Office of the President

Drop Shadow

The Confidence of Catholic Higher Education (Presented to the Annual Meeting of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities, 5 February 2006)

In the early 1950’s, elementary school children, like myself, endured nuclear air raid drills, intended to protect us from atomic blasts.  “Duck, Cover,” was the slogan intended to create an automatic response at the sound of the alert.  Crouching under our little wooden desks, we waited for the “all clear” signal and resumed working on our “Think and Do” books.  Many years later, when I was the president of the College of Saint Benedict in St. Joseph Minnesota, I noticed just outside of my office a recognizable black and yellow “Fall Out Shelter” sign posted above the stairwell leading down to the basement of my building.  I grew so fond of that sign that I never removed it.

I think we can presume that those who conceived of the drills and built the shelters were sincere, well-intentioned folks who wanted desperately to protect us from a threat perceived to be real and imminent.  Secondly, as we know, the antidotes to nuclear attack they designed were mostly, in not totally, illusory in their effectiveness.  The national psyche may be “hunkering down” again, and the drive to secure our borders, protect our vital interests, and safeguard our physical security continues to generate the 21st century equivalents to “Duck and Cover” drills.  Much the same might be said about the corporate psyche of Catholic Higher Education in the United States for much of this same history.

Putting aside, for the moment, the vast achievements of our institutions, our graduates and their tremendous force for good, I want to suggest that a protracted preoccupation with Catholic identity, stretched now over nearly two decades, is having this effect.

I do not know anyone, least of all me, who would deny the efficacy of the dialogues prompted by the publication of Ex Corde Ecclesiae; nor do I want to imply that our work is complete in this important area.  However, it is time to acknowledge what this self-study has achieved, celebrate the lessons we have learned, and proceed confidently with our work to implement the ideals of this document.  The apologetical discourse that too frequently has engaged us, especially in response to critics “within the family,” has been, in my view, mostly unproductive and a contributing factor to this debilitating siege mentality.  Many of our smaller colleges with few resources have been especially vulnerable to attacks by very well-financed, self-appointed crusaders who insist on their own vision of an “authentic Catholic” college or university.  This brings me to the first of several challenges we have before us:

The Challenge of Continuity with Diversity:

In the 1970’s Avery Dulles, now Cardinal argued that the mystery of the Church could be grasped more adequately by examining its various aspects rather than by forcing them “into a single synthetic vision on the level of articulate, categorical thought.”[1]  He wrote:  “The most distinctive feature of Catholicism, in my opinion, is not its insistence on the institutional but rather its wholeness or balance….  I am of the opinion that the Catholic Church, in the name of its ‘catholicity,’ must at all costs avoid falling into a sectarian mentality.  Being ‘catholic,’ this Church must be open to all God’s truth, no matter who utters it.”[2]

The image which Dulles provided for the Church fits well for those institutions “born from the heart of the Church.”[3]  Within the constellation of Catholic colleges and universities are many models, distinguished by more than their size and structures.  Having been the Dean of the Franciscan School of Theology, the President of the College of Saint Benedict, and now, the President of the University of San Diego, I understand first-hand how a variety of traditions, theological perspectives, and educational philosophies give shape to Catholic Higher Education.  The educational experiences of our students, as these are mediated through many such models, improves the landscape of all of higher education as it enriches the Church herself.  By demonstrating that the pluralism of our institutions is the sine qua non of an authentic Catholic education, we will have moved the argument about Catholic identity forward and advanced our ability to leverage the variety of our institutional models on behalf of a greater good.  In a truly Catholic world, sensitive as it is to history, culture and charism, one size does not fit all.  One of our challenges is to articulate internally and externally what the benefits of institutional pluralism truly are.[4] 

The Challenges Posed by the Choices we Make:

Most of our pressing concerns as educators are shared with all of our colleagues in higher education, public, private, faith-based, independent: concerns about attracting and retaining the best students and the best faculty; concerns about access and affordability; and—most obviously—concerns about money.  Like most of you, addressing these and related issues consumes most of my waking hours.  We are accustomed to make choices, often hard and difficult choices.  Hopefully, most of the ones we’ve made ultimately benefit our institutions; many times, we don’t have all of the information we need or desire; frequently, the impact of our decisions brings unintended consequences, good and bad; and, too often, the best results of decisions made during our tenure are realized long after we’ve gone.

For the most part, the challenges associated with higher education come to us; we don’t have to go looking for them.  But occasionally we can see challenges as opportunities and that is where I would like to focus my next point; indicating that choices we make now and in the near future may prove a great blessing to others.

A moment ago, I referred to the varying profiles of our institutions, especially diverse perspectives and philosophies deriving from founding congregations.  Keep those in mind when you think about how much attention we are giving on our campuses to issues emerging from more rapid and more pervasive signs of globalization.  There is rarely a day when I do not read or hear about the impact of cultures clashing and clanging and only occasionally cooperating.  We know that our students must be prepared to navigate successfully within this environment.  And right at our fingertips are the resources of the Church universal, of its intellectual traditions, of its social teaching, of its world-wide network of institutions to which we are related.  Nor do we have to look very far to discover the multiplicity of cultures, often in harmony; sometimes in conflict, represented by the students we educate.  The growth of the Hispanic community within the United States represents one of the most dramatic demographic shifts in our history, a population traditionally Catholic and severely underserved by higher education.  The pluralism of our institutions and of their traditions gives us an array of choices in reckoning with these realities.

Without compromising on our commitments to academic excellence, we can draw upon the resources and networks that we share as Catholic colleges and universities and choose to educate globally competent citizens.  To date, most of these efforts have been locally based.  And, as I have discovered, colleagues within the same institution may not be aware of the magnificent work being conducted right on their own campuses.  Moving toward a more national, cohesive effort to connect globalization with social justice is a choice we can and, I think, should make.  In his essay “Conflict and Society in the New World Order, Bryan Hehir wrote:  “The challenge facing both Catholic teaching and the wider international community of states, advocacy groups, international institutions, and analysts is to define policies that provide structure, direction, restraint, and response to both fragmentation and integration in world politics.”[5]  Who better to take up this challenge than the scholars on our own campuses?  But to embark on a project of this nature, there are other choices we probably need to make.

Perhaps the most difficult choice of all, for most of us, is to choose freedom; that is, to think of academic freedom, not only as a tradition within American higher education, but also as one of the core values of Christian education.  While, on one hand, Catholic colleges and universities share a common legacy of multiple intellectual traditions, they also share a Christian anthropology that values freedom, human agency, desire, will and the relationship between faith and reason.[6]  A university which takes seriously its freedom, takes seriously its educational mission on behalf of the cura personalis.[7]   In that regard, an education that, first, acknowledges the spiritual dimension of the human person and, secondly, urges the exercise of human agency for the commonweal is, indeed, an education suited for a Catholic institution with a global mission.

The choice to educate for the exercise of responsible freedom implies that a dimension of the curriculum and, where possible, the formative influences of student life consider the desires, will, and affections. Students engage not only the repository of wisdom and belief but also examine the ethics of “choice,” encountering the inherent contradictions of our own human experience: that knowing what we “can” do often differs from what we “choose” to do.  Studying the ethics of choice and the impact of choices on other persons, other cultures presume competencies and attributes of our entire faculty, especially those in the sciences, philosophy, and theology.[8]  Those public intellectuals who treasure the compatibility of faith and reason have a particular opportunity to create a new public square, immune to the extremes of secularism or sectarianism, where these and related questions can be debated freely.

The Confidence of Catholic Colleges and Universities:

In this brief presentation, I have suggested several challenges that loom large within our institutions:  the desirability of reclaiming and advancing the pluralism within Catholic higher education, especially the advantages of bringing different philosophical and theological perspectives to bear on global issues; the impact  of choices we make that might strengthen our potential for advancing a national agenda that links globalization with social justice; and the advantages of educating from the perspective of a Christian anthropology that values freedom and the consequences of educational choices to promote human agency for the good of others.

These are challenges and opportunities co-existing with so many other serious problems that often tempt us to “Duck, Cover.”  As Catholic colleges and universities we are graced with an “embarrassment of riches” that come to us from our own tradition, enough to emerge from the Fall Out shelters and take up our mission with confidence.

Mary E. Lyons, PhD

President, University of San Diego

5 February 2006


[1] Avery Dulles, Models of the Church, Expanded Edition (New York:  Image Books Doubleday, 1987), 10.

[2] Ibid, 10.

[3] John Paul II, Ex Corde Ecclesiae (Washington, D.C.:  U.S. Catholic Conference, 4th printing, 1999), 3.

[4] One example of this effort is the Franciscan Heritage Series initiated by the Commission on the Retrieval of the Franciscan Intellectual Tradition, published by the Franciscan Institute, Saint Bonaventure University, New York.

[5] J. Bryan Hehir, “Conflict and Society in the New World Order,” in John A, Coleman and William F. Ryan (ed.s), Globalization and Catholic Social Thought (New York:  Orbis Books, 2005), 81.

[6] This notion is explicated in the Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on Religious Freedom: “Let them [educators] form men too who will be lovers of true freedom—men, in other words, who will come to decisions on their own judgment and in the light of truth, govern their activities with a sense of responsibility, and strive after what is true and right, willing always to join with others in cooperative effort.” In Walter M. Abbott, S.J. The Documents of Vatican II (New York:  Guild Press, 1965), 687.

[7] Monika Helwig, “What Can Roman Catholic Tradition Contribute to Christian Higher Education? In Richard T. Hughes and William B. Adrian Models for Christian Higher Education (Wm B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1997), 21.

[8] For an analysis of the interaction of philosophy and theology with culture, see Chapter VI of John Paul II, Fides Et Ratio (Boston:  Pauline Books, 1998), 83-99.