Conflicts, campuses, and the return to Catholic commitments

Theology (and its “handmaid” philosophy), must return from the peripheries to become once more the “queen of the sciences” reigning not for her own glory but in service of all the other disciplines to ensure their voices were not merely heard, but integrated, allowing, once more, for “all knowledge to form one whole,” in Newman’s idea of a university.

A statue of St. Thomas Aquinas. (

More and more academic institutions—Duke Divinity School, Notre Dame, the University of St. Thomas in Houston, and Providence College in Rhode Island, to name just a few Christian schools, and just from the past two months—are in the news for the way they handle, or fail to handle, conflicts. While the particulars differ in each case, the overall complaint seems to be that universities today are more fragmented than ever, and are getting worse at handling conflict.

But what if, instead of lamenting all the conflicts on campuses today and acts of censorship when lectures are “no platformed” by students, Catholics instead not merely welcome but actively cultivate conflict in their students and on their campuses? What if Catholic universities set themselves the goal not of graduating compliant professionals fit for the ranks of the bourgeoisie, but people proficient at putting the politics, the state, and the market economies of our time radically to the question in search of a true culture of life? What if Catholic universities sought no longer to be post-Enlightenment liberal universities but instead refashion themselves on the model of a pre-modern Catholic university?

These are not really my own suggestions, but are largely drawn from something articulated by Alasdair MacIntyre in Three Rival Versions of Moral Inquiry (University of Notre Dame Press, 1990). In light of so many universities embroiled in conflict today, I decided to return to the last chapter of that book, “Reconceiving the University as an Institution and the Lecture as a Genre.” It is, like many of MacIntyre’s writings, composed of roughly equal doses of intellectual history and cultural despair—with a few counter-intuitive suggestions of a possible way forward raised at the very end.

MacIntyre, a Catholic recently retired from Notre Dame, is widely acclaimed as the most influential moral philosopher of the last forty years. He argues that the modern university, Catholic and otherwise, suffers from three losses: first, there is an excessive specialization or compartmentalization in which (to reverse Cardinal Newman’s famous dictum) all knowledge no longer forms one whole, leading, second, to the loss of a generally educated public (since academic research is no longer accessible to the general public but only to specialized initiates) whose losses, thirdly, are especially acute in the areas of moral philosophy and theology, which have been systematically excluded from modern “secular” universities (and severely downgraded even in Christian ones). Cumulatively these result in a further loss of any sense of a shared conception of the common good towards which the university should both aim its energies and also seek to orient the wider society. As a result, when asked to justify their financial arrangements—arrangements whereby these tax-free institutions, typically fattened by hundreds of millions of dollars in endowments, nonetheless force students into taking on masses of morally unjustifiable debt to pay for tuition—universities, at most, splutter insipidly about being engines of job training for middle-class professionals—whose future incomes will eventually allow them, after a quarter-century or more, to pay off those loans. (Where is the Catholic teaching on usury when you really need it?)

This self-serving incoherence should not surprise us because the modern liberal university—which is to say all universities today in varying degrees, referring to the liberalism of the Enlightenment in which individual liberty is prized above all commitments to family, faith, or fatherland—is based, MacIntyre says, on a mistaken application of a good principle. The principle is that nobody should be systematically excluded from intellectual inquiry (as, e.g., Jews, Catholics, and women were at some pre-liberal modern universities in Scotland, England, and the United States) based on their race, sex, or religion. With this, Catholics should certainly agree, knowing as we do that every single human person is created equally in the image and likeness of God.

The destructive application of this principle expands it outward to say that there should be no exclusions at all and that universities cannot be based on any prior commitments to first principles because those are inherently exclusionary. Everything is open to debate because everyone is and must be free of any moral and religious constraints and commitments as the price of progress in rational inquiry. With this, Catholics cannot agree without destroying themselves. (Catholics needn’t worry about this anyway for the simple fact that nobody is ever free of prior commitments to their own set of first principles.)

What, then, is to be done? MacIntyre suggests a return to the pre-liberal model, such as that of the University of Paris in the thirteenth century, where “Augustinians and Aristotelians each conducted their own systematic enquiries while at the same time engaging in systematic controversy.” We cannot, of course, recreate the Parisian scene of 800 years ago, and nor would we want to do so exactly because of some of its problems, but we can let it inspire us today, and if we do, we will find our universities more conflictual, not less, but it would be conflict of a different sort. How so?

In the first place, MacIntyre calls for constrained conflict. I take that to mean conflict with boundaries that must be enforced by administrators, whom MacIntyre calls the guardians of the arenas of conflict on their campuses, preserving them from degenerating into futility or violence while also helping everyone to recognize and uphold areas of common agreement. Such administrators would have to be willing to expel or sack people who threaten rational discourse with violence and intimidation.

How could this work? If the conflict seemed especially protracted, wouldn’t one side, as so often seems to happen today, conspire to shut down or destroy the other side via backroom machinations instead? For a university to be a renewed place of intellectual conflict while not descending into chaos or power games, it would, I suggest, have to imitate the Parisian model in another respect: asceticism.

That asceticism would manifest itself firstly in governance, which should return to or remain in the hands of celibates in religious orders vowed to poverty and thus far less capable of being manipulated or threatened financially. Gone would be the trend, evident on almost every Catholic campus, of inviting rich businessmen onto their governing boards and then almost always following their capitalist-inspired counsel. Gone too would be trusting the presidency to lay people, whose stock portfolios or very jobs can often be threatened as tools of political manipulation.

Universities, in fact, would become much more ascetical in nature in a variety of ways. Superficially, the whole jumble of services and luxuries found on too many campuses today—the gourmet chefs, rock-climbing walls, yoga lessons, and all the other accoutrements that have turned many campuses into expensive resorts while jacking up the cost of tuition and leading to a morally repugnant crisis in student debt—would be abolished. Money could also be freed up by shedding the layers and layers of bureaucrats who are to be found on almost every campus today—the deputy associate vice-presidents of mandatory sexual sensitivity training, the assistant deans of culturally appropriate cry rooms, the, comptrollers of Title IX through CCLVI programs, etc.

Administrators and faculty would be entrusted with serious authority only insofar as it was manifestly clear that they were committed tout simplement to one thing: to enabling students to discover not just the good of their life, but the good of their life in communion with the common good and with God revealed in Christ and mediated by the sacraments of the Church. Authority, however, is not justifiable exclusively or permanently on its own terms: it is justifiable only insofar as it contributes to the deepening of reason and faith both as they seek the common good.

That authority itself could and should be put dialectically to the question when those fallible human beings wielding it seem to be in danger of yielding to the many latent and manifest temptations of libido dominandi, to teaching manifest error, or to mistaking their own selfish gain for the genuinely common good. Those doing the questioning should not live in fear while doing so, and those being put to the question should not live without gratitude for the challenge that may save them and their institutions from disasters hitherto unseen by them. Thus university administrators must not be as those at St. Thomas in Houston seem recently to have been, viz., staffed by people who prefer backroom power games covertly crushing people rather than overtly offering arguments open to rational scrutiny and refutation.

Rational debate would be central, and would circle around the interconnected questions: what is my good and that of my family? what is the common good? and how may the university serve both, for these students and the wider society? Thus universities would again become places devoted to the most important questions of real import and substance rather than being the irrelevant but expensive playgrounds they often are today, where “debates” too often focus on issues—e.g., transgender bathrooms—relevant only to those in an advanced state of decadence.

These questions, however, would begin not as the liberal modern university does—when, that is, it takes up such questions at all, which it rarely does—without first principles. These questions would begin with the presupposition that those questions, in a diversity of ways, will ultimately issue in, and lead one to, the Truth who is Jesus Christ. As MacIntyre has demonstrated in many books and articles, the modern liberal project in both its academic and political expressions rejects first principles because we have been fooled into thinking that first principles are never rationally justifiable but are always external impositions of, or capricious choices by, irrational authorities—like Polish popes in Ex Corde Ecclesia. Catholic universities know otherwise.

At the same time, though, to prevent the university from descending into a closed and privileged Catholic cult, it would also have to be intensely hospitable to everyone, perhaps most especially those who are opposed to Catholicism. Fidelity to Catholic teaching means, I would argue, not just obedience to theological or moral precepts, though it certainly means that at a minimum. Fidelity also means obedience to reason and thus obedience to what I would call the precept of Catholic hospitality which welcomes the good wherever reason has uncovered it. In welcoming “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious” (Phil. 4:8), the genuinely Catholic university ensures that it is not a private club (with all its manifold dangers), but becomes what MacIntyre calls “a place of constrained disagreement, of imposed participation in conflict” whose educational mission was to “to initiate students into conflict,” including above all conflict over “the most fundamental moral and theological” questions.

Theology (and its “handmaid” philosophy), then, would return from the peripheries to become once more the “queen of the sciences” reigning not for her own glory but in service of all the other disciplines to ensure their voices were not merely heard, but integrated, allowing, once more, for “all knowledge to form one whole,” in Newman’s idea of a university. Theology faculty would be the first to model the two-fold role all faculty would need to fulfill according to MacIntyre: first, faculty must be protagonists from within a tradition arguing for, and systematically developing, that tradition in the strongest possible way. Thus Catholic theology faculties would have to be filled with faithful Catholics doing theology in the spirit of the Parisian (and patristic!) model—and not doing “religious studies” in the liberal-modern model.

Second, faculty (following Thomistic methods) would expose their Catholic commitments to the strongest possible challenge by their enemies, not only or even primarily to show where the enemies are wrong, but also to discover their own weak or blind spots that could then be strengthened. This would, MacIntyre says, be an ongoing systematic process of conflictual engagement and inquiry, which is how any tradition survives.

Doing this would require very careful monitoring to ensure that the right teachers were hired who could combine the rather rare talents of being both protagonists of their own tradition and antagonists against it, showing students “how to read antagonistically without defeating oneself” and thus giving them the ability to “read scrupulously and carefully in order to possess a text in a way which enables them to arrive at independent interpretive judgments.” Such genuinely independent judgments would help students to know, in a way they did not at the start of their education, what the good of their life is. As they thus discover their good, they will realize that their education will not and must not culminate in their meekly and unquestiongly accepting middle-class jobs upon graduation. They must spend their lives seeking not just their good, but both the common good with which theirs is inextricably entwined, and the ultimate Good, who is God.

In doing so, their education will have unfitted them for the modern world’s liberal individualism and market capitalism, which is exactly the point and the hope. They should instead have received the necessary formation to follow St. Ignatius of Loyola: ite, inflammate omnia.

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About Dr. Adam A. J. DeVille 110 Articles
Dr. Adam A. J. DeVille is associate professor at the University of Saint Francis in Ft. Wayne, IN., where he also maintains a part-time private practice in psychotherapy. He is the author and editor of several books, including Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy (University of Notre Dame, 2011).


  1. Is the new and restored version of the university exclusively Thomistic? I ask because Thomists historically do not have a great track record for allowing dissent from Thomism, whether in the 14th c. or the 20th. They tend to use authority to quash their rivals by erroneously equating ‘catholicsm’ and ‘thomism’. One would hope that the restored university would be open to all schools, perhaps even the Scotistic or Bonaventurian.

  2. “the whole jumble of services found on too many campuses … that have turned many campuses into expensive resorts while jacking up the cost of tuition … would be abolished. Money could also be freed up by shedding the bureaucrats … the deputy associate vice-presidents of mandatory sexual sensitivity training, the assistant deans of culturally appropriate cry rooms, the, comptrollers of Title IX through CCLVI programs, etc.”

    Wow. This would be an upheaval of the entire modern model. Cannot begin to imagine it or the consequences: probably campuses that had the stunned aura captured so well by HBO’s “The Leftovers”! LOL. But would love to see the suggestion pursued.

  3. Catholic universities have no obligation to teach non-Catholics without a serious vetting process.

    At any rate, given social and institutional inertia, there is no salvaging of modern American Catholic universities — they will disappear when the economy contracts as it will.

  4. Some really good points and some for more discussion; But what I can say for certain is what a blessing it is for us in our small city to have dedicated non-clergy young people with advanced degrees serve in our community – true servants of God and all recent Notre Dame grads.

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