“A Catholic university is one in which Christ holds the central integrating and organizing place among the circle of disciplines and activities at the university.”
This was the thesis of Bishop Robert Barron in one of the best statements I have encountered about the purpose of the Catholic University, delivered to a packed ballroom here at the University of Notre Dame on March 2, 2003. Here is his address.
Bishop Barron easily vies for the lead evangelist in the Catholic Church in the United States. His model and hero is Archbishop Fulton Sheen, who wrote books, gave talks, and hosted a popular television show for decades in the mid-twentieth century. I have followed Barron’s work for years from his monograph, The Priority of Christ, to his videos series, Catholicism, to his hundreds of homilies, podcasts, and videos engaging passages in the Bible and cultural phenomena from baseball to Bob Dylan to Jordan Peterson.
“Because Christ is the incarnate logos, the Word and mind of God,” all of the disciplines “must find their center in Him,” argued Bishop Barron at Notre Dame, continuing on to say that “a great Catholic university is one where the relationship between Christ the Logos and all the other disciplines and activities is explored and celebrated.”
He illustrated his thesis through six disciplines, showing how their knowledge can be connected to Christ. He does not intrude upon the “autonomy” of any of these fields, respecting their canons of knowledge, much of which will be “common knowledge,” accessible to any rational person. He also shows, though, how the truths of each discipline are ordered to Christ. He would not tell a physicist how to do physics, for instance, but he would call for faculty and students who study physics to reflect on how the beauty, order, and, indeed, very existence, of the physical universe points to God.
Bishop Barron’s thesis, it seems to me, implies that at a Catholic university, every department and school would pursue a strategy for ensuring that faculty and students — indeed every student — study how their discipline reflects the truth of the Trinity as known through revelation and reason.
Many colleagues at Notre Dame take on this task in their scholarship and teaching. As a professor of political science, I developed an undergraduate lecture course, Catholicism and Politics, that introduces students to the Church’s thinking about politics and that I have taught now eleven times. I teach a graduate seminar, Christian Political Thought.
In 2017, I and then a colleague in theology, Peter Casarella, launched a course, Why The Church?, inspired by a blog post written in 2016 by Bishop Barron. Lamenting a Pew Research Center report showing young people leaving the Church, Barron rued that the Church has answers to all of the reasons they cited for heading for the exits. He issued a cri de coeur for apologists, evangelists, and theologians to “wake up!”
The course (syllabus here) adopts a “disputatio” approach that looks at the major reasons that young people leave the Church and how the Church responds. The topics are: the rationality of God, science and God, sexuality and marriage, the Church’s history, the Church’s politics, beauty and the saints, and the case for and against the Resurrection of Christ. The course is now in its fifth teaching. We have Bishop Barron and his vision of a Catholic university to thank.