A Catholic University in the 
Franciscan Tradition

The flags which line the driveways, stationery, brochures, catalogues, and advertisements — all describe Neumann as Catholic in the Franciscan Tradition. Being Catholic…in the Franciscan tradition does not require that all students, faculty, administrators, and staff are Catholic or Franciscan. On the contrary, Neumann strives to be an open and inclusive community where all are welcome. Rather, being Catholic . . . in the Franciscan tradition invites all members of the community to understand and espouse certain values and to strive to create a distinctive culture. It suggests that policies, procedures, and curriculum are shaped by a particular worldview. The following sections provide a brief introduction to what it means to be a Catholic University in the Franciscan Tradition.

A Catholic University

Educating clergy, protecting and spreading the faith, promoting democracy, and educating teachers were major goals of the first American colleges. One hundred seventy-five of the 182 colleges founded before the Civil War were church related. The beginnings of land grant colleges in 1862 marked the first significant departure from church-related institutions and the historical shift from private to public higher education. Most American colleges retained a religious orientation and attendance at religious services on the campus was required until the middle of the 19th century. Although still claiming a religious purpose, many American colleges had begun to move away from their denominational roots during the 19th century. At the close of the 20th century, 700 institutions listed themselves as church-related.

Founded in 1789, Georgetown is considered the first American Catholic college. Within 20 years after Georgetown’s founding, St. Mary’s in Baltimore (1799), Mt. St. Mary’s in Emmitsburg (1808), and St. Louis College in Missouri (1818) had opened. Even though American bishops recognized and encouraged the growth of colleges, religious congregations founded and staffed most of the institutions. Today, there are more than 200 Catholic colleges and universities which enroll more than 720,000 students.

Maintaining a distinctive identity and mission is an essential task for every Catholic institution. Although each of the Catholic colleges and universities in the United States describes its mission and purpose in a unique way, the basic components of the Catholic university were articulated by Pope John Paul II in the 1990 document, Ex Corde Ecclesiae (From the Heart of the Church). The following excerpts from this document (ECE) clarify the nature of a Catholic institution of higher education.

“Every Catholic university, as a university, is an academic community which, in a rigorous and critical fashion, assists in the protection and advancement of human dignity and of a cultural heritage through research, teaching and various services offered to the local, national and international communities. It possesses that institutional autonomy necessary to perform its functions effectively and guarantees its members academic freedom, so long as the rights of the individual person and of the community are preserved within the confines of the truth and the common good.

“Since the objective of a Catholic university is to assure in an institutional manner a Christian presence in the university world confronting the great problems of society and culture, every Catholic university, as Catholic, must have the following essential characteristics: 

  1. A Christian inspiration not only of individuals but of the university community as such; 

  2. A continuing reflection in the light of the Catholic faith upon the growing treasury of human knowledge, to which it seeks to contribute by its own research; 

  3. Fidelity to the Christian message as it comes to us through the Church; 

  4. An institutional commitment to the service of the people of God and of the human family in their pilgrimage to the transcendent goal which gives meaning to life.

“In the light of these four characteristics, it is evident that besides the teaching, research and services common to all universities, a Catholic university, by institutional commitment, brings to its task the inspiration and light of the Christian message. In a Catholic university, therefore, Catholic ideals, attitudes and principles penetrate and inform university activities in accordance with the proper nature and autonomy of these activities. In a word, being both a university and Catholic, it must be both a community of scholars representing various branches of human knowledge, and an academic institution in which Catholicism is vitally present and operative.” (ECE 12–14)

“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 its discoveries . . .” (ECE 18)

“A Catholic university pursues its objectives through its formation of an authentic human community animated by the spirit of Christ. The source of its unity springs from a common dedication to the truth, a common vision of the dignity of the human person and, ultimately, the person and message of Christ, which gives the institution its distinctive character. As a result of this inspiration, the community is animated by a spirit of freedom and charity; it is characterized by mutual respect, sincere dialogue, and protection of the rights of the individual. It assists each of its members to achieve wholeness as human persons; in turn, everyone in the community helps in promoting unity, and each one, according to his or her role and capacity, contributes toward decisions which affect the community and also toward maintaining and strengthening the distinctive Catholic character of the institution.” (ECE 21)

In the Franciscan Tradition

The Franciscan intellectual tradition is rooted in the spirit and vision of Saints Francis and Clare of Assisi. From the lives of St. Francis and St. Clare, scholars developed a theological and philosophical tradition. Over time, St. Bonaventure of Bagnoregio and Blessed John Duns Scotus became the dominant voices for the tradition. Beginning in the late 20th century and continuing to the present time, scholars have been trying to articulate the meaning of the Franciscan intellectual tradition for the contemporary world. The Franciscan worldview includes the recognition that 1) God is relational and exists as a Community of Love; God is Trinity; 2) God shares Love generously and freely through the whole of Creation and through the Incarnation (God becomes human and lives among us); and 3) made in God’s image all creatures are related as brothers and sisters. The Franciscan worldview emphasizes the dignity of the human person, the goodness of all creation, the responsibility to care for all creatures as sisters and brothers, and the importance of gratitude for all creation as gift from a generous God. The tradition is inclusive of all people and cultures, critical of injustice, prophetic in looking beyond the present reality, and practical in service of others. Franciscan scholars describe the Franciscan Intellectual Tradition in the following paragraphs.

“The Franciscan Intellectual Tradition is a philosophical and theological expression of understanding the Catholic faith. As a philosophy and theology, this tradition is one of several major interpretations of this faith. In the history of the western Catholic Church, two other major traditions have enriched the Catholic faith: the Dominican Intellectual Tradition, centered on the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas, and the Augustinian Intellectual Tradition, centered on the writings of St. Augustine of Hippo. All three traditions have continually received the blessing of popes and scholars. They have also intersected with each other, have influenced each other and have been self-consciously aware of their differences. None of them, however, can claim to be the ‘better’ intellectual tradition. Since they are philosophical and theological interpretations of the Catholic Faith, all three respect the fundamental teachings of Scripture, Tradition and the magisterium [teaching authority of the Catholic Church].

“. . . The primary sources for the differences held by the Franciscan tradition stem from the distinctive spiritual experience and vision of Francis and Clare of Assisi. Francis and Clare were not theologians, in the academic interpretation of this word, but they both attempted, in their lives and in their writings, to speak and to exemplify the Word of God. By their way of life, they wanted to deepen their own Catholic faith and share Gospel holiness with the people they met. Their voices echoed the gospels and Catholic tradition in a new and convincing way. Their spiritual vision became enormously attractive, and many men and women joined their communities.

“It is estimated that by the year 1221, about eleven years after St. Francis formed a small group of followers, the number of Franciscan friars ranged from three thousand to five thousand. This was a phenomenal growth. In addition, after the first Franciscan students began to attend the major universities in Europe around 1219, their Franciscan spirituality impressed several key diocesan professors of theology, particularly at the universities of Paris and Oxford. Theological insights gradually interfaced with the distinctive Franciscan spirituality, and this development became what we today call the Franciscan Intellectual Tradition.” (Osborne, p. 1–2)

“In the Franciscan Intellectual Tradition we find again and again, in different languages using different genres, the same fundamentals of our vision of the Catholic Christian life . . . 

  1. God’s presence and universal accessibility in Christ — in creation, in the poor, in the non-event, in the non-believer; 

  2. God as a community of persons, a Trinity, sharing life and goods — a model for fraternity, social peace, relationality, mission and the exchange of goods between peoples; 

  3. God’s gratuity and liberality to be with us, even in our creaturely disfigured way — in Christ’s birth, life and passion, in each unique creature, in the great gift of the Church with its people and priests and theologians and sacraments and doctrine and teaching magisterium; 

  4. God’s human way of exercising authority, creating order and ‘being with’ — through example, humility, courtesy, respect and love-willing-to-suffer with the neighbor.”
                                                                                         (Chinnici, p. xiii) 

Excerpts on The Franciscan Intellectual Tradition are taken from: The Franciscan Intellectual Tradition: Tracing Its Origins and Identifying Its Central Components. 
The Franciscan Heritage Series, Vol. 1. Joseph P. Chinnici, OFM, General Editor. St. Bonaventure, NY: The Franciscan Institute, 2003. Used with permission.