Did you ever wonder what the difference was between a Catholic university and a public (nonsectarian) university, and what they have in common?
Certainly, funding mechanisms are different. Usually, the size of the campuses vary, with the publics being significantly larger. Governance structures also differ.
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On the flip side, there are many commonalities, from the curriculum to the credentials of the faculty to diverse student populations. Algebra taught at a public institution is the same as algebra taught at a Catholic institution. Academic departments and structure are similar as are the major courses of study.
In fact, even a sacramental life may be experienced at a public institution through the valuable work of the Newman Centers.
It almost seems that the differences are slight and the commonalties much greater. In fact, if one were blindfolded and put into the middle of a campus, she would be hard pressed to discern whether she had landed at a public or a Catholic institution -- if all there is to the differences and commonalties are what we just described.
In fact, there is a fundamental difference that is so vast it should create a chasm between the two types of institutions. This fundamental difference has little to do with the size of the campus, the credentials of faculty, the breadth and scope of the curriculum, the diversity of the students, or the governance structure. Rather, it has everything to do with the core belief that God exists.
As humans, we are confronted by a world that is constantly changing yet somehow remains constant. What is permanent? What does not change? For a university founded on Catholic beliefs and doctrine, that permanence, or in the words of the metaphysician, "really real," is God -- the Divine Permanence.
This God is knowable in and through creation and is the ultimate Truth Itself. Through time, humanity knows more and more about Truth Itself.
Universities are all about "knowledge." When linked and subordinated to the basic belief that God exists and is knowable through revelation and creation, the approach to acquiring and disseminating knowledge become the differentiator between a Catholic university and a public university.
A Catholic university is on a journey to the Truth -- "Truth" being ultimately God. For a Catholic university, there are not many truths but a single Truth that is manifested throughout creation. Truth with a "small t" is still truth because it emanates from Truth Itself.
In the realm of public institutions, there is no unifying theory of knowledge that necessarily binds one discipline to another. While individuals may subscribe to a more holistic notion of truth, the institution itself subscribes to none.
Individual disciplines continue the search for truth in their fields, but the universalization of truth, the natural merging of all disciplines under the universal Truth, is missing. As a result, relativism is always a permanent possibility and danger.
When you enter a Catholic university, you are met by a community of scholars in search of the truth, and so in search of God. Their disciplines and mode of research may not be the same, but their target is. Academic freedom abounds because there is no distinction between faith and reason, for both are part of the same continuum leading to God.
People of faith have nothing to fear from reason, for reason is the tool to garner the truth. For people of reason, faith is not the tent of the uninformed; it is simply a holding place for that for which I have yet to reach an understanding. Put in the words of St. Anselm, "I believe so that I may understand" (Credo ut intelligam).
So the next time you walk on the campus of a Catholic university, know that something very special is going on that may not meet the eye. Underneath the glitter of the campus -- its architecture, students and faculty -- is a serious enterprise that seeks Truth Itself.
It is a special niche in the world of higher education wherein truth is unified under the banner of Truth Itself, God.
• William Carroll is president of Benedictine University in Lisle. His column appears monthly during the school year in Neighbor.