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Spiritual Potential at State U.

Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

Father Hardon has had a long career as a teacher on both high school and college levels. A member of the Catholic Theological Society and author of books on various topics, he is presently an Associate Professor of Philosophy and Religion at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo.

In a previous article, we saw something of the pioneer venture at Western Michigan University with its fully accredited Department of Religion. This state institution sponsors and supports a complete faculty offering 15 courses in every phase of religious thought, including (since 1962) courses in Roman Catholicism taught by the writer.

The experience of four semesters at Western Michigan has given me a new insight into the potentials of public education and a new concern for expanding the ecumenical movement into one of its richest and most promising fields. I would like to share these hopes with the readers of Our Sunday Visitor in the historical setting where they belong.

Acceptance of religion

For the first time in generations, secular philosophers are being invoked in favor of religious values in education. Men like Whitehead are found to have said that “the essence of education is that it be religious.” He defined religious education as “an education which inculcates duty and reverence,” where duty implies freedom and obligation to obedience and reverence suggests belief in a transcendent Being who is God.

Every stage of the educational process is coming to be seen as filled with religious values, and no school worthy of the name may deprive students of what they need in the development of their faculties.

Christian educators who are not Catholic have been the prime movers in restoring religion to its rightful place in the university curriculum. Dr. George W. Forell, Professor of Protestant Theology at the State University of Iowa, is perfectly clear.

“The scientific investigation of religious faith and its various expressions is one of the oldest academic enterprises. For many centuries, since their inception, universities have been the centers of theological learning. The Sorbonne, the University of Vienna, Oxford, Cambridge, Heidelberg and Wittenberg were publicly-supported universities whose reputation was largely derived from first-rate courses of instruction in religion.

“To deny a university the right to deal in a scholarly and scientific manner with religion is to deny it the right to be a complete university. This means that any American university, regardless of its support, should have a faculty which could deal competently and sympathetically with the phenomenon of religion in general and the Western religious heritage dominated by the Judaeo-Christian tradition in particular.”

Whatever view may be taken of teaching moral values in public schools below the college level, there is no serious legal objection to teaching religion in state universities. The most uncompromising neutralists do not claim that this contradicts the American concept of separation of Church and State. Leo Pfeffer, the constitutional lawyer who would remove every vestige of religion from the lower grades, holds the situation is quite otherwise in public higher education. “It would seem,” he admits, “that tax-supported colleges may constitutionally provide for the objective study of religious institutions, practices and principles. Such study must obviously be multi-sectarian and non-devotional; and since the doctrine of some religions prohibits examination into the content of other religions without special ecclesiastical authorization, it must be non-compulsory.”

It is not commonly known how much religious instruction actually goes on under public auspices. A recent survey showed that 76 per cent of state universities offered some kind of instruction in religion in 1933; 80 per cent were doing so in 1940 and, at the present writing, 97 per cent of these schools are formally engaged in teaching religious content.

Yet teaching some semblance of religion is not enough. Catholic theology, along with similar courses in Judaism, Protestantism and the great religions of the East, should have an honored place on the curriculum of every state university—for the benefit of those who want to have their commitment intellectually deepened and for all who wish to compare the principal faith of mankind.

I could not do justice to the depth of spiritual hunger among the students, which is not being satisfied in the present system of public university education.

There are many reasons for this. Most college people had only a smattering of formal religious education before they finished high school. Some had a few years in childhood, which they have come to associate with pre-adolescent immaturity. Those who had a full complement of church-affiliated schooling often feel unprepared to meet the challenges of intellectual criticism that envelopes them like an atmosphere the moment they enter the college precincts.

I would stress the students’ desire for knowledge of why they believe what they do or why anyone should believe at all. Two kinds of people come to college: those with a definite religious commitment, and the minority who have only the vaguest notion of what commitment means. Perhaps there are more Catholics in the first class, but this is not universal. The number of uncommitted Catholics would shock any census-taker and surprise the experts who write so easily about the strong faith of our American Catholic youth.

Every type in either class, however, is looking for the intellectual integrity which they had not been able to get (with rare exception) before entering college. This is partly explained by the fact that the mind does not generally mature to a critical peak until the late teens. It should also be accounted for by the relative absence of a philosophical approach to religion in church-affiliated secondary schools.

The students, therefore, need and frequently want to have their faith grounded in the rich soil of conviction, and brought to maturity through a sharp scrutiny into the meaning and purpose of life. The four years in college are perfectly suited for this kind of maturation.

Catholic educators are taking a long and hard look at the statistics that only 30 per cent of Catholic college students are in institutions conducted by the Church. By 1980 it is estimated that 90 per cent will be in secular universities. I do not think that money plays as large a factor as is commonly supposed. New York City offers a good example. There are more Catholics at New York University than at Fordham, although tuition and fees at N.Y.U. have been consistently higher than at Fordham.

The Church needs Catholic colleges and universities, and needs them badly. Where else can dynamic apostolic leadership be better produced than in the climate of institutions whose goal is to graduate supernatural men and women of character who will model their lives on the person of Christ?

On the other hand, it is futile to suppose that a trend which is 30 years in the making will be reversed suddenly. The number and percentage of Catholics in secular colleges will continue to increase.

Many Catholics come to a secular school because they believe it will better equip them for the problems and opportunities of a pluralistic society. They choose a secular college because they think the faculty and student contact it offers will give them a balance in dealing with a non-Catholic world.

Behind this thinking we can see a century of Catholic higher education that has grown in numbers and equipment, but not always in its adaptation to the times. Both secular and church-affiliated schools can profit from reappraisal. Catholic colleges are beginning to see their duty to prepare graduates for an integrated life among people who are mainly not Catholic and not Christian. Tax-supported universities are more slowly admitting their duty to prepare young Americans for religious maturity without sacrificing academic integrity.

Community responsibility

Until the last decade, religion had been an exception in state universities. It has not yet received anything of the deliberate attention given to other disciplines. Attention has been marginal and apologetic. The issue is also charged with emotion.

What too few understood is that secularism has entrenched itself in American education not as an accident of history but, as one writer put it, the finest product of five centuries of thoughtful statesmanship. Secular institutions, including tax-supported universities, emerged out of the necessity to create harmony among diverse economic, social and religious classes. Freedom in each of these areas was believed possible only because a secular, i.e., irreligious, world makes an equilibrium of complementary forces. Where the secular ethics asks how conflict can be solved through compromise, the ethic of religious institutions inquires who is right according to their various forms of absolutes.

Secularism has consequently posed as protector of the freedom of the human spirit and of the liberty of divergent groups and faiths.

But such a view is changing. While the realization is hard coming, historians of American culture are suggesting that the development of public secular schools and universities has thrown the whole matter into a new and dangerous focus. They believe that the elimination of public schools as channels of our religious heritage will gradually lead to the destruction of our society.

A generation from now it will make all the difference in the world whether Catholics had used their influence on the side of those who are concerned about this secularization. The opportunities for exercising such influence are myriad, and the benefits to be gained are great—if only a concerted effort is made.

It was not coincidental that a full-blown Department of Religion came into being at Western Michigan or that it grew over a thousand per cent in enrollment within less than 10 years. These results were the fruit of coordinated work on the part of believers from different religious traditions, who recognize the spiritual potential of a state university. What happened at Western can be done elsewhere to make people aware that a scientific study of religion answers to the students#146; needs, which their parents and society at large are paying millions in tax revenue to supply.

Our Sunday Visitor
Vol. 54 - #28, November 7, 1965, p.3

Copyright © 1999 Inter Mirifica

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