Contemporary conversations about preserving or rebuilding the Catholic identities of prominent American Catholic universities (that, is, those with research arms, as distinct from smaller liberal arts colleges) often revolve around the mandate in Ex Corde Ecclesiae to maintain a majority-Catholic faculty, and therefore the need for these Catholic universities to find and hire Catholic scholars.
This recommendation is fundamentally sound, but the task is not as simple as it may seem at first: Religious identification alone cannot predict a scholar’s potential interest in or contribution to the Catholic mission of a university. We might readily point out that not every scholar who identifies as Catholic will necessarily be substantively so and might not be invested in the Catholic mission of the institution. The converse—that a non-Catholic scholar can be an active and enthusiastic contributor to that mission—might not be equally obvious, but it is nonetheless true. Those who have had the chance to closely study Catholic thought (and especially Catholic social thought) often find it to be a useful dialectic for their research as well as a way of relating more effectively to their Catholic students. These faculty needn’t be Catholic themselves to appreciate and communicate the depth and complexity of the Catholic intellectual tradition.
Yet the biggest weakness of the recruitment recommendation as it is usually articulated is its treatment of faculty themselves as a static quantity when the reality is rather more complex: Scholars of every discipline and at every stage of their professional development can participate in the unique mission of the Catholic university, but are too often left on their own to discover how to do so. Catholic scholars must not simply be found, but formed.
I must here confess to having no great expertise in either the histories or administrative structures of the modern American university or even the modern American Catholic University. I speak instead from the experience of four years of undergraduate education at the university of Notre Dame, during which I attended events and had conversations with professors that exposed me to the numerous ways in which scholars of various disciplines and backgrounds might participate and learn to participate more fully in the Catholic mission of the university that they call home.
It would therefore be most prudent for me to focus my commentary on the possibilities of formation among that portion of the professoriate with which I am most familiar: Those who are tenured or otherwise comfortably established in humanities and social science departments at a university (like Notre Dame) that emphasizes both research and teaching. There is a good deal that could be said about the importance of providing PhD candidates with opportunities for formation so that the next generation of scholars can evangelize whatever setting they end up in, regardless of whether that setting is a university. We might also speculate about the situations of many adjunct professors at other historically Catholic institutions and in modern universities generally, and even about the possibilities of restructuring the tenure system or its internal incentives. However, I will leave those discussions to others more capable of making such commentary intelligently.
With that disclaimer out of the way, I proceed to the topic at hand. The system by which tenure is typically awarded was explained to me in two simple phrases: “Publish or perish,” and “anything not toward tenure is against tenure.” Academics who seek the security that tenure brings must aim to succeed by the standards of the major academic journals of their discipline, and so usually cannot approach their work from a Catholic perspective or for a Catholic audience without falling behind in that desperate academic rat race.
Prior to achieving tenure, most professors—whether Catholic or not—will not have had the opportunity to closely examine all the possible connections of their university’s Catholic mission to their discipline and particularly to their research: Given the incentive structure of modern academia, we should be surprised to find a professor with the competence, much less the confidence, to fully integrate a Catholic mission into his or her research and teaching. Even those with some background knowledge of Catholicism or some vaguely defined sympathy for their university’s Catholic mission might not feel quite familiar enough with the subject matter to bring it up confidently and consistently. Here is where we can find not a little room for Catholic universities to provide invitations and even incentives for established academics to explore the connections between the Catholic intellectual tradition and their individual academic work.
In this task of integration, as St. John Paul II argued in Ex Corde Ecclesiae paragraph 19, theology is key:
[Theology] serves all other disciplines in their search for meaning, not only by helping them to investigate how their discoveries will affect individuals and society but also by bringing a perspective and an orientation not contained within their own methodologies. In turn, interaction with these other disciplines and their discoveries enriches theology, offering it a better understanding of the world today, and making theological research more relevant to current needs.
It is hard to imagine a better way for professors vaguely sympathetic to Catholicism to develop the necessary confidence to discuss Catholicism openly than for them to have extended conversations on the subject with theologians or fellow academics in their own discipline who are well-versed in the relevant elements of the Catholic tradition.
To that end, interdisciplinary conferences and seminars appear to be some of the better options in that they are possible venues for these conversations, and informal reading or discussion groups within departments can be ways for those already comfortable with the Catholic tradition to deepen their knowledge and introduce their colleagues to relevant resources. Furthermore, teaching awards, research grants, and even press releases can be opportunities for the university’s administrative arm to recognize and encourage the kind of scholarship to which a Catholic university aspires.
Over the past half-century, Catholic universities have invested a great deal in excelling by secular standards, especially with respect to research. In their single-minded focus on building up these capacities, they have lost a good deal of their capacity to relate whatever new knowledge they find to the Catholic intellectual tradition. But in many disciplines, recovering that which has been lost need not come at the price of what has been gained. Universities must not only hire scholars amenable to their Catholic mission, but find ways to invite these scholars to integrate Catholic insights into their work and furthermore to see this sort of integration as an indispensable part of their vocation as academics.
If these opportunities for integration, though they may be hosted by departments, centers, or institutes, are made readily available and it is clear that the university as an institution is investing in these efforts, we may be surprised to see just how many professors leap at the chance to participate more fully in their respective universities’ Catholic missions.