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From Tolerance to Engagement in Catholic Higher Education

by John C. Haughey, S.J.

published in Woodstock Report No. 87, March 2007

On February 3, 2007, Woodstock fellow John Haughey, S.J., received the second annual Monika K. Hellwig Award from the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities for “outstanding contributions to Catholic intellectual life.” He delivered the following remarks to the presidents of Catholic colleges and universities, gathered for that occasion.

The 220 Catholic higher education institutions that you oversee in this country are doing an extraordinary thing. But I wonder whether all of you gathered here tonight have thought about the potential your work has for the future self-understanding of Roman Catholicism itself. You are in an unusually advantageous position to effect this. Let me explain. Your institutions host a bewildering number of pluralisms — academic, ethnic, religious, racial, economic — and do so in a way that has made a home for many voices and values and traditions and bodies of knowledge. But the hospitality accorded by your institutions has not been sufficiently attentive to their uniqueness nor opportunistic about this pluralism. It is not that you have been indifferent to or fallen short of fidelity to the Church’s teachings, it seems to me. It is, rather, in not engaging these pluralisms. A hospitality that simply makes room for otherness is not the same as a hospitality that engages and enables it in all its forms to be self-critical. But an engaged hospitality could also equip the Catholic faith, the faith that sponsors your institutions, to learn to be critical of itself. Roman Catholicism is as credible as a teaching Church as it shows itself a learning Church.

"When the disciplines are engaged by the Catholic intellectual tradition, they have much to teach their interlocutors and much to learn from that tradition."

A hospitality which makes room for the other, and which houses and credentials the other, and does not engage that otherness is a deficient host. A deficient hospitality, which I would call a hospitality of tolerance, shortchanges the students, the school, and all the cultures your personnel come from, but most of all the Church. A hospitality of tolerance, in a word, avoids, and is shrewd in doing so. It “lets sleeping dogs lie”; it lets “a thousand flowers bloom”; it lets the whole weight of taking responsibility for the Catholicism of the campus come to rest on the campus ministry. The fruit of this avoidance is a campus that loses touch with its roots in the Catholic intellectual tradition. That tradition, then, becomes a “was” as modernism, post-modernism, post-postmodernism, and every here-today-gone-tomorrow “tradition” becomes the new “is.”

But I want to be even more surgically clear about what I am saying. When the disciplines are engaged by the Catholic intellectual tradition, they have much to teach their interlocutors and much to learn from that tradition. Disengagement impoverishes both the discipline and the Catholic intellectual tradition. How so? Because a valid body of knowledge is intrinsic to the universe of being and its linkage to the Creator of being connects it more easily to further bodies of knowledge. An academic discipline and this tradition should not seem like two sumo wrestlers trying to best one another since they are in a constitutive relationship to one another. Further, one might recall Paul’s claim that “knowledge will pass away” (I Corinthians 13:8) unless faith, hope, and love give it a place in eternity.

Engaging otherness is not something abstract in my mind. It is the way Jesus of Nazareth operated in his life. The complaint that eventually got him eliminated was that he didn’t associate with the right people, with those who were in the know. He evidently preferred to have table fellowship with the tax collectors and the sinners, i.e., with those who were marginal to being right, righteous, one of us! It would be worth noting that the Gospel often appears to come out of his conversations with the otherness of these unrighteous types. He learned from the vulnerable, from those who were judged marginal at best. Look at the Beatitudes and ask yourself whether the insights they convey might have originated in conversations with those who hungered and thirsted for justice. “Blessed are the lowly, for they shall inherit the earth.” Yes, he taught; but yes, he learned too; that is the point of having an intellectual tradition that is as much a “will be” as a “used to be.”

But if a Catholic educational institution moves from being a place of hospitality that simply houses pluralisms to one that engages them in their many forms, the major beneficiary will be the Church. It has much to learn from the dayto- day praxis of the American network of Catholic higher education institutions insofar as they have engaged their own plural voices. “Catholic” must not settle into being a mark of the Church. It was meant instead to be a challenge, to send a signal to the whole world of the good news of the inclusion of all humanity with its God. We live in hope of a catholicity, an eschatological fullness with the Church in all its institutions assisting in midwifing that fullness in the course of its history.

"Pope Benedict XVI’s question… 'Why should faith and reason be afraid of each other, if they can express themselves better by meeting and engaging one another?'"

I am really saying there is a poverty in our doctrine about the meaning of Catholic. So far we have understood a mere sliver of what that doctrine must become and is more likely to become if you engage the world’s pluralisms locally. At times our Church seems to exhibit a hospitality redolent of the Pharisee who invited Jesus to dinner in order to take the measure of his orthodoxy. Jesus was a faithful Jew who learned to become a syncretist because of the virtue of hospitality that he accorded the seemingly heterodox. His orthodoxy became as capacious as the heart of his Father.

What difference will it make in this world of realpolitik if this opportunity for the engagement of pluralism is neglected? The praxis of the hospitality of engagement will not develop into a doctrine of catholicity. And without such a doctrine, the world will not know the heart of God nor the host that God commissioned to engage its pluralisms. A campus that aims at being a place that is merely agreeable, that has learned a tolerance, that shirks the task of seeking truth together, has lost an opportunity to show that human unity “belongs to the innermost nature of the Church.” (Vatican II)

But, you ask, do we have on our campuses the competence necessary to engage the disciplines with a knowledge of the Catholic intellectual tradition? Yes and no. You may not have savants who are explicitly knowledgeable about this tradition. But having conducted twelve workshops this year with faculty members around the country and listened to the good each is about and the wholes they are trying to birth through their disciplines, it is easy to see God at work in their strivings. Why say this? Because those in each discipline whose questions are really theirs and whose hunt for answers is open to wherever the data lead them — these qualify for the accolade of being hospitable since they are engaging otherness from within their area of competence and are being stretched by it. And since God is the author of the Catholic intellectual tradition then there isn’t any shark-infested moat to cross for the necessary engagements to take place. Pope Benedict XVI asked this week at the noon blessing on the feast of St. Thomas Aquinas, “Why should faith and reason be afraid of each other, if they can express themselves better by meeting and engaging one another?” So ask yourself, is the hospitality on your campus sufficiently in evidence that the Church at large can learn from it? We sorely need a development of our doctrine of catholicity in order to better host the world’s pluralisms.