The long twilight battle to bring established Catholic institutions of higher learning back to a robust understanding of the relevance of the faith for the life of the mind and imagination goes on, and reports of small but real successes come in from almost everywhere. There are indeed encouraging signs that the worm of secularization is being arrested or at least slowed. Added to this is the continued growth of institutions formed on solid Catholic principles of higher education—the principles laid out by Pope John Paul II’s Ex Corde Ecclesiae and John Henry Cardinal Newman’s Idea of a University, which that document invokes.
Out of the Heart of the Church—the very title of John Paul II’s 1990 document reminds us of a historical truth too often forgotten. Was it George Bernard Shaw who said that the very notion of a Catholic university is an oxymoron? Well, it is an old rule of logic—and being a rule of logic, it is as new as it is old—that ab esse ad posse valet illatio: What has been can be. If it weren’t possible, it could not have existed. The original universities, granted their charters from the 13th century and onward, were Catholic institutions in which the faith of the Church was regarded not as an alien intrusion but as their very animating principle. Those who see the notion of a Catholic university as an untried innovation are willfully ignorant of the history of the rise of universities.
That historical truth is complemented, alas, by another, and that is the progressive secularization of universities. There is a growing shelf of studies on the way in which colleges and universities that were started under religious auspices have abandoned their original inspiration and become indistinguishable from unabashedly secular institutions. That this has been true even of Catholic colleges and universities in this country has been documented by James T. Burtchaell, C.S.C., in his magisterial The Dying of the Light. Confronted with such studies, it is the tendency of the current administrations of many Catholic universities simply to deny the charge and to assert that what their institutions are doing defines what it means to be a Catholic university. The hopeful signs acknowledged above are seldom initiated by administrators. Rather, what we find is that new faculty, graduate and undergraduate students, and law students have exercised a subtle but effective bottom-up influence, generating initiatives to which some administrators sign on, however reluctantly.
The International Catholic University (ICU), a virtual or distance university, was founded in 1995 to give a new generation of Catholics the chance to take courses that exhibit the relevance of faith for the essential academic task of the university. The idea behind ICU was simply this: While it is difficult to find Catholic institutions, particularly traditional ones, whose practices, as opposed to their mission statements, exhibit that vigorous confidence that faith is the best friend the human intellect ever had, it would be possible to form a faculty from first-rate professors scattered throughout the country. Although the difficulties of uniting them on one traditional campus are formidable, even practically impossible, the technology now available provides an alternative. By means of courses available on a Web site, with lectures on videotapes and audiotapes, one could offer a genuinely Catholic curriculum of higher education. And so we began.
With the powerful help of Mother Angelica, who touted the effort and made available the state-of-the-art studios of EWTN, professors began to tape fundamental courses. As the effort expands, sites other than the studios in Birmingham are being used. Now besides courses that can lead to an M.A. in philosophy or theology, a wide variety of courses have been taped that bring within reach of any interested individual the great intellectual and cultural patrimony of the Church.
These thoughts are prompted by my having just taped a course on Newman and Kierkegaard for ICU. I should add that I am president of ICU. If this seems shameless self-promotion, I must say that I am not at all ashamed to bring this effort to your attention. In the age of information, it is very difficult—certainly very expensive—to make such information known. The heart of the Church has never missed a beat. Take our pulse.