To be a Catholic institution implies a commitment to certain objective norms about which choices are better or worse for a person. This identity includes endorsing, for instance, certain ideals about relationships and how they fit into a larger picture of human fulfillment.
At Boston College, we as students have implicit permission to speak in terms of a normative notion of human fulfillment, a privilege which seems increasingly absent at our secular counterparts. This ability is a benefit of our religious affiliation for which even the unreligious can be grateful. I spent last year abroad at the University of Oxford, whose moral culture seems to me consistent with anecdotes I’ve heard about secular university life from American friends.
I remember two presentations from BC’s freshman orientation which lacked any counterpart in Oxford’s orientation week. The first, given by Rev. Michael Himes, C.S.C, addressed what the purpose of a university is. That purpose, stated simply, is to foster conversation about the central topics of what it means to be human and how to live a good life. The other, given by Kerry Cronin, a professor in the philosophy department, introduced Aristotle’s claims about the three types of friendship and why friendship is essential to living a good life. These are some of the first memories that many students have at BC, a testament to the emphasis that the University places on these values.
Both talks discuss what is valuable and fulfilling to people’s lives. Although BC students may not typically use words like “human fulfillment” everyday, these presentations introduce freshmen to a specific way of thinking, a mindset that is consistent with the University’s Catholic heritage. An integral part of this heritage is the conviction that human fulfillment is a significant good and the worthy goal of a lifelong effort. Himes and Cronin, in an implicit way, claim that intellectual development at BC ought to contribute to this goal.
On the other hand, secular universities seem to shy away from claims about what non-utilitarian use a university education ought to have, apart from perhaps the intrinsic value of knowledge.
Why anyone’s wider life—a life composed of relationships, financial concerns, pleasure, and suffering—would be improved from such an education is unaddressed. It may be possible to defend a conception of morality without the authority of religion, but at least in practice on secular campuses, this seems not to be the case.
Such was true, at any rate, at Oxford. During my orientation, the only discussion of life choices other than intellectual ones concerned consent and gender. Oxford’s commitment to making no claim about how one might best find fulfillment in these aspects of life, save tolerance of others’ choices, contrasted sharply with orientation at BC.
Sexual activity was discussed without mention of how it may affect the well-being of students, with the only “moral” education being a reminder to abide by the rules of consent. In other words, consent was the only university-sanctioned lens by which to approach these topics. The only other mention of sex was instruction on how to obtain free contraception and STI testing.
Similarly, we took part in an exercise in which we had to say our preferred gender and preferred gender pronouns. Everyone’s responses, in fact, were consistent with their biological sex. Yet, the activity implied that living out one’s gender, which I believe is central to human life, could be done in any way one pleased, with no effect on one’s fulfillment. Gender was to be a matter entirely up to individual discretion. The only unhappiness that could result from gender was that which came from contradicting another’s subjective preferences.
BC’s decision to not include such an exercise in orientation signals its commitment to the affirmation of the objectivity of gender and that only a recognition of this fact will allow for true human fulfilment. My point is not that the Catholic position that “male and female He created them” is even the correct one—I’ll leave that for you to decide. What is significant is that BC did not choose, at least during orientation, to advance the view that gender is to be understood as a matter of personal taste.
BC’s Catholic heritage gives it permission to ask students to grapple with questions of human fulfillment, a privilege not afforded to secular universities. This encourages us to place our education and college lives within a larger life plan in which our personhood, in all its dimensions, is taken seriously.
Featured Image by Zoe Fanning / Heights Editor