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Catholic College and Universities

Catholic studies is serious business

Special to the National Catholic Reporter
St. Paul, Minn.

At the University of St. Thomas, the often fuzzy notion that faith should inform one’s life in the real world has taken concrete curricular form. The Catholic Studies program, typically housed in liberal arts departments elsewhere, is also standard fare here for business students.

In a recent class on Christian Faith and the Management Professions, team-taught by Dr. Michael Naughton and Dr. Jeanne Buckeye, students participated vigorously in discussions that covered relationships and contracts, the common good, property -- even the issue of how a Catholic institution invests its pension fund.

While only three business students are pursuing a double major in Catholic Studies, dozens more have enrolled in one or more Catholic Studies courses. Naughton hopes that within 10 years every business student will leave St. Thomas with some knowledge of Catholic social principles and their bearing on professional life.

As Naughton sees it, more than half of the school’s students will enter the business world at some point in their future. Why not try to engage them, he asked, in what the church has to say about the nature and purpose of the business organization, about labor, power, property and the search for happiness?

While this crossover with business is unique, St. Thomas’ Catholic Studies program is part of a broad national trend on Catholic campuses. The idea is to develop a critical awareness of Catholic history, doctrine and practice among students whose own grounding in the tradition is often shaky.

Now in its fifth academic year at St. Thomas, the Center for Catholic Studies, directed by theologian Don Briel, graduated 17 Catholic Studies majors in May. Currently it has enrolled 90 majors and 25 minors and serves as a model for other universities. Students and faculty across the nation with whom NCR spoke have reacted enthusiastically to such offerings.

At St. Thomas, an archdiocesan university in St. Paul, Catholic Studies offerings run the gamut from a course in “Christian Faith and the Medical Profession,” exploring what makes a good physician, to another in the theology behind the Catholic Worker movement. Others delve into such disparate topics as the philosophical and ethical foundations of law and politics; the mysteries of the Incarnation, the Eucharist, divine providence and personal freedom; modern Catholic writers; the music of the Bible; and Dante’s Divine Comedy. All appear on this semester’s Catholic Studies menu.

Interdisciplinary stew

They’re part of “the rich conversation and interdisciplinary stew” that is Catholic Studies, in the words of Fr. J. Michael Joncas, a composer who teaches Dante and the Biblical music course.

While changes over the past 30 years have helped put many Catholic institutions on a scholastic par with state-sponsored universities, it has also made it hard to distinguish them as places of Catholic life and learning. Where courses related to Catholicism do exist, they are sometimes present in philosophy or literature but more often found in the theology department. There a student is as likely to encounter a Jewish or Islamic scholar as a Thomist.

David O’Brien of Holy Cross ignited much conversation about Jesuit and Catholic higher education with his 1994 article, “Jesuit Si, Catholic ... Not So Sure,” in the Jesuit quarterly Conversations. He told NCR that Catholic Studies programs are chiefly important because the study of Catholicism needs attention, because it opens a richer dialogue about Catholic intellectual life and because it offers a home to those practicing the Catholic vocation to scholarship.

O’Brien writes that the “minimum” responsibility of a Catholic university is to acquaint students with the intellectual heritage of Catholicism. And he’s frustrated that the last generation of Catholic college presidents did not make the Catholic intellectual argument more forcefully.

“There’s a shrinking cadre of people who believe in it and will hang in there and fight for it,” he told NCR.

At St. Thomas, whose 10,000 students are nearly equally divided between the graduate and undergraduate level, some 3,000 undergrads major in business -- with an ample number pursuing minors in management, finance, marketing and accounting. The graduate school claims some 3,000 MBA candidates.

Two years ago St. Thomas premiered its Catholic Studies quarterly Logos, which attempts to explore the beauty, truth and vitality of Christianity, especially as it is rooted and shaped in Catholic culture. Logos, along with Religion and the Arts, published by Boston College, are the first two journals of Catholic Studies.

The 6-year-old Institute for Catholic Social Thought, directed by Naughton, advanced a new initiative in July -- one that grew out of the U.S. Bishops’ Task Force on Catholic Social Teaching and Catholic Education (NCR, July 3). The project will try to bring church social teaching more directly into people’s lives. St. Joseph Sr. Catherine McNamee, former National Catholic Education Association president, is heading the project.

McNamee has already created the longest Web address in Christendom -- (http://Byte.stthomas.edu/cathstudies/cst/mgmt/) -- and hopes to collect and distribute programs that integrate Catholic social teaching into the curriculum of all levels of Catholic education around the nation.

The project developed out of conversations former Archbishop John Roach of St. Paul and Minneapolis had with several educators at St. Thomas.

McNamee is counting on Roach’s “dynamism and his prestige with the bishops and with universities” to help the Catholic Social Thought and Catholic Education Program succeed and become a national resource to parishes, schools and dioceses.

“This is the capstone of his retirement. He knows about all the encyclicals and pastorals that sit on library shelves but don’t get integrated into homilies and curriculums,” McNamee said.

Fear of losing the tradition

She said that neither the task force project nor Catholic Studies itself is about a return to orthodoxy. “It’s a fear of losing the Catholic intellectual tradition” that’s prompting it, she said.

While the future of Catholic Studies will depend heavily on the quality of its practitioners and their scholarly efforts, it also comes with a spiritual and a service dimension.

In September the center acquired a house here, which it will run as a Catholic Worker home for women and children. Briel is trying to fund a few Catholic Studies scholarships to be awarded on the basis of need rather than merit.

For junior Stephen Maas, it’s impossible to separate the intellectual and spiritual dimensions of the program. “As I grow in faith, my intellect benefits. Growth in spiritual life may reveal new elements of a text I was reading,” said Maas, who plans to join 10 other “Tommies” at Rome’s Angelicum University next semester.

Prayer and sacraments

As coeditor of the Catholic Studies newsletter Signature, Maas has written about the need for prayer in the classroom. He’s convinced that no one can work as a Catholic intellectual divorced from the sacraments. While Catholic Studies programs don’t seek to enforce any devotional practices on students, Maas and others favor Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, Good Friday observance and the rosary.

Briel said he has been surprised by the piety of some students. Many genuflect before receiving the host and the cup. “Young people are looking for some sense of reverence. They want structure. It’s as if they’re seeking a tradition that somehow holds. For us, it was holding together artificially,” he said of his own Catholic university life just after Vatican Council II.

About half of St. Thomas’ 28-member theology faculty was educated after the council ended when many of its reforms had been underway a decade or more -- including Christopher Thompson, who moderates several Catholic Studies Club activities. What Thompson loves about St. Thomas is how its “Catholic character is shared across the board.”

There’s “a climate of collaboration and opportunity” evident among faculty and students, he said. Faculty invite guest speakers like Nigerian Cardinal Francis Arinze, Jesuit Fr. Daniel Berrigan or Newman expert Ian Ker, and students go to lunch with them.

Briel believes that Catholic Studies will prosper or wither in direct proportion to its rigorous research and teaching.

“Watered-down apologetics can never replace true scholarship.” Fund-raising, winning the support of faculty and administrators and allowing teachers release time to plan new courses is vital, he said. But so, too, is creating a program with an ecumenical and interreligious dimension.

St. Thomas’ $10 million goal for its center is two-thirds collected. The center’s 10 offices have grown to 16 and will move next semester under the same roof as the university’s Jay Phillips Center for Jewish-Christian Learning.

National Catholic Reporter, October 16, 1998