The Catholic University of America

Address by The Very Rev. David M. O'Connell, C.M., J.C.D.
on the occasion of his inauguration as 14th President of
The Catholic University of America
November 19, 1998
Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception

In his recent book, The Dying of the Light, author James Burtchael examines the experience of American colleges and universities with a Christian origin in this century. It is his contention that many, if not most of the best of these institutions, disengaged themselves from their Church affiliation, excluding Christian faith as "unworthy of study in the new orthodoxy of secularism." Catholic institutions, however, resisted this temptation, for the most part, until the cultural upheaval of the late 1960s "destroyed the Catholic self-assurance of an intellectual advantage" according to the author. He believes that fueled by competition and convinced that the drive for "recognition by the secular Academy" was more compelling than the urgency of their origins, many Catholic colleges and universities later in this century followed the earlier pattern of their counterparts as the sun began to set on their identity.

The title of Burtchael's study calls to mind a poem by Dylan Thomas (1914-1953) who wrote the year before he died:

Do not go gentle into that good night,

Old age should burn and rave at close of day;

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

As this century and this millennium draw to a close, it might be well for us to hear and to heed the poet's words and, as Catholic universities, to "rage against the dying of the light."

When it was established in 1887, the founders of The Catholic University of America took as its motto the phrase, "Deus Lux Mea Est," "God is my light." Theirs was the conviction, voiced by the first rector, Bishop John Joseph Keane (1839-1918), that this institution was to share the "Light" and be "a living embodiment and illustration of the harmony between reason and revelation, between science and religion, between the genius of America and the church of Christ." 111 years ago Keane predicted that the Church in America would "exercise a dominant influence in the world's future," an influence that he said "must rest on intellectual superiority." Despite opposition by some, Keane and his supporters prevailed.

And so, under the direction of the Bishops of the United States and with the approval of Pope Leo XIII (1810-1903), The Catholic University of America saw the light of day as the national institution of higher learning of the Church.

From its inception this university, this "community of scholars," has enjoyed "a unique relationship with the Holy See and the entire Catholic community." That relationship continues to carry with it certain, very clear responsibilities.

"God is my light."

Faithful to its founding principles and mission, The Catholic University of America sets the goal as it moves into the new millennium to achieve and maintain in higher education the leading place among Catholic and other comparable research institutions. That is no small goal, especially when one considers the thousands of colleges and universities that exist in our country and the 230 institutions among them that claim a Catholic origin or character. Many of them are larger and more comprehensive than The Catholic University of America. Many of them -- most, it seems to me at times -- have more money in the bank to support their research and operations. Some of them have been more successful attracting a larger base of active alumni support. Few of them have a faculty with the scholarly reputation and visibility. None of them, however, has the responsibility of being "the national university of the Church in the United States." This prominence in leadership does not fall to us not by accident of history nor merely by virtue of our title but, rather, by the purposeful design of our founders and by an urgency of mission that continues to the present day. The Catholic University of America must embrace that responsibility and we must hold ourselves accountable.

"God is my light."

What would it profit us if we surrender that responsibility or even strike compromises in its regard to gain the grudging acceptance of the whole academic world only to lose our soul in the process?

A recently published secular guide to the nation's top 100 colleges responded this way:

Still primarily a graduate school … CUA has been able to resist such trends as secularization and the lowering of standards that plague other Catholic universities … In remaining true to its founding principles, it adds tremendously to true diversity in American higher education.

Our greatest strength is our Catholic identity for it gives form and substance, shape and direction to all that we do as university. To diminish it, even slightly, would diminish us, the Church, as well as the diversity that American higher education boasts about to the world. Does our nation, our society need "just another research institution? just another university?"

On the other hand, if The Catholic University of America exercises its mission-based leadership in a manner that is unambiguously Catholic, we shall grow because of our difference. We shall increase our graduate population because of our difference as we attract the support we need to expand our research interests. We shall capture the attention of our alumni who have experienced our difference by reinforcing what their diplomas represent and have enabled them to achieve. We shall become even more visible as a Catholic intellectual influence upon our society and culture today and tomorrow. We shall serve both the Church and the academy through a university that is authentically Catholic and distinctively American.

At this point in history, our university cannot and must not merely participate in the slow and often painful discussion of the relationship between "Catholic identity" and "university status." Now is "our time" to lead that discussion and to model that relationship. This is the challenge that our unique leadership responsibility places before us. This is the contribution that we shall make as "the national university of the Church in the United States."

The responsibility that we have before us is not something of our own invention. It is part of the continuing vision of the Church. And it is not exercised for our own sake alone. One scholar stated it well when he wrote that a Catholic university "is not a church; it is from the Church and serves the Church by enabling the Church to serve the world more fully."

All Catholic universities are called to such service.

"God is my light."

This Catholic University must lead and model it.

First, in teaching. The Holy Father has written in Ex Corde Ecclesiae that

It is the honor 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 the human person and the good of the Church … (and in so doing) the relationship between faith and reason is brought to light and meaning.

The search for truth is not the exclusive domain of theology and philosophy, although it clearly must be sought there. The search for truth crosses all disciplines and professions and must be present in the curricula of schools of nursing, music, library and information sciences, engineering, architecture, law, social services, the arts and sciences, and so forth. These disciplines impart knowledge but must at the same time teach values that are truly Catholic. This is how we lead.

Next, in research. The Holy Father continued to state that

Research in a Catholic university is always carried out with a concern for the ethical and moral implications both of its methods and discoveries … the cause of the human person will only be served if knowledge is joined to conscience.

Our point of departure can no longer be a cynicism that proclaims we cannot be a university and be Catholic. The world has had enough of that. Nor can it be fear for authentic intellectual inquiry, as the Holy Father has written time and again, must be free.

Questions raised are not always confrontations; answers proposed are not always antagonisms. The self-serving interests and ideologies of an extreme left that denies any objectivity or of an extreme right that admits of no other point of view cannot hold a Catholic university hostage. The course that a Catholic university steers is one that advocates both academic freedom and academic responsibility, both of which seek truth through fidelity. This is how we lead.

In his recent encyclical, Fides et Ratio, The Holy Father reflected that

The search for truth is not always so transparent … the natural limitation of reason and the inconstancy of the human heart often obscure and distort a person's search. Truth can also drown in a welter of other concerns. People can run from the truth as soon as they glimpse it because they are afraid of its demands.

Again, Ex Corde Ecclesiae proclaimed that

A Catholic university must have the courage to speak uncomfortable truths which do not please public opinion but which are necessary to safeguard the authentic good of human society.

This is how we lead.

Finally our leadership must include student life and campus ministry. Here we touch not only the mind but also the heart and the soul of our students. Remember, we have not chosen them, they have chosen us. And they do so eager to learn, eager to grow, filed with all the hope and promise of a future yet to be revealed.

The Holy Father has said

As a natural expression of the Catholic identity of the university, the university community should give a practical demonstration of its faith in its daily activity.

Could we as a Catholic university possibly share our knowledge with students without sharing our faith? Could we teach about prayer credibly without inviting them to pray and showing them how? Could we speak about meaning and avoid providing the direction to attain it? Could we talk about ethics and then fail to support it in the activities that we promote on and off campus? Could we ask them to serve without first serving them?

This is how we lead.

The "dying of the light?" Not here. Not now. Not again. "God is my light."

As one poet's words began these thoughts today, another one who presided over another Catholic university shall draw them to a close:

Lead, kindly light, amid encircling gloom, lead thou me on. The night is dark and I am far from home, lead thou me on.

Keep thou my feet; I do not ask to see the distant scene; one step enough for me.

I was not ever thus nor prayed that thou shouldst lead me on; I loved to choose and see my path; but now lead thou me on;

I loved the garish day and, spite of fears, pride ruled my will: remember not past years.

So long thy power hath blest me, sure it still will lead me on, o'er moor and fen, o'er crag and torrent, 'til the night is gone,

And with the morn, those angel faces smile,

Which I have loved long since, and lost awhile.

As the light of a new millennium dawns and The Catholic University of America begins to write a new chapter in its history, may the light that shines brightest be that provided by God, reflected by the Church and by all of us who serve this great institution.