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Georgetown University Press


On the noon of September 16, 1992, Boston College, led by its president, was at prayer. The Mass of the Holy Spirit, celebrated on the steps of the O'Neill Library, was not a time for the president to address the faculty nor for administrators to make welcome incoming students nor for instructors to inaugurate their classes in semester requirements and contents. This had all been done-at faculty convocation, over many meetings, and in initial classes. Now this complex of president and administrators and students and doctoral candidates and faculty-this university-turned formally and explicitly as a university to address God. The prayers and readings that floated on the air of that brilliant autumn afternoon spoke repeatedly of the influence that is the heart of academic inquiry and learning, the Spirit of Truth; and the Scriptures gave focus to the petitions threading their way through the liturgy: that the Spirit of Truth would descend upon this university over the coming year, that this Spirit would mark its teaching, guide its inquiry and research, and permeate its collective life as a colle9ium, that this university as a Catholic university would realize the promise of the gospel: the Spirit of Truth who will guide us to all truth (see John 16: 13).

That the Mass of the Holy Spirit was being celebrated indicated a Catholic university, conscious of its past and faithful to its identity, possessed of a conviction that the religious and the academic belong in concert, that their union is to be celebrated in beauty and worship; that classes remained in session, that sundry students made their way indifferently through the congregation to reach the library, and that the university community attended only in the middle hundreds, bespoke a detached disinterest and problems unresolved but pervasive in Catholic universities throughout the nation.

I found myself wondering during the liturgy: What is this upon which we invoke the unspeakable mystery of God? What are "we" who are at prayer? The question did not seem a distraction. It seemed pressing, a question upon which we might well have meditated as we worshiped as a university. For many voices state with increasing urgency that the Catholic university will disappear; that it is already disappearing as a specific reality in American higher education; that the Catholic university will repeat the secularizing history of so many of the very great universities in the United States; that this evanescence of its religious character is inevitable, disclosing gradually the unfaced irrelevance of the religious to the intellectual; that as the university becomes more authentic, more academically distinguished, its Catholic character will proportionately dissipate and disappear. Only last February in a widely remarked article, David R. Carlin wrote that the Catholic identity of Catholic colleges and universities has since the 1960s "grown increasingly tenuous ... Catholic colleges seem to be traveling the same road many Protestant colleges journeyed in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries-a road leading to complete secularization, to complete loss of religious identity."2

Many of the greatest universities in the United States and Europe have already written such a history of religious atrophy. One can wander about their campuses and remark the chapels and statues, the maxims on the gates or the portraits on the walls, and confront symbols that speak of a former religious intensity now long since dead. There one can paraphrase something of the cultural diagnosis of Friedrich Nietzsche: What are these universities now if not the tombs of God-monuments to the death of God within academic culture? 3 It would be unwarranted to imagine that we are not liable to the same influences, naive to believe that we cannot repeat their history. Catholic universities have already repeated much in the history of their secularized academic peers.

Chapter of

Catholic Universities in Church and Society: A Dialogue on Ex corde ecclesiae


John P. Langan


Copyright 1993 by Georgetown University Press. "The Catholic University and the Promise Inherent in its Identity". From Catholic Universities in Church and Society: A Dialogue on Ex Corde Ecclesiae, John P. Langan, SJ, Editor, pp. 74-89. Reprinted with permission. Posted with permission of Georgetown University Press.

This non-exclusive agreement covers English language rights for inclusion in the Santa Clara University Institutional Repository only. This agreement is nontransferable and does not allow the use of our material by any additional means of reproduction. Please direct all requests for additional use to the Permissions Coordinator at Georgetown University Press.

Reprinted in Catholic Higher Education at the Turn of the New Century, ed. Joseph M. O'Keefe, S.J. Chestnute Hill, MA: Center for International Higher Education, 1997, pp . 208-238.

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