It scarcely needs to be pointed out that western culture is under attack. What appeared at first to be a series of isolated skirmishes has turned into a full-frontal assault. The legitimacy and value of a legacy that represents the accumulated wisdom of centuries seems to be dissolving before our eyes. Without shame or hesitation, and on full public display, our intellectual, moral, and even our aesthetic traditions are systematically torn down; heroes from every century and every walk of life are canceled in a heartbeat.
Many of the things we took for granted until the day before yesterday – the binary reality of man and woman, the meaning of marriage, the importance of children and family, the capacity of human reason to discern the truth and discover the intelligence hidden in the order of things – are all now suspect, questioned, or simply denied. Such ancient truths are just more evidence of the oppressive hegemony of the dominant culture, whose time is now up. Those who disagree with this narrative are immediately silenced and ejected from public discourse. Meanwhile, internal squabbles in the Church and the sins of her members make her hesitant or incapable of proclaiming a full-throated defense of the truth.
Is it time to admit that Yeats got it right, to acknowledge, finally, that “the center cannot hold”? Perhaps. It does seem as though that reality is now upon us. The forces that held it together appear to have let go of the rope. One has the sensation of things spinning out of control. As Nietzsche warned us in his Parable of the Madman, when we declare God dead, we unchain the earth from the sun. And what follows is the feeling of vertigo that accompanies a blind plunge into space – a void with no boundaries, no signposts, no true north. Is it time to let ourselves be swept up in the orbit of nihilism so clearly at the center of it all?
Well, no. And that is manifestly the wrong question. The average Star Trek fan knows that when the ship is knocked out of its orbit, the only solution is to resist the gravitational pull with a yet more powerful force. And so, the right question to ask would be: what actually constitutes the epicenter of Yeats’ famous phrase? What is the center of gravity, the point from which some sensible action might be taken in order to recover our hold? Where is the point of maximum leverage? And though our first thought might be to locate it in the millions of Catholic parishes throughout the world, there is a more powerful force available to us. It is hidden in plain sight.
The Catholic Church is the largest non-governmental provider of higher education in the world. According to the Vatican, she oversees, with varying degrees of influence, 1,358 Catholic universities worldwide. There is a Catholic institution of higher education (that is, one designated by a competent ecclesiastical authority) operating in almost every country from Albania to Zimbabwe. It would be a practical impossibility to calculate the total number of students currently enrolled, even more difficult to ascertain the number of graduates. In the United States alone, the Church is responsible for educating 1.7 million school children from kindergarten to high school. Of the students attending these schools, a significant percentage (18.7% during the 2019-2020 school year) are non-Catholic.
In fact, the majority of the students attending Catholic universities are non-Catholic. All of these students represent a mostly untapped potential. They are ours to teach and to form – a virtually captive audience – whether that be for 12 years or for four – or more. What could be more obvious? Here lies the promise of the future: the rebuilding of the Church herself and the recovery of our culture. It is the equivalent of Archimedes’ famous lever. With that type of leverage, we should be able to move the world.
But as we all know, there is a serious problem. Unfortunately, in many cases, the Church’s influence over the Catholic educational enterprise has waned considerably, whether due to the culture’s resistance or its outright refusal to embrace her teachings, or to the Church’s own willingness to dilute them. This is particularly true in the case of higher education. It is a sad reality that, whatever their marketing materials claim, one has to search cautiously for a Catholic university that remains fully committed to the Magisterium and to the great legacy of the Catholic intellectual tradition. Surely this is where we find the point of maximum engagement; here we are at the epicenter.
For make no mistake, the calamity we face is above all a failure of those who, with our full permission and a great deal of our hard-earned cash, have been given free rein over what our children are taught. It is the result of corruption in public schools, in higher institutions of learning, in academia itself, promoted by an intellectual elite with an ideological agenda that manifestly seeks the deconstruction of the person, the breakdown of the family, and the ruin of souls. We need to put our focus on the recovery of the Catholic University. It is where we will find the greatest leverage.
In Ex Corde Ecclesia, his Apostolic Constitution on the Catholic University, Pope St. John Paul II declares that the Catholic University is “born from the heart of the Church…recognized as an incomparable center of creativity and dissemination of knowledge for the good of humanity” (#1). He states unequivocally that It “is the honor and responsibility of a Catholic University to consecrate itself without reserve to the cause of truth” (#5). It has been so for centuries. The search for truth is embedded in its DNA.
Though forgotten or ignored by those who currently populate the academy, it is a historical fact that the modern university began as an overtly Catholic enterprise. Its origins can be traced to the late 11th century and the founding of the first university in 1088, the University of Bologna, followed in rapid succession by several others, among them the University of Oxford (1096), and of Paris (1160), now known as the Sorbonne. Indeed, most of the universities established in Europe during the medieval period were founded as Catholic. Of the ten oldest still in operation, nine were the result of the partnership between the Catholic Church and the State that had begun centuries before.
When Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne emperor of the Holy Roman Empire in 800 A.D, it marked the last formal step in Charlemagne’s campaign to unite the Germanic tribes of Western Europe and to transform the kingdom into a Christian empire. But Charlemagne’s goals were not only political; he had in mind the expansion and preservation of Christendom. His reign inaugurated the cultural and intellectual revival known as the Carolingian Renaissance, a period of intense renewal of the classical works of antiquity, marked by a concerted effort to preserve the ancient texts. Which led to the development of a legible script. Which led to an upsurge in new works of literature, increases in the arts, and in jurisprudence. There was a wave of liturgical reforms and a revival of the monastic schools already in operation. And the rest, as they say, is history.
This was the beginning of a cooperative effort between the Church and the State which, though certainly stained by missteps and tragedy, safeguarded the treasury of the faith and our intellectual tradition for centuries. And it marked the beginning of the historical trajectory that led directly to the establishment of the university system.
The university was created by the Church, for the Church. First, we need to reclaim that. Then we can reclaim the culture.
Now this will not require a grand strategy. Archimedes’ principle can be put to work here: the Catholic University is the lever; the Magisterium is the fulcrum. We do not need the permission of the Vatican (though cooperation from the local Bishop would be a great help). All we need to do is “leverage” what we already have in place. And a critical mass of Catholic Universities led by those who understand.
There is already one university at work on this project. The Franciscan University of Steubenville*, led by Father Dave Pivonka, TOR, made the connection first. Father Dave’s insight shed light on what sensible action might look like in the face of the enormous challenges of our time. In 1205, God called St. Francis to “rebuild my Church.” More than 800 years later, Father Dave has declared that God is calling Franciscan University to do the same. This vision, that the Church will be rebuilt by leveraging the unapologetically Catholic identity of a University “consecrated to the cause of truth,” is the lynchpin of Steubenville’s strategic plan. It is not a short-term solution. It is a down payment on the future of the Church – and that of the legacy of our intellectual tradition. Father Dave knows that the only way to “pay it forward” is to step out in faith. And in doing so, he has taken another page from history.
Without a doubt, the central figure in Charlemagne’s effort to preserve and extend the legacy of the Western intellectual tradition was a now forgotten scholar and monk: Alquin of York. It was Alquin who developed the script that would transform the written word into language comprehensible to others. It would be impossible to overstate his significance in the Renaissance that took place at a critical turning point in history. But perhaps his most important contribution was a single strategic decision. He ordered the planting of a vast forest of trees, to be stocked with deer and wild boar. We will need lots of paper, he said, and bristles with which to write; there will be a great deal of writing to do. For one thing, we will need many copies of the Bible. The trees were planted, the forest was stocked and, years later, they became the concrete means by which our legacy was preserved.
We all need to think like Alquin of York – to plant something now even though we know that the harvest will likely come only after we are gone. We need to rise above the daily skirmishes that keep our attention on the trees and not on the forest. We may win one occasionally – but without a broader vision we will lose the war.
And so perhaps we need to consider anew John Paul II’s advice – that we concentrate, not on fighting evil, but on building something good. We need not reinvent the foundations. The only means available to us is to reclaim our intellectual and spiritual heritage – without hesitation or apology. This will not be accomplished without leveraging something with the power to reverse the direction of what may appear to be an irreversible spin. Perhaps only the renewal of the Catholic university has the gravitational pull to right the ship.
(*The author serves on the Board of Trustees of the University of Steubenville.)
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