THE CATHOLIC UNIVERSITY AS PROMISE AND PROJECT: REFLECTIONS IN A JESUIT IDIOM. By Michael J. Buckley, S.J., Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press 1998. Pp. 224. Paper. $23.98. ISBN: 0-878-40710-3.


Reviewed by David K. DeWolf, Professor of Law, Gonzaga Law School,

Published in the Journal of Law and Religion, 16:423-427 (2001)


Fr. Michael Buckley has made an important contribution to the ongoing discussion of how to fulfill the mission and responsibilities of a Catholic university. Holding the Canisius Chair of Systematic Theology at Boston College and directing the Jesuit Institute there, he speaks both knowledgeably and authoritatively about how a Catholic university can reconcile fidelity to its church sponsor with the expectations of academic freedom created by its secular counterparts. Previous work1 won him a devoted audience for his skill as a theologian. The strength of the current Reflections lies in a series of illuminating excursions into the history of the relationship of church and academy; moreover, his careful explanation of the different meanings of the word "humanism" is alone worth the price of the volume. On the negative side, Fr. Buckley fails to provide a satisfactory explanation of how the trend toward secularization of religious institutions can be reversed.

The book admits to being "more a collection of essays, each bearing upon a cognate question, than a steady and single argument." (xx) While this allows the author to play to his strengths knowledge of history and theology-it also produces the book's chief weakness, which is a tendency to engage in wishful thinking rather than address the more troubling aspects of the contemporary situation in Catholic higher education.

But before addressing the book's weaknesses, we should appreciate its strengths. Fr. Buckley paints a lyrical and inspiring portrait of a Catholic university in which theology engages in spirited dialogue with the other forms of human knowledge, the result being an enrichment of both. As one example, Fr. Buckley discusses the exciting discoveries of contemporary science, a topic with which he displays impressive familiarity, and the challenges such discoveries pose for theology. Whereas most institutions tolerate scientific illiteracy on the part of theologians, and theological ignorance on the part of scientists (to the detriment of both fields of study), Fr. Buckley proposes real dialogue, because "[t]he way the contemporary world reveals itself in its fundamental constitution and origins poses or suggests enormous questions of ultimacy." (33) Science is only one of the many disciplines where this observation is becoming ever more evident.

Another important contribution is his rescue of the term "humanist" from its frequent use as an antonym for "religious." Even though many people assume that "[o]ne must choose between the glory of the human and the glory of God," (88) Fr. Buckley demonstrates that "[t]he dichotomy could not be more foreign to [Ignatius'] theology and his educational theory. On the contrary, the divine descends into the human and into all created things 'according to the arrangement of the sovereign providence of God.'" (89) The Jesuit educational tradition committed itself early on to humanistic studies as the foundation of the educational process because it was a means of integrating theology with all areas of human endeavor. Humanism was promoted, not as a substitute for studies in theology, but as a means to approach the subject more fully and in a more engaged way. Whereas earlier generations had learned their theology through a rigid didactic approach that required only assent and memorization, the humanists wanted a personal encounter. Fr. Buckley's historical review is a critical piece of ammunition to counter the usual apology for the educational status quo wherein a secular form of humanism is trumpeted as a key aspect of Jesuit education. Like most falsehoods, it is successful by containing a partial truth. Yes, Jesuits have always been humanists, but on the terms that Fr. Buckley describes, not by way of accepting the contemporary secular philosophy that goes by that name.

But to praise Fr. Buckley on this point brings to mind the key weakness of this book--Fr. Buckley's unwillingness to confront the degree to which his vision of Jesuit education has been displaced by an impostor. It is not enough to describe a positive vision of exchange between theology and the other disciplines within the university. And it is no answer to regret that the treasure of Jesuit education is held in earthen vessels. The fact is that many who hold positions of influence in Catholic universities actively oppose the Ignatian vision Fr. Buckley so well describes. Such an education would require that students, together with their teachers, engage in a humanistic study of all of the disciplines of knowledge in order to appreciate the "sovereign providence of God," and each discipline would have to acknowledge its place as part of this larger "architectonic" structure.

In fact, the situation we now confront is quite otherwise. At most Catholic universities each academic discipline considers itself autonomous, hiring faculty based upon standards established by secular entities having no appreciation of the purposes of Jesuit education. In 1995 Peter Steinfels, whose reputation is hardly that of a conservative alarmist, conducted a wide-ranging survey of faculty and administrators at Catholic universities. He reported being "stunned" by what he heard. Not only did many faculty--Catholic and non-Catholic alike--desire that their department be "interchangeable with that of any first-rank school," but many believed that "job candidates with Catholic backgrounds or known interests in relating their research to religious or ethical questions would actually be at a disadvantage in the hiring process.2

In the Preface, Fr. Buckley anticipates the objection that he is not dealing with the world of Catholic education as it is.

[O]ne who writes of purpose and ideals, of hopes and promise for great growth must continually counter the charge that his essays ask for an ideal order that has never existed nor will ever be realized, that he dreams rather than perceives .... But it is a counsel of despair to condemn ideals because they are essentially regulative and always pervasively imperfect in their realization. (xxii)

But alas, Fr. Buckley was not content to leave his discussion at the level of ideals. Instead, in a chapter entitled "The Catholic University as Pluralistic Forum," he ventures the opinion that "[tlhe Catholic universities are changing, growing into institutions which are more truly universities, and precisely in this way, more truly Catholic." (146-147) It is hard to square that description with the reality that many Catholics experience as members of a university community that is nominally Catholic and Jesuit.

In addition, Fr. Buckley strays from the abstract perch he claimed in the Preface by weighing in against Pope John Paul II's publication of the apostolic constitution, Ex corde ecclesiae ("On Catholic Universities") in 1990. True, Fr. Buckley, like many influential American Catholic theologians, applauds the Pope's description of the ideal Catholic university, but reacts with alarm at the "norms" that were specified as concrete steps to insure that the ideals were put into practice. At the urging of American Catholic academicians, the American bishops sent Rome an implementation plan that treated the norms as "pastoral" guidelines rather than "juridical" norms. Only after Rome rejected this reading did a more muscular draft emerge, which is due to go into effect in May of 2001. Fr. Buckley's book went to press shortly after the Vatican's rejection of the American Bishops' "first draft," and Fr. Buckley can only express puzzlement that the Vatican refused to accept a proposed implementation plan that had the "general approval of Catholic educators." (24) He warns:

Ill-conceived ordinances could fortify a dangerously growing disaffection from the Holy See within the United States, especially perhaps within the academic community. To a degree unprecedented in the church in the United States, many in the Catholic academy have been profoundly alienated by what they perceive as an unwarranted centralization by Roman curial authorities and by those who represent that power in the United States. (24)

One would think that Jesuit educators in the United States had fallen victim to the "Stockholm syndrome,"3 in which the captives begin to adopt their captors' views as their own, and mistake their liberators for the enemy. Consider this example: several years ago, I received a glossy promotional piece from a prominent Jesuit law school displaying its new faculty, and priding itself on their diversity. Why, they even hired a Jesuit. But to reassure the reader, they dressed him up in a business suit (sans clerical collar), and promised that this new professor "labors self-consciously always to teach with an open mind. He takes special care to avoid even the appearance of 'towing a party line.í" Academic freedom apparently has come to mean that non-Catholics should be free to advance whatever beliefs and attitudes they choose, but Catholics, particularly priests, must daily prove that they have outgrown the urge to proselytize.

As another example of the short leash on which Jesuit educators are kept by their secular captors, consider the treatment of the Jesuit emphasis on "social justice." Since my own discipline deals with issues of law and justice, I was particularly interested in the chapter entitled "The University and the Concern for Justice." Searching for examples of how Jesuit universities can sensitize their students' consciences to issues of justice in the world, so as to gain "a deeper and more pervasive commitment to the wretched of the world." (107) Fr. Buckley looks for them in East Timor, the unemployment lines in Detroit, or in Africa. What about the abortion clinic run by Planned Parenthood that can be found less than five miles from the Boston College campus? To be fair to Fr. Buckley (but also to illustrate the problem), one could sit through hundreds of commencement addresses or Red Mass homilies or freshman convocation speeches at Jesuit universities and be treated to regular condemnation of the scandals of racial injustice, Third World poverty and corporate oppression--without ever hearing any criticism of Catholic politicians who vote to tolerate infanticide. This consistent silence is particularly haunting given the effect that Catholic voters could have if they believed that abortion was really a moral evil. But college students at Jesuit universities eventually get the message, which they go on to share with the culture at large: while the Vatican may still "officially" condemn it, there's no point in making a big deal of it.

It may seem unfair, even mean-spirited, to fault Fr. Buckley because he chooses to focus on some issues rather than others. But I suggest it is symptomatic of the state of Catholic higher education, particularly Jesuit education, in accepting the boundaries set for it by a secular educational culture, and in failing to preach the Gospel in its fullness.

It is for this reason that the Holy Father and the "curial authorities" that make Fr. Buckley nervous have called for a renewal of Catholic institutions, not only in theory, but in the hard practice of winning them back from their secular captors.4 One can only say "Amen" to Fr. Buckley's plea that theology be given pride of place at Catholic universities; but to help make such this dream a reality, we need clarity of vision--especially from those who have received, and are responsible for transmitting, the Jesuit charism.



  1. Michael J. Buckley, At the Origins of Modern Atheism (Yale U. Press 1990) (reprinted).

2. Peter Steinfels, Catholic Identity: Emerging Consensus, 25 Origins 174, 176 (1995-1996).

3. Named for a case of bank hostages in Sweden who came to identify with their captors and resisted the efforts of the police to liberate them.

4. I keep seeing in my mind a Herblock cartoon that appeared during the height of the civil rights struggle: an American eagle is shown climbing up a flagpole to displace Jim Crow perched at the top. The caption for the eagle is, "Iíve come to get my place back."