Having recently published a book on the idea of a Catholic university [see review, page 24], I was asked by the Chicago Tribune what role Catholic universities and colleges should play in the sex-abuse crisis enveloping the American church. The answer: "They should discuss all those things that the pope thinks are undiscussable." Whatever sense prohibition against discussion may have for ecclesiastical piety and politics, it makes no sense at all for universities. Thomas Aquinas thought it was worth discussing whether or not God exists, which is about as fundamental a discussable as one can imagine.

Discussion is not, of course, decision and agreement. Given even the faintest of ecumenical urges, one must discuss the ordination of women whether one thinks it a good idea or not. Nor is this issue-and a rather long list of others-a mere courtesy toward "separated brethren." Too many dicta from Rome seem based on the thinnest of theological or philosophical ice. Garry Wills rightly judges that the major papal "sin" has been shabby argument. And that leads us back to the role and origin of universities.

A scholar writing recently on the origin of the universities in the Middle Ages makes the following interesting point:

The most surprising difference between medieval Europe and other civilizations: despite its religious faith and its intolerance of other beliefs it lacked confidence in its own intellectual capacity. When faced by the manifest contradictions within Holy Writ and between it and the observed world, it would call to its aid...the power of reasoning of the ancient pagans...

The university in origin was a means for intellectual reconciliation of contradictions and controversies within church traditions and between the church and "the observed world." Aquinas’s theology is a grand fabric of reconciliations.

The university, in short, came into existence to remedy a profound problem for the established religion. Unhappily for the church establishment, universities, once created, took on a life of their own and became centers for critique and opposition. Late medieval academics like William of Ockham and Marsilius of Padua assailed the papacy-a movement that reached its climax in 1517 when Martin Luther nailed his ninety-five theses to the door of the university church at Wittenberg.

William Leahy, S.J., recently announced that Boston College will undertake a special two-year program of study to examine the issues which have arisen from the sexual scandal and its handling by church officials. Other universities are sure to follow suit. As in the medieval crisis of the church, one may need to turn to the universities again for remedy and reform. Despite the nervous apprehension about universities expressed in Ex corde ecclesiae and the mischievous mandatum, many Catholic universities and Catholic scholars have achieved a level of excellence, sophistication, and depth about faith and the church that the hierarchy should call upon in its time of need. (If the bishops are the teachers of the church, and theologians the learners, it is time for the teachers to listen to the learners.)

Giving the universities a role in church matters does not suggest that university study trumps faith. When the angels appeared over the stable in Bethlehem they did not say, "Behold we bring you a topic for discussion!" Faith is crucial to living a life; to live is to decide-precarious as that may be. Taking my life merely as a topic for discussion misses living it. Discussion is, however, the essential stuff of the university. Faith needs university discussion when it becomes muddled in its own understanding and/or it simply fails to engage convincingly the intellectual currents and secular faiths of the age at hand. That seems to be where we are.

It is a paradox of our time that as the church establishment appears increasingly diminished in everything from social effect to attraction to the ministry, Catholic intellectual life, having escaped the long stultification of manual theology, has achieved significant power and vibrancy. There have been official councils of the church at which professors outnumbered bishops. In the long run of eternity, it is well to be suspicious of both, but I do believe that two heads are better than one.

Dennis O’Brien, former president of the University of Rochester, is a longtime contributor to Commonweal.

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