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Pittsburgh Catholic Column: July 16, 2007

Catholic university not a contradiction in terms

 by Dr. Charles J. Dougherty

George Bernard Shaw once remarked that a Catholic university is a contradiction in terms. His point was that a university is an institution based on reason. But Catholicism is based on faith. Since reason and faith are incompatible, a Catholic university is a contradiction.

This was not an uncommon view in the 19th and early 20th centuries, both in and out of academia. In that era, American Catholic universities and colleges were regarded by the dominant culture as second-class institutions. But that perception has changed, and Shaw’s quip has lost its bite.

First, Catholic universities just kept getting better. Traditional strengths in teaching began to be matched by accomplishments in research and scholarship. Now our faculties also author books and articles, make scientific discoveries and create artistic insights. In short, Catholic universities demonstrated that truth can be competently and vigorously pursued with the use of reason in the context of an explicit faith commitment.

And we got better in one way that is very important to parents and students choosing a college. Our institutions’ faith commitments gave us a distinctive way of relating to students. Catholic universities made it explicit to themselves and to those they sought to attract that the personal and spiritual growth of students is a central part of our mission. Yes, we are here to advance knowledge and pursue the truth. Yes, we are here to educate and provide skills in liberal arts, business and the professions. But we are also here to make our students better people in the most fundamental ways.

In the second half of the 20th century, scholars also began to doubt that there is a fundamental gulf between reason and faith. All reasoning must take some things for granted, things that are accepted on faith — whether religious or secular. The view began to prevail that no one can reason to the truth directly without taking some perspective on it, some particular point of view. This is commonplace in daily life; we all have our opinions and points of view. This insight was applied to all knowledge.

A metaphor may be useful. To try to reason a way to truth without any faith would be like trying to see the whole of a mountain in one view — without standing anywhere, without having any particular perspective. An intellectual consensus began to emerge that all approaches to truth, like seeing any mountain, are through particular perspectives from the actual places we stand. The places we stand are what we accept as matters of faith.

The view that all reasoning requires some faith, whether religious or secular, gives rise to a second insight. If we can only see part of the mountain, the part we can see from where we stand, it is important to know where we stand. It is important to know how that perspective may be shaping our view of the mountain. So reason may be more effective in a context where faith is explicit.

And faith itself cannot be expressed and understood without reason. Every articulate matter of faith is expressed and transferred through reason. The great works of theology show the systemic application of reason to faith. But any explanation of a belief requires some level of reasoning.

Reason and faith are plainly different, but not nearly as incompatible as Shaw presumed. A university is better off in its pursuit of truth and in attracting students when it can be explicit about both its reasons for faith as well as its faith in reason.

Catholic university, a contradiction in terms? Not at all. It would be closer to the truth to say that a university without faith is a contradiction in terms. And it matters what that faith is because it shapes the way an institution relates to its students. At Catholic universities, our transcendent faith commitment is explicit, and it aids us in the pursuit of truth and in service to our students.