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  • The New Need for the Catholic University
  • Gerhart Neimeyer

Bernard Shaw's still lingering statement, "a Catholic university is a contradiction in terms," is a tautology or a prejudice. A tautology if we read it literally to mean: "A universal university is a contradiction in terms." A prejudice if we supply the historical depth and turn it into a more precise statement, to wit: "A university under such authoritarian strictures by the Church as was the university of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries contradicts the notion of free inquiry which our century identifies with the university."

We shall see whether the statement is true in this version. Even if true, however, it must be called a prejudice because it judges today's Catholic university in terms of a past situation which no longer applies. If we go further with Shaw and ask what was the objectionable [End Page 143] element in the past situation we find that it is not so much the Christian quality of the university as the tendency to identify Christianity with an elaborate set of theological and philosophical propositions which were considered to be comparable to propositions about natural objects, so that there could be competition and collision between the two sets, and one set could be authoritatively superimposed on the other. Furthermore, there had been two centuries of dogmatization not only in theology but also in philosophy, so that formulae and syllogisms came to be taken for reality itself, which explains the tendency to identify Christianity chiefly with propositions. None of these conditions prevails anymore today, so that condemning a Catholic university on the grounds of what a Catholic university was, several hundred years ago, is sheer prejudice.

The first thing to bear in mind, then, when speaking for the need for a Catholic university today, is that we are not indulging ourselves in nostalgia. As compared with the Middle Ages, or the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, we are in a new ball game, as it were. Today the Catholic university responds to new needs, which must be carefully identified. If we now take a quick look at the medieval universities, all the same, it is not so much to obtain a model but rather to remind ourselves what has been the continuous character of the Western university from the very first. Of the five universities extant in the twelfth century (Salerno, Bologna, Paris, Montpellier, and Oxford), Salerno was essentially a medical school. The other four, presenting a wider range of instruction, offered knowledge through which a young man could hope to move into a respectable position in the cities, the episcopal chanceries, or the princely courts. With a grain of salt one may say that they were schools for administrators and counselors in various institutions of authority. But this utilitarian function—and here we come to the distinctive character of the Western university—was from the beginning embedded in a universal pursuit of truth, in knowledge as a universal whole. Of course, a medieval university was a guild, an association of scholars and magisters for purposes of self-protection [End Page 144] and self-government. In that way they obtained a certain autonomy from the interference of the surrounding society, represented by Prince, Church, and City. That autonomy might be seen as nothing more than self-preservation.

But Alexander of Roes speaks of three principatus, three eminences: sacerdotium, regnum, and studium, according the university equal rank with the Church and the Crown. Thus, while the autonomous organization might have been merely self-preservative, the dignity could have come only from the purpose of universal truth to which the autonomous bodies of scholars and magisters had dedicated themselves. In that sense, the Western university must be distinguished from, let us say, the Japanese university which arose roughly about the same time. In Kyoto, the university also trained administrators, teaching both skills and knowledge, but skills and knowledge wholly immersed in the myth and rituals that constituted the mold of society and the imperial dynasty. In that this university was entirely geared to social and political tradition, the truth it taught had no standing of its own.

Why, then, could it have that standing in the...


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