Sources of the Civic

Author: Anthony Monta


September 26-27, 2014
via Ostilia, 15, ROME

Over the past decade, transnational institutions in Europe have taken a leading role in promoting the cause of civic education. The architects of these programs decry the average citizen’s loss of interest in politics, lack of knowledge about democratic processes, and declining engagement in the promotion of human rights and fundamental freedoms. In response, they seek to stimulate civic culture in Europe through education, training, awareness-raising, information, practices and activities.

Such efforts are noble and worthwhile, but they are hampered by three tendencies. First, European transnational institutions are often officially ambiguous regarding the principles and motives that provide a foundation for civic engagement. Second, their understanding of civic education is often grounded in a conception of civic engagement that is centralized, bureaucratic, and procedural. Finally, such approaches to civic education tend to describe the citizen’s position in European culture in terms of rights or entitlements that must be exercised and defended in a competitive arena rather than in a cooperative community.

Alternatives to such tendencies are already flourishing in Europe. Over the past two decades, Europe’s major Catholic universities have been among the most active proponents of a holistic concept of civic life and engagement. They have come to this role naturally as a result of a less dependent relationship upon the state and a stronger conviction that a healthy democracy can only be achieved when it is a) supported by institutions that take a positive stand on the foundations of civic life, b) operating according to a broader conception of what that life encompasses, and c) encouraging their students to understand that civic engagement takes place not only in political processes but in economic, social, legal, and cultural spheres that are interrelated. Moreover, Catholic universities regard the relationship between the individual and the community as a locus where not only rights are identified and adjudicated, but where the common good can be identified and communitarian responsibilities defined. In these respects, Catholic universities may be in a more advantageous position to promote civic education for democratic life than secular institutions. They may have a deeper understanding of the “habits of the heart” (Bellah) that support the healthy exercise of democratic citizenship and may be closer to the philosophies and institutions that support it.

Accordingly, the first day of the conference will be devoted to identifying competing conceptions of civic education. Panels on the second day will be devoted to identifying the philosophical and practical conceptions of civic formation provided by Catholic universities. The first panel will focus on the conceptual foundations required to prepare students for meaningful engagement in the multiple dimensions of civic life. The second panel will identify the economic, social, legal, and cultural spheres in which students are encouraged to live morally responsible lives. The last panel will be devoted to identifying the most effective ways of preparing students to integrate their individual lives with the good of the community. Finally, a closing panel of eminent scholars and policymakers will offer reflective comments on the panels’ contributions and their broader implications for the future of European democracy.

Panel I – Current Approaches
Chair: A. James McAdams, William M. Scholl Professor of International Affairs, University of Notre Dame, USA

Panel II – The Catholic Alternative
Chair: Fáinche Ryan, Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology, Loyola Institute, Trinity College, Dublin, Ireland

Panel III – Spheres of Civic Engagement
Chair: Paula Olearnik, Professor of Political Science, Jagiellonian University in Kraków, Poland

Panel IV – The Good of the Community
Chair: Rev. Sławomir Nowosad, Chair of Ecumenical Moral Theology, John Paul II Catholic University of Lublin, Poland

Distinguished Closing Panel (Transcriptions)


Notre Dame has a long history of explicit commitment to civic education and engagement. The Nanovic Institute shares this commitment, having led previous Notre Dame’s collaborations with the major Catholic universities of Europe. This collaboration is now known as the Catholic University Partnership (CUP). Five of the universities are located in post-communist countries and have direct experience with the challenge of forming civic cultures in regions fractured by legacies of dictatorship. This conference represents the culmination of a three-year project in which Notre Dame and its Catholic university partners in Europe have discussed new and more visible forms of academic collaboration.

For additional information about the Catholic University Partnership and a short video click here.

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