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Catholic higher education and the civilizing of contemporary democracy


By Terrence J. Downey


Early in his pontificate, in May 2014, Pope Frances spoke of the challenge for educators of humanizing the next generation: “The mission . . . is to develop a sense of truth, of what is good and beautiful.” This process involves “a rich path made up of many ingredients. This is why there are so many subjects — because development is the result of many elements that act together and stimulate intelligence, knowledge, the emotions, the body.” True education, he added, “enables us to love life and opens us to the fullness of life.”

While Pope Frances’ observations provide an apt description of the essence of the Catholic intellectual tradition that animates Catholic higher education in this country, they are also remarkably appropriate for the times in which we currently find ourselves.

Throughout 2017 we have witnessed a distressing realignment in the international political environment. During this year the ground has shifted under the feet of western societies as human rights have been endangered, political discourse has become increasingly abusive and profane, great nations have turned inward, starving refugees have been turned away from wealthy shores, immigrants and those of certain faiths have been villainized as cynical politicians prey on peoples’ fears, ignorance and prejudices. 

Our own society has by no means been immune from any of this, and for the first time in modern history we are forced to admit that the survival of liberal democracy itself can no longer be taken for granted. There has never been a greater need for a committed and informed citizenry, and Canada’s Catholic institutions of higher education have an obligation, as Pope Frances reminds, to be at the forefront of a movement to humanize the next generation by inspiring the searching questions and enlightened discourses that inform a robust democracy.

This challenge underscores the importance of the rich intellectual tradition in which Canadian Catholic higher education operates. Enlivened by rigorous academic freedom, and proceeding on the assumption that each of us is made in the image and likeness of God, our institutions recognize that every person is characterized by an inherent dignity that deserves the utmost respect — including those we disagree with, those who come from different cultures, those who adhere to different religious and spiritual traditions or none. In appreciating freedom of conscience by welcoming such diversity, we provide a scholarly forum for vigorous discussions and debates that model for our students the truth that civilized deliberations are the essence of a humane democracy. 

The importance of what we do in Canadian Catholic higher education cannot be overestimated: there cannot be a free and vibrant society unless there is a free and well-informed populous within it. A free and vibrant society requires citizens whose sense of freedom is sustained by having thought seriously about the supreme questions of human life: what is justice; what is a fair distribution of power, of wealth? What constitutes ethical behaviour? What are our obligations as citizens; what are our responsibilities as a nation? What are reasonable limits on individual rights in a free and democratic society? How do we know what is truly good and beautiful; where do we stand in relation to the Divine?

These are questions that merit sustained and disciplined conversations in our classrooms, hallways and common rooms between students and teachers, students and students.

Such conversations are the hallmark of the Catholic intellectual tradition that celebrates academic freedom, scholarly discourse, rigorous research and spiritual awakening. It is this that empowers graduates to be well-informed, articulate and courageous participants in the increasing complex ethical and policy deliberations that an uncertain world and a vigorous democracy demand.

Aware of their rights and especially their responsibilities as citizens, graduates are equipped to envision and strive for a thoughtful and humane society, commensurate with the obligations inherent in the democratic freedoms we take too much for granted.

Downey is president of St. Thomas More College, University of Saskatchewan, Saskatoon.