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Catholic College and Universities

From the edges to the academic center

Special to the National Catholic Reporter

In a remarkably brief period of time, the idea of “Catholic Studies” has made the transition from innovation to established presence on American Catholic campuses.

At Georgetown, students in Catholic Studies classes include a substantial mix of non-Catholics, including Jews and Moslems, said Frank Ambrosio, a philosopher who designed the introductory course. They hear from faculty in art, literature, history, women’s studies, theology and philosophy during the introductory course.

In a school in which “Catholicism had almost disappeared from the curriculum,” in the view of English professor John Pfordresher, Catholic Studies has, over seven years, moved Georgetown to reintroduce Aquinas, fill a chair in Catholic ethics and offer faculty up to $5,000 fellowships to “develop their course with a Catholic Studies spin.”

Pfordresher’s own favorite course, titled “Merited Execration,” looks at four Catholics in Victorian England -- the architect Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin, the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, the composer Sir Edward Elgar and the reformer Cardinal John Henry Newman. “I try to show how a hostile environment framed them and what they managed to produce in that context.”

Marianist Fr. James Heft, chancellor of the University of Dayton in Ohio, likes to quote an anonymous academic that “research is to teaching what sin is to confession. If you don’t participate in the former, you have little to say in the latter.”

Heft stressed the “tremendous importance of research” to Catholic Studies. He’s heading a feasibility study for a national Institute for Advanced Catholic Studies that would be at the service of all levels of Catholic education.

At Scranton University in Pennsylvania, the initial Catholic Studies talks occurred in what somecalled “a hostile environment.”

Susan Mathews, a scripture scholar who directed the program last year, heard all the reasons why it shouldn’t happen at Scranton -- fears of ghettoization, revisionism, nostalgia, suspicion that “Catholic Studies meant doing Catholic things on campus,” she said, quoting an opponent of the program. “Those who were against it had a way of canning the program without giving us a real hearing,” she said, noting that the discussion became polarized.

Part of the tension arose because proponents of Catholic Studies set their proposal within the context of Ex Corde Ecclesiae, Pope John Paul II’s 1990 apostolic constitution on Catholic higher education. While the document takes seriously the intellectual mission of the Catholic academy, it also deals with relations between higher education and church hierarchy. It has made faculty and administrators -- Jesuit and lay -- hesitate about curricular changes.

In May Scranton graduated a handful of students who had done the concentration in Catholic Studies; 20 students have enrolled this semester. Students also gather for the Liturgy of the Hours and attend Mass together, in what Mathews called an effort to engage them inside and out.

At another Jesuit campus, Santa Clara University in California, Catholic Studies is modestly entering its third year with courses in Hispanic theology, the Catholic church in China -- even one on Karl Rahner, illustrated with Fellini’s film, “La Strada.”

Demand has also built for a course on Milton and on the English Protestant Reformation. “We have criteria, but try not be be too narrow in California,” said Jesuit Fr. Paul Crowley, who heads the program.

Crowley is glad Catholic Studies has arrived, noting that “any Catholic university can look at Catholicism in an objective manner. Theology and liturgy don’t exhaust Catholicism.”

In Chicago, Loyola University opened the first graduate program in the field last year with 11 students; it has attracted 10 this term. Students take two core courses -- an overview of American and global Catholicism and a study of consciousness from the perspective of the scientist, artist and writer.

Jim Brennan, associate graduate dean, describes the typical student as a 40-year-old who looks into his computer one morning and realizes he’s never read Plato or she doesn’t know what the Renaissance was trying to achieve. He found the students -- two of them deacons -- by holding focus groups in local parishes after Sunday Mass. At $1,500 per course, graduates are coming for personal enrichment, Brennan said. “The program’s not training ministers or theologians.”

But at DePaul University, all four Catholic Studies majors want careers in ministry. While the Vincentian-run university is not a preparatory school for ministry, the new Catholic Studies program does offer “a good broad preparation for graduate school,” said its director Augustinian Fr. James Halstead.

DePaul students also enjoy a link with the Catholic Theological Union, where, Halstead said, some of the university’s “first-class atheists and agnostics” get a mindset adjustment.

John Carroll University in Cleveland inaugurated its Institute of Catholic Studies Sept. 23 with a lecture by Notre Dame historian George Marsden. A proposal for a minor in Catholic Studies awaits approval by the faculty and administration.

Last year students said in a survey that of the school’s 28 departments, they would be most interested in having Catholic Studies courses offered in psychology and sociology. As for the content of the courses, students chose the saints and arts, and were least interested in papal writings and church councils.

At Loyola in Baltimore, students broadened their knowledge of Catholicism by seeing the Vatican Museum’s traveling collection of angels. They also learned of their Jesuit heritage by viewing “The Mission” and “Black Robe.”

A two-semester lecture series on Japanese Catholic novelist Shusaku Endo’s Silence, on women in Catholicism and on Jesuits and modernity, is designed to promote Loyola’s heritage and enrich faculty and students, said Jesuit Fr. Joseph Rossi, who directs the Catholic Studies minor.

Just getting people to talk beyond their own discipline is already a miracle achieved by Catholic Studies Centers across America, noted Msgr. Richard Liddy, who directs the undergraduate minor at Seton Hall University in South Orange, N.J. The greatest resistance to Catholic Studies is not faculty or administrators, he said, but “institutional inertia.”

National Catholic Reporter, October 16, 1998