The Vision of a Catholic University

The loss of the Judeo-Christian vision in the West has many casualties, perhaps none so obvious as the degradation of our popular culture. We might think of art as the canary in the coal mine, the death of the canary being the early warning of foul air. In a like manner, art in the West has been the early warning of the death of culture. Much of what is displayed in trendy museums and studios, much of our music and what is shown on our movie screens cannot even be described in polite company, much less experienced without revulsion. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that what we are witnessing is the death of the vision that gave rise to higher culture — to the art, music, and literature that inspired, uplifted, and ennobled man. Without that vision we would have no Dante, no Pietà, no Sistine Chapel, no Bach concerto, no Swan Lake, no Shakespeare, no Dostoevsky.
At the root of our cultural decay is the loss of the essential convictions, the foundational truths, by which Western society was organized and enculturated. Note the realities we’ve lost sight of:
Original sin. This simple truth explains why man, with all his intelligence and ideals, is constantly prey to corruption. In the absence of this essential understanding, man is perceived as shaped entirely by his environment; he is perfectible in the right social order. He is the noble savage, rendered base only by oppressive social and political structures. Destroy these and the new man will emerge, to live in paradise on earth.
Thus, the power and evil effect of ideas popularized before and during the French Revolution — such as Rousseau’s “Man is born free and is everywhere in chains,” whose hideous progeny includes Stalin’s gulags, Mao’s cultural revolution, and the killing fields of the Khmer Rouge.
Second, the Incarnation. God became man, took on material form, and in that stupendous act forever pronounced the body good, simultaneously refuting and rejecting the many religious and pop psychology movements that consider matter evil. Further reflection on the meaning of the Incarnation brought the great impulse to paint and sculpt nature and the human form.
Third, salvation. The knowledge that we are not doomed by original sin is the antidote to despair; we have a Savior, and in Him we have life. Indeed, even in this life we have joy, and the saints have ecstasy. Calvary gives meaning and value to suffering. Death is evil, but it is not to be feared; it has been defeated. The corollary principle is that our salvation is from a Person — the Son of God — and not from our own efforts, however heroic. Thus is demolished Pelagianism in all its forms, and the pitiable attempts to treat ourselves as gods.
These pillars of the Christian vision are not just the wellspring of the West’s cultural treasure, although they are surely that. They are not mere relics of a past glorious age superseded by modern man’s advances in psychology and science. From the very beginning of Christianity down to the modern era we have examples of their transformative power in the world.{mospagebreak}

The Loss of Moral Vision

One of last century’s great moral forces was AlexanderSolzhenitsyn. Here was a man with no power other than the pen who took on what may have been the most ruthless totalitarian regime of all time. Beginning with what amounted to his prison testimony — One Day in the life of Ivan Denisovich, to the more powerful exposé of the system in Cancer Ward and First Circle (which could only be published abroad and were circulated as samizdat in Russia), he laid out an indictment of the regime. These profound revelations of the inner corruption of the Soviet Union culminated in his master work, the three-volume Gulag Archipelago. Here the scale, horror, and arbitrary cruelty of Soviet Communism were laid bare for all the world to see. And such was Solzhenitsyn’s reputation, so compelling the testimony of the prison camp survivors, that the shocking facts could not be denied.
Through Solzhenitsyn’s moral vision, his unabashed exaltation of the truth, the legitimacy of the Soviet regime was destroyed. Yes, the beast lingered for another decade or so, until Pope John Paul II’s unique moral authority and President Reagan’s firmness assured its final demise and burial. Yet Soviet Communism never recovered from Solzhenitsyn’s critique.
What was the source of his moral authority? The key was something he wrote about his experience in prison:
It was only when I lay there on rotting prison straw that I sensed within myself the first stirrings of good. Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, not between political parties either — but right through every human heart — and through all human hearts.
Here was a man who had been unjustly sent to the gulag, and yet instead of wallowing in self-pity or bitterness came to understand that God had used the prison experience to strip him of the pride, arrogance, and aggression that once dominated him. He so cherished this transformation of his soul that even after long, bleak years in the gulag he could say, “Bless you, prison!” Accepting the suffering as grace, Solzhenitsyn became a moral giant of indomitable courage.
The new century provides fresh threats to the West. Externally we are confronted with a newly industrialized China, which is on track to surpass the United States in economic output. China does not have a history of aggression, yet it clearly sees itself as a major world power and will resist any interference in its sphere of influence in Asia — which surely includes American allies such as South Korea, Japan, and Taiwan. Even Russia, a greatly reduced and impovished former world power, seems firmly in the grip of a KGB thugocracy, with oil revenues that have encouraged a new militancy. Even now, it retains an enormous arsenal of nuclear missiles.
The more difficult challenge is militant Islam, because it is largely stateless and capable of using cells of fanatics throughout the West to damage, disrupt, and intimidate. Much of Europe has been politically emasculated by a relatively small but fierce and rapidly growing Muslim minority. And the inexorable demographic decline of ethnic Europeans presages decades of Islamic ascendancy in what was once the heart of the West.
Yet these external threats would not be deadly but for the internal weakness of our nation. America retains unsurpassed military and industrial power. It truly is the world’s only superpower. But to resist aggression in any form requires not merely the means, but the will. Struggle always involves sacrifice. Even now names evoking the past sacrifices of this nation can still inspire us: Valley Forge, Gettysburg, Omaha Beach. Americans were willing to endure even the supreme sacrifice of their lives if the cause was liberty, justice, or freedom from oppression. {mospagebreak}
This deep willingness to sacrifice has been terribly weakened by relativism, secularism, and various pop spiritualities commanding the loyalty of the young (and old), from eastern mysticism to pantheism wrapped in environmental platitudes. Of course a free society can tolerate aberrant and self-destructive views. But if these views become dominant, the self-understanding of what the nation represents may become confused, and its will to survive may weaken fatally.
When a mother may kill the fruit of her womb; when pornography is put on a plane with a free press; when homosexual relationships are given the status of sacramental marriage; when freedom means license, and truth is whatever an individual says it is, we have reached a crisis. It really is a crisis of truth, one that Pope Benedict XVI so profoundly explicated in his lecture at Regensburg. Much of the West, having rejected the very source of truth, can no longer effectively champion reason or rationality. This is the supreme danger we face as a society.

Recovering the Future

It is our hope that the great ideals of America and the West can be awakened in our youth. It is our task to give them the philosophical and moral grounding, together with spiritual nourishment, so that not only can they withstand the hurricane winds of contemporary culture, but that they will truly be the salt and light of the new generation.
But these are no longer the overarching goals and principles of our leading institutions, not even of many of our Catholic ones. Yet the Catholic Faith, in its fullness, is not only for the salvation of our souls; it is the sure foundation on which to assess and engage with contemporary economic, political, and cultural issues roiling in our society — and, unfortunately, the modern academy. To discover these and challenge them is crucial, for small errors over time lead to huge and destructive errors, as history well attests. The Catholic understanding of the twin gifts of faith and reason — so magnificently explicated by our recent popes — is the hope for a new springtime in our nation, a new renaissance of our culture.
The thoughts of the Venerable John Henry Newman seem appropriate to that venture:
[A university] is a place where inquiry is pushed forward, and discoveries verified and perfected, and rashness rendered innocuous, and error exposed, by the collision of mind with mind, and knowledge with knowledge. It is the place where the professor becomes eloquent, and is a missionary and a preacher, displaying his sciences in its most complete and most winning form, pouring it forth with the zeal of enthusiasm, and lighting up his own love of it in the breasts of his hearers. . . .
It is a place which wins the admiration of the young by its celebrity, kindles the affections of the middle-aged by its beauty, and rivets the fidelity of the old by its associations. It is a seat of wisdom, a light of the world, a minister of the faith, an Alma Mater of the rising generation. . . .
Such is a University in its idea and in its purpose; such in good measure has it before now been in fact. Shall it ever be again? We are going forward in the strength of the Cross, under the patronage of the Blessed Virgin, to attempt it. . . .
This is our vision. May God give us the grace to accomplish it.


Nicholas J. Healy is the former president of Ave Maria University.