The Catholic Identity

Chapel Pews

Rockhurst is a Jesuit University. As such, it shares in the rich tradition of Catholic universities, the oldest and largest collection of colleges and universities in the western world.

In his famous encyclical on Catholic universities, John Paul II wrote that it is the nature of a university “to engage in the joy of searching for, discovering and communicating truth in every field of knowledge.”1 The goal of a university education is not simply to acquire information, but also to engage both students and faculty in the exciting process of research and the expansion of the boundaries of human knowledge. The Rockhurst maxim, “we do not teach students what to think but how to think,” has real validity. Naturally, universities do teach students facts and therefore what to think, but ultimately the task of a university is to assure that students acquire an intellectual framework that will allow them to address questions and issues that can never be covered in even the most comprehensive classroom.2 Universities play a unique role in every culture and society, for only universities enjoy the freedom to continually ask questions that go beyond what is practical or expedient and train their students to do this in all aspects of life.

Rockhurst’s mission to engage in the search for truth is common to all universities. However, Rockhurst is more than just a university; it is a Catholic university, and its identity as a Catholic university expands its freedom of intellectual inquiry, gives it a basis for understanding reality, and extends its mission beyond the hallowed university ivory tower. Rockhurst’s Catholic identity can be understood under three headings: Rockhurst as a faith-based university; Rockhurst and the Catholic understanding of reality; and Rockhurst’s external expression of faith.

Rockhurst as a Faith-based Institution

Rockhurst “unite[s] existentially by intellectual effort two orders of reality that too frequently tend to be placed in opposition...the search for truth and the certainty of already knowing the fount of truth.”3 To understand the interplay of these two orders of reality, let us take an example from physics and theology. Like most universities, Rockhurst scientists study the universe. At some point these scientific studies will come up against an end point. How did it begin? Theories abound, but the one we hear most commonly is the “Big Bang.” For many universities the search for the truth about the universe ends here. Not, however, at a Catholic University or indeed, any faith-based university. For even the Big Bang must have a cause, and at a faith-based institution, which “searches for the truth with the certainty of already knowing the fount of truth,” our inquiry goes back to, and includes, the ultimate cause of the universe, which is God. So, at Rockhurst, the scientific search for the truth about the universe in physics must end with the Big Bang, but the search for the truth of the universe continues beyond the Big Bang in philosophy and theology.

Furthermore, these two distinct avenues of research, which must remain faithful to their proper modes of inquiry, are never in conflict. The physicist at Rockhurst understands that the Big Bang can be explained by a cause which transcends his or her discipline. The theologian at Rockhurst understands that he or she can speak about the cause of the Big Bang but that theology cannot explain the intricate physics that the Big Bang initiates.4 Both understand that there is no inherent conflict between their two approaches.

At Rockhurst this expanded freedom of inquiry has concrete ramifications for our learning environment and for what we teach. These ramifications stamp Rockhurst as an institution of faith and they are highlighted in Ex Corde Ecclesiae.5
The first ramification is the integration of all knowledge.6 At Rockhurst we understand that all truth is united in the ultimate truth. In other words, there is a basic unity of all knowledge. Traditionally, universities have expressed this understanding through insistence on a core curriculum that stresses the liberal arts. At Rockhurst we want our undergraduates to search for the truth in a number of disciplines, regardless of a student’s particular major. The study of English and history are important for an accounting major because the formation of our students requires that they have experienced truth in a variety of human aspects. We understand that English, history and accounting are not theology, just as we understand that a physicist’s research into the Big Bang is not revelation. However, we also understand that the study of these disciplines reveals more of the truth about the universe and therefore, ultimately, more about God and our relationship to God. Conversely, the more we know about God the better we can understand the fullness of English, history, and accounting.

The second ramification is the dialogue between faith and reason.7 At Rockhurst, the search for truth, which takes place in various disciplines, cannot ultimately be at odds with the ultimate truth that is revealed to us. In other words, there cannot be a true conflict between faith and reason.8 This does not mean that there will never be tensions or even collisions, such as took place in the now famous Galileo episode. Nor does it mean that either reason or faith must yield pride of place to the other, for our understanding of faith is never perfect, and reason can never fully exhaust the ultimate reality of God. Indeed, faith and reason need each other, because reason without faith can never plumb the depths of truth and faith without reason can easily lapse into superstition.

The third ramification is the place of ethics. At Rockhurst ethics is important because there is ultimately a right and a wrong.9 While Enron and other scandals have made ethics a common word in our everyday vocabulary, ethical studies are not simply telling our students that cheating and fraud are wrong. We expect that our students know the basic differences between right and wrong before they even come to us. Ethics is really the search for truth (in this case, right and wrong actions) in areas that are much cloudier. This is why we teach ethics, so that our students will be grounded in principles that will enable them to make good ethical decisions in areas which are not immediately obvious.

The fourth ramification is the role and importance of philosophy and theology.10 At Rockhurst we search for truth not only in disciplines such as chemistry and English literature, but we also search for the ultimate truth more directly by reflecting systematically on revelation, on the human condition, and on reality in general. Not only are theology and philosophy legitimate academic disciplines at Rockhurst, but every undergraduate must take at least 15 hours in theology and philosophy. It is important to note here that theology is a mode of inquiry through which we seek to understand as much as we can about God. Theology accepts revelation and applies reason to revelation to come to an ever deeper understanding of Who God is and how we can speak about God.11 As such, the proper study of theology is different from catechetical instruction or even religion courses taught in elementary and secondary schools.

The Catholic Understanding of Reality

The essence of Christianity is the belief that God is definitively revealed through the person, the life, and the teaching of Jesus Christ, most profoundly through his death and resurrection. No other great religion highlights the incarnation of God in a unique historical moment. No other Christian religion highlights the incarnation of God in our own lives as does the Roman Catholic Church with its emphasis on sacraments and sacramentality.

Sacraments are privileged ways of experiencing God’s presence through persons, places and things whom and which we can hear, see, touch, smell and taste. The seven sacraments are unique and special moments of encounter with God’s grace, but Catholic religious practice and spirituality expand the sacramental concept to all reality. In other words, our Catholic faith leads us to find God in all of created reality even though we make clear not to confuse God with that same created reality.

Rockhurst’s culture, both in the classroom and beyond, is sacramental. Rockhurst carries out its teaching and inquiry against the background of a reality filled with God’s Spirit. To quote the famous 19th century Jesuit poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins, “The earth is charged with the grandeur of God.”

Since God’s Spirit permeates the world in which we live, Rockhurst’s mode of inquiry and learning is shaped by reverence. First, and most obvious, Rockhurst insists on treating others with dignity and respect. This insistence is not grounded in a desire just to do good customer service, important as this is, but rather in the conviction that every human being is a unique bearer of God’s Spirit. Our teaching and learning take place with the understanding that every student has a unique set of gifts and talents that are given by God and that reveal God. Our job at Rockhurst is to do everything we can to identify and develop those gifts and talents, and to “assist each of our students to achieve wholeness as human persons.”12

Second, along with reverence and respect for others as images of God, Catholic sacramentality fosters a receptivity to ideas and opinions that are new or different from our own. Certainly not all ideas are good, and ultimately we want our students to make considered judgments about what is right or wrong and what is correct or incorrect. However, we do want our students to be open to a universe that bears God’s stamp.13 To do otherwise would be to assume that we already know all truth or that God is not really present in God’s creation.

Finally, Rockhurst’s educational mission (our search for truth) is grounded in a world created by a loving God and redeemed through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Therefore, Rockhurst looks with confidence to the discovery of meaning and purpose in the world in which we live and in each individual life. This is in stark contrast to some academic environments in which skepticism rules and there is no possibility of discovering a meaning that transcends each individual’s own idiosyncrasies. Our mission looks to a truth that lifts the human spirit and unites us with other human beings and with God.

The search for truth in the context of knowing the fount of truth and the sacramentality of the world shape the educational mission of Rockhurst and form the academic culture within which Rockhurst students learn and are formed.

Rockhurst’s External Expression of Faith

The final aspect of Rockhurst’s Catholic character is the manner in which we externalize our mission both in our interaction with the broader community and in our explicit celebration of our Roman Catholic faith.

There is only one place in the New Testament where Jesus tells His listeners who will be saved and who will not be saved. The powerful Last Judgment scene in Matthew 2514 separates the human race into sheep and goats according to whether or not we have fed the hungry, clothed the naked, and so on. The treatment of our neighbor is of paramount importance in a Catholic university. The World Synod of Bishops in 1971 declared that “action on behalf of justice and participation in the transformation of the world fully appear to us as a constitutive dimension of the preaching of the Gospel.”15 Pope John Paul II referred to this essential aspect of the gospel message throughout his pontificate and explicitly for Catholic universities: “The Christian spirit of service to others for the promotion of social justice is of particular importance for each Catholic university.”16 Furthermore, “Teachers and students [should] become more aware of their responsibility towards those who are suffering physically or spiritually. Following the example of Christ, they will be particularly attentive to the poorest and to those who suffer economic, social, cultural or religious injustice.”17
At Rockhurst, service to others enjoys a unique importance in the daily formation of our students. In addition to daily service in the Kansas City community, Rockhurst students participate in service trips to Mexico and Central America to learn first hand of the poverty in which many live. These trips are funded by Rockhurst benefactors, some of whom accompany the students.

In 2005 Rockhurst ranked first among all Jesuit colleges and universities with more than 90 per-cent of our undergraduates participating in service programs during their years at Rockhurst.

John Paul II called upon Catholic universities to reflect on issues such as “the dignity of human life, the promotion of justice for all, the quality of personal and family life, the protection of nature, the search for peace and political stability, a more just sharing in the world’s resources, and a new economic and political order that will better serve the human community at a national and international level.”18 Rockhurst students are involved with these issues. Rockhurst students also have the opportunity to reflect on their experience with service as befits a university. This takes place in the classroom in many ways but especially in courses explicitly designed to combine classroom study with active service. It also takes place outside the classroom through the efforts of student life and campus ministry staff, who lead the students through discussion and discernment of our world based on their experiences gleaned through service. In these ways students “seek to discover the roots and causes of the serious problems of our time, paying special attention to their ethical and religious dimensions.”19

Rockhurst cannot teach social justice without also practicing it. The University is resolutely situated in the urban core of Kansas City and works with the surrounding neighborhoods to improve the quality of life for the community. A community outreach center, a literacy clinic, and educational and recreational programs for young people during the summer months put Rockhurst’s Catholic identity into action. Rockhurst also reaches out through scholarships for the most needy and with special attention to the wages of our lowest paid staff.

Finally, Rockhurst nourishes and celebrates its Catholic identity through many activities that are also to be found in Catholic parishes. Through collaboration between Rockhurst’s campus ministry and St. Francis Xavier, the Catholic parish that includes Rockhurst, Rockhurst students are provided with a full range of Catholic activities and sacramental opportunities. In addition to daily masses both in the campus chapel and in the parish, there is a special Sunday evening mass attended by several hundred Rockhurst students with a mix of students from other campuses as well. Working with the parish staff at SFX, Rockhurst students receive the sacraments of confirmation and baptism, and reconciliation is offered twice weekly in addition to the possibility of individual appointments.

With the support of campus ministry there are a number of student, faculty and staff retreats offered each year. Some of these retreats take people off campus for quiet, prayer and reflection; others, such as the “busy persons retreat,” give men and women an experience of prayer and spiritual direction in the midst of busy daily lives. In addition, there are expanding numbers of prayer groups on campus, including the rosary and other devotional practices such as Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. Finally, campus ministry and the Center for Catholic Thought and Culture offer numerous talks on religious topics open both to the campus and to the broader public.

Rockhurst is a Catholic institution, highly regarded by the Church in Kansas City.20 Because of its Jesuit Catholic identity it enjoys a relationship with the Universal Church expressed in fidelity to the Church’s teaching and contribution as a university to the work of the Church.21 It carries out its university mission with faith in God, whose presence permeates our world, and with commitment to love God and to show that love through loving service to our neighbor. Rockhurst’s mission, therefore, is a complex one and must integrate an unfettered search for truth, including the study of ultimate questions that are closed to secular institutions, with an expression of total concern for all aspects of human life. Any attempt to see Rockhurst in a more limited light cuts at the heart of its Catholic identity and obviates the service it renders to the Church.


1 Ex Corde Ecclesiae, The Apostolic Constitution of the Supreme Pontiff John Paul II on Catholic Universities, paragraph 1.

2 Ex Corde Ecclesiae, #23: “Students are challenged to pursue an education that combines excellence in humanistic and cultural development with specialized professional training. Most especially, they are challenged to continue the search for truth and for 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.’ [quoting John Henry Cardinal Newman, The Idea of a University, London, Longmans, Green and Company, 1931, pp. 101-102].”

3 Ex Corde Ecclesiae, ECC #1.

4 Ex Corde Ecclesiae, #15: “A Catholic University, therefore, is a place of research, where scholars scrutinize reality with the methods proper to each academic discipline, and so contribute to the treasury of human knowledge.”

5 Ex Corde Ecclesiae, #15: “In a Catholic University, 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.”

6 Ex Corde Ecclesiae, #16: “Integration of knowledge is a process, one which will always remain incomplete; moreover, the explosion of knowledge in recent decades, together with the rigid compartmentalization of knowledge within individual academic disciplines, makes the task increasingly difficult. But a University, and especially a Catholic University, ‘has to be a living union of individual organisms dedicated to the search for truth … It is necessary to work towards a higher synthesis of knowledge, in which alone lies the possibility of satisfying that thirst for truth which is profoundly inscribed on the heart of the human person’ [John Paul II, Allocution to the International Congress on Catholic Universities, 25 April 1989, n.4: AAS 81 (1989), p. 1219].”

7 Ex Corde Ecclesiae, #17: “In promoting this integration of knowledge, a specific part of a Catholic University’s task is to promote dialogue between faith and reason, so that it can be seen more profoundly how faith and reason bear harmonious witness to the unity of all truth. While each academic discipline retains its own integrity and has its own methods, this dialogue demonstrates that ‘methodical research within every branch of learning, when carried out in a truly scientific manner and in accord with moral norms, can never truly conflict with faith. For the things of the earth and the concerns of faith derive from the same God.’ [Vatican Council II, Pastoral constitution on the Church in the Modern World Gaudium et Spes, n. 36: AAS 58 (1966), p. 1054].”

8 In a talk to a group of scientists in 1983 John Paul II noted that “while reason and faith surely represent two distinct orders of knowledge, each autonomous with regard to its own methods, the two must finally converge in the discovery of a single whole reality which has its origin in God.” [John Paul II, Address at the Meeting on Galileo, 9 May 1983, n. 3: AAS 75 [1983], p. 690].

9 Ex Corde Ecclesiae, #18: “Because knowledge is meant to serve the human person, research in a Catholic University is always carried out with a concern for the ethical and moral implications both of its methods and of its discoveries. This concern, while it must be present in all research, is particularly important in the areas of science and technology.” Furthermore, in Ex Corde Ecclesiae, #20: “Given the close connection between research and teaching, the research qualities indicated above will have their influence on all teaching. …In the communication of knowledge, emphasis is then placed on how human reason in its reflection opens to increasingly broader questions, and how the complete answer to them can only come from above through faith. Furthermore, the moral implications that are present in each discipline are examined as an integral part of the teaching of that discipline so that the entire educative process be directed towards the whole development of the person.”

10 Ex Corde Ecclesiae, #19: Theology plays a particularly important role in the search for a synthesis of knowledge as well as in the dialogue between faith and reason. It serves all other disciplines in their search for meaning, not only by helping them to investigate how their discoveries will affect individuals and society but also by bringing a perspective and an orientation not contained within their own methodologies. In turn, interaction with these other disciplines and their discoveries enriches theology, offering it a better understanding of the world today, and making theological research more relevant to current needs. Because of its specific importance among the academic disciplines, every Catholic University should have a faculty, or at least a chair, of theology.”

11 Rockhurst offers a rich selection of theology courses: scripture, dogma, moral theology, church history, world religions, and more. Faculty in their research and teaching apply methods proper to their discipline to understand ever more deeply the content and ramifications of revelation and tradition. Rockhurst can and does require that faculty present the Catholic faith accurately, as represented by the Magisterium of the Roman Catholic Church. To do otherwise would violate the canon of intellectual honesty. Through faculty contracts the university signifies its satisfaction with the intellectual integrity of particular faculty members in whatever discipline they represent.

12 Ex Corde Ecclesiae, #21.

13 Ex Corde Ecclesiae, #17: “For the things of the earth and the concerns of faith derive from the same God.”

14 Matthew 25: 31-46.

15 Justitia in Mundo (Justice in the World), World Synod of Catholic Bishops,1971, see especially paragraph 6.

16 Ex Corde Ecclesiae, #34.

17 Ex Corde Ecclesiae, #40.

18 Ex Corde Ecclesiae, #32.

19 Ex Corde Ecclesiae, #32.

20 On May 15, 2004, Bishop Raymond Boland, Bishop of the Diocese Kansas City and St. Joseph, was given an honorary doctorate. Below are his remarks for the occasion.

I am grateful for the signal honor you have bestowed upon me this morning. Personally, I am far from convinced that I deserve it, but I accept it as recognition of the clergy and laity whom I have been privileged to represent for almost 12 years as the Bishop of the diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph. If I have achieved anything even worthy of a footnote it was their hard work, loyalty and support which made it possible. Indeed, in listening to the words of the citation it sounded disturbingly like those of an obituary notice. Unless you have it copyrighted, I may adopt it as one thing less to do being now somebody who has lived a lot longer in the past than he will in the future.

Now that my newly anointed successor, Bishop Finn, is in the wings waiting for me to quit the stage, I grasp this public moment to acknowledge that it has been a great joy for me to have Rockhurst University, steeped in the Jesuit tradition initiated by Ignatius Loyola, within this diocese. You have been and continue to be an intellectual pulse-beat for both the Church and the community and a goodly number of your distinguished alumni are my advisors and coworkers. The diocese and this “city of fountains” have been not the only, but certainly among the foremost beneficiaries of your enriching presence. May your search for truth be unrelenting and, as was wished for Abou Ben Adhem, “may your tribe increase!”

Allow me to congratulate the graduates. They really earned their degrees! This week USA Today predicted that each graduate in the United States would achieve five seconds of fame when they crossed the podium to receive their parchments. Andy Warhol was far more generous. He maintained you are entitled to 15 minutes over a lifetime. So, remember, after today you only have 14 minutes and 55 seconds left.

You may recall that in the movie version of The Graduate, the somewhat bewildered young college student was advised to seek his future from a well-meaning self-appointed mentor who summed it all up in the one word, PLASTICS. (A generation later it would have been DOT.COMs.)

Permit me to leave you with one word of unsolicited advice, “ETHICS.” Whether it be Enron or WorldCom, the clergy sex abuse scandals or the sadistic behavior of prison guards in Iraq and elsewhere, we are all tarnished and, in turn targeted, by the sins of the few. In whatever profession you follow, think ETHICS. In making decisions, think ETHICS. In leading others, think ETHICS. Let the integrity of your life be a reflection of God’s goodness and the greatest gift you can give to your children and, incidentally, the greatest tribute you can give to Rockhurst.

21 Ex Corde Ecclesiae, #27: “Every Catholic University, without ceasing to be a University, has a relationship to the Church that is essential to its institutional identity. As such, it participates most directly in the life of the local Church in which it is situated; at the same time, because it is an academic institution and therefore a part of the international community of scholarship and inquiry, each institution participates in and contributes to the life and the mission of the universal Church, assuming consequently a special bond with the Holy See by reason of the service to unity which it is called to render to the whole Church.