By Timothy T. O’Donnell
Timothy T. O’Donnell, STD, KGCHS is President of Christendom College, a 4-year Catholic liberal arts college and graduate theological program in Virginia. He is also a Consultor to the Pontifical Council of the Family; the author of two books, Heart of the Redeemer and Swords Around the Cross; and a frequent guest on EWTN.
Proclaim the beauty and truth of the Christian message to a society which is tempted by confusing presentations of sexuality, marriage and the family. As you know, these realities are increasingly under attack from powerful forces which threaten to disfigure God’s plan for creation and betray the very values which have inspired and shaped all that is best in your culture.
–Pope Francis 1
Pope St. John Paul II wrote in Familiaris Consortio, “The future of humanity passes through the family.” Such a statement should be a cause of hope for the world. Instead, it is a cause for concern in our modern day, as the very question of what a family truly is today is debated and warped by contemporary culture. In light of Pope Francis’ visit and the World Meeting of Families, we should reflect on the issues of marriage, family and education, and how Catholics everywhere can give a coherent response to this crisis.
In the United States, we are facing multiple attacks on marriage and the family. In addition to judicial assaults, with a narrow majority of the Supreme Court recently imposing a change in fundamental public policy reinterpreting centuries of natural law, our nation’s president has also been a vocal advocate of so-called “gay marriage.”
This attack is bolstered by the hostility toward traditional values urged by the secular press on such issues as divorce, abortion, family life, and so-called “same-sex marriage.”
The media frequently not only distort Catholic teaching, but now seek to advance legal threats against the religious freedom of Catholics, Evangelicals, Jews, and many other religious believers.
Catholics in America need now, more than ever, to present a coherent defense of the true definition of marriage and the family. This defense should be led by the Church and the institutions of Catholic higher education.
Catholic universities worldwide should maintain a precious heritage, generated in the Christian West and originating in the great universities of Europe, springing, as Pope St. John Paul II observed, “ex corde ecclesiae”: “out of the heart of the Church.”
Catholic universities today play a crucial role in our pluralistic society and offer a unique contribution that addresses the great problems that confront our society and culture.
Pope St. John Paul II defined the mission of the Catholic university: “It is specifically a Catholic university’s privileged task to unite existentially by intellectual effort two orders of reality that too frequently tend to be placed in opposition as if they were antithetical: the search for truth, and the certainty of already knowing the font of Truth.”2
These two orders of reality have indeed been placed in opposition to one another in our modern day, as many deny truth and reject the search for truth in the name of “progress.” However, despite the pressures of so-called “progress,” with its assault on marriage and family, there are abundant reasons for hope emerging from solid Catholic institutions of higher learning.
This past February, here at Christendom College, we welcomed presidents from Catholic colleges, universities and institutes across America for the Ex Corde Ecclesiae Presidents’ Roundtable — a private gathering of presidents of Catholic educational institutions who embrace the vision of higher education as presented in Pope St. John Paul II’s apostolic constitution Ex Corde Ecclesiae.
In these meetings, the presidents expressed a determination to embrace a common goal: to strengthen the Catholic identity of our academic institutions and to maintain our fidelity to the Church’s teaching in our educational apostolate to form young minds to seek the truth.
This specific task of the Catholic university, consecrated to this goal of using the light of faith and sound reason in the service of truth, is essential to bring positive change to the world. This noble mission of education to the pursuit of truth must also include the cultivation of an appreciation of the good and the beautiful, for as Pope St. John Paul II stated in Ex Corde Ecclesiae, the Catholic university’s goal is “to help students think rigorously, to act rightly and to serve the cause of humanity better.”3 Because of its commitment to the truth, a Catholic university may sometimes “have to speak uncomfortable truths” that do not align with modern opinion, but are nevertheless necessary in order to safeguard the authentic good of society.
Catholic colleges and universities must always promote a culture based upon a true anthropology with a sound Christian vision, recognizing the fundamental dignity of the human person.
This fruitful union of faith and reason constitutes what will be an essential contribution of Catholic higher education in transforming the secular American world. Students who are educated according to the principles of sound reason and the light of the Catholic faith as communicated by the Church’s Magisterium will come to understand and will determine to defend the true definition of marriage and family. To teach the truth is the proper role of Catholic education; its mission involves presenting the full vision of the meaning and dignity of the human person and to prepare her students to combat the culture of death and moral relativism that threatens marriage and the family. Furthermore, the dignity of family needs to be restored as the primary school of Christian virtue where children learn the fundamental realities of the true, the good and the beautiful.
Many in our society are asking Pilate’s question: “What is truth?” Catholic colleges must answer this question. The defense of objective truth by Catholic schools and institutions of higher learning is essential if we are to understand man and restore the central role of marriage and the family as the basis of a healthy and happy society and support the common good. Those educated in our families and institutions of higher learning must know and live the truth. As our beloved founder here at Christendom, Dr. Warren Carroll, used to say so frequently to his students: “Truth exists. The Incarnation happened.”
We are all engaged in this crucial battle. St. Josemaria Escriva wrote, just before his death: “In national life… there are two things which are really essential: the laws concerning marriage and the laws concerning education. In these areas God’s sons have to stand firm… and fight with toughness and fairness… for the sake of all mankind.” We must win this battle — our very future depends on it.
The mission of the Catholic college and university is a noble one. Together with the family, through faithfulness, scholarship, dedication and setting an example in living “our common Faith,” we can hope that with the leadership of the Holy Father, we may truly begin once again instaurare omnia in Christo — to restore all things in Christ.
Let us continue to join our Holy Father in prayer for families and to seek the truth. God bless Pope Francis and all the good work of the World Meeting of Families.
1 Pope Francis, General Audience, L’Osservatore Romano, April 27, 2015.
2 Ex Corde Ecclesiae, Pope St. John Paul II, August 15, 1990.
3 Ex Corde Ecclesiae, Pope St. John Paul II, August 15, 1990.