posted on: Thursday October 6, 2005
It is a rare privilege to witness a turning point in an institution’s history, and even rarer to actually recognize it as a turning point. Yet that is precisely the privilege that was enjoyed by those who attended the inauguration of Rev. Brian J. Shanley ’80 O.P., this weekend. The entire event, from the official ceremony on Friday to the inaugural Mass on Saturday, was pervaded by Father Shanley’s clear plan for the future of Providence College. Father Shanley opened his inaugural address appropriately enough with a story about St. Thomas Aquinas, who reportedly received heavenly help on his inaugural lecture as a Master at the University of Paris. The inspired theme that guided Aquinas’ address was that all education is a part of Providence, intended to bring man closer to God. This purpose is most fulfilled at a Catholic institution, where theology, rather than being discarded as useless and irreconcilable with science, is recognized as the proper summit of human knowledge, both enriching and being enriched by the other sciences. Therefore, said Father Shanley, it is imperative that PC reaffirm its dedication to the study and contemplation of Truth as a whole. This stern but inspirational theme was elaborated on by Father Shanley in the rest of his speech, as well as by others throughout the weekend. Rev. J. Augustine DiNoia, O.P., who recently appointed the undersecretary for the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith in the Vatican, gave a speech at the Inaugural Academic Convocation on Saturday morning in which he argued that Providence College’s Catholic and Dominican identities are closely tied and that the school must take active measures to safeguard both. Such clarity of thought on PC’s mission is exactly what the school needs. Although PC still offers an education founded in faith, there is an undeniable stagnation in the school’s intellectual atmosphere that is being felt by faculty and students alike. This shows itself in widespread student apathy, whose activity of choice is getting drunk several nights a week. What is most troubling, however, is the feeling among students of confusion, even embarrassment, about the place that Catholicism has at PC; many want to limit the religion’s presence here in the interest of attracting the increasingly secular 21st-century student The fact is, however, that PC’s identity is united to that of Christ; the school must cleave to Him, or lose itself. Keeping a Catholic identity will require more than simply an unofficial understanding among students and faculty that the school is Catholic. As Father DiNoia made clear, many formerly religious colleges, such as Harvard or Brown, have tried this, and ended up completely secular. “Without the adoption of concrete provisions, and relying solely on the good will and sense of commitment of Catholic educators and bishops, few of the currently Catholic institutions of higher learning in the United States are likely to remain distinctively and recognizably Catholic.” I would say that most Catholic colleges are already essentially very expensive state schools, and PC, though thankfully spared this fate right now, is in danger of succumbing to it. On the other hand, recommitting the school to the Faith can only have an invigorating effect upon the intellectual culture at PC. Rather than a collection of disparate departments analyzing narrowly constricted areas of study, PC will be a great, unified project, exploring all things in the light of the faith; a true university, as Father Shanley described, by seeking a universal understanding of Truth. Non-Catholics will of course be welcomed to join in this bold venture, and viewpoints outside the Church will be examined to help strengthen the school’s understanding of its own principles. Giving the Faith prominence will in no way diminish or overwhelm the objectives of the individual departments. As Father DiNoia said, “to say that the triune God is the ultimate end of human thinking and striving is not to exclude other interests and ends, but to order them to the all-encompassing end of interpersonally shared communion.” To support this intellectual undertaking, the school must adopt and enforce policies that uphold Catholic morality and support virtue in its students. After all, the Way, the Truth, and the Life are One; one cannot contemplate Truth if one’s mind is clouded by not living it. Obviously, rebuilding Catholic thought and a Catholic way of life at PC will drive away students, but they will be replaced by active intellects and lovers of truth from all over the country, or even the world. What is more, the school will shine proudly as a beacon of Truth over the rest of American academia, something not possible if it tries to hide that Truth out of shame. It seems that God has sent PC a president with the prudence and fortitude to effect such a transformation of PC. Let us pray that Father Shanley has all the help of Providence, and let us offer him what help we can.