Ex Corde Georgiopolitam: The Many or the One?
Written for Manuel A. Miranda, The Georgetown Academy; not published.

Dianne N. Irving
Professor of Philosophy
Departments of Philosophy
Dominican House of Studies, and
The Catholic University of America
Washington, D.C. 20017
Copyright March 24, 1997
Reproduced with Permission

I appreciate and welcome the invitation to respond to the report on Centered Pluralism (CP), and certainly encourage a full and lively "dialogue". My own perspective is that of a recent Georgetown University (GU) Graduate School alumna in philosophy.

My husband and I are both alumni, each of us earning two graduate degrees from GU. I also have a life-long affiliation with GU in one way or another as well. Having been born in the old GU hospital, as were most of my family and nearest relatives, I am a native Washingtonian, and grew up around the University -- dating several GU students and taking part in many GU activities during college years here. Sixteen years of Catholic education from Holy Cross schools culminated in an undergraduate degree in chemistry (although as we were required to take 4 years of philosophy and 4 years of theology, these disciplines were important to me as well). With 7 years at NIH as a bench research biochemist, starting a family, and extensive graduate courses towards my doctorate in biology behind me, I entered the GU Dept. of Philosophy in 1979 as a graduate student -- just as the "new" field of bioethics was getting off the ground at the Kennedy Institute of Ethics. Since earning my Masters and Doctoral degrees in philosophy at GU, I have been teaching the history of philosophy, natural law ethics and Catholic medical ethics at a near-by graduate school.

There are several apparent misunderstandings in the CP report, three of which I would like to see further addressed in the coming "dialogue": its implied definitions of "Catholic identity", "academic excellence" and "academic freedom". These three definitions are critical, as they differ widely from those as expressed, for example, in the Vatican's Ex Corde Ecclesiae, other Catholic Church documents, as well as from my own 16 years of Catholic education.

1. The first question concerns what is meant by the term "Catholic identity", used broadly throughout the report, and who should be defining it? As good, brilliant and sincere as the "seminarians" are, one has to wonder how such a large group consisting primarily of non-Catholics (or dissident Catholics) can correctly use the term "Catholic identity".

Perhaps because of a lack of a real Catholic education themselves, or of a proper understanding of it, they do not see the important distinction between the Catholic "faith", generically understood, and the higher academic education which has always grounded the rigorous intellectual content of a Catholic university student's and scholar's "Catholic identity". The former is a function primarily of the assenting of the human will to truths which can not be understood through the light of reason alone, thus requiring the inspiration of Divine Revelation and the guidance of the Church (especially as set out in Roman Catholic Canon Law and through her Magesterium and official teachings). The latter is a function primarily of human reason, what truths human beings can attain about themselves, the world and God through their own purely rational efforts. For centuries this has required the development and exercise of a very strenuous and vigorous academic regimen. Thus "Catholicism" on the level of undergraduate and graduate education is "traditionally" a highly intellectual and rigorously demanding exercise. Furthermore there is "traditionally" a clear commitment to the insight that faith and reason should not contradict each other, as well as a constant fostering of that higher synthesis within the purely academic setting and in its practical application.

So someone who has the Catholic "faith" does not necessarily also have the centuries old academic knowledge of that faith, Church history, or this higher synthesis. This does not mean that their Catholicism is necessarily bereft (in fact he or she might be better off than most of us!). But the understanding of "Catholic identity" to which the CP report refers is too restricted.

Considering that it is specifically addressing "Catholic identity" within the setting of higher education at a Catholic university, it needs to understand that much more is involved in a "Catholic identity" at a Catholic university level than a "faith commitment".

However, their often reductive use of "Catholic identity" inevitably leads the "seminarians" to a similarly reductive understanding of Catholic "tradition", implying that it is merely a "religious tradition", "heritage" or "belief system". Thus CP refers to recent documents of the Society of Jesus which stress an institution's commitment to a "faith that promotes justice," etc. (24). This "tradition", they imply, with characteristic opinions of its own, "somehow" might add to GU's already achieved standard of academic excellence, and might be helpful with those more "holistic" concerns, such as the university as a surrogate home, the social community and business enterprises, etc. (5). Such a "tradition" could also be helpful in addressing the "fragmentation of learning" (26) debilitating now even to the Ivies. Furthermore, the philosophers and theologians could once again play a "key" role in issues of "moral and religious significance" (25). This "tradition" might even be given their fair share of input on curriculum and faculty appointments, as has been richly afforded secular research agendas for years at GU, "such as the Kennedy Institute of Ethics … [etc.] … from which much of the University's scholarly reputation derives" (29).

CP also fails to make the distinction between a Jesuit tradition and the Catholic tradition -- which everyone knows for centuries have not always coincided. Nor does social justice completely exhaust the concept of "Catholicism" -- although it is a necessary and important component of it.

Consequently the CP's rendition of "Catholic identity" would often seem to place the Jesuit and Catholic "traditions" alongside of the many other "voices", opinions, traditions, and belief systems already defining the relativistic academic melting pot on the GU campus. It would simply be allowed to be only one of many "opinions" informing the bright and inquiring students and university community, rather than have the University be defined as specifically and essentially "Catholic", embracing all academic knowledge under one umbrella of truth informed by faith. They thus fail to see the reason for the fragmentation of learning which this relativism entails, nor "holistic" concerns as really something much deeper than just "social justice".

2. The CP report often does imply an invalid distinction between "Catholic identity" and "academic excellence". That is, if GU is "Catholic", this necessarily entails the claim that GU would not be capable of attaining or maintaining Ivy-like academic excellence. In fact they make it clear that some ways of reaffirming GU's Jesuit and Catholic identity (they don't say what "ways" they mean) would be threatening to GU's standards of academic excellence, and it thus cautions that the expression of those "ways" would be "inappropriate for a university with the pluralistic character it now has" (3).

Furthermore, by their magnanimous gesture of allowing a "Catholic presence" on campus, the seminarians do not mean to have us be misled into any sort of heady over-confidence, as they make it clear that it would be unacceptable for Georgetown to "try to compel all the members of such a diverse community to conform their lives to church teaching" (44). Besides, "an institution that is increasingly populated by people who are not themselves Catholic can hardly be expected to function in the same manner as one that was largely a Catholic enclave" (9). (Nor to think, define, act or govern in the same manner as well, it might be suggested.)

I'm not sure I would agree that "Catholic identity" necessarily precludes "academic excellence" -- any more than an Ivy education guarantees it. After all, there is a long, long history documenting the pivotal role of the Catholic Church in the development of universities and the maintaining and advancement of pure academic excellence, resulting in the education and formation of thousands of the world's most important leaders in history in every field of inquiry. But some how (not made clear at all) the "seminarians" fear that if the University returns to being "Catholic" this would signal the end of academic standards. It's OK to allow "Catholic identity" to come on stage (finally) as part of an overall pluralistic ménage of knowledge (after all, the Jesuits are there), perhaps representing an inherently inferior sort of "cultural knowledge" . And the Jesuits could help clean up some of the untidy student problems as they also go about their other social justice duties. But whatever is Catholic about a "Catholic identity" is by definition somehow antithetical to true academic excellence - and better left to be tended to by "those in the know". Nor does there seem to be any awareness of the growing unrest on Ivy campuses precisely because their academic standards of excellence are crumbling. The "seminarians" and GU might learn a real lesson there.

3. The CP report also often implies another invalid distinction made between "Catholic identity" and "academic freedom". Their explanation seems again to fit the mold of the Ivies, where "freedom" is almost interpreted in terms of pure libertinism. That is, any knowledge is worth pursuing and teaching -- no limitations, no restrictions. Since there is no such thing as objective truth, this is the only possible intelligent way to approach learning -- especially at the university level, and especially in a pluralistic milieu. After all, everyone's "knowledge" is just as good as everyone else's "knowledge", right? But does that mean that GU should offer courses in making atomic bombs, or in how to sinisterly torture your roommates for pleasure? I think not. Does it mean that an ethics professor should assure a minority aborigines student that eating human beings is "proportionately" morally acceptable -- or neutral at least? I hope not.

And there is the pervasive assumption that doing academics by consensus is somehow "neutral", devoid of any particular debilitating values which could crush both academic excellence and academic freedom. Does it not occur to them that consensus, secular humanism (a self-proclaimed religion), utilitarianism, deontologism, pluralism, communitarianism -- even democracy -- are not value neutral? To assume that they are is at least wishful thinking, if not down right unacademic. By definition someone is imposing someone's values on the students and university community all the time. The issue is not about being value-free, but about whose values will be applied and by whom. At a Catholic university one would presume that Catholic values would be applied by Catholics.

It is refreshing, at least, to note CP's acknowledgement that in the past a "Catholic identity" was rather notoriously unwelcome on campus (31) (which fits my experience -- did the alumnae really know this?). But it now concedes that if these Jesuit and Catholic "traditions" agree to "know their place", so to speak, they might be a useful commodity overall (perhaps marketability plays a role here). Yet CP is crystal clear that this sea-change at GU should not in turn "change the composition of the faculty in any dramatic way nor impinge on academic freedom" (31). "Given its commitment to academic freedom, GU cannot tolerate any attempt to silence voices arguing for controversial conclusions, including those that may be contrary to those of the Roman Catholic Church" (33). But not to worry -- "American Catholicism" is democratic (49), and would thus fit nicely into this living, breathing neutral pluralistic organism just fine.

In all my 16 years of Catholic education I never once experienced the "silencing" to which CP refers -- including my own (which is more than I can say for my experience at GU). Academic freedom is a critical concern -- but this ball is squarely in the University's court. It has actually been the "Catholic" voice which has been silenced on campus -- that of both Catholic students and Catholic professors. Furthermore, the playing field has not been exactly level. If GU stands for true academic freedom and pluralism, that should have included mandatory core requirements of Catholic courses, such as apologetics and Church history and encyclicals, offered along with the other "isms", so that Catholic teachings could at least be intelligently discussed and defended at this higher level of discourse. Instead what I found was and is a major dearth of official Catholic teachings -- leaving the students awash in confusion and intimidated by the harsh and sophisticated logic of all the other "isms" with which they were and are surrounded. That is not academic freedom, in any responsible sense of the word.

I would agree that to be Ivy one can not simultaneously be Catholic. Yet, as will become clear, it is quite possible to maintain the same degree of academic excellence and academic freedom as the Ivies, while at the same time be thoroughly, truly Catholic. But the failure to see this indicates one of the more serious problems with this entire endeavor: the fundamental belief of the CP "seminarians" that there is no such thing as objective truth. So alternatively the role of the University must become to teach anything which the consensus of the pluralistic majority considers important and convincingly approves (A83). Despairing of any objective framework of truth, freedom is definition ally divorced from it, and any hope of a higher synthesis is lost. What is left is pure politics and power struggles.

However, clearly the CP report indicates real fear of "Catholic" involvement in the life and governance of GU. But this portrayal of Catholicism bears no resemblance to that as explained in Ex Corde Ecclesiae (U.S. Catholic Conference: Washington, D.C., 1996) [EC], or to my own experience. Perhaps some of these fears and ambiguities can be put to rest by simply looking at the way these terms are understood and used in EC -- written by those who ought to know best what it is to be a Catholic university.

In 1990 EC arose partly out of the concern of the Church about the persistent disintegration of the American Catholic colleges and universities especially prevalent since the Land O' Lakes Conference in 1967 (see Monsignor George Kelly's, The Battle For The American Catholic Church). Particularly in view of the fact that GU is one of the few Pontifical Faculties in the United States, its leadership in this struggle could be quite influential and constructive.

What becomes immediately obvious in reading EC is that academic excellence and academic freedom are inherently bound up in a "Catholic identity" at a Catholic university. They cannot be split from each other. Additionally there is a synthesis and unity of both reason and faith at a higher academic level, and a special concern for the practical application of this synthesis in the real world. (I do not presume to speak for the Church, nor to be a scholar in interpreting EC. But it does match my own experience of Catholic education -- especially at the university level. Many students and faculty may not be interested in EC, but excerpts will be included here for curiosity's sake. All emphases are mine).

According to EC, the role of a Catholic university is "to unite existentially by intellectual effort two orders of reality which too frequently tend to be placed in opposition as though they were antithetical" -- reason and faith [1]. This relation between reason and faith is brought to light in the context of an impartial search for truth [5]. Academic endeavors are not split into multi-cultural camps; rather "there is only one culture: that of man, by man and for man" -- since all academic endeavors are essentially human. The Catholic university "explores the mysteries of both humanity and the world, clarifying them in the light of Revelation" [3] -- not in the light of frail human reason alone or of consensus opinion. Since academic endeavors are united into one distinctively human enterprise, knowledge is meant to serve the human person [18]. The beneficial experience this brings to university life is "the ardent search for truth and its unselfish transmission to youth and to all those learning to think rigorously, so as to act rightly and to serve humanity better" [2] -- an expression of the traditional unity of the theoretical and practical intellect of a human person.

This is why there is no distinction between a Catholic identity and academic excellence or academic freedom. By vocation the university is "dedicated to research, to teaching, and to the education of students who freely associate with their teachers in a common love of knowledge" [1] -- not a common love of opinion. It is the responsibility of the Catholic university "to consecrate itself without reserve to the cause of truth. This is its way of serving both the dignity of man and the good of the Church who knows that truth is its real ally … and knowledge and reason are sure ministers to faith". Distinguished by its free search for the whole truth about nature, man and God, a Catholic university "helps give the meaning of truth, without which freedom, justice and human dignity are extinguished." The Catholic university thus is "dedicated to research of all aspects of truth -- without fear -- but rather with enthusiasm, dedicating itself to every path of knowledge, aware of being preceded by him who is truth and wisdom" [4]. A Catholic university even "requires that each academic discipline retains its own integrity and own method in promoting dialogue between faith and reason to see the harmony of all truth. Academic truth can never conflict with faith" [17].

In fact, the Catholic university is better able to serve the interests of academic excellence and academic freedom. With its focus on the human person as human it unites all academic endeavors in the search for ultimate meaning and the application of that knowledge. "The complexities of the world today, especially in science and technology … create an enormous economic and industrial growth, but also inescapably require the correspondingly necessary search for meaning to guarantee new discoveries be used for the authentic good of individuals and society as a whole. Therefore the Catholic university is particularly called to include the moral, spiritual and religious dimension of its research and evaluate the attainments of science and technology in the perspective of the totality of the human person … In this context, Catholic universities are called to a continuous renewal both as universities and as Catholic". As the Holy Father puts it, "What is at stake is the very meaning of the human person". Therefore by its Catholic character a university is "more capable of conducting an impartial search for truth, a search that is neither subordinate to nor conditioned by particular interests of any kind" [7].

A Catholic university will thus also have a concern for the ethical [meaning natural law ethics] and moral implications of its methods and discoveries -- especially in the areas of science and technology. "It is essential that we be convinced of the priority of the ethical over the technical, of the primacy of the person over things, of the superiority of the spirit over matter. The cause of the human person will only be served if knowledge is conjoined to conscience" [18] -- which explains the Church's concerns about the recent problems with GU university researchers involved in abortion and human embryo research.

But although a Catholic university by definition includes academic excellence and academic freedom, there are limits. These limits are not grounded in a cultural bias or a predilection for Vatican Authority, but in what is essentially good or harmful to human beings by virtue of their human nature and to the society in which they must flourish. "The Church, accepting the legitimate autonomy of human cultures and especially of the sciences, recognizes the academic freedom of scholars in each discipline in accord with its own principles and proper methods and within the confines of the truth and the common good [29] -- a "common good" which is not defined in utilitarian terms. To that end, if need be, a Catholic university "must have the courage to speak uncomfortable truths which do not please public opinion, but which are necessary to safeguard the authentic good of society" [32] -- which explains the Church's concerns about pro-abortion and pro-homosexual clubs on the GU campus. A Catholic university is not really threatened by "controversial conclusions", even those "contrary to the Roman Catholic Church". Indeed it welcomes them -- as long as these limits are respected -- and there is a level academic playing field.

Theology's role is not reduced to just tidying up student problems, serving the community and dabbling in "moral and religious" rapping. Rather it is specifically designed to play the most crucial and central role on a Catholic campus in the ultimate synthesis of knowledge and the dialogue between faith and reason. Theology "serves all other disciplines in their search for meaning [not just facts] by bringing a perspective and orientation not contained in their own method" [19]. Although each discipline is to be taught systematically and in accord with its own methods, "interdisciplinary studies, assisted by a careful and through study of philosophy [including Catholic philosophy, e.g., St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Augustine, etc., scholarly taught] and theology [not dissident theology], enable students to acquire an organic vision of reality and develop a continuing desire for intellectual progress". The [Catholic] moral implication in each discipline is examined as an integral part of the teaching of that discipline "so that the entire educative process be directed towards the whole development of the person". And obviously "Catholic theology must be taught in a manner faithful to Scriptures, Tradition, and the Church's Magisterium" [20].

Thus one consequence of the university's essential relation to the Church is that "the institutional fidelity of the Catholic university to the Christian message includes a recognition of and adherence to the teaching authority of the Church in matters of faith and morals". Catholic members of the university community are also "called to a personal fidelity to the Church with all that implies". And non-Catholic members are "required to respect the Catholic character of the university, while the university in turn respects their religious liberty". Furthermore, the role of the bishop should be seen not as an intruder or as an external agent "but as a participant in the life of the Catholic university" [27] over which he has ecclesiastical authority according to canon law.

Finally, a university established or approved by the Holy See … "is to incorporate these General Norms and their local and regional applications into its governing documents, and conform its existing Statutes both to the General Norms and to their applications, and submit them for approval to the competent ecclesiastical Authority" [A1.3]. The "responsibility for maintaining and strengthening the Catholic identity of the university … calls for the recruitment of adequate university personnel, especially teachers and administrators, who are both willing and able to promote that identity. The identity of a Catholic university is essentially linked to the quality of its teachers and to respect for Catholic doctrine" [A4.1]. In order not to endanger the Catholic identity of the university, "the number of non-Catholic teachers should not be allowed to constitute a majority within the Institution …" [A4.4]. (At present the percentage of Catholic professors at GU is about 25%).

These considerations stand in stark relief to the suggestions of the CP report: "Those who exercise fiduciary responsibility for GU as a Catholic institution have a duty to ensure that the determination of University policy in matters touching on the current teaching of the Catholic Church is made in a manner that accords such teaching appropriate respect but without assuming that it will be treated as the last word" (A83). Well, I guess if you don't get it you don't get it.

Either you're Catholic or you're not Catholic. And if one is not Catholic or is Catholic but doesn't know Catholic teachings or dissents from them, then how does one even know how to teach and administer accurately and objectively what the Catholic Church teaches and requires? Given the noted propensities of the CP report, and the reality of GU as a Pontifical Faculty of the Roman Catholic Church, Georgetown University has some hard choices to make. They really can't have it both ways.