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We Must Give Our Students Hope: The Distinctively Catholic Search for Truth in Ex Corde Ecclesiae

by Naomi Fisher

Let me begin this essay on hope and truth by offering two anecdotes. The first involves a second-year student in my introductory-level philosophy course. The assignment was a reading reflection on Kant’s “What is Enlightenment?”, answering the question of how best to seek after the truth. The student questioned whether we should seek after the truth, since truth only brings sadness:

I was happier when I was young and believed that the world was full of good people, in comparison to nowadays when all you see and read is sickness and death and war and people fighting for stupid made up reasons and power. Of course, there is still happiness and joy in the world and everyone needs to find their own piece of bliss; the more you learn about the world and the people and problems that live on it the sadder things get.

 

When I read this, I was taken aback at this stark expression of something I had increasingly noticed among students: a dismal world-picture resulting in exhaustion with the truth. Something is very wrong when students like this one—intelligent, enthusiastic, and genuine—are not sure if seeking after the truth is desirable. If this is the perspective developed through a year of college education, then that education is failing. 

The second anecdote comes from a faculty seminar at the Hank Center, here at Loyola. We were discussing the purpose of education with Fr. Dan Hartnett, a Jesuit priest who was a community organizer in rural Peru for over twenty years and spent a decade as a philosophy professor. A colleague was describing how she saw the purpose of her course: to expose students to certain injustices, to “freak them out” and provoke them to action. Such a view is common among professors at institutions such as ours, which sees its Catholic mission primarily in terms of social justice, where social justice is served by exposing injustice. What was noteworthy was not this professor’s description of what she saw the purpose of her course to be, but the gentle rebuke from Fr. Hartnett: “We must give our students hope.” This statement struck me at the time, and it gained renewed urgency when I received the assignment from my student. Here I would like to explore this statement, as it relates to the mission of a Catholic university: We must give our students hope. 

According to the opening paragraph of Ex Corde Ecclesiae, the mission of a Catholic university unites “the search for the truth with the certainty of already knowing the fount of truth.”   I argue here that this mission crucially requires that we give our students hope. Attention to hope will highlight one way that this mission to search for truth can be and increasingly is distorted, through what I call below ‘the critical stance’. This stance is marked by a single-minded focus on unmasking structures of power, which can lead to a failure to notice and love what is good and beautiful. To give our students hope means to contextualize criticism in a higher truth and inculcate in students a love of truth and knowledge. In making this argument, I highlight one concrete way that Catholic universities are distinct from secular universities. Moreover, I show the ongoing relevance of Ex Corde in thinking through the mission of a Catholic university. 

 

Faith Seeking Truth

 

In Ex Corde, St. John Paul II states that it is the honor and responsibility of the Catholic university “to consecrate itself without reserve to the cause of truth.”   One way of distinguishing the Catholic university is that it seeks “the whole truth about nature, man, and God”   rather than merely useful knowledge or a partial or incomplete truths. That is, the mission of a Catholic university is not distinctive in restricting the scope of the truth that it seeks, as if its mission is more narrowly defined than that of a university in general. According to Ex Corde, that a Catholic university is grounded in faith expands its scope to include the holistic truth which may be out of reach in a secular context. So the ‘Catholic’ in ‘Catholic university’ adds to, rather than restricts the content of the mission of that university. 

There are many ways that the Catholic character of a university contributes to the holism of the truth sought by that university: through a theological perspective, through service to others, and so on. Here I focus on one: a love for truth. St. John Paul II states: “A vital interaction of [faith and reason] leads to a greater love for truth itself, and contributes to a more comprehensive understanding of the meaning of human life and of the purpose of God's creation.”   A proper interaction of faith and reason leads to a love of truth. The student, recall, questioned the desirability of seeking the truth. And why should she not? If the truth is poisonous and depressing, such that the more one learns the darker and uglier the world becomes, then one can understand why a student would question its value. Here St. John Paul II presents an alternative, a way of integrating faith and reason such that one comes to love the truth, and to seek out a comprehensive understanding of human life and God’s creation. 

It is therefore crucial to the Catholic character of a university that we not only present students with truth, but that we inculcate in students a love of truth. This love of truth is made possible by the interaction of faith and reason and a conception of truth as a holistic unity, rather than something merely partial. Below I argue that this holistic truth which leads to a love of truth, can be understood through the concept of hope. 

 

What is Hope?

 

Hope grounded in a holistic truth cannot be a naïve optimism, or a tendency to view the world through rose-colored glasses. We cannot base hope on selective attention to what is good or inculcate hope by papering over the evils of the world. Accordingly, education (primary, secondary, and university) must assist a student in transitioning from childlike insulation from the truths that are terrible, into a knowing but nevertheless hopeful state. Neither can hope be some kind of theoretical commitment to progression in history: for example, the view that the arc of human history “bends toward justice”. Were this the case, to inculcate hope would mean to pass on to students some particular philosophy of history, which largely rests on empirical matters. So what is hope, such that it is something we can strive to inculcate in students?

Aquinas defines hope in the strictest sense as a theological virtue; its ultimate object is eternal life. Taking a slightly broader sense of the word, however, we can derive a sense of hope from Aquinas which can be useful in a context in which not all professors or students are Catholic. Aquinas states: “The object of hope is a future good, arduous but possible to obtain. In order, therefore, that we may hope, it is necessary for the object of hope to be proposed to us as possible.”   If we adopt this broader sense of hope, we can see it as something that should be transmitted to students in the process of a Catholic education. In this sense, hope would be a difficult to obtain, but possible future good, broadly conceived. Note that this does not depend on the world itself containing more good than evil, or a conviction that things will inevitably get better. Rather, it requires only that there is some good in the world and that it is not out of reach for human beings to recognize and pursue. Accordingly, to have hope means (1) to recognize that which is good and (2) to think of it as possible, although perhaps difficult, to attain. 

In the context of a mission of a Catholic university, we can see these two aspects of hope as essential to inculcating a love of truth. Consider a despairing student, thoroughly convinced of the ugliness of truth. The failure of that student’s education is not that he has been shown the evils of the world. The failure is that he has not learned to be attentive to goodness, or that even if he is attentive to goodness, he does not believe it is possible to attain. The student who does not care for the truth suffers from a lack of hope. To correct this defect in the way we conceive of education, then, would mean teaching students to be sensitive to and attentive to the good and to think it possible to attain. 

In sum, a Catholic university should be inculcating in students a love of truth. Such a love of truth is hampered by despair, in which the evils of the world or the impossibility of bringing about the good overwhelms professors and students. To truly fulfill this Catholic mission, then, we must inculcate in students a sense of the good and the possibility of its attainment; that is, we must give our students hope. Below I discuss an opposing tendency in higher education, which I call ‘the critical stance’, in order to show how this feature of the mission of a Catholic university is at odds with our current cultural and educational milieu. 

 

Hope vs. the Critical Stance

Paul Ricœur coined the term ‘hermeneutics of suspicion’ to describe the animus behind the works of figures such as Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud, who generally set out to question and often undermine prevailing norms and values. The tradition advanced by these three ‘masters of suspicion’ has multiplied and diversified into various branches of ‘theory’, most prominent in humanities and social science departments. These go under various names: Critical Theory, Post-structuralism, Decolonialism, and other ‘isms’ in this tradition which take as one of their primary aims to reveal and undermine covert power structures. These power structures function behind the scenes in culture and politics, and the aim of academic inquiry of this kind is to unmask them, to reveal them for what they are. This family of views is what I call the ‘critical stance’. 

What happens when the humanities and social sciences are by and large dominated by this critical stance? Let me suggest that such a stance presents a mere partial truth that inculcates despair rather than hope, and such a stance, if it is thoroughgoing, is inimical to the holistic pursuit of truth at a Catholic university. That is not to say that attention to power structures that lie behind various institutions is out of bounds. One should, at a Catholic university, be able to ask and answer questions of whether the penitentiary system is a tool of white supremacy, or if it is designed to maintain the wealth and power of the higher classes by keeping the lower immiserated. However, a focus on such power structures yields only a partial truth. If that partial truth is presented as the whole truth, i.e., if it is not presented in its proper place in a holistic truth, it is a distortion and is damaging to professors and students.  

The critical stance, as a totalizing perspective, is inimical to a sensitivity to the good and a belief in its possibility. In the words of my student, “all you see and read is sickness and death and war and people fighting for stupid made up reasons and power.” Educated in an institution dominated by the critical stance, a student could easily come to believe that nothing is absolutely good: There are only the relative interests of this or that group weighed against the interests of others, and human history is a history of these warring interests. In contrast, a Catholic vision of goodness is fundamentally opposed to these reductive totalizing perspectives. A Catholic university can distinguish itself from its secular counterparts in that all criticism is subordinated to a higher truth and goodness. One might point students to the beauty of art or literature, a sense that the natural world can be an expression of divinity and goodness, the beauty and goodness of the human family and society, the difficult but possible to attain love of one’s enemy, even love of the oppressor. These are all manifestations of the thoroughgoing, fundamental goodness of the world, some more easy to attain than others. The Catholic view can give hope to the Catholic and non-Catholic student alike, since both can come to see the world as grounded in goodness, and to be attentive to manifestations of that goodness. We can, in the context of this overarching and holistic truth, engage in criticism of institutions and structures which corrupt this goodness. But we should always be mindful to keep this criticism in its proper place, such that the holistic truth is not obstructed. Students should learn to criticize with an eye toward the good, and with a sense that it is possible for that good to be attained. 

 

Conclusion

According to St. John Paul II in Ex Corde, a Catholic university must dedicate itself to the search for truth, construed as holistic truth. This amplified notion of holistic truth is a distinctive feature of Catholic universities, as opposed to their secular counterparts. One way in which this distinction manifests itself is in the ability of Catholic universities to contextualize criticism in this larger, holistic truth, avoiding the distortions of the critical stance, which can turn a mere partial truth into a bleak totalizing theory. This critical stance contributes to despair and obstructs a love of truth, which is so crucial to the mission of a university. 

Fulfillment of the full mission of a distinctively Catholic university requires that we inculcate hope in our students, by encouraging in them a view of the world as grounded in goodness. If students have hope, if they are attentive to goodness and believe in its possible attainment, they will be able to love the truth and to engage confidently in that search for truth that is at the core of the university’s mission. By focusing on this aspect of the Catholic identity through Ex Corde, we can see that a Catholic university can more perfectly fulfill the mission of all universities to seek truth.

1    John Paul II, Ex Corde Ecclesiae, encyclical letter, Vatican Website, August 15, 1990, http://www.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/apost_constitutions/documents/hf_jp-ii_apc_15081990_ex-corde-ecclesiae.html, sec. 23.

2    Ibid., sec. 4.

3    Ibid.

4    Ibid., sec. 17, emphasis added.

5    Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, 2nd, rev. ed., trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province (1920; New Advent, 2017) http://www.newadvent.org/summa/3017.htm, IIa IIae, q. 17, a. 7.

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Naomi Fisher

Naomi Fisher is Director of Catholic Studies and Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Loyola University Chicago. She has broad interests in the history of philosophy and the interplay between that history and the history of Christianity. She specializes in the philosophy of Immanuel Kant and his immediate successors, focusing particularly on personhood, freedom, and nature. She also as a graduate degree in Physics from UC Davis and has teaching interests in the relationship between science and religion. She is on the executive board of Philosophers in Jesuit Education and runs a working group in the Catholic Intellectual Tradition for the Hank Center for Catholic Intellectual Heritage. 

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