The classical tradition of the liberal arts was based on a philosophic understanding of the innate dignity of man and the nobility of his intellect. The Church appropriated that tradition as conducive to the development of the intellectual faculties in submission to revealed Truth. As Newman stated, “Liberal education, viewed in itself, is simply the cultivation of the intellect, as such, and its object is nothing more or less than intellectual excellence” (I.v.9). Newman, however, was also at pains to note that “Liberal Education makes not the Christian, not the Catholic, but the gentleman. It is well to be a gentleman.” Newman continues,
It is well to have a cultivated intellect, a delicate taste, a candid, equitable, dispassionate mind, a noble and courteous bearing in the conduct of life—these are the connatural qualities of a large knowledge . . . but still, I repeat, they are no guarantee for sanctity or even for conscientiousness. . . . Quarry the granite rock with razors, or moor the vessel with a thread of silk; then may you hope with such keen and delicate instruments as human knowledge and human reason to contend against those giants, the passion and pride of man. (I.v.9)
Clearly, liberal education for Catholics must entail the guiding hand and nourishing spirit of the Church in an integral manner, lest both students and faculty eventually fall away from the Truth, as Newman so prophetically described in The Idea of a University: “If the Catholic Faith is true.” Newman asserts,
A University cannot exist externally to the Catholic pale, for it cannot teach Universal Knowledge if it does not teach Catholic theology. This is certain; but still, though it had ever so many theological Chairs, that would not suffice to make it a Catholic University; for theology would be included in its teaching only as a branch of knowledge, only as one out of many constituent portions, however important a one, of what I have called Philosophy. Hence a direct and active jurisdiction of the Church over it and in it is necessary, lest it should become the rival of the Church with the community at large in those theological matters which to the Church are exclusively committed. (I.ix.1)
This is precisely what has come to pass in the vast majority of nominally Catholic colleges and universities in the United States since the Land O’Lakes conference in 1967, with the development of a “second” or “parallel Magisterium” of dissident theologians over and against Rome.
Two years before the founding of Christendom College, Pope Paul VI, in an address to the presidents of Catholic colleges and universities, warned against the secularizing of Catholic universities:
In recent years some Catholic universities have become convinced that they can better respond to the various problems of man and his world by playing down their own Catholic character. But what has been the effect of this trend? The principles and values of the Christian religion have been watered down and weakened; they have been replaced by a humanism, which has really turned out to be a secularization. Morals within the university community have degenerated to the point where many young people no longer perceive the beauty and attractiveness of the Christian virtues.
Responding to this crisis in Catholic higher education, our founders established Christendom College on the bedrock of fidelity to the Chair of Peter and its teaching on faith and morals.
Two years after the foundation of Christendom College, and within a year of his ascension to the papacy, Pope John Paul II, on October 7, 1979, defined the mission of the Catholic college as follows:
A Catholic college must make a specific contribution to the Church, must train young men and women to assume tasks in the service of society and to bear witness to their faith before the world, and must set up a real community which bears witness to a living Christianity. Yours is the qualification of affirming God, His revelation and the Catholic Church. The term Catholic will never be a mere label, added or dropped according to pressures. This is your identity. This is your vocation.
At Christendom College, in their academic, spiritual and social lives, the faculty and students aim at living out this Catholic vocation and identity in its integrity.