From the Providence Journal:
When Pope Benedict XVI asked to address Catholic educators during his recent visit to the United States, there was much speculation that he would scold Catholic college presidents for failing to remain true to the mission of their institutions. As all of America learned, however, the Holy Father is not a scold. He is a teacher of hope who believes that “the noble goals of scholarship and education, founded on the unity of truth and in service of the person and the community, become an especially powerful instrument of hope.” I returned from my encounter with him filled with hope for Providence College and convinced that it is realizing his vision — and the vision of our Dominican Friar founders — for Catholic education.
Many of the themes addressed by Pope Benedict in his remarks resonate deeply with the mission of Providence College and remind us of the unique place that a Catholic college or university occupies in higher education. For example, Pope Benedict considers one of the church’s roles in the world as a service (diakonia) of truth. In a time where there is widespread doubt about objective truth, a Catholic college such as Providence College (whose motto is veritas, or truth) is seen as countercultural, based on the optimistic proposition that the human mind has been created by God to know the ultimate truth. In opposition to the view that there are only perspective-based points of view, we believe that students can integrate what they learn into a unified view of the whole; we reject the popular assumption that all claims to knowledge are fragments that do not fit together.
Pope Benedict further articulated that knowledge of the truth leads to an appreciation of the good, and that true freedom is not the aimless pursuit of novelty or personal satisfaction, but choosing to embrace the truth about the dignity of the human person as made in the image and likeness of God. Catholic colleges do not focus on students’ intellect alone but equally on their moral character. We explicitly help our students to come to know the good and recognize the dignity of the human person through studies in ethics and moral philosophy and through participation in meaningful community service.
Pope Benedict introduced the intriguing idea of “intellectual charity” as a particularly urgent imperative in Catholic education. He noted the Catholic educator’s call to “recognize that the profound responsibility to lead the young to truth is nothing less than an act of love.” Once this passion for the fullness of unity and truth is awakened in students, the pope observed, “young people will surely relish the discovery that the question of what they can know opens up the vast adventure of what they ought to do.” As a teacher and administrator, I have watched this discovery of God’s providence unfold in countless students. We succeed not when students find employment for employment’s sake, but rather when they know the value of work within the context of a meaningful life that is focused on communion with God and service to others.
One of the most controversial issues on a Catholic college campus is the meaning of academic freedom. Pope Benedict thoughtfully described it as the “freedom to search for truth wherever careful analysis of evidence leads you,” and affirmed that the coherence and identity of a Catholic institution depends on all aspects of its life being consistent with the truth. Rooted in the harmony of faith and reason, a Catholic college is fundamentally optimistic that such a search for truth — undertaken in accord with scholarly canons of inquiry — will not lead to conclusions that contradict faith. So academic freedom cannot be invoked in order to justify positions that contradict the faith — because truth cannot contradict itself.
The remark in the pope’s address that elicited a spontaneous round of applause from all present was his exhortation that Catholic education must remain “accessible to people of all social and economic strata.” In describing the history of Catholic education in America, Pope Benedict notes that Catholic education has “helped generations of immigrants to rise from poverty and take their place in mainstream society.” This aptly describes the historic mission of Providence College. We remain committed to inviting and enrolling applicants from underrepresented populations, including economically disadvantaged students from urban schools and first-generation college students. In recent years, we have reinvigorated this mission by removing the barrier of standardized testing for applicants and by devoting greater resources to need-based scholarships.
Spring is decision time for college-bound students and their parents, who, the Holy Father noted, “recognize the need for excellence in the human formation of their children.” One marvelous feature of the American higher-educational landscape is its rich diversity. Students can choose from a wide array of institutional characteristics and values: public and private, religious and secular, urban and rural, large and small, and so many others. The best way for Catholic education to serve America is by providing a distinctive educational option for students and their parents. Pope Benedict has defined those distinctive features. It is my responsibility to see that Providence College continues to embody them.
The Rev. Brian J. Shanley is president of Providence College.