End Notes: Cardiac Arrest

Catholic colleges and universities are now opened for the beginning of a new academic year and all the other private and public institutions have done the same.  The academic year has always rivaled the calendar year for primacy, at least for much or our lives.

On campuses, a year bridges calendar years, we begin in autumn and end in spring, though we call our end a beginning, a commencement. It is at commencements that the origin of all these institutions, sectarian and secular, is inescapable. They all have their origin in the medieval university. That is, in the university as a Catholic institution.

In the title of John Paul II’s 1990 document, the university arose “from the heart of the Church, ex corde ecclesiae. The Holy Father was asking Catholic institutions of higher learning to reflect on their mission and to see their task as a continuing meditation upon the relation between faith and reason. The reaction to this document is a familiar story. Professors and institutions were embarrassed, even angered, by the reminder that Catholic universities have a distinct and more complete mission than secular universities. One could gather from the negative reaction that the notion that the faith has an essential role to play in the intellectual lives of Catholics was being repudiated.

It is a sad day when Catholic scholars see the faith as an impediment rather than an advantage. I would like to be more impressed than I am by the achievements of those who champion a secularized university. They seem to be mediocre models to put before the young. What we need at the present moment, I think, is fresh reflection on the giants that have gone before us, those who, like our institutions, emerged ex corde ecclesiae.

Of course, there are the great historic role models of the Catholic intellectual, those mentioned by Leo XIII in his encyclical Aeterni patris, Ambrose, Augustine, Anselm, Bonaventure, and Albert. And preeminently Thomas Aquinas. Every one of them is a saint besides, and this points to the integration of the pursuit of truth into the basic Christian vocation to holiness. But there are other models closer to hand, ones with whom students can more easily identify.

When John Paul II beatified Edith Stein a few years ago, he put her on a path that will certainly end with her canonization. Perhaps, ultimately, with her recognition as a Doctor of the Church. Like the already canonized Maximilian Kolbe, she was murdered at Auschwitz, in her case because she was Jewish in origin, even though she had converted and become a Carmelite nun. When she became a Catholic, a reading of St. Teresa of Avila’s Autobiography played a prominent role. In it Edith Stein found the truth she was seeking. She had sought it in secular philosophy, she was already a distinguished and prominent member of the Phenomenological School, assistant to Edmund Husserl and author of several important works. Now she wanted to take on the mind of the Church, to become a Catholic through and through. And of course she turned to Thomas Aquinas, becoming again, as it were, a beginning student. From Thomas she learned for the first time, as she put it, that the pursuit of the truth could be done in the service of God.

That is the distinctively Catholic thing and perhaps it takes a convert to see and appreciate it. The faith is not something to be set aside when one uses mind and imagination. It informs and guides and illumines their activities. It exercises the influence that created the culture of Europe, its art, its music, its literature as well as its philosophy and theology.

Jacques and Raissa Maritain continue to speak to young Catholic minds. Her memoirs, We Have Been Friends Together and Adventures in Grace, put vividly before the reader a vision of life that animated her poetry, Jacques’ philosophy, and the artistic and intellectual activities of their circle of friends.

Those friends were brought together in the Cercle d’etudes thornistes that Jacques discusses in his Notebooks, an appendix of which contains the constitution of the Circle. Their distinctive note was the complementarity of prayer and study, two aspects of the single effort to unite ourselves to the Truth. Students respond to this unified vision of what they have come to a Catholic campus to do. Our worship and sense of responsibility to others should not seem a marginal add-on to what takes place in the classroom. At Notre Dame, at least, every classroom has a crucifix, prominently placed, and many classes are still begun with a prayer. Will the ex in the papal document suggest only what used to be, or will the preposition stand for a continuing emergence of the pursuit of truth from the ambience of the faith? The signs of the time are ambiguous. The young people now arriving on our campuses will decide the issue.


Ralph McInerny was a popular writer, philosopher, and teacher, as well as the co-founder of Crisis Magazine. He passed away on January 29, 2010.

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