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A Prophetic Voice for Catholic Colleges?

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Apr 27, 2007

The president of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities says he hopes that “a more pronounced prophetic voice will become one of Catholic higher education’s distinctive contributions to the world.” In fact, he has outlined a twelve-point program to get us there.

Speaking at Neumann College in Aston, Pennsylvania on March 14th, Richard Yanikoski argued at length for the importance of devoting academic resources to making an impact on social justice issues (this being the unquestioned outlet for a prophetic voice). He even suggested the use of “curricular sensitivity” audits to ensure that academic coursework will “expose students to information, agencies, issues, principles, analytic techniques, experiential learning opportunities and practical skills relating to social justice, social policy and world peace.”

I can see the resulting course evaluations now: “Professor Smith, your course on Thomistic metaphysics did not significantly predispose the class toward world peace. You mistakenly focused on being itself, rather than on being in the world.” “Professor Jones, your history class failed to identify the capitalist structures which lie at the root of third world poverty. We feel this would have emerged more clearly had you spent less time on the largely irrelevant human achievements prior to the year 1500.” “Professor Doakes, we note with concern that only a small percentage of the students in your chemistry class joined our anti-global warming coalition. It seems you need to illustrate more dramatically the political impact of carbon emissions.”

In all seriousness, Yanikoski’s proposal is based on significant misconceptions about prophecy, universities and students. I’ll deal with two of these misconceptions here.

The Core of Prophecy

First, Yanikoski seems not to realize that to be a prophet one must be filled with God’s word. This is the core, the sine qua non, of all true prophecy, and it alone separates prophetic utterance from mere human words.

To give Yanikoski his due, he did—as the very last brief point of his speech (where it sounded suspiciously like a rhetorical after-thought)—call on institutions of higher learning to foster prayer: “Catholic colleges and universities can increase opportunities for silent prayer, meditation, group prayer, adoration and other forms of soulful expression where those so disposed can ask God to bring all of us closer to peace, justice and respect for all people.” But the rest of his speech completely ignores the origins of prophecy in its rush to make a social impact. Thus the text inescapably assumes either that Catholic universities are already firmly allied with God’s will or that God’s will is irrelevant to prophecy.

Given the state of Catholic higher education today, the first assumption will in most cases be false, and the second will in most cases describe the assumptions of those who guide the mission of the school. Over the past fifty years, Catholic institutions have most definitely not been noted for their strenuous efforts to conform themselves to either the will of God or the mind of His Church. Yet Catholic institutions cannot be prophetic unless they are conformed to God’s mind and confirmed in God’s will, for these alone are the wellsprings of prophecy. Without this fundamental orientation, prophetic utterance inevitably reduces itself to mere cant, typically devoid of any Catholic thought at all, and generally mirroring the ideas of the fashionable.

If universities and colleges are singularly unprepared to be prophets, their students form the other side of a two-headed coin. When students reach the university level, they are hardly well-formed enough to be prophetic about anything. Presumably Yanikoski understands that the university would have to supply this lack, but he seems to think one can form prophets by teaching them to parrot the self-proclaimed prophetic utterances of their professorial and administrative elders. How else would a curriculum audit be assessed? In reality, of course, one must form prophets by filling them with a serious commitment to truth and a burning love of God.

Again, it is this zeal for God and truth, welling up in the prophet’s mind and heart, that spills over into words and actions which can shake people out of their complacency and sin. In other words, one turns students into prophets not by training them as activists but by filling them with truth and love and letting God do the rest. Self-conscious training for advocacy always undermines this effort, which is actually the real business of a Catholic university.

Truth and Love for Students

Second, Yanikoski seems to understand very little about the temptations and proclivities of students in their late teens and early twenties. College students are easy to convince of the importance of national and international causes, and will readily pay them lip service. Not only are students idealistic, but they have very little stake in the “system” and virtually no power to impact it. Therefore, it is easy to get students fired up to make noise about all kinds of high-sounding, global matters. Involvement in such “causes” is exceedingly cheap for students. At best, such activities may get students out of class, or even reduce the likelihood of military service. At worst, they provide greater social time. At the student’s time in life, these activities nearly always provide a sort of idealistic “high” at no significant personal cost.

But what it is very hard to get students to do is to live well-integrated personal lives, exercising self-discipline, learning humility, practicing purity. This may sound like a harsh judgment, and certainly some students are better formed and more mature than others, but broadly speaking there are certain temptations characteristic of each age group. The temptation of the young is to regard themselves and their feelings as the center of all things, and this temptation manifests itself in rationalization, cheap talk, and sensual excess. Paradoxically, it is only by training students to master themselves in these areas that a Catholic university can have any significant hope that they will play a responsible role on the world stage when they have the means and connections to do so.

Consider, for example, all the students who advocated free love while denouncing the military-industrial complex in the 1960’s and 1970’s. Follow-up studies have shown that many of the leaders of such student groups went on to become thorough-going materialists who were heavily involved in business. This was predictable. Students who succumb to (and justify) the temptations of one period of life will not develop the habits of virtue necessary to resist the temptations characteristic of later periods. Any Catholic college or university that fails to recognize this fundamental truth of human development is hardly worthy of the name.

Students can be prophetic only if they are filled with truth and burning with love. The same goes for the institutions which form and educate them. If these institutions persist in training for advocacy and activism, they will never turn out prophets, no matter how much “soulful expression” they encourage. This is the blind leading the blind, with neither understanding the radical interior commitment to God required for “a more pronounced prophetic voice.”

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