The Journal of Higher Education 75.2 (2004) 234-237
[Access article in PDF]
The Idea of a Catholic University by George Dennis O'Brien. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 2002. 239 pp. Cloth $28.00.
In The Idea of a Catholic University George Dennis O'Brien ambitiously endeavors to show that Catholic universities are not only different from secular universities but in principle capable of providing a richer and deeper education. While most academics tend to think of the Catholic university as dogmatic and the secular as free, O'Brien, a Catholic who has served as president of Bucknell University and the University of Rochester, seeks to uncover the implicit dogmas of the contemporary secular university, above all its tendency to bracket ultimate and existential questions.
The initial chapter outlines the Christian foundations of the modern university: the exploration of the natural world gains meaning through a recognition of its having been created by God, and the study of texts has its origins in engagement with the Bible and its interpretations. Chapters two through five elaborate a distinction between three kinds of truth: scientific, artistic, and religious. Science explores disinterested, universal, and verifiable truth; art is "signatured truth" (33) or particular to the unique work of art; religious truth, also a form of signatured truth, engages ultimate questions and offers, unlike art, definitive answers, which in the case of Christianity are "bound up in a specific historical person" (33). For O'Brien religion is close to modern anti-art: both seek to address "the real" or the ultimate mystery of life and existence (58), but whereas anti-art gives disturbing accounts of "the meaningless contingency of our existence" (71), religion is salvational, offering a "sacramental life of presence" (86). O'Brien argues that secular universities are oriented primarily toward scientific truth, tolerate artistic truth, and bracket religious truth.
Chapters six and seven seek to uncover some of the implicit dogmas of secular universities, including the restriction of academic freedom to scientific inquiry and artistic creativity, skepticism toward faith as a path to truth, and the denial of "the import of existential reality" (99) and of the value of questions concerning life and salvation (103). The idea of a "life commitment" is foreign to university culture (12 1).
Chapter eight is an engaging thought experiment: O'Brien discusses the idea of a Holocaust university, a university in which remembering the Holocaust and recognizing its centrality in history is central to its mission; by comparison and contrast, O'Brien helps to clarify why Catholic universities pursue certain curricular and policy goals. He asks, for example: "Just how would a Holocaust university deal with deniers, dissenters, and diversity advocates?" (133).
The ninth and tenth chapters tackle Ex Corde Ecclesiae in a creative way: O'Brien rejects the institutional/juridical model of the church associated with the mandatum: it is inimical to the autonomy of the university and an inappropriate paradigm for the church. In its stead, O'Brien advocates a sacramental model, which recognizes not only God's transcendence but also his presence in nature and history. Religious truth, which is accessed through prayer, does not undermine academic truth but reinforces the value of understanding ordinary [End Page 234] reality and ordinary truth. Academic abstraction, while not equivalent to existential reality, is nonetheless not unconnected to existential reality; the two are ideally intertwined, and religion aids in this linkage.
The penultimate chapter, chapter eleven, seeks to summarize by introducing two ideal types: the secular university and the contrarian Catholic university. The final chapter, the only one devoted to practical considerations, argues for a course in fundamental theology entitled "Love, Commitment, and Decision" that would engage students in the existential meaning of religion. The chapter also includes some brief reflections on policy issues, such as inviting controversial speakers, culminating in the Christian imperative to discover the moral interest or passion in positions with which one disagrees (211).
O'Brien's questions have never been more central to American higher education. In Contending with Modernity, Philip Gleason shows that the ideas originally animating the modern Catholic university—...