10/05/2012 01:38 pm ET Updated Dec 05, 2012

Students, Universities Must Engage With the World, Then Change It

In the last 15 years, Benedictine University has developed a reputation for hosting very powerful and influential speakers. It has featured former Soviet Union President Mikhail Gorbachev, former President and First Lady George and Barbara Bush, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Nobel Laureates Oscar Arias, Mairead Maguire and Elie Wiesel, former Secretary of State and retired U.S. Army Gen. Colin L. Powell, former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and former South African President F.W. de Klerk, to name just a few.

Inevitably, I am confronted by people who question how a Catholic university can invite speakers who may hold positions contrary to the Church's teachings. In some instances the ultimate destination of my soul has been called into question, because the Catholicity of the University is questioned. While no one likes to be called less than a child of God, I try to use these difficult occasions as teaching moments - both for myself and my accusers. There seems to be a great misapprehension as to the role of a Catholic university in the modern world and, for that matter, in times that have preceded our own.

Catholic universities have always invited diversity of opinion into its ranks - from the written example of St. Thomas Aquinas (13th century) to Benedictine University today. There are several key assumptions at work that have nurtured and enabled Catholic universities to engage diverse opinions and beliefs. These assumptions are: 1. God exists; 2. God is Truth; 3. Truth is knowable through revelation and the world around us; 4. The human intellect seeks the truth; 5. Hence, the human intellect seeks God; and finally, 6. Truth will ultimately triumph.

These assumptions are the compass and guide for Catholic education. Issues such as intelligent design and the role of science are not difficult because we see no ultimate disparity between religion and science. Scientists seek truth as does our faith. There are not separate truths out there, but ultimately a single Truth which we call God.

Certain "truths" have been revealed in Scripture; other "truths" are revealed in nature. The role of faculty at a Catholic institution is not to brainwash our students, but to instill in them the art of critical thinking, that is, to know how to make difficult decisions in life. "Art," in this sense, is a habit of mind, and as with any habit it requires repetition - in and out of the classroom.

Trained in the art of critical decision-making, faculty work with students to enable them to discern "the truth." This is similar to the old adage, "Give a child a fish, feed her for a day. Teach a child to fish, feed her for a lifetime." Our students will be confronted with future ethical and moral decisions unimagined by us. We truly must teach them the art of critical decision-making that enables them to discern the truth (ultimately, God) in all things. In this process, we must trust our faculty to be the coaches and mentors for our students, the moral decision-makers of tomorrow.

The University is "Catholic" in two ways: Catholic with a capital "C" in that the University is faithful to the Judeo-Christian tradition as it comes to us through the Roman Catholic Church. Catholic with a small "c" represents a Benedictine cornerstone that traditionally welcomes the stranger by extending hospitality to those with other faith traditions, cultures and ethnic backgrounds. In a very real way, the Benedictine student population reflects the world.

We believe that our Catholic students are strong and grounded in their faith, as are students on campus of other religious persuasions. Hospitality demands that we respect the stranger, his/her religious and cultural traditions and hope to learn from them, so that we might better understand our own religious tradition and the world around us. A president of a Catholic university once told me that our job is not to make the non-Catholic a Catholic, but to make that person a better believer. If they choose some day to become Catholic, so be it. If they leave us better and richer in their faith than when they first arrived, we have done our job.

The University recently invited Democratic strategist and political adviser David Axelrod and former Republican National Committee chair Michael Steele to speak as part of its Center for Civic Leadership's "Presidential Election Series 2012." Both speakers were invited to campus to present the views of opposing parties - one of which whose presidential candidate would soon represent our interest in Washington. The University did what it is called to do as a Catholic university. The United States Council of Catholic Bishops in its "Faithful Citizenship: A Call to Political Responsibility" says, "In the Catholic tradition, responsible citizenship is a virtue; participation in the political process is a moral obligation. All believers are called to faithful citizenship to become informed, active and responsible participants in the political process." How do you become "informed" without listening; how can you be "responsible participants" without knowing both sides of the issues so that you can make the right choice for you?

Our young people are called to change the world. How can you change the world without engaging the world? To engage the world, we must prepare students for what they will encounter outside the safety net of the university. Since we do not know what they may encounter, we can only give them the tools they will use for a lifetime - the art of critical thinking, the art of moral decision-making. Our students must leave Benedictine University knowledgeable in their chosen field of study. Benedictine scientists, for example, must know science but also must know whether to do that science - an art that appears to be sorely lacking in today's world.

Ultimately, a Catholic university is charged with developing informed decision-makers who know how to make the difficult decisions no matter what the issue. This is the Catholic intellectual tradition.