Editor’s note: The following essay is part of Deseret Magazine’s issue on the fate of the religious university, with contributions by presidents and scholars from Baylor University, BYU, Catholic University, George Fox University, Wheaton College and Yeshiva University, among others. Read all the essays here.
It is fashionable today to claim that religious belief and the 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 not less free to pursue their ends, indeed, they are more so.
At The Catholic University of America, where I am president, we take our religious identity seriously because it empowers our students to more fully flourish, and it makes us a better university. Like most universities, we equip students with the knowledge and skill to succeed in the discipline or profession of their choosing. But our mission is rooted in something much deeper. It arises from an understanding of the human person given to us through 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? What am I here for? What purpose should my life serve?” We direct them inward, to the deepest desires of their hearts. We teach them to look outward, too, to learn from those who have sought wisdom before them, from Aristotle to Dorothy Day.
Our second task is to help students to recognize themselves as integrated, whole persons — intellectual and spiritual, physical and emotional — and to pursue their studies accordingly. It is common today to think we must isolate the spiritual to protect the integrity of the intellectual.
But experience counsels the opposite: When we make space for both faith and reason, our inquiries become richer, deeper and more disciplined.
We penetrate more closely to the core of what is truly real. At Catholic University, we invite students to wrestle not only with quantum physics but with its implications for belief in God; not only with the music of John Cage but with whether we find God’s beauty in it; not only with Marxist political theory but with its compatibility with Catholic anthropology. Faith invigorates the academic life.
The integration of faith and the intellectual life brings depth. A Catholic education aims for breadth as well. A common trend in higher education prioritizes specialization to the exclusion of integration.
We think this is a mistake. It teaches students to think narrowly rather than broadly. It harms their capacity to think critically. More than that, it instrumentalizes education, constricts its aims and fails to properly contextualize learning for the good of society. Our religious identity helps us to avoid that mistake. It reminds us that the human person was made for complex, integrated and holistic thinking, for forging connections and for seeing the whole. It protects our most sacred duty as educators: to facilitate an encounter with the truth and to guide our students on the way toward wisdom.
Peter Kilpatrick is the president of Catholic University of America.