The Catholic Church and the Catholic University

Although the deepest and most momentous truths about the nature and mission of a Catholic University are ecclesiastical, serious scholarly works devoted to the theory or the practical implications of this are wanting.  Rarely do either theorists or practitioners who investigate the essential characteristics of Catholic higher education do so in the context of Ecclesiology.  One challenge in this regard is that the Church does not have one official Theology or Philosophy. And as Ecclesiology is a branch of Theology, which, like every other branch of Theology, needs Philosophical support and context, the first question is: in which or whose Ecclesiology does such a reflection on the nature and mission of Catholic universities take place? Now although there is not one official Catholic Ecclesiology, there is a solid Sacred Tradition that sheds light on the ways in which this branch of theology ought to be developed. In contemporary western theology, the Ecclesiology of Hans Urs von Balthasar might qualify as one such development. 

My starting point is a magisterial teaching put forth by John Paul II, in his seminal 1990 Apostolic Constitution, Ex-Corde Ecclesiae, “Born from the heart of the Church.” He begins that document by teaching that the Catholic University is indeed “born from the heart of the Church.” Though the document is devoted to the nature and mission of Catholic universities, it presupposes an Ecclesiology which gives it a distinctive quality, revealing perhaps the influence of Balthasar’s Ecclesiology.

To understand all that is contained in saying that the Catholic university is born from the heart of the Church it is necessary, of course, to answer to a prior and more fundamental question, namely, what is the Church?  

            Echoing Sacred Tradition, Balthasar stresses that to answer the question what is the Church, we must first ask, who is the Church? “The origin of the Church,” he writes, “does not lie in abstract ideas or principles to which people somehow adapt themselves after the fact, but rather in concrete persons whose lived-out, divine missions have allowed them to become ecclesial principles themselves—realsymbols in and for the Church.” He identifies these realsymbols, these living ecclesial principles with four key historical persons whose inimitable lives and missions forever give the Church her unique identity. These persons are: Mary, the mother of Jesus, Peter, John, and Paul. There are many stars in this ecclesial missionary constellation, but these four give the sign in the sky its fundamental orientation. Stephan Ackermann, a prominent contemporary theologian, summarizes these missions as follows: “the marian mission of “handmaidenly being-at-the disposoal-of-the-other. . . [t]he petrine mission as the embodiment of the objective and official dimension of the Church. . .[t]he johannine mission of a love for Christ that mediates between the marian and petrine dimensions. . .and. . . .[t]he pauline mission, which presents in [all] its purity the experience of “Catholic unity in the midst of diversity” (between sinners and the righteous, between office and personal discipleship, between Jews and Gentiles, [and between] wisdom and foolishness of the cross.” 

The many other stars, though also unique and irreplaceable, take their fundamental orientation from the intense light and preeminent position of these four, drawing the entire night sky into the astonishing unity and ineffable beauty of the Mystical Body of Christ, God’s holy people, the Holy Spirit’s virginal bride. It is unity, in fact, that provides the answer to both the who and the what questions regarding the Church, as Balthasar so succinctly explains when he writes, “The Church in her deepest reality is the unity of those who, gathered and formed by the immaculate and therefore limitless assent of Mary, which through grace has the form of Christ, are prepared to let the saving will of God take place in themselves and for all their brothers.”

     To experience this cosmic, “Catholic unity in the midst of diversity” is to participate in the distinctive reality of the Church’s pauline mission, which has particular significance for understanding the Catholic, universal nature and mission of the Catholic university. But to better appreciate this significance it is necessary to address how these who and what ecclesiastical questions and answers are analogous to the questions and answers of the most central mystery of Catholic theology, the mystery of the Holy Trinity, to which all branches of theology, including ecclesiology, must ultimately be related in a substantive way.   

     To simplify matters, let us say that the question of who generally corresponds to the notion of person while the question of what generally corresponds to the notion of substance or nature. Now the Ancient Greek term for person, prósōpon (πρόσωπον) translated into Latin as persōna meaning face, person, or mask, was in use before the Trinitarian and Christological controversies of the fourth and fifth centuries, but was forever marked, changed, and solidified, in an unprecedented way, by these theological debates. Likewise, the term, hypostăsis (ὑπόστασις) was in use well before the fourth century, but it comes to take on a very technical theological meaning during and after the course of those same debates. Aristotle used hypostăsis to oppose the notion of illusion, so something akin to what we might call today, objective or concrete reality. It is translated into Latin as substantia or substance and used primarily by Christian writers before the fourth century to mean substantial reality or even being, though the Greek word for being, ousia, from the Greek verb to-be, was also translated into Latin as essentia or essence.  With time, perhaps even shortly before the fourth century, but certainly during and after the Trinitarian Ecumenical Councils, the term hypostăsis came to mean individual reality or, more significantly, person, whereas prósōpon and persōna came to refer more to character and eventually personality, rather than person per se.  When the dust settled, the well-known orthodox Trinitarian formula, which still stands today, was treis hypostases (persons) and mia ousia (substance), or, three who’s, equally and totally possessing one what—an infinite and eternal exchange of unbounded knowledge and ecstatic love among three persons.

Sorting out and defining these terms was crucial for the history of theology and for the  history of metaphysics, but the point here is that, while struggling to give expression to the central Trintarian and Christological mysteries of the Christian faith, Christian philosophers and theologians were compelled to play sophisticated games on a rich Greek linguistic apparatus. This had highly significant and lasting consequences for every branch of Christian philosophy and theology, including Ecclesiology, especially Balthasar’s Ecclesiology, since he presents the relationship among the four fundamental historical personal missions, as analogous to the relationship among the persons of the Trinity in that there is but one essential mission, the mission of Christ’s cosmic redemption, in which many distinct persons participate in their own unique and unrepeatable way. It’s as if these key persons, which embody four distinct but united missions, gather together the four corners of the world, in all its vast diversity, so that the entire planet may participate in the one redemptive mission of Christ. But he does not stop at the analogy.  He goes further and suggests that by participating in the one mission of Christ, they, and potentially all the peoples of the world, are actually caught up in that unutterable mystery of an eternal exchange of knowledge and love—a community of divine persons knowing and loving one another infinitely and eternally.

In the light of such a profound Ecclesiology, the real weight of the magisterial teaching that the Catholic university is born from the heart of the Church, can now be felt. A plethora of paths open up here in terms of drawing out the fecund implications for the nature and mission of the Catholic university, but I shall limit myself to one related to the pauline mission, which, as mentioned above,  presents in all its purity the experience of “Catholic unity in the midst of diversity”. I have already exemplified this as the unity “between sinners and the righteous, between office and personal discipleship, between Jews and Gentiles, [and particularly relevant for our purposes] between wisdom and foolishness of the cross.”

Now not only was St. Paul a master of his own Hebraic intellectual tradition, but he was also well versed in Greek philosophy and literature. His effectiveness as a teacher who brought many to Christ by showing links between Jewish revelation and Greek reason flies in the face of Tertutillian’s rhetorical challenge, “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” Paul was privy to and respected the intellectual work accomplished in the academies of Plato and Aristotle, as well as the legacy of these traditions inherited by some of the Roman Stoic philosophers later on such as Seneca.  Moreover, his appreciation of perennial insights emanating from Greek tragedy can be detected in a number of his letters. Balthasar, too, is of a similar mind as his entire breath-taking theological output demonstrates, though he certainly gives a more prominent place to Greek tragedy, than to Greek philosophy, when it comes to the question of which genre of Greek thought is the best dialogue partner for Christianity.

All this sheds light on the magisterial teaching we are pondering, especially if we now listen to the rest of the teaching: “Born from the heart of the Church, a Catholic University is located in that course of tradition which may be traced back to the very origin of the University as an Institution.

In other words, there is already a catholicity (universality) operative in all schools of thought engaged in searching for the big truths—the ones that give meaning to all the little truths, whether in Plato’s academy and its offshoots, or in parallel philosophical traditions, such as those profound metaphysical traditions that developed in Ancient India. At the heart of this big search is a contemplative probe into the perplexing relation between the One and the Many, a reflective exploration into the mystery of the relation between Being and Becoming, a meditative inquest into the enigmatic relation between Immutability and Change. The monumental intellectual effort required to first bring and then hold together these seemingly opposite ontological poles in the right kind of unity is not something done once and for all; it is a perennial challenge, as Aristotle teaches, and something that must be achieved over and over because there is no final solution. It is not a puzzle to be solved, but a mystery to be lived, which is why the best and most satisfying metaphysical answers have come precisely from those striving to live a good life—answers that allow all the other branches of knowledge to both possess their legitimate autonomy and distinct methods, while contributing ultimately to the unity of limitless knowledge—or more simply, growth in wisdom, growth in and of the whole truth about the whole cosmos for the whole person. With a solid metaphysics at base, and a desire for wisdom at the center, the term university organically emerges as a study of the universe, a universe of studies, with each of the distinct sciences contributing in a complementary way to more and more robust accounts of universal truth.  This ancient focus on and striving for wisdom as the unifying force in all genuine and fruitful knowledge developed in the Catholic medieval universities with Theology, as the Queen of the Sciences, and philosophy her loyal handmaiden, providing the space for a  community of persons striving to articulate the unity of knowledge through a loyal love of truth.

And so whereas the Catholic university as born from the heart of a Church which enjoys a unity in diversity analogous to the unity in diversity in the Trinity, carries on and develops the unity in diversity found in all genuine universal education, there is, nonetheless, something altogether new and surprising precisely because it is born from the heart of this unique Christian church, and here we find another aspect of the pauline mission which presents in [all] its purity the experience of “Catholic unity in the midst of diversity.” In this, perhaps Tertullian’s rhetorical “Athens/Jerusalem” challenge is somewhat vindicated because Paul himself now speaks of the opposition between wisdom and the foolishness of the cross as he powerfully proclaims to the Church at Corinth: “For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power and the wisdom of God.”

Translated into what this means for the mission of the Catholic university, and more precisely into how Theology ought to function as the Queen of the Sciences, what we find is not a reduction of the other arts and sciences to Theology, as Bonaventure would have it, a view which St. Thomas opposed, but a kenosis, an emptying, a relation of loving service to the other sciences rooted in the deepest and most mysterious truth of all, which Paul so forcefully teaches to the Church at Phillipi when he says, “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped [at], but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant being born in the likeness of men. . .and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross.” The opposition, then, between wisdom and the foolishness of the cross turns out to be a relative opposition analogous to the perichoresis among the persons of the Holy Trinity in their relative opposition—a mystery which unfolds in terrifying splendor on the cross: The Catholic university is born from the heart of the Church, and the Church is born from the pierced Heart of Christ, now glorified forever in heaven

About author

Edward Alam

Professor, Notre Dame University, Louaize, Lebanon
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