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The Catholic Community at Harvard


By John T. Noonan | March 1992
John T. Noonan Jr., who received his B.A. ('47) and LI.B. ('54) from Harvard, is United States Circuit Judge for the Ninth Circuit and Robbins Professor Emeritus of Law at the University of California at Berkeley. His latest book is Bribes.

Address to the Donors to the Harvard-Radcliffe Catholic Center, October 30, 1991:

Veritas is one Harvard motto, adopted by the Board of Overseers in 1643, but not used and forgotten until dug out and made public by President Quincy 200 years later. In the meantime Harvard’s charter of 1650 used the phrase In Christi gloriam, “For the glory of Christ,” and, under the influence of the Mathers, Harvard’s seal of 1693 adopted the phrase Christo et Ecclesiae, “For Christ and the Church.” In 1885 the corporation, with its usual balance and prudence, put both Veritas and Christo et Ecclesiae into the seal of Harvard, and both slogans remain on the seal today.

Two other venerable institutions, I am informed, bear the motto, Veritas. They are the Dominican Order and the Holy Roman Inquisition. The last association may be suggestive enough to make the motto “Truth” not an appropriate theme for further discourse on this occasion.

I turn to Harvard’s other motto, “For Christ and the Church.” Half a century ago, Learned Hand, speaking to the Harvard Alumni Association as president of that association, pondered what these charged theological terms could mean to the Harvard graduates of 1936. Using the words of the Gospel, he offered to put new wine in the old bottles. He argued that the early makers of Harvard could be reinterpreted as saying that the purpose of a university is not to teach the way to acquisition or affluence or power, but to teach self-knowledge, for in true self-knowledge there is freedom. A community of souls who truly knew themselves, he suggested, would act both freely and harmoniously. With impunity they could actually adopt the motto of the Abbey of Theleme, cribbed from St. Augustine: “Do what you will.” Such freedom of the soul, he implied, was what was meant by “for Christ”; such harmony of the community was the good of “the Church.” Reinterpreted, Christo et Ecclesiae retained vitality.

St. Augustine himself, if he had heard Hand, would have said, “You are right: Acquisition and affluence are not goals but temptations; and power is not an end and not the business of a university to teach. You are right, but you have not gone far enough. In the recesses of your soul, if you truly know yourself, you will find God. And if you find God, you will love God, and in that love you will find freedom for yourself and harmony with other humans. You will come to be for Christ and the Church. Not do as you will, but love and do as you will.”

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