The role of the Catholic university

There’s plenty of debate to be had over just what it means to be a “Catholic university.” But let’s put that debate aside for just a moment, and examine the question we’re asking; the fact that we even seek out a definition for the term implies that there is something different about a Catholic school, and that’s the way it should be.

It’s a term that gets different reactions from different people. To some, they are beacons of enlightenment, symbols of faith and knowledge working together harmoniously. To others, the very term “Catholic university” is oxymoronic.

I personally know people who have admitted that they had serious misgivings about coming to St. John’s because of its Catholic identity. Others, who chose different schools, told me they wouldn’t have even considered attending a Catholic college.

Some would suggest that there’s an easy answer to those types: a school like St. John’s should be a University first, and in practice, an education gained here is little different from one at any secular school.

Those people, quite frankly, are missing the point.

The reason that we even talk about the role of a Catholic university is largely based in the history and tradition that they have had. Some of the first modern universities in the world were administered by the Church. Some of the finest in the world are today.

But what makes a Catholic university great is not necessarily the values that it instills through the rules in the residence halls or the priests and nuns in the faculty (though many of them are
fine professors).

Nor is it true that something about being Catholic makes a school better suited for teaching someone the skills involved in business, medicine or journalism.

No, the thing that makes a Catholic university great is the way that it teaches the values within Catholicism that are applicable in every faith and every profession: the values of charity, compassion, fellowship and human dignity.

There are a lot of things that St. John’s doesn’t get right. One thing that it does get right is what it means to be a Catholic University.

In the spirit and tradition of Pope John Paul II, the school fosters a diversity of faiths and viewpoints in both its student body and its faculty, while still emphasizing the importance of the Vincentian tradition.

“Vincentian” is a buzzword that you hear a lot around here, and many students react with little more than a roll of the eyes at its mention.

If you ask me, though, there are worse things our school could focus on than embracing the traditions of helping the poor and downtrodden while striving to encourage discourse among students and faculty of all faiths.

Yes, some of the rules here are Draconian. But the good far outweighs the bad when we really look at the ways in which the Catholic identity of the school affects our time spent here.

Rev. Richard Warner, the director of Campus Ministry at the University of Notre Dame, once said to me, “The moment that a Catholic university wants to be like one of its non-Catholic peers, it is no longer serving its purpose.”

Let’s hope that our Catholic university never forgets that.