Portsmouth Institute Conference on Newman: Patrick Reilly
According to its Web site, the Cardinal Newman Society works to “renew and strengthen Catholic identity in Catholic higher education.” To that end, the organization’s president spoke on “Newman and the Renewal of Catholic Identity in Higher Education” at the Portsmouth Institute’s 2010 conference, here introduced by Portsmouth Abbey Headmaster James DeVecchi:
(The remainder of Mr. Reilly’s speech is available in the extended entry of this post.)
Reilly began with some statistics from a recent survey showing that students at Catholic universities still tend to drift toward the views of the secular political left on social issues (most prominently abortion and same-sex marriage), although as I recall, religious schools do mitigate the effect somewhat and also preserve the connection to the Church (among its adherents), presumably easing a future return to Catholic ethics. Still, Reilly’s argument is sound that Catholic institutions of higher learning have some readjustment to do when it comes to the balance between their religious mission and their educational mission.
Notably, following on Newman’s view of the university, Reilly emphasizes the environment. In Newman’s conception, the experience of college life was as important as the subject matter, and Reilly points out that many Catholic colleges put aside the Catholicism of faculty and staff in order to improve standing and educational product. As I said, there is an appropriate balance to be struck, but if professors and other institutional leaders are to be advisers and role models, it’s hardly reasonable to expect those who do not believe in the Church’s teachings to model them.
Reilly suggests that the control of campus life has been reduced to an administrative function that separates the intellectual and moral formation of students from their college experience. In other words, he believes that Newman’s view of such institutions as an opportunity for holistic life training has fallen out of fashion. I think he’s incorrect, here. The actuality — and the actual complaint that those who share our worldview should make — is that the training has become adverse to Catholic principles, in favor of those of the secular left. There is no void; the gap has just been left to non-Catholic — even anti-Catholic — forces with an interest in college-age adults to fill.
On the matter of education, Reilly argues in line with Newman that universities cannot remove the existence of God from other topics and still present it as something possible. If believers’ concept of God is true, then every intellectual pursuit is ultimately a subset of knowledge of the divine. Religion, in other words, cannot be made a secondary elective to fill out students’ schedules in a subordinate way to “important” topics like science, math, and art, because the foundations of those subjects necessarily rest in existential questions, and they all continually run into ethical choices that they cannot answer by their own discipline.
This isn’t to say that every professor should be required to incorporate religion into the teaching of their courses. Rather, the claim is that a university cannot present its offering as comprehensive education if it dismisses a central topic of existence as unworthy of required research and debate.
An interesting moment came when Professor Paul Griffiths, who remained throughout the conference after his own lecture, ran into some disagreement with Reilly over the degree of concern that active Catholics should have regarding the Catholicity of Catholic schools. The Duke professor suggested, by way of argument, that the Catholic segments of non-Catholic schools are often stronger and more faithful to the Church’s teaching.
It’s an exchange worth considering in greater detail, but my initial thought was that parents and students should have the option between public and Catholic institutions, but insofar as they desire a Catholic one, it should be fully as advertised. Reilly’s premise, it seems to me, points in the direction of emphasizing Catholicity as a differentiation of Catholic universities rather than something to be de-emphasized.
In any case, it mightn’t be a bad idea for the Cardinal Newman Society, or some other organization, to rate all Catholic programs in all colleges and universities with respect to their fidelity to Church teaching and the opportunities that they offer for participation in a Catholic campus culture.