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Voices Online Edition
Summer 2000
Volume XV, No. 2 - Jubilee Year

The Role of Universities in Building a Culture of Life

by the Very Rev. David M. O'Connell

The following is the text of the speech given by Monsignor David M. O'Connell, President of the Catholic University of America, to the Leadership Conference "The Feminine Genius and The Culture of Life," on March 24, 2000 in Washington, DC. It is reprinted here with permission.

In a recently released film adaptation of John Irving's novel The Cider House Rules, the audience is introduced to Dr. Wilbur Larch, a kindly doctor who is responsible for the administration of an orphanage in Maine during the 1930s and 40s. While the orphanage is portrayed as a place where unwanted children are raised in a loving environment until they are fortunate enough to be adopted, it is also a place where Dr. Larch performs "safe" abortions. Of course, the practice was illegal at this time in the United States.

The story line portrays Dr. Larch as the "patron saint of orphans", one of whom becomes his protege. This particular orphan, Homer Wells, grows up under Larch's tutelage and is seen in the beginning of the film emptying pots that contain aborted fetuses into an outdoor furnace. Wells does not accept abortion and cannot understand why Larch performs them. Larch invites Wells to look around the orphanage and then sharply rebukes him with the admonition that if someone did not perform abortions in a "safe" environment, women would be left to the potentially life threatening hands of unskilled abortionists. Larch sees abortion as his medical and moral responsibility. Apart from his reluctant and minimal assistance, Wells finds the practice repulsive and eventually leaves the orphanage only to return after pursuing a different life. I found the acting rather good and the film itself interesting. At the same time there is a disturbing emotional undercurrent that gives voice to an all too common theme in our contemporary culture, that life is a matter of choice depending upon the circumstances.


Prevailing sentiments
Literature, film and the media often reflect the prevailing sentiments within our culture and society. They paint a picture of what people believe or want to believe; of what people value or want to value; of who we are or where we are headed as a culture. Unfortunately, these venues are often frighteningly accurate. What is more frightening to me, however, is the fact that for the young who live in our movie and television world, these media are formative of their opinions and instrumental in the development of their cultural attitudes. Freedom of thought -- or, rather, "from" thought -- and freedom of expression are presented as the central, non-negotiable values that shape and support the culture in which we live, a culture without conscience that does not know or accept any boundary as legitimate. A culture without conscience is no culture at all. Conscience separates the human from the purely animal.

When we refer to "culture" in ordinary conversation, we use an expression that does not have a simple meaning. It is, therefore, difficult to define it in a manner that will capture all its nuances or satisfy all its audiences. If we resort to Webster, we find that one primary explanation of culture reads this way: "the act of developing the intellectual and moral faculties, especially by education." Notice the inclusion of the interesting phrase "moral faculties". This is a good definition but it is clearly not comprehensive enough. The dictionary continues to offer a more elaborate meaning for the term: "the integrated pattern of human behavior that includes thought, speech, action, and artifacts and depends upon man's capacity for learning and transmitting knowledge to succeeding generations." This is much more comprehensive. Webster's definition of "culture," however, sounds very much like an explanation of the purpose of the "university". I shall say more on that point in a moment.


Rather than attempt to define "culture", perhaps it is best merely to describe this expression in terms of a series of assumptions and to hope that they will convey its proper sense. Culture is something held in common, something shared by those belonging to an identifiable group. It results through a process of socialization which process also sets boundaries for the group. Here please note the interesting phrase setting "boundaries for the group." Its members learn to communicate with and relate to one another in ways that become more complex with the passage of time. Although aspects change as culture is transmitted from generation to generation, there is a core deep within culture that endures. Like language itself, this "core" enables culture to speak in a way that is commonly understood across the generations. It intensifies the experience and the continuity of human community.

If these "assumptions" are authentic descriptions that convey -- however simply -- something about which we can agree as an appropriate understanding of the meaning of culture, then there must be some logically prior, fundamental, enduring and identifiable characteristics that enable the term to be labeled "culture" in the first place. Although it is, indeed, difficult to define or even describe culture to everyone's satisfaction, it is not so difficult to understand, to experience and, indeed, to engage culture.

A university exists for just such a purpose: "to understand, to experience, to engage culture." Of all the social institutions that have been created or established, the university seems to be the natural place for this activity. Where else can you find, "under one roof" so to speak, the interaction and synthesis of elements that are anthropological and the sociological, biological and psychological, historical and philosophical, material and spiritual or theological?


"Double articulation"
In his book, The University in Ruins, the late author Bill Readings wrote a chapter entitled "The University and the Idea of Culture." There he described culture as having a "double articulation:" it "names an identity" as "the unity of all knowledges that are the object of study" while, at the same time it "names a process of development" as "the cultivation of character."1 It was his belief that while the "university draws its legitimacy from culture," culture derives its organic unity from the university where the two orders of "object of study" and "process of development" meet and embrace.

Those of us associated with university life either as administrators, faculty or students readily admit the "object of study" aspect of culture as it relates to the university enterprise. "The cultivation of character" aspect, however, might raise a few academic eyebrows as running dangerously close to the suggestion of the "boundaries" of which I spoke earlier, in this case, a particular morality or system of values. Heaven forbid! (Can I even say "heaven?") The cultivation of character would not be considered an acceptable university activity unless the values presented were respectful of academic freedom by being sufficiently non-sectarian, tolerant and universal. I believe this is nonsense in every dimension of the term.

Universities cannot exist without admitting and adopting some system of values. Universities need not all be "sectarian" in the confessional sense of the word but they need to be something recognizable and identifiable for their ability to communicate clear, intelligible "values." We acknowledge certain things as "values" because they are understood as truth, admitted, prized by people who constitute society, culture and the university and, as such, these values determine not only what we think but also how we translate our thoughts into action. These values are, truly, elements of or, better, the language of culture. And just because some particular confession or denomination embraces these values as its own, as hopefully is the case within Catholic universities, their embrace does not invalidate the authenticity or urgency or appropriateness of the promotion of values within the university context. Truth is true always and independently of the individuals and institutions that recognize and promote it or fail to do so.

It has become fashionable for our institutions of higher learning in this country -- recognized the world over as the best -- to use values as the dividing line between public and private, especially religiously affiliated, universities and colleges. This, too, is a bit of a stretch as though any true education could be "value-less." No house of learning, no institution seeking truth, no culture has the luxury of being "value-less" -- not yesterday, not today, not ever.


Life is the highest value
If values are, indeed, the elements and language of culture, then they must also and at the same time be the elements and language of the university, especially a Catholic university. When human life emerges as the primary human value, it also becomes the primary language of a Catholic university.

In his 1990 apostolic constitution on Catholic universities, Ex Corde Ecclesiae,(2) Pope John Paul II wrote that not only does a Catholic university probe the meaning of "social life and culture" but it also reveals that "on an even more profound level, what is at stake is the very meaning of the human person."(3) In addition to its understanding of "Christian revelation as transmitted in Scripture and Tradition and in the Church's Magisterium''*(4) and "by offering the results of its scientific research, a Catholic university will be able to help the Church respond to the problems and needs of this age''(5) while it becomes "an ever more effective instrument of cultural progress for individuals as well as for society.''(6)

The Holy Father explained that "a specific priority (for the Catholic university) is the need to examine and evaluate the predominant values and norms of modern society and culture in a Christian perspective and the responsibility to try to communicate to society those ethical and religious principles which give full meaning to human life.''(7) "By its very nature," he emphasized, a (Catholic) university develops culture through its research" and helps to transmit that culture "to each succeeding generation through its teaching.''(8) Recall the Webster definition of culture noted earlier. The Pope stated that "among the criteria that characterize the values of a culture are above all, the meaning of the human person, his or her liberty, dignity, sense of responsibility, and openness to the transcendent.''(9) How could such values be promoted apart from promoting the fundamental value of the sacredness of human life, apart from building what the Holy Father has called a "culture of life?" This is the contribution that a Catholic university can and must make even in the face of a culture and a society that foster contrary values. Pope John Paul II expressed it well when he wrote that "a Catholic university must have the courage to speak uncomfortable truths which do not please public opinion, but which are necessary to safeguard the authentic good of society.''(10)


The Gospel of Life
Five years later, in his encyclical letter on the Gospel of Life, Evangelium Vitae,(11) the Holy Father returned to this theme. Addressing Catholic intellectuals and educators "in the leading centers where culture is formed in schools and universities" the Pope attributed to them the "special" responsibility "to build a new culture of human life ... by offering serious and well-documented contributions, capable of commanding general respect and interest by reason of their merit.''(12) In the activities that constitute university life, therefore, the Gospel and culture of life must be given paramount importance.

What are these activities? The curriculum, especially the undergraduate core curriculum, is the principal and most significant instrument that can be designed to promote, foster and teach a culture of life. It is within the curriculum that ideas and values are presented, analyzed, discussed, measured and imparted to the young. Those who believe that college age students have already made up their minds on most issues have little actual experience of college age students. Certainly they have thoughts and opinions but they continue to seek the benefit of wisdom and experience, whether they admit it or not. We cannot underestimate the importance and influence of the teacher or professor in helping students to develop a world-view.

Pope John Paul II has written in Ex Corde Ecclesiae that students must be "challenged to continue the search for truth and meaning throughout their lives, since 'the human spirit must be cultivated in such a way that there results a growth in its ability to wonder, to understand, to contemplate, to make personal judgments, and to develop a religious, moral and social sense.'''(13) This is the "cultivation of character" that I referred to earlier. This is Webster's definition of "culture".


Setting an example of respect for life
If the teacher or professor is convinced about the central value of human life in all its stages, that positive attitude will be transmitted along with knowledge to the student in biology, in sociology, in politics, in psychology as well as in theology and philosophy. The issues here are personal commitment and personal and professional credibility. Our Bishops in this country in their 1998 statement Living the Gospel of Life: A Challenge to American Catholics have called upon teachers and professors to "witness loyally and joyfully to the truth that every human life, at every stage of development, is a gift from God.''(14) It is essential that we give our students through the university or college curriculum the intellectual and academic resources to support a "pro-life" position and to reject the "culture of death." Too often the emotional dimensions of human life issues are allowed to overshadow the intellectual approach that surfaces solid, convincing reasons to support and not to reject life in all its stages.

Beyond the undergraduate years, research predominates the university experience. If students reach the master's and doctoral levels with a strong academic foundation that embraces and fosters a "culture of life," graduate research activity can deepen personal commitment while, at the same time, advancing that culture within society. The message must be consistent and clear even when or, better, precisely because a large portion of the audience in not receptive. "In a Catholic university," the Holy Father has written in Ex Corde Ecclesiae, "Research necessarily includes (a) the search for an integration of knowledge, (b) a dialogue between faith and reason, (c) an ethical concern, and (d) a theological perspective.''(15)

University life is not limited to teaching and learning and research. Universities and colleges have cultures of their own and a whole range of activities that contribute to the human development and personal conscience formation of their students. Health services, counseling services, student life, campus program boards, student publications, campus ministry all can exert great influence upon the life and attitudes of students beyond the classroom, lab or library. A "culture of life" must be advocated in and through these services as well. Options presented to students in need or with questions should not include answers derived from or characteristic of "a culture of death." The sacredness and inviolability of human life from conception to natural death must be the uniform agenda offered by our institutions of higher learning in every level of their activity. More than that, I believe our institutions should be widely recognized and known for promoting that agenda. We bear a tremendous, awesome responsibility here.

Those who are selected for service on university boards or committees, those who are invited to our campuses for special lectures or presentations and those who are honored by our institutions at significant moments such as commencements or anniversaries reveal much about institutional attitudes and values. As difficult as it may be at times - and, believe me, it is increasingly more difficult - our universities and colleges must be vigilant about the message that such selections send to the broader community and culture. That vigilance can only be weakened if institutional authorities themselves are not convinced about the priority of promoting a "culture of life" on the campus and beyond.


Importance of Catholic universities
These are just a few of the ways in which Catholic universities can contribute to building a "culture of life" in our country. I believe that the impact universities and colleges can and do have upon the young, upon the direction of society and culture, upon the advancement of knowledge, even upon the national agenda is tremendous. I have witnessed it first hand. It takes the courage and moral conviction of individuals committed to the cause of life to move our institutions forward. It requires a willingness to take risks and to face strong opposition, even from within our own institutions, at times. It demands a certain determination the foundation of which must be a credible intellectual presentation in support of life that is itself nourished by the movement and grace of faith. Our Catholic universities and colleges can and must respond with a strong and united voice affirming human life and human dignity at every stage in life because such affirmation is decidedly true, decidedly right and decidedly just. This must be our contribution to building a "culture of life."

The United States Bishops stated it well when they wrote "the future of a nation is decided by every new generation.''(16) More young people are on our campuses today than ever before. They are the "new generation." Not to engage them, not to teach them, not to convince them to create a "culture of life" is not merely to fail them but also to fail the future of this nation.

Young Homer Wells in The Cider House Rules knew in his heart that there was an inconsistency in an institution that promoted the welfare of children who were born while not, at the same time, protecting those who would never have the chance to live. Unfortunately for him, he never had the chance to have the urges of his heart transformed into the conviction of his mind. That is what a university can and must do for the "new generation." Let the words of Pope John Paul II resound in our hearts and minds for every person, every generation, every university, every culture yet to be: "Only respect for life can be the foundation and guarantee of the most precious and essential goods of society."(17)


1 Bill Readings, The University in Ruins (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996), p. 64.

2 Pope John Paul II, apostolic constitution Ex Corde Ecclesiae (August 15,1990). Hereinafter referred to as ECE.

3 Ibid., 7.

4 Ibid., 29.

5 Ibid., 31.

6 Ibid., 32.

7 Ibid., 33.

8 Ibid., 43.

9 Ibid., 45.

10 Ibid., 32.

11 Pope John Paul II, encyclical Evangelium Vitae (March 25, 1995). Hereinafter referred to as EV.

12 Ibid., 98.3.

13 ECE, 23.

14 National Conference of Catholic Bishops, Living the Gospel of Life: A Challenge to American Catholics (Washington: United States Catholic Conference, 1998), 30. Hereinafter, referred to as LGL.

15 ECE, 15.

16 LGL, 39.

17 EV, 101.4.

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