Foundations of a Catholic University

By Michael Duggan, PhD

As a Catholic university, St. Mary’s can make a unique contribution to community development in Alberta in the 21st century. This contribution derives from basic principles, which shape the identity of such a university in the tradition of the Second Vatican Council during the era of Pope Francis. I refer to three elements in particular: first the root meaning of “catholic” and “university”; second the focus of personalism, conscience and freedom at Vatican II; and third, the new humanism as elaborated by Pope Francis.

  1. The Terms: University and Catholic
    The noun “university” derives from the Latin universitas, which refers to “the whole,” or “the universe” and is a cognate of “universality.” “Catholic” originates as a Greek adjective katholokos, which means “universal.” In light of this background, Dr. Ilia Delio (a Franciscan sister and professor at Villanova University with PhDs in pharmacology and theology) offers this description: “Catholicity, like consciousness itself, is not static; it is not a fixed ideal. Rather it is an outflow of human awareness in relation to the surrounding world; it is like a connecting thread between the human person and the cosmos” (Making All Things New: Catholicity, Cosmology, Consciousness [Maryknoll NY: Orbis, 2015] p. 2)From this perspective, catholicity refers to the capacity of a person, society or institution to perceive that everyone and everything is related to every other person and reality. Hence a “catholic” university forges connections among peoples, cultures and disciplines of study. A “Catholic university” is universal on two counts: in the adjective “catholic” and the noun “university.”
  2. Vatican II: Personalism, Conscience and Freedom
    The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes) reoriented the theological enterprise to focus on the actual life experiences of human beings. The first chapter of the document identifies three focal points that are central to a Catholic university: personalism, conscience and freedom.Personalism shines through the opening lines of Gaudium et Spes, which highlight affectivity as the energy that generates solidarity between the church and all people. Feelings of joy, hope, grief, and anguish are the experiences that bond the church with everyone else, beginning with those who are on the margins of society. Individuals may have different thoughts but they have common feelings. They may be separated by creeds but they are united by shared intuitions. Ideologies divide but love unites. Ultimately, suffering is the experience that binds each person to every other person and to God insofar as suffering calls forth compassion.

    Gaudium et Spes identifies conscience as the source of being and action that defines each person and shapes the world. “Conscience is the most secret core and the sanctuary of the human person. There one is alone with God whose voice echoes in one’s depths” (GS §16). It is the faculty through which we relate to ourselves and to other people. Conscience is the resource of both personal uniqueness and interpersonal connection because conscience is the habitation of the divine presence. Conscience is the common ground for all people, believers and atheists alike. Loyalty to one’s conscience is the commitment all people have in common. Hence the council asserts that atheists will experience eternal life by adhering to the dictates of their consciences. This is why a Catholic university is blessed when its faculty and student body reflect the religious pluralism of society at large. The university is a meeting of equals who embody truth from a full spectrum of convictions related to belief and unbelief.

    Gaudium et Spes emphasizes freedom as the single requirement necessary for the operation of conscience. “It is, however, only in freedom that people can turn themselves toward what is good…[Human] dignity therefore requires [people] to act out of conscious and free choice, as moved and drawn in a personal way from within, and not by their own blind impulses or by external constraint” (GS §17). The Declaration on Religious Freedom (Dignitatis Humanae), another document of Vatican II, insists that freedom of inquiry is essential to the discovery of truth. Such statements certify the centrality of academic freedom to a Catholic university.

  3. Pope Francis: A New Humanism at the Margins of Society
    On November 10, 2015, in the Church of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence, Pope Francis addressed the fifth conference of Italian laity to reflect on the contours of a new humanism that would be adequate the 21st century. Under Filippo Brunelleschi’s 15th century dome, Pope Francis grounded the new humanism in the Renaissance tradition as spearheading the human adventure while emphasizing a divergence in their respective reference points. Rather than focusing on the David, which Michelangelo had depicted as embodying prosperity, youth, vigor and strength for leadership, the new humanism focuses on Jesus of Nazareth, according to this description by Pope Francis: “…[his] face is similar to that of so many of our sisters and brothers, humiliated, rendered slaves, emptied. God took on their face. If we do not lower ourselves we cannot see the face [of God].” Every person who is marginalized, betrayed, and abused is the face of the new humanism. That person makes a claim on every other person to communicate solidarity and friendship with a commitment to work for social justice on her behalf.Pope Francis emphasizes that this new humanism is embodied in action rather than in speculation or art alone. Relationships are the fabric of this humanism. Everyone will experience this humanism in the environs of people on the margins of society.

    The artisan of this humanism is every person who becomes an agent of encounter and dialogue, especially with people who suffer social marginalization. Pope Francis’s vision here describes the culture of a university, i.e. a place of encounter and dialogue that is a meeting ground for people of all traditions and no tradition. Their purpose is to enhance the lives of everyone beginning with people on the margins of society. The Catholic tradition compels St. Mary’s University to be such an environment.