Catholic Higher Education and Studies in Advanced Relativism

“Is the faith tangible," asked Benedict XVI in 2008, "in our universities and schools?” The answer is overwhelmingly negative.

“The danger of a dictatorship of opinion is growing, and anyone who doesn’t share the prevailing opinion is excluded, so that even good people no longer dare to stand by (such) nonconformists. Any future anti-Christian dictatorship would probably be much more subtle than anything we have known until now. It will appear to be friendly to religion, but on the condition that its own models of behavior and thinking not be called into question.” — Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, 1996

Visiting a Catholic campus this past summer, I passed a class meeting outdoors on that sunny afternoon. A student was presenting to her classmates on the topic of “leadership.” She was confidently expressing to them how she exemplified leadership in her life: “When I speak, I make sure I speak in a way so that people listen. Even if you don’t know what you’re talking about, just speak like you do know and loud enough so that people will believe you.” Was this young woman knowingly spouting examples from Relativism 101? So convincing was she that I fell for her ruse: I believed everything she said in those few seconds I was within earshot.

For those involved in Catholic higher education as students, administrators, faculty and parents this is a unique academic year, one in which the persuasion of the Catholic vision is met with increasing blank stares and uncomprehending minds. What is a Catholic university today? Is the use of the word “Catholic” a mere marketing tool, a brand to attract prospective students from certain economic backgrounds?

The book, A Reason Open to God: On Universities, Education, and Culture, edited by J. Steven Brown, is a comprehensive collection of Benedict XVI’s addresses centered around Catholic higher education and its place in culture. The foreword by Catholic University of America president, John Garvey, indicates that not only was Catholic education a top priority for pope emeritus Benedict, but that Catholic universities must not forget God, and that our relationship with Him is the center of the agenda. Garvey quotes from an address Benedict gave during his seminal trip to the U.K. in 2010: “A good school provides a rounded education for the whole person. And a good Catholic school, over and above this, should help all its students to become saints.” Education for the whole person probably appears on dozens of mission statements, but what about the becoming saints part? 

U.S. News & World Report embraces religiously affiliated schools by awarding some top rankings on its “Best Colleges” list (Notre Dame was #18 in 2013, the highest rated Catholic school) suggesting there is no real difference between secular institutions and private. Rejected from Johns Hopkins (#12)? Georgetown (one of a three-way tie for #20) will take you. But we need constant reminding that there is a difference. No less than Benedict himself directly asked similar questions during his one and only visit to America in 2008 when speaking with Catholic educators at Catholic University (ranked #121).

“Is the faith tangible in our universities and schools?” he asked. “Do we really believe that only in the mystery of the Word made flesh does the mystery of man truly become clear? Are we ready to commit our entire self – intellect and will, mind and heart – to God? Do we accept the truth Christ reveals?”

How many graduates from Catholic colleges and universities over the last decade raised and/or educated in a Catholic environment have lapsed, rejected, or ignored the very Church from which their education derives? If the university fails to uphold their missions rooted in the Catholic tradition, what is the value of the name of such a school on resumes or diplomas? “While we have sought diligently to engage the intellect of our young,” Benedict suggests in the same speech, “perhaps we have neglected the will.”

Dinesh D’Souza, in What’s So Great About Christianity, speaks of an “atheist strategy.” He writes, “the atheist strategy can be described in this way: let the religious people breed them, and we will educate them to despise their parents’ beliefs.” In a culture that prides and indeed generates its economy on supposed independent and free thinkers, where all stances are tolerated except truth-based stances themselves, college is a time to quash traditional thinking, viewpoints and private beliefs in favor of “public” freedom. Of course, “traditional” nowadays means an authentic Catholic education and upbringing. And that is one stance that is certainly not tolerated, either from without, or more increasingly and dangerously, from within.

This “questioning” method came out of the cultural revolutions of the late 1960s into the 70s, which Professor Fr. Joseph Ratzinger himself experienced, where campuses were bastions for passionate demonstrations and where dialogue and debates were welcomed, instead of students tucked away and left to their own digital, virtual refuges. And the result, all these decades later? Not only an inordinate amount of self-portraits taken from a smartphone, but a pervading idea that the only social requirement is to be vaguely nice while going about getting whatever you wanted.

This is what became of the “questioning method.” The encouragement to be countercultural meant to deconstruct a generally Christian society into one where your freewheeling views were championed. Now, the countercultural collegiate movement has turned completely around: professors are still clamoring for deconstructing traditional values, but in fact these traditional values are the very values most professors were themselves informed by; Christianity has become countercultural, the far out ideas now the cultural norm.

“Isolation and withdrawing into one’s own interests are never the way to restore hope and bring about a renewal,” Pope Francis said in his pastoral visit to Cagliari in September in which he called for a “culture of closeness” at universities and for them to be places “of formation in solidarity.” He encourages those there “to not be afraid to open yourselves to the horizons of transcendence, to an encounter with Christ nor to deepen your relationship with him.”

This encounter with Christ, this “scandal of the Cross” as he called it at World Youth Day stands in the way of the “dictatorship of opinion” running rampant in essays, seminars and at dining hall tables. And Catholic higher education in the United States (albeit not at every institution nor comprehensively) goes to great pains to be friends with the secular realm and with relativism by adopting the very attitudes Catholicism itself cannot help but reject. Upon graduation, confused over what to believe and armed with poor catechetical training, grads enter a tepid workforce largely indifferent or even opposed to religious belief.

The deception has worked. Even the word “Catholic” is debatable, questioned and redefined, at least according to the law, further confusing students emerging from Catholic schools and especially those who believe in their university’s mission and want to live by it in their own lives. Perhaps universities have it right, then: cloak your Catholicism if it means that much to you, stay in line, and if you’re so compelled, The Jefferson Bible is much more suited to your modern, reason alone sensibilities than the Gospels. Say goodbye, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, Church Fathers, Hildegard, Aquinas, Dante, Ignatius, Therese, Guardini, Sheen and Ratzinger. There’s no place for you in this common core culture.

“The Cross continues to provoke scandal,” Francis said. “But it is the one sure path, the path of the Cross, the path of Jesus, the path of the Incarnation of Jesus.” In these assaults on belief and foundation, in this diluvian age of mediocrity, where perverse notions of freedom rule the high seas, there can be only one logical conclusion: all followers of Christ, imperfect and sinners though they be, are followers of the criminal of that scandal and must be prepared to account for it. For if Christ was condemned to death, but rose again, is he not then still a criminal? If so, He is by far the Most Wanted List’s #1, Public Enemy #1. His teachings are continually rejected and rewritten by His executioners. Has there ever been a time in which there have not been further attempts on His life, to crucify Him again and again and proclaim Him dead once and for all?

So subtle is the ambush today you may be tempted to accept it as business as usual. Universities might advertise how fast their Internet bandwidth is on campus, but if you type “Eucharist” into the YouTube search box, an autofill drop down suggests “Eucharist desecration.”. If you type “Pope Benedict” into Google one of the first drop down suggestions is “Pope Benedict nazi”.

And if you type “Philippians 2:10” you get this incredible, incendiary statement: “[A]t the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth.” 

A phrase like that seems controversial enough to be a senior thesis for an Advanced Relativism course. That should be countercultural enough for the professor.

If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!

Click here for more information on donating to CWR. Click here to sign up for our newsletter.

About Connor Malloy 9 Articles
Connor Malloy is a writer with staff experience in Catholic higher education.