What Are We About?

Catholic universities are particularly challenged by the question, says Fr. Buckley in new book

By Sean Smith
Staff Writer

Without serious consequences, says Jesuit Institute Director Michael Buckley, SJ, no educational institution can avoid answering the continual question, "What are we about?"

American Catholic universities and colleges, grounded in an intrinsic relationship between the academic and the religious, find that question a most challenging one, he says. Their remarkable development, and emergence as a major presence in American higher education, has raised concerns over their identity and mission.

One such concern in contemporary Catholic universities is integrating a commitment to open, free discussion and academic pluralism with a commitment to education in the pursuit of justice. Fr. Buckley explores this in his forthcoming book, The Catholic University As Promise and Project: Reflections In a Jesuit Idiom .

Canisius Professor and Jesuit Institute Director Michael Buckley, SJ-"No one could have described a century ago what has occurred in Catholic and Jesuit education ... Only as it was achieved has the Catholic university understood what its initial promise was to become."

Through a series of essays, Fr. Buckley focuses on theological and philosophical studies as key elements in Catholic and Jesuit higher education's devotion to those commitments, and proposes ways in which these could be strengthened.

The book is not intended to be a comprehensive exploration of Jesuit and Catholic higher education, says Fr. Buckley, but a discussion of the purpose and ideals which have guided its institutions, even through one of the most transformational periods in their history.

"No one could have described a century ago what has occurred in Catholic and Jesuit education," said Fr. Buckley, who is also holder of the Canisius Chair. "No one could have predicted that these institutions would have developed in this fashion. Ideals and purposes drove their founders to create something new. Only as it was achieved has the Catholic university understood what its initial promise was to become."

In the book, Fr. Buckley takes an overview of Catholic higher education and its characteristics, and views these elements in the context of a Jesuit university. Summarizing Ignatius of Loyola's legacy as an educator, Fr. Buckley illustrates the prominence of humanistic theology in the Ignatian ideal of a Catholic or Jesuit university.

Fr. Buckley also examines how Jesuits and Jesuit universities have dealt with the challenges of modern society, whether social, economic and political events in the world, or changing views on liberal arts education. Rising to these challenges, he says, Catholic and Jesuit institutions have undergone significant changes - from increases in non-Catholic faculty and students to the insistence that all reasonable forms of discourse find a place on their campuses.

These circumstances have led to the struggle Catholic universities face in holding to their commitments, Fr. Buckley maintains. "As some in the Church have objected to the insistence upon academic freedom and pluralism, some in the academy express objections to the Catholic and Jesuit university's charge to educate in the promotion of justice," he said.

Fr. Buckley also aims to address a problematic situation Catholic universities face by offering the concept of a "philosophical grammar" to forge a thematic unity in basic concepts, terms and methods between disciplines.

"The pluralism of philosophies does not suggest that all are equally right or useful," said Fr. Buckley. "But it does suggest that there are philosophies both rich in the possibilities they offer for reflection and complementary in their relationship to one another. Pluralism is not the same as contradiction."

Theology, which Fr. Buckley notes has become increasingly influential in both undergraduate and graduate study, presents another opportunity for the university to address the integrity of its disciplines. He suggests the application of liberal arts to theology in the form of "theological arts." This would involve a focus on theological skills such as semantics and methodology, as well as philosophy and history.

Fr. Buckley sees his book as one more voice in the contemporary discussion as the Catholic university faces massive but enriching questions about "its continued identity, promise and academic constituents."

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