The University College : Building a Community that Educates – Philip Milligan

Philip Milligan


 The University College : Building a Community that Educates [1]



If the Catholic university is to answer its call to “share that gaudium de veritate… which is that joy of searching for, discovering and communicating truth in every field of knowledge” (Ex Corde Ecclesiae, no. 1), then the university college is one of the focal points, one of the environments (ethos), where this can be realised.

In the university today, there are the challenges of working in faith and reason and of a truly ethical approach to learning, where learning impacts on behaviour. Within these greater challenges one uncovers questions of the fragmentation of knowledge, and of the diminishing of the critical desire for truth, sometimes to the point of ideology. How, then, can we build communities of knowledge capable of developing the human person? How can this work of education be truly missionary, fitting out generations of laity apt to stand up in the new areopagii of the world around us?



Ex Corde Ecclesiae, John Paul II’s Constitution on the nature and mission of the Catholic university, refers to sharing the “gaudium de veritate… which is that joy of searching for, discovering and communicating truth in every field of knowledge” [2]. In the same opening paragraph we are reminded that “by vocation, the Universitas magistrorum et scholarium is dedicated to research, to teaching and to the education of students who freely associate with their teachers in a common love of knowledge”. This is taken from a papal bull by Pope Alexander IV for the founding of the University of Paris in 1255, and it already contains the affirmation of the university as an academic community. It is fitting therefore to consider some aspects of how academic community is built and flourishes.

Before looking specifically at the contribution of the university college, we can usefully refer to some challenges facing the university today, and more particularly the Catholic university. The intention of this paper is to show that the university college can contribute to meeting these challenges.


Fragmentation of Knowledge and Fragmentation of Meaning

The first of these challenges is the fruitful cohabitation of faith and reason. In fact, here we are already making a separation between the two – it might be better to talk of working ‘in faith and in reason’. On this point, still in the introduction to Ex Corde Ecclesiae, John Paul II talks of the Catholic university’s privileged task: « to unite existentially by intellectual effort two orders of reality that too frequently tend to be placed in opposition… the search for truth, and the certainty of already knowing the fount of truth ».

This ‘looking for truth, in the Truth’, does not challenge the specific methodology of any scientific discipline, but it does encourage us to go beyond the assumption that scientific or academic disciplines can only be considered in separation from one another. It is useful here to look at what is often referred to as the segmentation or fragmentation of knowledge.

While the high level of technicality in most scientific endeavour leads to increasing degrees of specialisation, we also witness an accompanying ‘separation’. The body of ‘that which can be known’ is fragmented, the pieces do not seem to fit together and, moreover, there does not always seem to be a motivation for trying to make them fit. This fragmentation of knowledge does not exclude a world-view or a global analysis, but purports to provide this analysis from the view-point of the particular discipline or methodology: from the part (a particular scientific or academic field of knowledge), one sees the whole. There is no other reference from which to arrive at a cohesive vision of the whole. Culturally, we see the dominance of the ‘expert’ – called upon in times of crisis to speak on every news bulletin. Depending on the crisis in question he or she is an expert on terrorism, on bioethics, on the financial markets, on religious affairs – his authority is unassailable, his knowledge is unchallengeable, and often this very knowledge is self-referential in that either it refers to no other discipline or field of knowledge, or because no other expert is called upon.

In the university, the space for disinterested research is increasingly challenged, at the very least because most funding does not come from disinterested institutions. The Catholic university today is, doubtless, called upon to stimulate the capacity for critical analysis which seems more and more necessary if we are to avoid research which is legitimately market-funded being merely market driven.

Further, the fragmentation of knowledge seems to lead to a fragmentation of meaning: the meaning we give to human activity and its finality; the meaning we give to our own actions. This fragmentation of knowledge has ethical consequences – it touches not only on the idea of truth but the possibility of its relationship to the good.[3]  Here again, we are faced with the challenge of promoting a rational perspective of looking for truth, but doing it in the Truth. Without jumping too far ahead, we must note here, that the university college, today, can play its part in this, through the accompanying and maturing of future generations of young lay people in this sense.

We can see here the double trap of a hyper-specialisation of scientific or academic knowledge and the closing-off of reason from any notion of transcendence. Will Catholic universities (or Catholic academics) be able to provide the epistemological or methodological instruments allowing the opening up of new spaces of ‘dialogue, collaboration and synergy, all along the path to discovery of the multiple dimensions of truth’[4] ? It is in any case what the Church expects of them.

Critical Desire for Truth

Here we should look further at this ‘critical desire for truth’, for the term requires some explanation and has at least two sides. The world of the university and of research is constantly prey to slipping into ideology which can move from the fragmentation of knowledge to a type of relativism which is itself ideological – often the ‘objectivity’ of science is combined with a moral relativism. The critical desire for truth must answer this rist.

The other risk to which this critical desire for truth must answer is just as big but present for the Catholic university. I refer to a way of ‘defending’ the truth which sometimes is little more than the defence of an ideal. St Bernadette Soubirous, in reply to her parish priest in Lourdes, reluctant to believe that apparitions of the Mother of God were taking place in a damp cave on the outskirts of his parish, said: “I am not charged with convincing you, only with telling you!” The university task must be, in all domains, the search for truth which in itself convinces or at least is critically coherent with reason; otherwise it the Catholic university which itself operates a fatal dichotomy between faith and reason.

Be it only in terms of communication strategy, there is a sizeable difference between defending a vision of reality (be it cosmological, anthropological or theological) and proposing a vision of reality, exposing it to the regard of critical reason.[5]
The Ethical Challenge – an Environment of Learning

Here we refer to the question of ethics, meaning here the promotion of a way of learning which connects to behaviour. This seems almost too rudimentary a point, but the current cultural context means that something does need to be said here. None of us is a stranger to the dilemma of St. Paul who sees himself doing the evil he would rather avoid, and not the good he would rather do[6]. But this dilemma already has ingrained in it an intellectual approach which recognises that there is a law and that the law should be applied. Indeed, St Paul talks of a law engraved on our hearts to which our conscience bears witness[7].

The culture of relativism does not automatically assume that the law is there to be applied, or if it does then certainly it counters the idea that the law to be applied  – even in terms of a social contract – is based on anything that imposes itself as necessary. One struggles to identify the lasting anthropological principles upon which current laws and legal rulings in the fields of bioethics or the family are based, certainly in Europe[8]. And at the same time this culture of relativism makes it more and more difficult to determine principles of discernment establishing what might be meant by ‘the common good’ – a term which itself is often too markedly Christian in origin to be useable in some intellectual circles.

One trap for the academic and scientific world is that our learning be cut off from the real things of life around us. This is not first of all a moral question; rather it brings us back to the fragmentation of knowledge and meaning. Promoting a rational perspective of ‘looking for truth and doing it in the Truth’, allows us to avail ourselves of the logic of the Incarnation.

This leads us to talk more directly about the role of the university college within a university – and here we refer to a Catholic university college. While not purporting to provide criteria which are normative of what a Catholic university college should be, this paper does hope to offer for discussion some points where the Catholic university college can contribute something in the current cultural environment.

Building Community

Ex Corde Ecclesiae refers us to building ‘communities of learning’, and clearly, the university college is one possible place for building a community of learning.

One condition for building a community of learning is that there are students who are ready to learn. The challenge for the student is to listen to what he is being taught; – all of it, and not only the parts where he spontaneously finds some element of recognition with his existing perceptions or ideas. Accepting to be a disciple can be a key moment in the life of a young person: one gateway out of subjectivism in learning. Nicholas Lobkowicz – a former president of the Catholic University of Eichstätt – refers to this gateway when he talks of the journey ‘from knowledge to wisdom’ as an experience of conscience or a spiritual experience.[9] It is certainly not fashionable to talk of obedience, but several generations of movie-buffs versed in the Star Wars saga have come to accept as self-evident that for Luke Skywalker to become a ‘true Jedi’ it is not enough that the ‘force’ is strong in him – he needs a teacher and he needs to have the patience to learn. So there is the art of becoming a disciple[10]!

We would suggest that there is also the art of becoming a teacher. Perhaps, we are reluctant to use the word ‘Master’ for those who teach,  and certainly not all students can be readily classed as ‘disciples’, but there is a point in the student-teacher relationship where these words begin to make sense. This point is reached when the teacher transmits not only things he or she has learned but when he transmits his or her very self. This, in turn, is what allows the student to become a disciple. This already supposes that the teacher’s learning is part of what he himself is: that in imparting knowledge he is giving of himself. For Christians there is a logic of testimony here which has Christ as the perfect example. Cardinal Angelo Scola refers to this logic of testimony, of putting one’s very self into play, as being a key element in the dynamism of how one can teach, following the example of Christ[11]. This supposes, obviously, on the part of the teacher, an inner coherence between knowledge and action. It supposes that the act of teaching is accepted as being an act of self-giving.

This leads us to the role of the tutor. In European university systems such as those in France, Germany or Italy, the role of the tutor is rarely dominant or even present. PhD students of course have a thesis director, but this figure often comes late in student life, and is very narrowly defined. In French ‘tuteur’ is the word used for the wooden pole that helps a young plant grow upwards and straight. Accepting to be a ‘tuteur’ goes well  beyond merely being a director of studies. Many academics are convinced that their students need help in affirming character, learning courage and developing moral strength: a useful list of considerations to include in describing how one should be a good tutor[12].

One other element in connection with this – and it is particularly relevant in the context of a college, is accepting to live with the students. Cardinal Scola uses a rather technical expression for this: autoesporrsi[13]. In our context we might translate this as ‘letting ourselves be seen’. There is a real challenge in accepting that sizeable aspects of an academic’s daily life are placed voluntarily under the gaze of students –time of rising and sleeping, culinary likes and dislikes, my acquaintances and my leisure: such an academic is somewhat laid-bare (autoesporrsi) to young eyes which can be at once watchful and critical. What the tutor teaches and advices faces the litmus test of how this fits with the life he or she lives.

In the Emmanuel Community, we see an example of this in the training of young men for the priesthood: accidents of history have led to a model where priest ‘formators’ live in close proximity with a small group of seminarians (often no more than five or six of them). It is a model that has lasted: the priest has authority over these men for their training, but he also shares the same living quarters, and eats and prays with them, as well as taking part with them in community times of sharing on the Word of God. This requires of these priests a readiness to live their lives under the gaze of younger men, a high degree of flexibility and a willingness to have their ‘habits’ called into question.

An element in this ‘living with’ is that spiritual life is visible too. There is space, we would suggest, for a tutor saying and living spiritual life in a way that takes young people further in their relationship with God. Jesus did this in part by letting his disciples see him pray – his own prayer made them ask ‘teach us how to pray!’ We have already talked of the difference there can be between defending convictions of faith and proposing our convictions of faith. When a tutor can talk of reasons for believing and at the same time show that these reasons for believing are rooted in a relationship with Christ, he or she performs a real service for the young people around him or her. There are many young people who generously adhere to a Catholic identity and culture, who love the Pope and want to serve the Church, but who have yet to move from what what might be called ‘devotional Christianity’ to ‘relational Christianity’. Setting out along this path towards the experience of ‘life with Christ’ is the point at which the reasons for believing can become reasons for living.[14]

This dynamism of teaching and learning, of discipleship and testimony can be a key factor in how a university college can contribute to renewing university life. Because the college strives to be a community of learning, it contributes to the maintenance and development of the university as a community of learning.

The University as Community v. The University as Supermarket

Certainly, the university can be perceived differently. Sometimes we see a tendency towards the university as a supermarket, rather than as a community of learning. The phenomenon of fragmentation of knowledge can lead teachers and students, however unconsciously, to perceive the university as a place where one comes in order to obtain necessary information – no more and no less than necessary – (student); or to dispense information (teacher); and to certify that the process has taken place correctly (examination leads to diploma useful for future of student). There is no life together, there is no community of learning, and there is no reason for learning that goes beyond this process. In extreme cases the content becomes almost irrelevant from the student’s perspective, because it is not directly applicable to why he or she is there. In eight years at the Lateran University this author heard more than one seminarian bemoan compulsory Hebrew classes: ‘we really just want to get through it because it is a required element for our priestly study’. We are far indeed from St Augustine’s gaudium de veritate !

We should not underestimate the very concrete facilities for community living and learning that a university college allows. There was a time, even as recently as the 1980’s when the Pontifical Lateran University, in common with many a Roman athenaeum closed (library included) at lunch time in much the same way as churches in the Eternal city still do. Successive rectors there [15] have worked on creating a context promoting the university as community (and against the community as supermarket) by things as simple as a dining hall, an office for each lecturer (plus the encouragement to work there rather than at home) and new library reading rooms[16]. A student can now reasonably spend all day at this university because everything he needs is there.[17]

One challenge, of course, is how a college is able to consciously think itself at the heart of this dynamism  – building a community of learning – for the whole university.

Training Laity: the Logic of Incarnation and Mission

Underlying the service a Catholic university or college provides for its students is the development of men and women capable of making the world a more human place. The university or college does this precisely through introducing and accompanying in the joy of seeking out, discovering and communicating truth in all fields of human knowledge.[18] In this truly humanist enterprise it is Christ himself – Incarnate – who remains the ultimate sense giver. Don Luigi Giussani, founder of the Communion and Liberation movement, talks about an understanding of Christ’s words on life that informs my way of reading a person’s own experience of life, and that allows that person to know why he or she gets up in the morning ! Giussani reminds his readers that it is common to many specieso f animal to rise in the morning, but not to know the reason why. He concludes by saying: “We need to pray without ceasing, because praying is: becoming aware of the words with which Jesus explained our existence…”.[19]

This logic of the Incarnation is also what allows the work of education to be truly missionary. We can question whether the best way to renew – dare we say ‘evangelise’ – the university as Catholics is to have separate identity-based institutions or rather to be present in every possible non-confessional institution or something between the two. There is probably no single best answer here, but it seems useful to think of the work of education as being missionary when it fits out lay-people capable of seizing the challenges of excellence and commitment in all domains of human activity, even in environments seemingly unfriendly to Christians.

This author’s experience is that young Catholics often find it easier to strive generously for excellence within Church-sponsored structures. It is also true that in some countries there are increasing opportunities for careers within the Church for laypeople, and that sometimes these activities fill gaps in the Church’s ability to carry out pastoral activity through ordained and religious ministry. This is not a bad thing in itself, but it carries a risk. At first glance the involvement of lay people in pastoral ministry seems to overcome the longstanding divide within Church activity whereby the clergy looked after pastoral matters and the laity after material matters. The difficulty for the layperson working within the Church, however, is that this division might be maintained within his or her way of perceiving the apostolic task of the laity: ‘my apostolate is what I do within the Church’. Our educational task supposes the promotion of an understanding of the vocation of laity which does not allow lay apostolate to be reduced to ‘ministry’, however valuable and necessary that ministry may be.

He we can cite Christefideles Laici (no.23), itself citing Evangelii Nuntiandi: “their own field of evangelizing activity is the vast and complicated world of politics, society and economics, as well as the world of culture, of the sciences and the arts, of international life, of the mass media. It also includes other realities which are open to evangelization, such as human love, the family, the education of children and adolescents, professional work, and suffering. The more Gospel-inspired lay people there are engaged in these realities … … the more these realities will be at the service of the Kingdom of God…”[20]


We conclude with a citation from Benedict XVI, speaking to delegates of new ecclesial movements and communities a few days prior to the mass gathering at St Peter’s Square for Pentecost 2006.

“Dispel the darkness of a world overwhelmed by the contradictory messages of ideologies! There is no valid beauty if there is not a truth to recognize and follow…The extraordinary fusion between love of God and love of neighbour makes life beautiful and causes the desert in which we often find ourselves living to blossom anew. Where love is expressed as a passion for the life and destiny of others, where love shines forth in affection and in work and becomes a force for the construction of a more just social order, there the civilization is built that can withstand the advance of barbarity. Become builders of a better world according to the ordo amoris in which the beauty of human life is expressed.”[21]

This message is given under the title of The Beauty of being Christian and the Joy of Announcing it. It sums up rather well the challenge we face in creating truly catholic communities of knowledge: of building environments where the joy of the truth changes lives.

[1] Text based on a conference at St John’s College, Sydney, on the occasion of a an International Symposium: The Role of Catholic Colleges in the Modern University, Sydney 9th-10th July 2008

[2] John Paul II, Ex Corde Ecclesiae, no. 1

[3] See Fides et Ratio, no. 85:  “…I wish to reaffirm strongly the conviction that the human being can come to a unified and organic vision of knowledge. This is one of the tasks which Christian thought will have to take up through the next millennium of the Christian era. The segmentation of knowledge, with its splintered approach to truth and consequent fragmentation of meaning, keeps people today from coming to an interior unity. How could the Church not be concerned by this? ”

[4] John Paul II to the University of Silesia, January 13th 2005

[5] One striking recent example of the reasonableness of Christian faith is given in a book by Jean-Claude Guillebeaud, former foreign affairs correspondent for Le Monde. In ‘How I became Christian again’, he explains: “First and foremost it was my reason that guided me. I felt reason drawing me back to Christianity. At first this reflection was peripheral to the question of faith, then the circles of my curiosity drew towards a central core, belief as such. This is the point I have reached. I am not sure I have become a ‘good Christian’, but I deeply believe that the Gospel message has a founding value for the men and women of our time. Including those who do not believe in God. What draws me towards this message is not a vague emotiveness, but rather the awareness of its fundamental pertinence.” Jean-Claude Guillebeaud, Comment je suis redevenu chrétien, Paris, Albin Michel, 2007. (text on back cover, drawing from p. 23 and p. 52 (my translation from French).

[6] See Romans 7:15-24

[7] See Romans 2: 14-15. “So, when gentiles, not having the Law, still through their own innate sense behave as the Law commands, then, even though they have no Law, they are a law for themselves. They can demonstrate the effect of the Law engraved on their hearts, to which their own conscience bears witness; since they are aware of various considerations, some of which accuse them, while others provide them with a defense…”. My thanks go to Marie-Nicole Boiteau of the Cathedral School in Paris for her remarks on this point.

[8] It might be said that there is a simple scientific principle of accomplishing what becomes possible, its corollary being that scientific progress should be used to the full. This does seem to underlie many arguments for cloning and stem-cell research, for example. But this type of self-referral within a discipline almost excludes the type of discernment that people are required to do in ordinary life in order to determine how to act or behave. Thankfully, the logic used for permissive stem-cell research is not applied in the used of biological weapons, or in the protection of the environment.

[9] “But to induce people to address to themselves the questions that might lead to this wisdom has remained easy. They are an invitation to let oneself in for, to get involved in, a spiritual experiment that cannot remain hypothetical because it concerns ourselves in a radical way. Knowledge turns into wisdom when it becomes personally, existentially relevant. And there is no knowledge and no skill connected with it, there is no scientific or scholarly subject, in which this cannot happen.’  N. Lobkowicz, in Pontifical Council for the Laity: ‘Youth and the University’, Vatican City, Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2005 (proceedings of a congress by the same name in Rome, 2004), p. 66-67.

In the same proceedings, see also : Loreto Ballester Reventos, the contemporary Master and Disciple, educational dialogue.

[10] May I suggest one profound and sometimes humorous book on this subject, written by a French Cistercian called Jérome Kiefer: l’Art d’être disciple, Sept Fons, 1968, republished in Père Jérome: Ecrits Monastiques, Paris, le Sarment, 2002.

[11] See: Angelo Scola, Ospitare il reale. Per un’“idea“ di università, Rome, PUL-Mursia, 1999

[12] Here, my thanks go to Prof. Henri Hude, of St. St Cyr-Coëtquidan Military Academy, France.

[13] Angelo Scola, Ospitare il reale…, Op. Cit.

[14] On the importance of personal witness in this process, Benedict XVI has said this:  “Christ still continues today to make resound in the hearts of so many that « come, follow me » which can decide their destiny. This normally happens through the witness of those who have had a personal experience of Christ’s presence. On the faces and in the words of these « new creatures », his light becomes visible and his invitation audible.” Message to leaders of the new ecclesial movements, May 22nd 2006, published in Pontifical Council for the Laity, The Beauty of Being Christian, Vatican City, Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2007, p. 6

[15] Cardinal Angelo Scola, Rector 1995-2002; Archbishop Rino Fisichella, Rector 2002-2008.

[16] In a wonderfully Roman touch, the Latin inscription marking the inauguration of the new student canteen and computer rooms refers to them as triclinium discipolorum and aulae multimedialibus.

[17] Unfortunately this is now also true of some supermarkets.

[18] See: Ex Corde Ecclesiae, 1

[19] Luigi Giussani, Vivendo nella carne, Milan, Rizzoli, 1998, p. 40 (my translation from Italian)

[20] It is worthwhile giving a fuller citation: “The various ministries, offices and roles that the lay faithful can legitimately fulfil in the liturgy, in the transmission of the faith, and in the pastoral structure of the Church, ought to be exercised in conformity to their specific lay vocation, which is different from that of the sacred ministry. In this regard the Exhortation Evangelii Nuntiandi, that had such a great part in stimulating the varied collaboration of the lay faithful in the Church’s life and mission of spreading the gospel, recalls that « their own field of evangelizing activity is the vast and complicated world of politics, society and economics, as well as the world of culture, of the sciences and the arts, of international life, of the mass media. It also includes other realities which are open to evangelization, such as human love, the family, the education of children and adolescents, professional work, and suffering. The more Gospel-inspired lay people there are engaged in these realities, clearly involved in them, competent to promote them and conscious that they must exercise to the full their Christian powers which are often repressed and buried, the more these realities will be at the service of the Kingdom of God and therefore at the service of salvation in Jesus Christ, without in any way losing or sacrificing their human content but rather pointing to a transcendent dimension which is often disregarded ». John Paul II, Christefideles Laici, no. 23

[21] Benedict XVI, Message to leaders of the new ecclesial movements, Op. Cit. p. 7

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