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Pittsburgh Catholic Column: May 30, 2008

Love and Discipline

by Dr. Charles J. Dougherty

"And you call yourself a Catholic university." This is a refrain heard often in American Catholic higher education when an action taken by the institution appears incompatible with a religion based on love.

It can be said by a student or parent of a student who fails a course or is expelled for academic or disciplinary reasons. It can be said by a faculty member who is denied tenure. It can be said by a staff member who is terminated from a job.

In all of these cases, and in many more, the university’s action causes suffering for an individual and his or her family. It is this apparent incompatibility of the infliction of suffering with Christian love that provokes the implied accusation of hypocrisy.

The general answer to this charge is obvious. If a student does not perform in the required manner in a course, he or she deserves an F. If his or her behavior is a violation of academic or disciplinary norms, expulsion is appropriate. If a faculty member has not met the teaching or scholarly criteria for tenure, denial is called for. If a staff member is incompetent or cuts have to be made for financial reasons, termination may be the right thing to do.

In each case, the issue turns on standards. Without classroom and behavioral standards grading becomes meaningless and a community can devolve into chaos. Without standards for tenure, academic progress cannot be assured. Without standards in job performance and in budgeting an organization cannot thrive.

Yet there is still a sting to the accusation. Is the appeal to standards enough of a reply?

An observation made by Pope Benedict XVI in his speech to the leadership of American Catholic education in Washington this spring may be helpful. He invoked what he called "intellectual charity." He said, in effect, that when one generation passes on to the next its most fundamental values—this is an act of love.

What is so remarkable about this simple insight is the analogy it suggests between the raising of children and the work of higher education. It is obvious that when a family passes on its most fundamental values to its children that this is an act of love.

But parents cannot pass on their values to their children without discipline. Parental love that is without sufficient discipline is flawed and unlikely to produce a well-adjusted new generation. It is even less likely that the new generations will receive and carry on the most fundamental values of the parents. So love without discipline is not intellectual charity. In fact, it undermines it.

Of course, a university is not a parent; nor are its students, faculty and staff children. But the analogy is clear. If a university produces a work of intellectual charity by passing its fundamental values on to a new generation, it must have its own institutional discipline. In order to pass on its values effectively a university must have the highest intellectual standards, a true spirit of inquiry, and a community of mutual respect. It must be striving always for academic excellence. And if it is a Catholic university, it must also have a reverence for our church and faith tradition, a sacramental life, and a spirit of ecumenism.

"And you call yourself a Catholic university," yet expel students, deny tenure, and terminate positions. Yes, sometimes; because this is the discipline necessary for our work of intellectual charity. To be Catholic means doing these hard things with a spirit of concern and a genuine intent to minimize suffering. But Catholic universities will not serve the next generation well if these things are not done when they must be done.