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Is Moral Cultivation a Proper Aim of a Catholic University?

by Richard Kim

Should Catholic universities aim at the moral improvement of their students? According to John Henry Newman, the answer is, no. The proper aim of a university education is to help students cultivate their intellect and to pursue knowledge for its own sake. He says, 

Knowledge is one thing, virtue is another; good sense is not conscience, refinement is not humility, nor is largeness and justness of view faith. Philosophy, however enlightened, however profound, gives no command over the passions, no influential motives, no vivifying principles. Liberal Education makes not the Christian, not the Catholic, but the gentleman. It is well to be a gentleman, it is well to have a cultivated intellect, a delicate taste, a candid, equitable, dispassionate mind, a noble and courteous bearing in the conduct of life;–these are the connatural qualities of a large knowledge…they are the objects…I am advocating; I shall illustrate and insist upon them; but still, I repeat, they are no guarantee for sanctity or even for conscientiousness, they may attach to the man of the world, to the profligate, to the heartless. 


The primary goal of a university is to offer a liberal education that cultivates the mind through dispassionate inquiry. As Newman points out time and again in The Idea of a University, knowledge carries intrinsic value and should not always be subordinated to a further end, including moral virtue. 

But is Newman right? His point that knowledge ought to be valued for its own sake is true, even if knowledge also carries instrumental value. Moreover, a university’s task does seem to be primarily about the development of the students’ intellect. Ex Corde Ecclesiae is clear about the centrality of academic inquiry and the pursuit of truth in Catholic universities: 

It is the honour and responsibility of a Catholic University to consecrate itself without reserve to the cause of truth. This is its way of serving at one and the same time both the dignity of man and the good of the Church, which has “an intimate conviction that truth is (its) real ally ... and that knowledge and reason are sure ministers to faith.”

Newman also seems empirically justified since there are clear cases in which students with excellent intellects have failed to cultivate a sound moral character or a deeper spiritual life: “liberal arts education makes not the Christian, not the Catholic...” In fact, Newman draws attention to a danger for both students and teachers at universities of creating the illusory belief that through the study of moral philosophy they are improving their moral character. This marks one way that some scholars throughout history (e.g. Renaissance Aristotelians like Francesco Piccolomini and John Case) have gone astray by thinking that by teaching, for example, Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, they were ipso facto making their students morally good. 

Unfortunately, the view of thinkers like Piccolomini and Case is not idiosyncratic and appears to be affirmed by many contemporary university professors and administrators who seem to think that by taking courses on justice or virtue, the students will thereby become more just and virtuous. But while learning about justice or virtue through intellectual exploration may help deepen one’s understanding of justice or virtue (a worthwhile goal), it is a confusion to think that the character of the students – constituted by their deeply held values, commitments, and dispositions – will necessarily be improved through such study. This doesn’t mean, of course, that such study is unnecessary or unimportant. It is good that as rational beings we are able to see why justice or virtue are important human goods that need to be given a due place within our lives. What Newman was denying, which seems correct, is that we must not confuse intellectual perfection with moral perfection, and not to simply assume that one necessarily leads to the other. In fact, for Aristotle, it is the possession of a certain well-developed character that is necessary for the proper pursuit of ethical inquiry: without having one’s motivations and inclinations to some extent already directed toward virtue, the study of moral philosophy will be ineffective for developing one’s character. 


What is clear is that the explicit mission statements of Jesuit universities conflict with Newman’s view. As evidenced by the emphasis on cura personalis and a transformative education that aims not only at discursive knowledge but social action, Jesuit universities are explicit in their commitment to advancing the moral cultivation of students. As the mission statement of one prominent Jesuit university explains, a Jesuit education aims to shape students by “engaging [their] intellect, helping [them] grow ethically and spiritually, exchanging ideas freely and building a more just world.” 

Turning back to Ex Corde, John Paul II seems to side with the Jesuit ideal: 

Students are challenged to pursue an education that combines excellence in humanistic and cultural development with specialized professional training. Most especially, they are challenged to continue the search for truth and for meaning throughout their lives, since “the human spirit must be cultivated in such a way that there results a growth in its ability to wonder, to understand, to contemplate, to make personal judgments, and to develop a religious, moral, and social sense.” This enables them to acquire or, if they have already done so, to deepen a Christian way of life that is authentic.

The mission statements of Jesuit universities and what John Paul II says in Ex Corde makes good sense especially given that a university that is Catholic in identity should see the mission of the university as furthering the general Catholic mission, by ultimately drawing people closer to God in this life and preparing people properly for the afterlife. And, of course, developing a morally cultivated character is integral to drawing closer to God. After all, what would be the point of having Catholic universities at all if not for offering a distinctively Catholic education that is rooted in the Catholic vision of the good? And since ultimately Catholicism is rooted in spreading the Gospel and uniting people to Christ, the Catholic university, while distinctive in the particular way it discharges its responsibilities (through cultivation of the intellect), is ultimately directed toward furthering the Catholic faith. This does not mean that Catholic universities should not be inclusive and open to students and teachers of all faiths or none, but that the mission of a Catholic university cannot be detached from the Catholic tradition which gives the university its distinctive meaning and purpose. 

What this shows is that unlike modern, secular universities, Catholic universities possess a unified vision of the good, anchored in the Catholic tradition, that embodies ideas such as the intrinsic dignity of the human person as bearers of the image and likeness of God, the vision of the ideal moral and spiritual life as exemplified by the saints, and an understanding of ourselves and the universe as ordered toward God. With this unified moral vision, Catholic universities can offer a coherent account of how moral self-cultivation can be pursued, for example, through the sacraments, prayer, and service.  

Now what Newman emphasizes about the intrinsic value of a liberal arts education and the perfection of the intellect is certainly at the heart of a university. And, we could say, the primary function of a university education is indeed to develop the minds of the students, to obtain the intellectual power to make sound judgments, and consider a range of arguments from different perspectives. Moreover, it would seem that given the pluralistic, modern society in which we currently live, with its fundamental, incommensurable disagreements regarding politics, morality, and religion, charging universities with the task of developing the moral character of students would seem to be not only a hopeless enterprise, but a dangerous one. This is especially clear when it comes to K-12 public schools. Most parents would not want their children to gain a substantive moral education because of the radically divergent views about what that would entail. 

This point connects with what may be the most powerful argument for political liberalism in societies like contemporary America. Given the reality of deeply conflicting worldviews, including radically different moral and religious beliefs of the citizens, the only viable political system that we can hope to sustain with a degree of harmony is a form of pluralism that aims to separate the state not only from religion but also substantive morality.   This is one reason why, although a nation-state may be necessary for certain functions including the coordination of achieving necessary public goods, most Americans recognize that their flourishing depends on much more than what the government or any political order could possibly offer. We need families, communities, and friends with whom we can develop intimate bonds and share a common set of values and a vision of the good. In the modern world, it would be obtuse to think that politics could provide one with anything like that. 

But a Catholic university isn’t a microcosm of a modern liberal society; rather, it is an institution that is rooted in a shared understanding of morality and faith. And since the proper goal of a Catholic university is to develop the intellects of the students and thereby prepare them for living good human lives in light of the Catholic understanding of the good, there is good reason to think that a significant aim of a Catholic university is to care for the soul of students, by forming them to achieve those virtues of character that are also a prerequisite for a proper intellectual life. In fact, one of the great advantages of Catholic universities is that they have a clear end and therefore a well demarcated role: they are to serve the Church and the world by carrying out the specific task of training the minds of the students according to the Catholic tradition. But what this means, again, is that while the primary aim of Catholic universities is the education of the mind, Catholic universities cannot be wholly detached from moral and spiritual concern for the well-being of the students. Moral cultivation, then, should be considered an important goal for Catholic universities, even though it’s not their primary end. This is why, in my view, the Jesuit call for cura personalis makes complete sense for a Catholic university in a way that a similar view would make little sense for a secular liberal university. 

So does all this imply that Catholic universities should aim at the moral cultivation of the students? It would seem that given the reflections above, the answer is clearly, yes, even if the primary goal of a university is intellectual development. But here we need to carefully notice that this view of attending to both the moral and spiritual lives of the students only makes sense within the context of a shared understanding of Catholic values (or the values of some other substantive religious or moral tradition). And what this requires is obviously much more than simply the label of being “Catholic” but the genuine affirmation by those within the university, including a substantial portion of the administration, faculty, and students, of the Catholic faith. But without such a shared understanding of what the point of the Catholic education is, and without substantial moral and religious agreement, not only will aiming at moral cultivation be ineffective, but it would also be (just as it would be at secular liberal universities) both dangerous and unduly intrusive. Students, faculty, and administrators who reject Catholic moral teaching would feel alienated by the university, leading to distrust and social discord. 

So, whether Catholic universities should aim at the moral cultivation of the students depends on several antecedent conditions that would need to be satisfied. And at the present time, it seems fairly clear that they are not at the majority of Catholic universities. This is not to say that a Catholic university that isn’t genuinely animated by Catholic principles and ideals cannot provide an important service or achieve worthwhile ends. After all, there are plenty of excellent public universities that do just that. All it implies is that it would no longer be clear what would justify their existence, except for those same justifications that would apply to any secular university.









1    John Henry Newman, The Idea of a University (Newman Reader, last updated 2007), Discourse 5, section 9,

2    John Paul II, Ex Corde Ecclesiae, encyclical letter, Vatican Website, August 15, 1990,, sec. 4.

3    For an insightful discussion of such Renaissance Aristotelians, see Alasdair MacIntyre, “Rival Aristotles: Aristotle Against Some Renaissance Aristotelians” in

Ethics and Politics: Selected Essays, Vol. 2 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 3-21.

4    “Our Jesuit and Catholic Heritage,” Who we are, Georgetown University, accessed June 30, 2021,


5    John Paul II, Ex Corde Ecclesiae, sec. 23.

6    This is not to say that there aren’t any values being taught to students, even by public school teachers.

7    Again, this is not to say that certain values are not favored by politicians or the political order. Liberalism has its own set of values as well.

8    Of course politics is an important and necessary part of human lives, but it clearly cannot provide us with a range of substantive goods that are necessary

for flourishing lives.

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Richard Kim

Richard Kim is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Loyola University Chicago. He specializes in moral philosophy, moral psychology, and East Asian philosophy. He is interested in drawing on the resources of the Catholic tradition to develop richer accounts of human flourishing through a more profound understanding of human identity and the self. He is currently working on a book on habituation and moral development that draws on the ideas of Aristotle, St. Thomas Aquinas, and the classical Confucian tradition. 

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