Sunday, December 12, 2010

Is Catholicism By The Rule Book The Only Spiritual Path For Catholic Colleges And Universities?

This is not the kind of Catholic spiritual path Cardinal Burke wants to see taught in Catholic colleges.

It's fun when two articles pop up on the same week end and have two seriously different views of Catholic culture.  The following high lights the main ideas of Cardinal Burke as to what a Catholic university should embody.  Burke gave these thoughts at St Thomas More College of Liberal Arts President's Council Dinner held in Boston. This link will take you to another view point about Catholic education written by Nicholas Lash for the Jesuit magazine America.
Authentic Catholic universities help resist ‘secular dictatorship,’ Cardinal Burke says
Boston, Mass., Dec 11, 2010 / 07:39 am (CNA).-

.....In a lengthy discussion of the nature of Catholic higher education, he said that a Catholic university faithful to its identity will help students give an account of their faith and help them resist “the secularist dictatorship which would exclude all religious discourse from the professions and from public life in general.”

He also declared Jesus Christ, the “fullness” of God’s revelation, as “the first and chief teacher at every institution of Catholic higher education.” (I don't think Burke really means this as Jesus taught something very different from rote memorization of a rule book.)

“A Catholic college or university at which Jesus Christ alive in His Church is not taught, encountered in the Sacred Liturgy and its extension through prayer and devotion, and followed in a life of virtue is not worthy of the name,” he told attendees.

Jesus’ presence is not something “extraneous” to the pursuit of truth because he alone inspires and guides professors and students to remain faithful in their pursuits and not “fall prey to the temptations which Satan cleverly offers to corrupt us.” (This temptation must be secularism since Burke uses the word constantly.)

Cardinal Burke lamented the fall of many American Catholic colleges and universities that have become “Catholic in name only.”

Citing Pope John Paul II’s ad limina address to the U.S. bishops of New York, he said that the service of Catholic universities “depends on the strength of their Catholic identity.” The Catholic university was born from “the heart of the Church” and has been “critical” to meeting the challenges of the time.

The Catholic university is needed more than ever in a society “marked by a virulent secularism which threatens the integrity of every aspect of human endeavor and service,” he said.

“How tragic that the very secularism which the Catholic university should be helping its students to battle and overcome has entered into several Catholic universities, leading to the grievous compromise of their high mission,” he commented. (I can't find where Burke actually defines what he means by 'secularism'.)

The American-born cardinal said that rather than exemplifying secularism, the Catholic university’s manner of study and research should “manifest the bankruptcy of the abuse of human life and human sexuality … and the bankruptcy of the violation of the inviolable dignity of human life, of the integrity of marriage, and of the right order of our relationship to one another and to the world.” (This paragraph seems to imply that Burke actually means 'sexularism' rather than secularism.)

...Cardinal Burke also described the kind of relationship that should exist between the local bishop and a Catholic university. The “noble mission” of the university, he said, can only be accomplished within the Church, and the local bishop should be able to depend upon the Catholic university as a partner in meeting the challenges of evangelization, in teaching the faith, and in celebrating the liturgy.

He criticized as “totally anomalous” the situation in which the Catholic university views the bishop as “a suspect or outright unwelcome partner in the mission of Catholic higher education.” (Ahem, this works the other way around as well, where the bishop views the college or university as an unwelcome partner.)

“Given the religious illiteracy which marks our time and in fidelity to the seriousness with which university studies should be undertaken, there is really no place for engaging in speculative theology and certainly no time to waste on superficial and tendentious theological writings of the time,” the cardinal contended. (This is as blatant a statement as one could want that Catholic colleges should confine their theology departments to the catechism in order to combat 'religious illiteracy'.)

He questioned why students should be engaged in discussions about the ordination of women as priests when they already have little knowledge of the “consistent teaching” of the Holy Scriptures and Catholic Tradition on the priesthood.

“My reflection is offered to assist us all in seeking always first the truth and love by which we serve others and our world well by serving God first,” he said.....


When I participate in giving workshops in spirituality, one thing I find myself doing as I listen to stories, is asking myself what are the basic assumptions about reality the person is using to interpret their experience. Frequently I will hear someone say, 'I used to be a conservative Christian until I had this experience. Now I don't know what I am'.  Or I will hear something a long the lines that 'this was so far out of my understanding I thought I was delusional or going psychotic'.  It turns out what they really mean is there was no explanation for their experience with in their religious system or educational paradigm. Their experience transcended their enculturated explanations and beliefs about the nature of reality.

In Cardinal Burke's case his underlying assumptions are pretty straight forward.  Burke's idea of Catholic education is not spiritual education in any meaningful sense. It's religious governance.  It's what Nicholas Lash's article refers to as commanding as opposed to instructing, as governing as opposed to teaching:

I have long maintained that the heart of the crisis of contemporary Catholicism lies in just such subordination of education to governance, the effect of which has too often been to substitute for teaching proclamation construed as command. As Yves Congar said, it is impossible to make the function of teaching an integral element of jurisdiction because it is one thing to accept a teaching, quite another to obey an order: “Autre chose est agréer une doctrine, autre chose obéir à un ordre.”

Cardinal Burke is a true follower of John Paul II's ideas about Catholic education.  It was JPII who took the idea of Catholic education at the university level down to the level of Catechism 101.  He continued a trend started during the papacy of Pio No No (Pious IX) in which teaching becomes the province of the hierarchy and obedience the province of the laity.  Honest intellectual disagreement becomes purely selfish dissent, as Lash demonstrates with this quote:

John Paul II, addressing the American bishops in Los Angeles in 1987, said without qualification: “It is sometimes said that dissent from the magisterium is totally compatible with being a ‘good Catholic’ and poses no obstacle to the reception of the sacraments. This is a grave error that challenges the teaching office of the bishops in the United States and elsewhere.”

I have a real problem with any religious authority which commands obedience rather than teaches ideas. Jesus taught that we must die to our self.  For me this means we must overcome the enculturated ego which controls our inner dialogue and that we all too frequently mistake for the truth of who we are.  That enculturated ego is a product of memory and learning and is therefore very much a product of external authority.  In Burke's idea of a Catholic college, our best and brightest are to be further enculturated in a system which insists the adult ego stay dependent on the kind of external authority that defined the child ego.

Obviously this kind of education doesn't benefit the true spiritual seeker who is attempting to look with in and find independent validation or different understandings for one's experiences or beliefs.  Burke's idea is designed to keep the spiritual seeker from even attempting such a thing, going so far as to imply such a search is satanic in it's origin. And here I thought such a search was divinely inspired and actually required---silly me.

I personally was intrigued by how a college of 100 students could attract a Rome based Cardinal to speak at one of it's dinners. I suppose it should come as no surprise that said college is hugely connected with conservative Catholic political leaders and has the Cardinal Newman Society seal of approval ---or that the Rome based Cardinal is Burke.  Oh or that said college, like many of it's persuasion who were started by an individual Catholic crusader, has a provisional accreditation because of shaky financing.  Maybe Burke's presence at this dinner helped with that financial thing.


  1. My thoughts on the issue were heavily influenced by Martha Nussbaum's Cultivating Humanity where she talks about liberal arts education in a private religious college or university. She compares Notre Dame to BYU, talking about philosophy and religion requirements. I highly recommend this book ... very enlightening, for me personally.

  2. I am struck by the repeated references to "Catholic" and none to "Christian". Far too often, what is meant by "Catholic" means obeisance to a clerical culture, which is quite antithetical to what Christ himself taught.

    If Catholic institutions really did promote Christianity as taught by one Jesus Christ, they could well be even less palatable to the likes of Burke than they are at present.

  3. Colleen,

    Fabulous piece!

    I am associated with St. Michael's College, the Roman Catholic College run by the Basilian priests. It was one of the founding colleges that later became the University of Toronto.

    Burke understands nothing about the mission and purpose of a university and now he wants to run one?

    "The University of Toronto is dedicated to fostering an academic community in which the learning and scholarship of every member may flourish, with vigilant protection for individual human rights, and a resolute commitment to the principles of equal opportunity, equity and justice.

    Within the unique university context, the most crucial of all human rights are the rights of freedom of speech, academic freedom, and freedom of research. And we affirm that these rights are meaningless unless they entail the right to raise deeply disturbing questions and provocative challenges to the cherished beliefs of society at large and of the university itself.

    It is this human right to radical, critical teaching and research with which the University has a duty above all to be concerned; for there is no one else, no other institution and no other office, in our modern liberal democracy, which is the custodian of this most precious and vulnerable right of the liberated human spirit."


  4. It certainly is time for Universities that are Catholic to declare that they teach 2000 years of Christianity and Catholic tradition, but are not under the control or even the cooperation with any Bishop. Burke is an authoritarian crazy that has no idea about the growth and development of faith that is ever infused by the Holy Spirit. Many Bishops follow him or do not speak against such stupidity.

    The whole purpose of education is to seek more truth! Bishop Burke cares not about seeking truth as he believes in the omniscience of Church officials. He believes in his own and Episcopal brothers creeping infallibility! This is just crazy thinking!

    With Bishops like Burke, Catholic no longer is = to Christian. The People of God ethically can not follow this deranged Episcopal leadership! The People of God must begin to understand that the Eucharist was given to us all and the consecration of it does not require an ordained minister. It was the Eucharist that was consecrated at the last supper. The priesthood of Baptism is the real priesthood not something conjured up by church leadership. dennis

  5. No time to waste on speculative theology! Catholic universities must not teach their students to think. This sounds like the stupid mouthings of some tinpot dictator.

  6. The Bishop of each diocese that really believes he is THE TEACHER for his area as a God given right is a tinpot dictator. This is far too common with the JPII-Benedict appointed men. They want to be THE TEACHER of theology, medicine, science, history and philosophy. With minds like these all we the lowly laity need is Universities for the teaching of a dogmatic catechism and we physicians will be commanded to have triage of a bishop at every ER door or even every office door. The scientist, like many in the Vatican Academy, will be disciplined for observations that never occurred to their Bishop. Historians will need check their facts at the chancery and philosophers need not exist. In other words - thinking is checked at the door if one is to be Catholic.

    These men have truly become Emperors without clothes excepting on Sunday mornings when they decide to show of their very expensive and magisterial clown wear. Jesus would be dressed in a tea shirt, jeans and sandals.

  7. I must admit that I am in complete agreement with at least one item in Cardinal Burke's litany - the religious illiteracy of the current generation.

    Christ spoke frequently about a legalistic, hierarchical religious structure which did its best to reinforce the Tradition and the Scripture against a hostile 'secular' world.

    Mayhap His Eminence would find it enlightening to discover how the story works out for them.

  8. Funny you mention that Tim. I can kind of see where Catholicism might take the kind of turn Judaism did after the fall of the Temple in 70 AD.

    I think you are correct with your thought that it would be good for clerics like Burke to study that period and it's after effects on both the rabinic tradition and it's teaching methods.