Vivant Dr. Sampo, Dr. Mumbach, Miss Bonifield, Mr. Shea, Miss Enos, and the others! — Semper Sint in Flore
What Is Catholic About a College Degree
Peter V. Sampo
President, Thomas More College
Let us assume the college has a Catholic liturgy, teaches Orthodox Catholic theology, and is under the auspices of a religious order, a diocese, or is, at least, canonically recognized by a diocese. Further, let us assume loyalty to the Magisterium. As necessary as these qualities are, they do not suffice to make a college Catholic. A hospital is not a Catholic hospital because it has a saint’s name in its title of incorporation. It is a Catholic hospital if its Catholicism is the difference that makes it a better hospital than non-Catholic hospitals can be. Likewise, a college is Catholic if its Catholicism is the difference that makes it a better college than non-Catholic colleges are able to be.
Rilke, the German lyric poet, who served as secretary to Rodin, when asked about what the sculptor’s art said to him, replied, “Change your life,” Unless a College seeks to change the lives of its students, that is to say to transform their lives, it is not a Catholic college.
A Catholic college must do its work of transforming the lives of its students primarily through the artifact of the curriculum. The curriculum takes its cue from Catholicism in that it has time for discussing only the most significant human experiences: of pilgrimage, of suffering, of community, of death and resurrection, to list a few. Indeed, the curriculum prefigures fundamental experiences that the student will undergo throughout his life. It has no time for lesser concerns, say, of career training. Since God calls us His “image and likeness,” we are icons of the divine and are therefore called to move to realize the form that we were meant to have. The kind of education that helps free a person to answer this call has traditionally been called liberal. It embodies the type of learning started in a college but meant to be completed in the world through the work of a life.
It is also kind of education that causes joy to well up in the soul of the student because his being recognizes and approves the inner transforming growth that takes place through learning. It is also the type of education that brings about deep friendships among those sharing in this movement to fullness of form. In the past, a liberal arts education was assumed to be only for an elite, that is to say, meant for a capable few: the others were to settle for vocational training or a mediocre education. Such a view neglected one truth revealed by Christ: that equality is part of the good. Applying this truth to learning means that regardless of race, class, I.Q, or SAT Scores, a person has depth of soul sufficient to enable him to respond sympathetically to the vision presented by liberal learning. Therefore, Catholics should consider themselves responsible for providing a liberal education for everyone.
It may be helpful to point out what are not the purposes of a Catholic college. Its purpose is not to save souls since such presumption would make it a rival to the Church, a competing magisterium rather than an obedient follower of the Church’s teaching. Its purpose is not to save the Church since the Church is to save us. Were its purpose to save a culture or a civilization, it would take on an impossible task. Were its purpose to present the work of a particular thinker, it would take on too narrow a task. Its purpose is both more modest and more ambitious: it is to help transform the heart and mind of each student who, almost miraculously, appears in the classroom.
* * *
“Well, if you recall, I always end my talks with you with the exhortation: long live students.”
“Long live professors!”
Certainly, La Sapienza was once the Pope’s university, but today it is a secular university with that autonomy that, on the basis of its own foundational concept, has always been part of the university, which must be bound exclusively to the authority of the truth. In its freedom from political and ecclesiastical authorities, the university finds its particular function, precisely for modern society as well, which needs an institution of this type.
–Pope Benedict, January 18, 2008