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How Catholic universities can be models of authentic higher education
Catholic News Service photo
Visitors to the University of Notre Dame take photos May 17 of the
Catholic News Service photo
Visitors to the University of Notre Dame take photos May 17 of the "God, Country, Notre Dame" motto engraved into the stone above the east doors at the Basilica of the Sacred Heart in Indiana. The university held its graduation ceremonies May 19.
Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY — The seven pontifical universities of Rome started their academic year Oct. 7, welcoming thousands of new and returning students from around the world.

Because they are located at the center of the universal church, these Vatican-chartered institutions have traditionally educated a disproportionate number of Catholicism's leaders, including bishops, cardinals and popes. Their core function remains as always to prepare seminarians, priests and religious in the subjects of theology, philosophy and canon law. Yet their enrollments today include an increasing number of laymen and women, studying in disciplines as varied as economics and communication.

According to the head of one of the most prominent of these universities, they also perform an invaluable service for international higher education, both Catholic and secular, by keeping alive the "authentic idea" of the university in the face of negative economic and cultural pressures.

For Bishop Enrico dal Covolo, rector of the Pontifical Lateran University, any university worthy of the name organizes all of its activities with the goal of addressing the "crucial questions that no one can avoid, that is: 'Who am I? Where do I come from? Where am I going? What is my relationship with others, with the world? What is the final meaning of existence?'"

The pursuit of such questions remains a university's goal even when the disciplines it teaches are "apparently only technical," said the bishop.

This idea, which dates back to the birth of universities in the Middle Ages, and whose recent champions have included Blessed John Henry Newman and Pope Benedict XVI, has fallen out of fashion in Europe and North America, Bishop dal Covolo said. Prevailing tendencies there promote instead the model of the technological institute, or the "multiversity" with no core curriculum.

"The big risk is that the university ends up at the service" of the "dominant ideologies" and "economic systems of the moment," the bishop said. "The university has always been understood as a critical alternative to the powers, ideologies and lobbies of the world."

If Catholic universities are to play such a critical role today, the bishop said, professors must learn to act also as pastors.

"The university instructor is not an instructor for himself, his research is not an end in itself," he said. "The instructor is an instructor for his students, his research is for his students."

To that end, the rector organizes an annual series of lectures on the pastoral care of university students, for his own staff and those of other universities. The theme of this year's course is the "new peripheries of evangelization," a signature expression of Pope Francis. Among the scheduled lectures is one on counseling youth who are "indifferent and/or hostile" to the faith, and another on pastoral practices at Latin American universities.

The Lateran is under the direct authority of the Vatican and is thus known as the "university of the pope." Bishop dal Covolo identifies its particular charism as the teaching of law, and its distinctive approach to that field exemplifies the synthesis of philosophy and theology that he says is vital to pursuing the fundamental questions.

Uniquely among Rome's pontifical universities, the Lateran offers degrees not only in canon law but also in Italian civil law, and the two branches of the discipline inform each other, he says.

The civil law program shows the influence of the universal church in its emphasis on international law, he says, and in its special attention to current church concerns such as bioethics and the sexual abuse of children.

The bishop says that Lateran students also gain special appreciation of the classical roots of Italian civil law, since it was medieval canon law that preserved the legal tradition of ancient Rome from which most latter-day European legal systems derive. This, he notes, is only one of the fundamental institutions for which modern culture is indebted to the church.

"When we think of universities, when we think of hospitals, when we think of the law and the schools," he said, "it is mere hypocrisy to ignore Europe's Christian roots."

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