While completing his doctorate in medieval history, James L. Heft, SM, taught for three years at a Marianist high school in Cincinnati. He joined the religious studies department at his alma mater, the University of Dayton, in 1977. He served as faculty member, departmental chair, and provost at Dayton for almost thirty years. In 2006 he founded the Institute of Advanced Catholic Studies (IACS) at the University of Southern California. Having retired from IACS in 2018, he now holds the title of president emeritus. Heft’s unique experience in Catholic education from high-school catechesis to advanced Catholic Studies grants special authenticity to The Future of Catholic Higher Education. It is a summa academica Catholica.
The allusion to Aquinas’s Summa theologiae is deliberate. These two summas are similar in at least two ways. First, Aquinas’s work was written as a guidebook for future Dominican preachers. Heft’s book offers a guide for future faculty, administrators, and—at a tangent—bishops to help them form and foster Catholic higher education. Second, and more important, is a comparison of method. As Alisdair MacIntyre has pointed out, Aquinas is not a philosopher in the mode of the great systematizers like Spinoza or Kant. Aquinas’s task was sorting and synthesizing an accretion of traditions from the Bible, the patristics, ancient philosophy (especially Aristotle), Church councils, and great predecessors like Augustine. This is Heft’s method too: the future he projects for Catholic higher education emerges from a sifting of the historical realities. Most Catholic colleges are small, residential, and founded by a religious order. Historically, they have had a commitment to theology as a complement to the liberal arts in their curriculum, which raises suspicion within the dominant secular model of American higher education. Given Heft’s attention to this tradition, it is no surprise that John Henry Newman’s The Idea of a University is one of his three “north stars.” The other two: Jesus and Mary.
Heft’s basic metaphor for future Catholic universities is “the open circle” of his subtitle. He contrasts this model with the closed circle of earlier Catholic colleges and the “free market of ideas” vision embedded in statements from the Association of American University Professors (AAUP).
Heft characterizes a closed-circle institution as one that “will allow on campus only speakers who represent their version of Catholic teaching...and fidelity to the magisterium represents the only reliable indicator of orthodoxy.” The presumed failure to close the circle by many contemporary Catholic colleges has led to the foundation of several new “real Catholic” colleges. Heft clearly believes that a closed-circle campus constitutes a failure for higher education and a true Catholic vision thereof.
As for the AAUP’s model, Heft accepts the demand for academic freedom but is wary of translating that freedom into the university as a “free market of ideas.” The problem arises when the only coin of the realm in this market becomes fact. A world of “just the facts” is “scientism,” a view that reduces ethics and religion to irrationality. Scientism is not even genuine science; it slights the role of theory, and obscures any transcendent ground of truth.