A Response to the Clerical Abuse of Children

Professor Anne Carpenter of the Theology and Religious Studies Department at Saint Mary’s College responds to the news from Pennsylvania about the clerical abuse of children and its coverup.  Pope Francis called on all the faithful to  action in the wake of the news: “Every one of the baptized should feel involved in the ecclesial and social change that we so greatly need” (Pope Francis, “Letter to the People of God” August 20, 2018). Professor Carpenter asks, “How is a Catholic college, how is a Catholic institution of higher learning, to respond to the present crisis and controversy?” The question is for all us, speaking with each other, to answer.

Asking the Right Questions about the Clerical Abuse of Children and Its Coverup


Professor Anne Carpenter

I am angry. Disgusted, horrified, and angry. Very angry. Priests hurt children (it must be said, though it is hard, it must be said: priests raped children), and their bishops – our bishops – protected those priests, concealed the truth, and buried victims in silence. Again. Dear God, they did it again. A hundred thousand questions rise up alongside the simple, bright heat of outrage.

Of the many pressing questions I could ask, there is one that I would like to bring forward as particularly relevant for our community: “How is a Catholic college, how is a Catholic institution of higher learning, to respond to the present crisis and controversy?” We have little recourse to retreat to our ivory tower, to pretend that we are neither implicated nor responsible, since our tower bears the very name “Catholic.” Our library is filled with Catholic books. Students attend courses in theology. There is a chapel at the center of campus. In other words, the college as a whole, from the weight of its educational mechanisms to the logic of its language, comes from out of the Catholic tradition. We are implicated whether we like it or not. What to do, then?

“The true and adequate end of intellectual training and of a University,” says Blessed John Henry Newman, “is not Learning or Acquirement, but rather, is Thought or Reason exercised upon Knowledge, or what may be called Philosophy.”[1] It is a rather odd way of speaking. Newman argues, first, that the actual goal of university education is not the acquisition of knowledge: facts, data, histories, themes, etc. All the stuff contained in books, in other words. Next, he insists that the purpose of a university is “Reason exercised upon Knowledge.” This he calls “Philosophy.” Here Newman does not mean philosophy understood as a topic or a major, the subscript on a degree. He means reasoning itself, whatever the major: thinking honed to a razor-edge. The ability to ask not just any question, but the right question. The question able to cut to the heart of the matter, exposing a problem or puzzle’s inner workings. We at universities might well say, “I have come not to bring peace, but the sword” (Mt 10:34).

The charism of a Catholic university (or college), by which I mean the God-given gift and the God-given purpose of a university, is the formation of a mind. It is the work of forming a mind, and it is the work of a formed mind. At a college, a mind is shaped by the rigors of the arts it learns, and by the professors who wield those arts with refined mastery. The goal, the simple but very difficult goal, is to make master reasoners of you, our students. You are to be those who ask the hard questions, who discover the question that unveils what others might rather keep hidden. Not just any question, but the question that most needs to be asked. You are to be those who cannot only repeat knowledge, but who also know how to do the work of knowing. This is freedom. “Only those arts which are directed to knowing,” says Thomas Aquinas, “are called free [or liberal] arts.”[2] The rigors of your learning, the rigors by which you come to understand how to learn, will make you free. A freedom you will bear into the world far beyond Saint Mary’s.

We who work at a Catholic university are tasked with thinking. Whether we turn our eyes to the world or to the Church, we are called to ask questions. The questions of the Church, but also the questions outside of her explicit bounds. “The Church has ever appealed and deferred to witnesses and authorities external to herself,” says Newman, “in those matters in which she thought they had means of forming a judgment: and that on the principle, Cuique in arte sua credendum [everyone is to be believed in their own art].”[3] We are called to ask every necessary question, whether beautiful or ugly. We are called whether the Church shines in splendor or is made to be sin in some tragic Christic parody (cf. 2 Cor 5:21). We are called even if, even as, our questions throw light on the Church, and under the retreating shadows we discover a grotesque face. To be Catholic, we must ask the questions of a formed intelligence. Wherever we are and wherever we look, we must ask questions, good questions. This is what God, who is Truth, would have us do. Even now. Especially now.

A mind thus formed, thus shaped by the hot hammer, is our purpose. It is then that such a mind, such a soul, might dare to say, “My soul magnifies the glory of the Lord” (Lk 1:46). It is then that such a soul, having entered to learn, might leave to serve.

[1] John Henry Newman, “The Idea of a University,” 1.6.7.

[2] Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on Aristotle’s Metaphysics, Book I, 59.

[3] Newman, “Idea of a University,” 1.1.2.

2 thoughts on “A Response to the Clerical Abuse of Children

  1. Charles Hamaker says:

    Newman made it clear that his educated man (women being left out of consideration) would be a more capable actor in the so-called real world. I think it is important to emphasize that the deliberative inquiry suggested herein as an institutional response will hopefully generate and inform subsequent action.


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