Skip Navigation

President Powell's Reflections on Our Catholic Identity

Thomas H. Powell
Mount St. Mary’s University


Our commitment to the liberal arts is intrinsically linked to our mission as a Catholic university. 

To a very large degree, a Catholic understanding of higher education and a liberal arts understanding of education overlap.  Both understandings view education as formation of the whole person through personal relationships in a free and rigorous pursuit of truth. As we seek truth, we recognize a responsibility to criticize ourselves and everything else we value.   This is what Cardinal Newman taught us.  To a very large degree, to be an authentically Catholic university is simultaneously to be an authentic liberal arts university.

While the Catholic and liberal arts dimensions of our mission overlap to a large degree, there is also something distinctive about being an authentically Catholic university. 

Specifically, as Pope John Paul II described the nature of a Catholic university, our “privileged task” is to use scholarship to unite two perspectives that are often thought to oppose each other; “the search for truth, and the certainty of already knowing the fount of truth.” In short, faith and reason do not contradict each other. 

In this view, to know the fount of truth, to know God through Christ and the Church, is not an obstacle but rather a great advantage in our search for truth.  Faith and reason are complementary modes of seeking a unified truth about ourselves and the world around us.

So often today when Catholic university communities reflect upon their identity and mission as Catholic, the discussion breaks down into labels like “conservative” or “liberal.” Such labels completely miss the point. 
An authentically Catholic university transcends political labels because an authentically Catholic university seeks not political alliances but truth – always the truth. 

At times the world will label us as “conservative” because we uphold the right to life for the unborn.  At other times the world will label us as “liberal” because we uphold the right to life of those condemned to capital punishment.  But these are worldly labels that we should refuse to apply to ourselves.  The confounding constant that eludes those who try to label us, the only label that ultimately fits, is “Catholic” and all that it implies.  And at the Mount, we are unabashedly proud to be Catholic.

In 2005-06 we spent considerable time formulating our strategic plan which has been approved by our Trustees.  As we formed this plan we engaged in lively discussions about four dimensions of our mission – about: 
• Being Catholic;
• Being a university;
• Being a liberal arts college; and,
• Being a university that grants professional degrees.

Our discussions about these four dimensions of our mission are certainly far from complete.  It fact, as we always are in a state of becoming, it is proper that these conversations never cease.   Though I expect that we will continue to have many legitimate differences of opinion about the details, I hope that we can all agree in principle on this much: specifically, that these four dimensions of our mission are not mutually exclusive, but overlap and complement one another.

To those who would say that at some point we face stark choices between being either Catholic or a university, or between being either liberal arts or professional, we refuse to accept the terms they offer – terms that impose false dichotomies upon us as individuals and as a true community of learners. 

If God is indeed the fount of all truth, then at some level truth is not divided into Catholic fragments, university fragments, liberal arts fragments and professional fragments. 

These four dimensions of our mission are really just four perspectives on truth and these four perspectives necessarily converge at truth’s fount.  Whether we are Catholic or Jewish or Protestant or atheist, whether we are teacher or student or staff, whether our field of scholarship is Philosophy or Biology or Business, amidst all of our diversity I believe that our mission as a community is to seek truth from at least these four perspectives – Catholic, university, liberal arts, professional – confident that they will lead us closer to one another.

To be confident that truth will unify us does not mean that our path will be easy.  We are imperfect creatures in an imperfect world, and we often perceive the truth only dimly.  Truth, or at least our limited perspective on it, can easily become a blunt instrument we use to bludgeon those who disagree with us. 

We have probably all fallen into this trap at some point in time.  I’m ashamed to say that I have done so.  We have certainly all witnessed this trap in the unjust wars nations have fought and continue to fight in the name of some dim, collective notion of truth.

Therefore from my perspective, just as important as our commitment to truth as a Catholic university is our commitment to love. 

Pope Benedict XVI last January reminded us of the importance of love in his first encyclical letter, entitled God is Love.  The supreme truth about God revealed in Jesus Christ is that God is love: God loves us and invites us to love him and one another – love that burns with holy desire and that is also selflessly sacrificial.  The ultimate measure of all human activity is love.  The most brilliant scholarship, the most dazzling campus grounds, the most innovative student life program – all of it is worthless without love.

As we continue to discuss our mission as a Catholic university, we must all speak the truth as we perceive it – freely, clearly, passionately.  There is no love in withholding truth. 

Yet we should also speak the truth humbly, patiently, mercifully, respectfully – in a word, lovingly – always conscious that as an institution we are committed to the belief that the fount of truth is love incarnate.  To be a Catholic university means that we are a place where we can see and experience God’s love on our campus.   I believe the Mount truly is such a place. I am dedicated, as I know all of you are, to helping the Mount continue to be such a place in fulfillment of our mission. We are committed to be such a beacon of love for our society.


We have thoughtful and provocative mission statements, for the undergraduate college, for the seminary, for our Grotto and developing missions for the graduate programs. 
All assert that Catholicism is a driving force on our campus and that we are called to help our students mature spiritually regardless of their own faith perspective.  Our missions note our commitment to help our students discover the truth and pursue free and rigorous inquiry.  We are united in our goal of preparing responsible leaders who live by high moral and intellectual standards.  And our missions declare that we are committed to sending forth graduates who are called to respect the dignity of all persons, to resolve the problems facing humanity and to build better communities. 

To help us remember these solemn missions, I find it helpful to describe the four pillars of the Mount, which in essence are our calling and our promise to our students and to society.  

Faith, Discovery, Leadership and Community

No matter what we do individually at Mount Saint Mary’s let this be our common ground.  Our missions so eloquently stated and displayed are not mere words but express our commitment to serve our students and society by seeking truth in a community of learners animated by love.

So as we begin another academic year, the first year of our third century, I wonder what the Class of 2011 will say about us 50 years from now, when another generation of faculty and staff will be listening.

Let us hope that they remember us as a community who taught them:

• How to live a good life, full of wisdom and moral virtue;
• To deepen their faith in God;
• To respect other people;
• To seek to resolve contemporary problems with responsible intelligence, and,
• To fight for social justice and even more importantly, for the demands of love that exceed the demands of justice.
If we teach them these things, then, we will truly be a community worthy of the name, “Catholic university that stresses the liberal arts.”

16300 Old Emmitsburg Road | Emmitsburg, MD 21727
Map & Directions | | 301-447-6122
Frederick Campus | 5350 Spectrum Drive | Frederick, MD 21703
Map & Directions | | 301-682-8315