Devon, PA.  Last week, Villanova University’s Office of Mission and Ministry invited several faculty members to speak about the contributions of their religious faith traditions to the life and mission of the University.  In anticipation of the FPR panel at the Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture this coming weekend (see here), I thought I would share my remarks with our readership . . .

When I was invited to participate in this lunch, I responded with more zeal than thought and accepted. But, as I reflected on the subject—the contribution of my particular religious faith to Villanova’s mission—I found that the answer required was more extensive and difficult to articulate than I might have expected, precisely because the most obvious response would seem so banal. Villanova is a Catholic university; I am a Catholic. Insofar as the first of these statements are true, Catholicism makes Villanova to be a university in the first place: it does not contribute to the vitality of Villanova’s already living culture, but is constitutive of its existence and of its purpose. And as for the second, it simply indicates that I am an unexceptional part of that existence.

But, presuming we can set aside what may strike some of your ears as echoes of parochialism or sectarianism, this apparently uninteresting claim raises some compelling questions. A Catholic hospital can cease being Catholic, as so many have, and still be a hospital—even though this may in some cases involve it in practices that Catholics would argue violate the oath physicians are required to take qua physicians. But can a Catholic university cease to be Catholic and still remain a university?

Half a decade ago, the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre claimed the answer was “no.” Why?

Education is not a Catholic invention, of course, and Catholic educational institutions have richly drawn on the forms and categories of inquiry that pre-exist the establishment of the Church. But, to the extent that the university provides a distinct type of education that reflects a particular understanding of human nature and the purpose or aim of human life, the historical university came into being in conformity with the Church’s understanding of these things.

Catholic tradition proclaims, with the pagan Aristotle, that all human beings by nature desire to know, and all our studies begin in wonder. We have a capacity for wonder because, unlike the knowledge proper to our particular senses, our intellect is not restricted to one sort of object or another, but extends to “universal being.” The eye knows color, the smell knows scent, but by our intellectual nature, we desire to know everything that is. We begin in wonder, because that totality seems inexhaustible, irreducibly complex, and yet patently ordered and ripe with intelligibility. And yet our mind’s very omnivorousness frustrates us in our efforts to make a beginning. To know all, where do we begin? De facto, we begin with the experience of that question, which itself merits study.

To fulfill that desire, to make a beginning and to arrive at the truth of all beings, we create fields of inquiry specifically suited to particular types of being until we have appointed a field for every sort of possible being.

But, also with Aristotle, the Church proposes that true knowledge is of causes—the particular causes that make the diversity of beings to be what they specifically are, and above all the cause that makes something to be something rather than nothing in the first place. Consequently, this tradition says that there is a vast diversity of fields of inquiry and that these fields stand in relation to one another and soon lead us back to their foundation in that inquiry which investigates the first principle of all things. And so, the vast panoply of universal being is in fact an organic and orchestrated whole, and to study its parts leads our deepest desires toward a vision of that whole in its intelligible unity, one that accounts not merely for the generic differences between things (between giraffes and minerals, or between economic, psychological, and physical laws, for instance) but for the things themselves as things. What we encounter when we get a glance of that unity is not simply everything, but the creator of everything, Who is God.

Things lead us to contemplate God as their cause, but no sooner to we begin to see God as the first principle behind our diverse inquiries than He becomes the subject, even the fixation, of our deepest attention. And so education is completed, the Catholic tradition tells us, by the elevation of rational inquiry by means of faith, to contemplate God not only as the first cause of things but as the source of their meaning and as their ultimate end.

The institution that makes such a journey possible is what a university claims to be. The Church, without any such establishment, could lead souls to the contemplation of God, but the university proposes to lead them systematically and by every avenue of inquiry. It is a longer road to the same place, and places a greater hope in and burden upon human reason.

To be clear, the University does not simply teach everything, as if it were a giant sack filled with the discrete and disconnected marbles of this-or-that field of inquiry. Rather, it concerns itself with extending the intellect into every place where there is something to be discovered, and, more importantly, it concerns itself with gathering the fruits of the intellect into their proper order so that the individual human mind may gain some vision of the whole truth of things in its fundamental unity.

This is, of course, the mission outlined on our University’s crest. Led by love, or Charity (Caritas), to seek after truths, we order those truths into the vision of Truth itself (Veritas). It is in our nature to do so, and when we proceed from being to being to being, and finally arrive at this vision, we are promised in faith not only to see the Unity of all knowledge but to be ourselves raised up, made whole, complete, an intellectual and spiritual Unity unto ourselves (Unitas).

It may be rather hard to persuade our students of this, but what the Catholic University proposes is that heaven will be an awful lot like very efficient, very thorough studying: a study in which the answers stand all before us, in a unity, and forever. The contemplation of Truth is the only end that makes us a unity, that makes us complete, and that, therefore, will give peace to our foraging and otherwise insatiable appetites.

In order to perform its shepherding role well, a University can afford to exclude no aspect of being, but it must also order itself to lead the mind from this-and-that to Being Itself. It must show that there is not only a diversity of studies but that all are ultimately gathered into the contemplation of a reality, in its unity, infinitely greater than the sum of its parts. We study beings, truths, goods, and beauties so that we ultimately may know and name God. As MacIntyre argued, insofar as any aspect of this study is left out, the university lacks in the requisite diversity and it also cannot lead its students to the unity for which their rational natures destine them. The principle of selection and ordering of subjects for study, I propose, ought precisely to be the terms being, truth, goodness, and beauty. Since we cannot study everything, even if our ultimate aim is to know all things, we should arrange curricula so that they direct the mind to the perception of these fundamental realities.

But here I want to offer a twist on this familiar argument that attests not simply to the essential constitution of any university as a Catholic university if it is going to be a university at all—one suggested to me by the writings of Gene Veith, the provost of a small Evangelical liberal arts college located just outside Washington, D.C. So concerned must a Catholic university be with including all significant fields of inquiry into the panoply of beings, that it is easy for it to think that merely providing every part of universal being is sufficient. So long as everything is present and accounted for, the institution has done its work and may rest, glutted and satisfied. The totality or universality of the university ends up being located nowhere except in the institution as an abstractly conceived whole. But the end of the university is not the university itself, but the formation of the students whom it educates.

We have seen that universities lose track of this purpose quite easily and that, more often than not, the modern university appears more like a bazaar or a marketplace, rather than an organic whole that draws all things together and leads its students toward that singular glance of wisdom the Church calls happiness. It is not simply easy but tempting for an institution to fall into this inert if comprehensive condition, for modern liberal culture provides us an alternative and less exacting conception of “universality.” Liberal societies regard themselves as receptive and inclusive of variety if they can show they maximally contain heterogeneous quantities of this-or that. But they are inveterately suspicious of claims that would give order, purpose, and meaning to those things.

This conception of an inert universality has, naturally, founds its way into the Catholic university precisely because it must comprehend all things. When knowledge of various fields becomes disconnected from our understanding of love and happiness, of the Unity of Truth, a university may continue to fill its students with learning, but it does not any longer educate them, it does not lead them to fulfill their natures.

Seeing this fragmented and inert state of the university, decades ago, Protestant churches began establishing campus ministries: small, proselytizing groups or offices on college campuses that sought to complement—in the sense of complete—the diverse parts of education by drawing them toward their final unity and purpose. My experience of such groups has been that they do not view their mission has being proper to what a university ought to do intrinsically and of its own nature. They think of themselves, rather, as keeping students conscious of the truths of faith, while they set about the pursuit of the worldly and useful knowledge the university offers.

But this sense of extrinsic awakening is not the only one that justifies the Protestant “campus ministry” enterprise. Quite understandably, Catholics and Catholic universities, during these last decades of the expansion of higher education and staggering societal upheavals, have been largely content, even relieved, to assume responsibly only to teach about every sort of being in its own right. But they also often found themselves with few resources when they began to notice, decades ago, that their students were no longer synthesizing all that rational knowledge into the unity that is completed, through faith, in the contemplation of God. Such synthesizing work had always occurred before; it derives naturally from the study of beings; but, not inexplicably though certainly confusingly, it was no longer much occurring on the campuses of Catholic universities.

How fortunate, then, that Protestant Christians and, in some cases, Jews, in very different circumstances, had come up with strategies that could operate outside the curriculum and the classroom, but on the university campus, to help students integrate their intellectual and spiritual life. Retreats, Scripture study groups, prayer meetings, service clubs, and other such activities provoke students to seek some fulfillment in their education beyond the mere acquisition of diverse bodies of knowledge.

According to Veith, apart from its role in state or “secular” schools, this has been the great Protestant contribution to the life of the Catholic university. What a gift it is! As we can well appreciate, since that gift includes our own Office of Mission and Ministry and our gather here today. It provides strategies for stimulating students to the thought of Christian Truth in an age where serious discussion of it is largely excluded from public, or even daily, life. It provides us paths of revival, in an age where only a remnant seem much concerned with bringing the inert universality of knowledge to its vital completion.

But, if a Catholic University wishes not only to remain Catholic but to remain a University, it must go beyond even this well-adapted strategy. It must imagine itself once again as answering to the most profound human longing in love; as leading students on a pilgrimage through the diversity of truths; and as bringing them ultimately to the brink of a vision of Truth where all things are raised into Unity and are given their rest. This anthropology, this sense of purpose, is not simply one part of a university among others, but is constitutive of the university as a coherent entity, as a gift, as an answer, to our deepest human need. It is not the only view one make take of knowledge, but it alone does not exclude the destiny of its participants, and so it is the one truly universal view of the university.

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James Matthew Wilson
James Matthew Wilson is Associate Professor in the Department of Humanities and Augustinian Traditions at Villanova University. An award-winning scholar of philosophical-theology and literature, he has authored dozens of essays, articles, and reviews on subjects ranging from art, ethics, and politics, to meter and poetic form, from the importance of local culture to the nature of truth, goodness, and beauty. Wilson is also a poet and critic of contemporary poetry, whose work appears regularly in such magazines and journals as First Things, Modern Age, The New Criterion, Dappled Things, Measure, The Weekly Standard, Front Porch Republic, The Raintown Review, and The American Conservative. He has published five books, including most recently, a collection of poems, Some Permanent Things and a monograph, The Catholic Imagination in Modern American Poetry (both Wiseblood Books, 2014). Raised in the Great Lakes State, baptised in the parish of St. Thomas Aquinas, seasoned by summers on Lake Wawasee (Indiana), and educated under the Golden Dome, Wilson is scion of a family of Hoosiers dating back to the early nineteenth century, and an offspring of Southside Chicago Poles whose tavern kept the city wet through the Depression (and prohibition) years.  He now lives under the same sentence of reluctant exile as many another native son of the Midwest, but has dug himself in for good on the margins of the Main Line in Pennsylvania with his beautiful wife, dangerous daughter, and saintly sons. For information on Wilson's scholarship and a selection of his published work, click here. See books written and recommended by James Matthew Wilson.