemplified by Thomas Merton, Teilhard de Chardin, and many others, sharpens our perceptions of an intuited quality of the world that resists empirical analysis. The monastic tradition has much to teach us about balancing reflection, work and learning in our individual lives.

And -- most importantly -- who better to infuse the scientific way of knowing with a necessary sense of the sacred and respect for human dignity than the Church that stumbled with Galileo? Who better to lead the way into an ecologically healthy future for the planet than the Church that has misdirected so much of its influence and energy in denigrating the material world?

Yes, there can be a glorious mission for Church-related higher education once we understand that we are not prisoners of archaic dogma and neolithic ways of knowing, once we understand that we are in possession of a tradition that is as rich in sacred virtue as it is shameful in human failure. The Modernists tried to lead us out of the wilderness. So did John XXIII. In both instances the Church showed a failure of the will -- an unwillingness to define itself in terms of the future rather than the past.

Will this change anytime soon? Not likely. Entrenched authoritarian bureaucracies resist transformation, and people of all faiths are reluctant to give up traditional beliefs, even as it becomes clear that our faith commitments are overwhelmingly determined by accidents of birth. Nevertheless, de facto reformation is inevitable. Catholic lay people and communities of professed women and men -- especially women, in my experience -- are leading the way towards an identity that is defined less by medieval dogma and more by 21st-century practice.

As one long associated with Catholic higher education and deeply respectful of the best of that tradition, I continue to hope that Catholic educators will resist a relapse into Bob Jones fundamentalism (even in its so-called "mainstream" guise) and become instead a shining example of the virtues so necessary for our common global future -- a love for the world as we empirically find it, and a sense that everything in it is holy.

Further Reading

I am aware that my critique above depends upon a qualified realist theory of knowledge, as opposed to the constructivist theories so popular in parts of the academy today. This should not be a problem in this context since Catholicism has historically aligned itself with philosophical realism. For a concise discussion of the philosophical issues, see philosopher Paul Boghossian's Fear of Knowledge: Against Relativism and Constructivism (Oxford, 2006), a careful analysis of what most natural scientists -- and, ironically, most Catholic theologians -- take for granted.

For a hint -- and merely a hint -- of what a theologically-reformed, scientifically-informed Catholicism might look like, try Ursula Goodenough's The Sacred Depths of Nature.

Discuss this essay and more over on the Science Musings Blog.