VANCOUVER (CCN) — Catholic universities may be trying too hard to be too Catholic, according to one educator.
Sam Rocha, a pastoral philosopher in residence at St. Mark’s College, made the bold claim at a free lecture Oct. 8.
“As Catholics, we seem to worry a great deal about Catholicity in our institutions,” Rocha told about 25 people at the Catholic college at UBC.
The university “should not be a place of obnoxious piety. It should be a place of intellectual engagement.”
He argued that Blessed Cardinal John Henry Newman, who he said is “used as a sort of idol” of Catholic higher education, didn’t believe the university was the place for moralism.
Rocha quoted Cardinal Newman’s The Idea of a University: “The view taken of a university in these discourses is the following: that it is a place of teaching universal knowledge. This implies that its object is, on one hand, intellectual, not moral; and, on the other, that it is the diffusion and extension of knowledge rather than the advancement.”
Newman continued: “Practically speaking, (a university) cannot fulfil its object duly, such as I have described it, without the church’s assistance.”
So, Rocha maintained, the university is not a place for piety, moralism, or solely for research either, but a place where students gain knowledge and ask questions while the church “steadies it” and “is necessary for its integrity.”
Unfortunately, some universities and other groups have turned faith into “an identity politics,” he said.
“If we Catholics think that we’re just another identity group, then we’ve already lost. Christ didn’t come to offer us identity. In fact, Christianity was precisely a breaking of identity and religion. Paul says: ‘gentile or Greek, servant or free, woman or man, no more.’ ”
Rocha, himself an affiliated member of a Catholic college who has signed a statement of fidelity, said the focus needs to be on something far deeper than the Catholic label.
“For Newman, Catholicism is not reducible to an identity. A Catholic institution isn’t even reducible to itself as an identity. It’s reducible to an essential metaphysical analogy that ultimately rests in some understanding of the soul or of God or of something far beyond and far more complex.”
He sums up the concept in one word: conscience. Universities should be places where a student, with a conscience that “is not reducible to being bullied around by either a state or a church” can learn, debate, and ask questions.
“Conscience is not licence or ability to do whatever you want. To recognize the truth of your own being is not to construct it on your own terms. It’s in some sense to listen to the voice of God inside you.”
Abandoning politics and moralism and taking Newman’s ideas to heart, universities “can make a different kind of witness to the world,” Rocha said: “a witness that is relaxed, that is not based in fear, that is not built on a kind of inferiority complex. It doesn’t have to feel that it has to be apologetic in nature. It doesn’t have to argue all the time.”
He quoted Cardinal Newman, a convert who understood this dialectic: “Certainly if I am obliged to bring religion into after-dinner toasts, which indeed does not seem quite the thing, I shall drink: to the pope, if you please, still, to conscience first, and to the pope afterwards.”
The Newman Association of Vancouver sponsored Rocha’s talk on the eve of Cardinal Newman’s feast day. President Michael Goco said he did not feel criticized.
“The university grows in its pursuit of truth and knowledge by true dialectical and honest dialogue,” he said.
“Much is true as well in the Christian life, where our growth is mostly stimulated by those who challenge what we believe by dialogue. By engaging in this we can grow as men and women of strong intellect and articulation and be not afraid to immerse ourselves in the mystery of Truth that is Christ himself.”