The challenges to Catholic higher education continue, though they are not what they were 20 or 30 years ago. The battle with the institutional church is won, but the embrace of the secular world has come to be fraught with more peril than we might have imagined. Hope for the future, which is surely what we have to have, will not be justified by defending the purity of our Catholic identity in face of episcopal suspicions. Rather, it will require us to find a way to be defiantly Catholic in a secular world that tends to be indifferent rather than hostile to Catholic schools to demonstrate that what the Catholic school has to offer is exactly what our world needs. If this sounds a little bit like the beginning of an editorial from First Things, a journal to which I subscribe solely for the purpose of learning how the other half thinks, be patient with me. Where First Things and its conservative allies imagine that the future lies in re-sacralizing our schools and colleges, I think the opposite is true. Our aim should be to secularize the genius of Catholic education. As Pope Francis might put it, we have to go to the periphery with a message of salvation. In a pluralistic world the message of salvation, of salus, is one that means both saving and health. The mission of the “missionary disciples” in this day and age, the mission to the world, is a message calling the human race to health, a health only to be accomplished in a healthy world. And the mission of our Catholic schools is increasingly a mission to students who do not come from the Catholic tradition and do not care about its internal concerns. The periphery, or some of it, may actually be in our classrooms.
We are all familiar with the dismal demographics of contemporary Catholicism. There are far fewer people actively participating in church than a generation ago, and far more of them, especially the younger generation, identifying themselves as “nones” or at least while still checking the box “Catholic” admitting to only rare or even no engagement with liturgical celebrations. For most of our institutions, the percentage of Catholic students is steadily decreasing, replaced by others with little or no interest in our tradition. And our Catholic students are largely under-catechized, even if they have weathered the horrors of CCD. However devout they might be, and some undoubtedly are, basic Catholic literacy cannot be taken for granted anymore. (And, parenthetically, couldn’t be taken for granted for their parents’ generation either.) Add to this that there are some good reasons for righteous anger against our church—though the appeal to that anger can sometimes be just a way of justifying one’s own drift away from commitment.
I think I am making a safe observation, though it is only anecdotal, drawn from my almost four decades of teaching undergraduates, that there is no correlation between the waning enthusiasm for institutional Catholicism among our students and their genuine goodness. They are mostly serious people, sometimes a little confused as the young often are, about priorities, but genuinely trying to find their way forward in what is a much more complicated world than the one in which most of us grew up. We all know of the epidemic of mental health issues among college students, and I think that we have not done nearly enough to relate it to the new stresses that students of today face. On the whole, we do not make them work as hard as we had to work in college, and we certainly grade them less harshly, so the stress has to have its ground somewhere else. And that somewhere else lies in what I am going to call the neoliberal constitution of our contemporary society.
It is with the first mention of the term neoliberalism that I am able to bring together our concern for the plight of our Catholic colleges and universities with the personal and spiritual stresses on our student body. Our institutions, our students and we, ourselves, live under the hegemony of global market capitalism and its latest and most sinister mutation, surveillance capitalism. When we make institutional accommodations to “the real world,” when we downplay principle in favor of pragmatism, or when we do nothing to address the fact that our students live their lives facing a small screen instead of one another, we are bending if not breaking in face of the hurricane force winds of the market. If, on the other hand, we resist these forces, is this not going to imperil our futures, even though in many respects we actually exist to confront these social forces? To modify Oscar Wilde’s phrase, “a neoliberal is someone who knows the price of everything but the value of nothing.” Beyond the embattled humanities, aren’t we torn between pandering to neoliberalism in order to survive, and sinking in a sea of prophecy, drowning in our own anachronistic self-righteousness? Well, no, actually.
Many of our schools will not survive another 15 years with a clear Catholic identity if they do not make a conscious choice to survive with meaning. In other words, if we are just like everyone else, but struggling financially and with declining enrollments, small endowments and limited financial aid resources, the writing is very clearly on the wall. Viktor Frankl did not say that “meaning” would save the concentration camp victims. In fact, he observed that often the best and most compassionate of his fellow inmates were the first to succumb. On the contrary, his message was the darker one that survival with meaning was the only form of survival worth having. When he later applied his experience to his field of existential psychology, his interventions with his patients encouraged them to search their lives for what it was that prevented them determining that suicide was their only option. I do not recommend asking our college and university presidents why they do not commit institutional suicide. It is their job to keep us all afloat, after all. But I would suggest that merely keeping ourselves afloat is a form of institutional suicide. First the spirit, then the bricks and mortar.
The present pope’s principal priority is to reorient the Catholic Church away from the sin of self-referentiality to a genuinely evangelical perspective. For Francis, a Christian is a missionary disciple whose orientation should be towards the periphery. To be evangelical or missionary is to move away from the center, not to stay at home, however comfortable that might be. Perhaps we could call this the Hobbit option. Bilbo and Frodo loved the Shire, but they saw that placing their comforts aside and setting out to combat evil was the only way, in the end, that the Shire could be preserved. The trope of the quest has its uses, though it is not the Holy Grail that should be our objective, so much as a world that is made safe for all its denizens, human and nonhuman alike, to flourish in the home that their creator God has offered to them, presumably knowing full well that its viability depends upon the right choices being made.
To be evangelical or to be a missionary disciple is evidently to take up the challenge of spreading the good news. The Gospel, the god spel of Old English, literally means the good news. But what is the good news that the missionary disciple of today is called to proclaim? The gospel never changes, but in the words of Thomas Aquinas, Quidquid recipitur ad modum recipientis recipitur or “what is received is received according to the mode of the receiver.” In other words, how the good news is spread must be tailored to what the hearers can hear. In days gone by, this meant that the missionary disciple needed to inculturate the message of the gospel in language and practices that the target audience could appreciate. Find a way to link veneration of the saints with the veneration of ancestors, or teach animists about the role of the Holy Spirit, or point as St. Paul did in Corinth to the shrine to the unknown God, and you are on your way to the full gospel. Today, the challenge is greater.
Much Catholic religious reflection is rightly suspicious of what is called “atonement theology,” the interpretation of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross as an act of God in which the blood of his son atones for our sinfulness and reconciles us with our creator. But if we can just see atonement as at-one-ment and not as a ransom for sin, something can be rescued here. Christ came to show the way for the human race to be restored to union with God, to overcome the sin of Adam and Eve in Genesis, which at heart was a sin against God’s creation, punished by introducing toil into human life, toil with and sometimes against the created world. Reconciliation is a restoration of the original harmony between God, human beings and the whole created order.
If this is so, then the good news that Christians must proclaim is the message of discipleship of Christ, as the one who subordinated his own self to the demands of God for the restoration of cosmic harmony. The way beyond sinfulness, says Calvary, is the way of subordinating our own selves to the creative love of God, wanting above all a created order that is built upon love. And if this is true, how far have we strayed to become children of a neoliberal order in which price and not value is the primary good. Neoliberalism is self-referential and contradictory to the gospel. It is at its root a deeply sinful structure, even if all those who benefit from it are not personally deeply implicated in its sinfulness. But liberation theologians would have us understand that we are to some degree implicated in sinful structures. You do not have to own slaves to be guilty of living quietly in a slave society. And you do not have to be a master of the universe to be in some degree responsible for the evils of global market capitalism.
All of this has serious practical implications for the shape of the task we undertake as Catholic schools. Here then is what it comes down to. If a Catholic college or university is going to survive as authentically Catholic, it needs to be missionary and evangelical, promoting and spreading to the world beyond itself the message of the good news that God wills human other-directedness in the service of cosmic harmony. One of the major ways that it will do this will be to educate its students to as sophisticated and critical an understanding of the world today as it possibly can. And the other is to prepare students in the hope that they will choose to fight under the standard of the truly human, not that of the anti-human. When the institution does this, and when its students follow along, then they are missionary disciples, whether they are Catholic or Buddhist or whatever. And as the great theologian Karl Rahner would then comment, I believe, then they have been confronted by the message of salvation, and they have said yes to it in their own lives, ad modum recipientis recipitur.
This may sound hopelessly idealistic, though in my view it is coldly and clinically rational. The way for our institutions to survive with meaning is to stand up to the neoliberal world by the proclamation of human values, not specifically Catholic or Christian values, though I hope I have suggested to you that the message of salvation has more to do with authentic humanism than it does with Catholic or any other denominational language. This is what I meant at the beginning of this little essay when I advocated not the re-sacralization of the Catholic university, but rather the secularization of the genius of the Catholic educational tradition.
So what might all this mean concretely for how we go about our business just as long as we can? Our pedagogical mission orientation must be to maintain a constant intentionality throughout the curriculum. It is easy for a philosopher to be a humanist, but what does this have to do with theoretical physics or accounting? So, as serious and as critical an engagement as is possible with whatever is the object of study; in this sense as thoroughly worldly or secular as we can achieve, but accomplished against the background conscious awareness that all we do is prepare students academically and personally for entry into lives of responsible human behavior.
But there is not just pedagogy, there is also paideia, which is perhaps a term unfamiliar to some, but refers to the total educational impact of what we might call the culture of the institution. What goes on in the classroom in terms of human formation is of little avail if the academic community as a whole does not reinforce in all its practices the commitments it makes to the classroom. So, attention to paideia is vital, it is where we walk the walk and don’t just talk the talk, and it has many dimensions.
There are many schools that are aware of their responsibilities to the world, and there are not a few Catholic schools that are not as faithful to the gospel call to cosmic harmony as they ought to be. But the strength of the Catholic tradition is that the kind of intentionality I have identified is simply not optional for our faith tradition. Thus we have the impetus to engage seriously in the adventure of Catholic education, and we stand under judgment if we fail our students, our world and, consequently, our God. So this is the justification we need in face of any claim that we are sidelining what is most Catholic. What is most Catholic is what it most evangelical, in the sense in which I have used this term, most oriented towards genuine human fulfilment in the context of cosmic harmony. Because we are Catholic, that is why we do this. So the fabric of Catholic life, its liturgy and its sacramentality, its prayer and its rituals, are ways of declaring the “why” of our educational mission and the nature of our identity. They are not, if they ever were, the “what” of our mission.
Remarkably, I believe, if we have the energy and the luck to be able to teach and nurture in this way, at once vital to the world’s future and vital to the understanding of soteriology that I have been outlining, we will find ourselves in line with what, in fact, are the overriding concerns of the younger generations of our world, of any faith or none. Young people are rising up against their inheritance of environmental degradation, the destruction of species and the coming threats to water and food supplies. The holism of the Catholic perspective just happens to be exactly what the world needs right now, and we should not be afraid to proclaim the importance of our perspective. If we market ourselves along these lines and we can walk the walk that talking the talk suggests, we will attract more students rather than less. Yes, we will continue to train professionals, but if we are successful, they will be people who will put their skills at the service of humanity, not the global market economy. They may or may not be Catholic or Christian, but they will not be self-referential. Both our students individually and our institutions themselves indulge in self-referentiality at their peril.
As Catholic schools, we are not doing this for God, but we are doing this because God has missioned us to act on behalf of the human race. In solidarity with those of other faiths and none, the Catholic Church could lead the charge, and bringing it to readiness to do so may be the most important thing our colleges and universities can do for the world. Teaching students of all faiths and none, the traditional language of the Catholic tradition may seem to have fallen into the background, if not into total disuse. But the faith tradition is the foundation for the conviction that teaching in this way is the right thing to do, and the hope that through it we can remake the world. After all, this is surely what Christian discipleship intends.
Paul Lakeland is a teacher, scholar and director of the Center for Catholic Studies at Fairfield University.