Catholic News Service
Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi presents a lecture on "American Culture, Catholic Higher Education and Their Contributions to the Global Church" March 25 at the Madonna della Strada Chapel at Loyola University in Chicago.
Catholic News Service
Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi presents a lecture on "American Culture, Catholic Higher Education and Their Contributions to the Global Church" March 25 at the Madonna della Strada Chapel at Loyola University in Chicago.

CHICAGO — Vatican analyst John L. Allen Jr. once called him "the most interesting man in the Catholic Church." Who is he? He is Italian Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, president of the Pontifical Council for Culture, and he was in Chicago March 25 to receive an honorary doctorate from Loyola University of Chicago.

What makes Cardinal Ravasi so interesting are his efforts across Europe to engage the culture where it's at, most notably through his "Courtyard of the Gentiles" project. Through this effort, intellectuals -- nonbelievers and believers -- in major cities are invited to participate in dialogues that explore topics such as: "Can one choose a 'world without God?' How far can the human person go in the field of creation? Are there limits, and if so, what are they?"

During his Chicago visit, Cardinal Ravasi also took part in a colloquium on the history and diversity of Latino theology. After receiving the degree during a ceremony in Madonna della Strada Chapel on the university's campus, Cardinal Ravasi delivered a lecture on the role of Catholic higher education in American culture.

The cardinal has always been interested in American culture, especially through literature -- citing writers such as Mark Twain, Flannery O'Connor and John Updike. Intellectual thought on American culture has noted its strengths and weaknesses, he said, and the analysis continues today.

"In this evermore complex context, marked now by the new information and digital revolution, which is generating an unprecedented anthropological and sociological phenotype, how can the Catholic cultural presence be situated?" he asked.

Today, "culture" no longer means the arts, sciences and philosophy. It refers to values and symbols held by the whole society, Cardinal Ravasi said.

"In this light, the Christian message takes on a profound meaning for it can enrich and transform the same traditional founding values of the American culture," he continued. "These values, in fact, in many aspects belong to a basic anthropological category, now subject to many criticisms and variations, but nevertheless important. We refer here to the concept of 'human nature.'"

In American culture and law, church and state are distinct and separate. However, society and religion aren't, he said.

"Indeed between the two there is always an attraction and a tension, an encounter, sometimes a clash, but never separation or indifference. The history of many other countries is built on this dialectic," Cardinal Ravasi said.

Catholic universities must be in this meeting of society and faith and can sustain and enrich it, he said.

The Catholic university has a calling higher than that of secular academia -- to form the person, not just the student.

"A famous English thinker of the 1800s, the philosopher, theologian and also cardinal, John Henry Newman, had no hesitation to declare in his work 'The Idea of a University' that Catholic university education, before forming Christians or Catholics, should create 'gentlemen,'" Cardinal Ravasi said.

Catholic universities must form the student for life and not just for the school or work, he said. And when they instruct the student they do so out of the patrimony Christianity has offered over the centuries.

"In today's secularized society and in the great anonymous super cities, what dominates is not atheism, but apathy-ism, that is religious apathy, indifference to ethical and spiritual values." Cardinal Ravasi told those gathered at Loyola.

"The presence of a university community such as this at Loyola," he said, "can bring about the program that Christ had proposed to his disciples in the Sermon on the Mount, through an efficacious trilogy of images: 'You are the salt of the earth. ... You are the light of the world. A city that is on top of a mountain cannot remain hidden.'"