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Column: Catholic colleges: Where faith and reason seek truth

by Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann

Recently, I celebrated the baccalaureate Mass at Benedictine College in Atchison and participated in the graduation ceremony at Donnelly College in Kansas City, Kan. In both cases, the celebration of the academic achievement of the graduates was done in an atmosphere where faith and reason were perceived as friends, not enemies.

Benedictine College has built two new dorms in the last five years and has doubled its enrollment in the past decade. This dramatic growth has corresponded to a decision by the leadership of Benedictine College to renew its commitment to its Catholic identity and mission.

Donnelly College was founded a little more than 60 years ago by the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas in cooperation with the Benedictine Sisters of Mount St. Scholastica in Atchison. Many of the current Donnelly graduates are the first individuals in their families to earn a degree in higher education.

Benedictine College and Donnelly College have many differences. Yet, they are both institutions of higher education where faith and reason are recognized as two avenues that lead to the same destination — truth.

The Feb. 22 edition of Newsweek magazine included an article entitled: “Harvard’s Crisis of Faith: Can a Secular University Embrace Religion without Sacrificing its Soul?” The article began with this sentence: “It doesn’t take a degree from Harvard to see that in today’s world, a person needs to know something about religion.”

However, Lisa Miller, the author of the article, went on to observe: “But in practice, the Harvard faculty cannot cope with religion. It cannot agree on who should teach it, how it should be taught, and how much value to give it compared with economics, biology, literature, and all the other subjects considered vital to an undergraduate education.” Miller did not miss the irony of “Harvard’s distaste for engaging religion as an academic subject,” since it was founded in 1636 to educate and form Christian ministers.

While it is true that Harvard still boasts a graduate divinity school, it is separated by half a mile from the main campus. This geographic separation is, in many ways, symbolic of the absolute separation of faith and reason in most institutions of higher education which has led to an impoverishment of the American university.

This is not in any way to denigrate science or enlightened rational inquiry of any type. It is simply an acknowledgment that, isolated and on their own, they are not capable of providing understanding of the fullness of human experience. In my opinion, students at Benedictine and Donnelly Colleges are being offered a more well-rounded and complete education than that received at Harvard, where there is such reticence to address respectfully the importance of religion in the human experience.

Sadly, many today are ignorant of the origin and history of the university in Western civilization. Dr. Thomas E. Woods, who has four Ivy League degrees, including an undergraduate degree from Harvard and a doctorate from Columbia University, authored the book: “How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization.” In a chapter entitled “The Church and the University,” Woods observes: “The university was an utterly new phenomenon in European history. Nothing like it had existed in ancient Greece or Rome. The institution that we recognize today, with its faculties, courses of study, examinations and degrees, as well as the distinction between undergraduate and graduate study, comes to us directly from the medieval world. The Church developed the university system, because, according to historian Lowrie Daly, it was ‘the only institution in Europe that showed consistent interest in the preservation and the cultivation of knowledge.’” (page 47)

The fact that colleges and universities trace their origin to the medieval Catholic Church surprises many 21st-century Americans who have been subjected to secular propaganda that constantly pits religious faith as an enemy of reason. Nothing could be further from the truth.

In reality, many secularists deny the existence of universal truths. Unfortunately, it is this secular nihilism that dominates much contemporary art, literature, film and, unfortunately, higher education. By denying universal truths, accessible to all through reason, the requisite foundation for a commonly accepted moral code is also destroyed.

In contrast, Catholicism embraces that there is indeed objective truth. Faith and reason are complementary paths leading to a common end. Authentic higher education is a place where faith and reason intersect, where these two avenues to the truth are honored and explored.

During this time of year, many families celebrate the college graduation of a son or daughter. I hope you are pleased to know that your church was responsible for the development of the university in Western civilization.

Many high school graduates are preparing to enter college next year. In selecting a university, I encourage families not just to consider a school’s academic reputation, but whether it provides an atmosphere where the life of faith will also be nurtured.

Unfortunately, just choosing a college that was Catholic in its foundation does not guarantee an environment where a young person’s Catholic faith will be fed. Some Catholic colleges seem only to embrace their Catholic identity when they are soliciting contributions from their alumni.

At the same time, many state and secular universities have excellent Catholic campus ministries. However, even places with outstanding programs, like the St. Lawrence Center at the University of Kansas, only reach about one-third of the Catholic students on campus.

If you want to increase dramatically the chances of your son or daughter growing in their Catholic faith during their college years, encourage them to go to Benedictine College or a similar university where the Catholic culture is rich and vibrant. If this is not possible, help your son and daughter develop a plan for growing in their knowledge of the faith and their prayer life during these formative years of young adulthood.

To paraphrase the Gospel: What does it profit a person to gain a prestigious degree and lose one’s soul in the process?

About the author

Archbishop Joseph Naumann

Joseph F. Naumann is the archbishop for the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas.

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