Editor’s Note: The following essay is part of Deseret Magazine’s issue on the fate of the religious university, with contributions from presidents and scholars of Baylor University, BYU, Catholic University, from George Fox University, Wheaton College, and Yeshiva University, among others. Read all essays here.
It is fashionable today to assert that religious belief and freedom of inquiry are incompatible. Religion forces you to think within its own narrow constraints, and aren’t universities all about openness and free thought? And yet, I have found that religious universities are no less free to pursue their ends, in fact, they are more so.
At the Catholic University of America, of which I am president, we take our religious identity seriously because it allows our students to develop more fully and makes us a better university. Like most universities, we equip students with the knowledge and skills to succeed in their chosen discipline or profession. But our mission is rooted in something much deeper. It flows from an understanding of the human person given to us by the rich tradition of the Catholic faith.
For us, education begins there: Understanding the person as made in the image and likeness of a divine creator, and endowed with capacities for love, wisdom and wonder. Our first task is to help students ask the question, “Who am I?” Why am I here? What should my life be for? We direct them inward, to the deepest desires of their hearts. We also teach them to look outward to learn from those who have sought wisdom before them, from Aristotle to Dorothy Day.
Our second task is to help students recognize themselves as whole and integrated people — intellectual and spiritual, physical and emotional — and to pursue their studies accordingly. It is common today to think that it is necessary to isolate the spiritual to protect the integrity of the intellectual.
But experience suggests otherwise: when we embrace both faith and reason, our research becomes richer, deeper, and more disciplined.
We get closer to the heart of what is truly real. At Catholic University, we invite students to grapple not just with quantum physics, but with its implications for belief in God; not only with the music of John Cage but with the question of whether we find the beauty of God there; not only with Marxist political theory but with its compatibility with Catholic anthropology. Faith enlivens university life.
The integration of faith and intellectual life brings depth. A Catholic education also aims for breadth. A common trend in higher education favors specialization to the detriment of integration.
We believe this is a mistake. It teaches students to think narrowly rather than broadly. This impairs their ability to think critically. More than that, it instrumentalizes education, restricts its goals and fails to properly contextualize learning for the good of society. Our religious identity helps us avoid this mistake. It reminds us that the human person is made for complex, integrated and holistic thought, for weaving links and for seeing the whole. It protects our most sacred duty as educators: to facilitate an encounter with truth and guide our students on the path to wisdom.
Peter Kilpatrick is the president of the Catholic University of America.
This story appears in the September issue of Desert Magazine. Learn more about how to subscribe.