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Providence College is a Roman Catholic, four-year, liberal arts college and the only college or university in the United States founded by and conducted under the auspices of the Dominican Friars. Formally known as the Order of Preachers, the Dominicans were founded by the Spanish priest St. Dominic de Guzman in 1216.
The 13th century was a time of rapid social change and one in which people were beset with a welter of competing ideologies that vied for their loyalty. Amidst it all, people longed for the authentic Christian message. Unfortunately, the church was ill-equipped to provide what people needed. The clergy was often poorly educated, corruption was rife, and there seemed to be little authentic witness to the Gospel.
St. Dominic therefore gathered together men and women, Friars and nuns, and later sisters and laity, who would live the Gospel more authentically and preach its truth with both their words and their lives. From the beginning, he sent his Friars to the great universities of the time: Oxford, Paris, and Bologna. He wanted his Friars to be educated so that their preaching and teaching would be informed, able to answer the questions of the day, and meet people’s longing for the Gospel. Ideally, his Friars were to be men of faith, prayer, and learning who could respond to the needs of their time without fear and confident that the human mind, a mere creature, could rightly, if imperfectly, understand its Creator.
Although Providence College is relatively young, having been founded in 1917, the values and goals embodied in its mission reach back 800 years. And while the 13th century may seem distant to us, it serves as a mirror of our own age: a time of rapid social change, competing ideologies, and amidst the confusion, a yearning for what is true, good, and holy.
A Catholic and Dominican College for our time
In some ways, the fact that Providence College is a Catholic and Dominican college is obvious. The Friars wear their habits when teaching or ministering, St. Dominic Chapel is located in the very center of campus, and crucifixes adorn the walls of classrooms and offices. Additionally, most students, faculty, and staff are Catholic; the 10:30 p.m. Mass on Sunday nights is often very crowded; and students are required to take classes in philosophy and theology.
Other aspects of the Catholic and Dominican identity are more subtle or even unexpected. Catholic teaching guides the investment of the endowment, the enforcement of parietals in the residence halls, and the generosity extended to students and employees in need. Hundreds of students volunteer through Campus Ministry every year, and at all hours someone can be found praying quietly in the chapel.
By charter, Providence College was the first college or university in Rhode Island to welcome students of every faith or none, and it has a long, close, and continuing relationship with Rhode Island’s Jewish community.
Yet, in some ways, the Catholic and Dominican character of Providence College precisely as a college is most evident in its approach to faith and reason. For many people, faith and reason stand in opposition to one another; they are black and white, irreconcilable, and best kept apart. Not so for Dominicans. In the tradition of St. Thomas Aquinas, Dominicans assert that faith and reason are compatible, complementary, and point to a single truth.
There is no opposition between the theory of evolution and belief in divine providence, for example, because how God accomplishes His purposes is a distinct question from why, even as the answers to the two questions are intimately related. Science has every right to try and understand how the universe works-indeed, it is God’s will that the human mind probe creation in order to understand it-and theology has every right to assert that everything that takes place is in service of a loving plan. What remains true is that it is God’s creation. Moreover, while faith is a gift from God, reason supports faith. This means that faith in God is not merely the result of custom, feeling, and private choice but can be a thoughtful and reasonable response to the evidence at hand. Indeed, while intimate knowledge of God in himself-Father, Son, and Holy Spirit-requires revelation, knowledge that God exists can be arrived at by reason alone.
The implications of this assertion of the compatibility of faith and reason for education are profound. Questions, debates, and challenges are welcomed, as are people of hesitant faith, different faiths, or even no faith at all. Believers cannot take refuge in the assurances of faith but must learn to provide reasons for what they believe and, when it comes to the classroom, they must pursue biology, history, or accountancy with uncompromising rigor and integrity as a biologist, historian, or accountant.
At the same time, those of questioning or absent faith will be challenged by their studies in the Development of Western Civilization, philosophy, and theology. There they will have to contend with an understanding of God that is hardly the sop of comfort that Marx and Freud asserted, and will have to reconsider whether in fact faith in God is a more exacting stance than is non-belief.
It should be evident that Providence College aims at something ambitious and critically important. It attempts to provide an education for the whole person-body, mind, and soul-that bridges the common divides between matter and spirit, God and creation, faith and reason. In doing so, it affirms the distinctively Catholic sense of sacrament and grace and, like the black and white of the Dominican habit, joins together apparent opposites in a greater unity. If successful, this means that everyone at Providence College will understand that they are made in the image and likeness of God; that their work, love, and play can be replete with God’s grace; and that they have a unique role in God’s loving plan, that is, in His providence.
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