08/20/2012 06:32 pm ET Updated Oct 20, 2012

Catholic Universities Charged With Aiding Students' Search for Truth

Did you ever wonder what the difference is between a Catholic university and a public (non-sectarian) university and what they have in common?

Certainly, their funding mechanisms and governance structures are different. Usually, the size varies -- with the public university campus being significantly larger.

However, there are many commonalities -- from curriculum and faculty credentials to student diversity. Algebra taught at a public institution is the same as algebra taught at a Catholic institution. The structure of academic departments is similar, as are the major courses of study. In fact, even a sacramental life may be experienced at a public institution through the valuable work of the Newman Centers.

It almost seems that the differences are slight and the commonalties much greater. For instance, if one were blindfolded and put into the middle of a campus, he/she would be hard-pressed to discern whether she/he had landed at a public institution or Benedictine University.

But there is one fundamental difference so vast that it should create a chasm between the two types of institutions. It is a difference that has little to do with the size of the campus, faculty credentials, breadth and scope of the curriculum, diversity of students or governance structure. Rather, it has everything to do with the core belief that God exists.

As humans, we are confronted by a world that is constantly changing yet somehow remains constant. But what is permanent and what is it that does not change?

For a university founded on Catholic beliefs and doctrine, that permanence, or in the words of the metaphysician, "really real," is God -- the Divine Permanence. This God is knowable in and throughout creation and is the ultimate Truth Itself. Over time, humanity learns more and more about Truth Itself.

Universities are all about the attainment and realization of knowledge, the search for truth.

When linked to the basic belief that God exists and is knowable through revelation and creation, the approach to acquiring and disseminating knowledge becomes THE differentiator between a Catholic university and a public university.

A Catholic university is on a journey to the Truth -- that "Truth" being ultimately God. For a Catholic university, there are not many truths but a single Truth that is manifested throughout creation. Truth with a "small t" is still truth because it emanates from the Truth Itself.

When you enter a Catholic university, you are met by a community of scholars in search of the Truth, that is, the search for God. Their disciplines and mode of research may not be the same, but their target is. Academic freedom abounds because there is no distinction between faith and reason, for both are part of the same continuum leading to God. People of faith have nothing to fear from reason, for reason is the tool to garner the Truth. For people of reason, faith is not the tent of the uninformed; it is simply a holding place for that wisdom for which we have yet to understand. Put in the words of St. Anselm, "I believe so that I may understand." (Credo ut intelligam)

In the realm of public institutions, there is no unifying theory of knowledge that necessarily binds one discipline to another. While individuals may subscribe to a more holistic notion of truth, the institution itself subscribes to none. Individual disciplines continue the search for truth in their fields, but the universalization of truth -- the natural merging of all disciplines under the universal Truth -- is missing. As a result, relativism is always a permanent possibility and danger.

So the next time you walk on the campus of a Catholic university, know that something very special is going on that may not meet the eye. Underneath the glitter of the campus -- its architecture, students and faculty -- is a serious enterprise that seeks Truth Itself. It is the only place in the world of higher education wherein truth is unified under the banner of Truth Itself, God.