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More doubts than decisions at meeting


Over 200 delegates of bishops’ conferences, representing 50 countries, and representatives from both Catholic and state universities, attended a confused but ambitious gathering Sept. 23-26 to plan a Jubilee 2000 World Congress of University Professors.

The conference, held at Sacred Heart University Conference Center in Rome, was called by Cardinal Pio Laghi of the Congregation for Catholic Education and Cardinal Paul Poupard of the Pontifical Council for Culture.

The congress is to focus on “The University For a New Humanism,” a favorite and reiterated theme of Pope John Paul II underlined most recently in his last encyclical on faith and reason. The congress will have a wide variety of sub-topics discussed in university centers all over Italy and the Holy Land Sept. 4-8, 2000. A summary of final reports will be presented to Pope John Paul II in the following Jubilee ceremonies on Sept. 9 and 10, 2000.

Ambitious? Incredibly so. Church authorities want to provide a forum for dialogues between faith, science and culture on such topics as anthropology, bioethics, globalization, physics, metaphysics, medicine, architecture and art -- the list goes on.

It is a worthy task recalling the best of the Catholic humanist tradition from Copernicus, Galileo and Michelangelo, to Thomas More and Cardinal John Newman and on to Jacques Maritain and Karl Rahner. But one is wise to remember the trials (legal and spiritual) of those pioneers as they tried to interpret and assimilate human advances in thought and action with the encrusted “traditions” of custom and church practice having little to do with “tradition” as authentic faith and permanent teaching.

Since the goals and themes of the Jubilee event are ambitious, one might forgive the organizational confusion. The world meeting will be a first for all concerned, organizers and participants. Still, the planning meeting in Rome left huge questions to be answered very soon for the proposed cultural encounter.

Who participates? The planning invitation went to bishops’ conferences around the world. They sent a wide variety of delegates. The United States sent one delegate from the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, but not from Catholic universities or campus ministry. The Catholic Campus Ministry Association knew nothing of the meeting. On the other hand, the chaplains of Georgetown and Cornell took part, sent by their universities.

Monica Hellwig, noted theologian and president of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities, was an invited panelist. The presidents of various Catholic universities from developing countries, such as the Philippines and Indonesia, attended and reported their difficult experiences of growth.

Very few university professors were in attendance, though they are the supposed protagonists of the scheduled intellectual, cultural and theological programs of next year.

There was no clarity about the representation or contribution of those Catholics working in greatly diverse settings of ministry in higher education. The title of the Jubilee meeting, “World Congress of University Professors,” left the planning meeting with more doubts than decisions. Who are the professors (and only professors?) to be invited as participants? Who will be the contributing speakers and experts covering such a wide variety of themes on science, culture and faith?

The Jubilee 2000 meeting is designed to emphasize Catholic beliefs and their historical contributions to science and the humanities. But will it include ecumenical and interreligious questions about the new global challenges to both faith and science in the 21st century?

The meeting received a preponderance of academic and ecclesial input from Italian university experiences and from curial authorities. A “world meeting” cannot be limited to such narrow sources if it is to be taken seriously by scientific, church or ecumenical intellectuals and their institutions.

No clear distinction was made between those working in Catholic universities as administrators, teachers or campus ministers and those growing numbers now ministering at state or private, non-confessional universities. Not every developing country has a Catholic university.

In Bolivia, the Catholic university has 12,000 students while almost 150,000 Catholics are in the state university system. And similar percentages would be true from Mexico on south. Still, no attention was paid to preparing either professors or pastoral ministers in developing countries for the new, ever-multiplying Catholic presence in the university populations of the Third World. That world will become a First World in the new millennium because of its determination to find a human place for its over 4 billion people. Universities will be the key to this development, and most of those universities will not be of Catholic inspiration. They will be teaching Western science and technology to meet global challenges, and that will mean they will also be teaching a humanist tradition of research, experimental inquiry and personal and professional ethics. It could be a unique opportunity for church ministry to higher education, but few are prepared to meet these new needs -- nor was there any sense of institutional urgency about the task at the meeting.

Most delegates, while enthusiastic about the basic idea of the Jubilee Congress, voiced their doubts about the process and the tone of the presentations made to them. The presentations, from individual speakers or panels, were magisterial and didactic. Very little time was given for questions, and only the briefest of dialogues was held. There was no time set aside for the interaction of the delegates. Delegates could have come and gone, meeting and speaking with no one while, against all modern adult pedagogy, they were passive and silent listeners. Most modern grammar schools have a more interactive process of learning for their students. This structural and methodological error must be corrected for the congress next year.

Finally, in this meeting about global human creativity and culture there was a disappointing negativism. A pall of Eurocentric pessimism about human history and, despite Vatican II, about the Christian humanism of hope, so contrary to the pope’s own vision of this millennial threshold, pervaded the proceedings. Cautionary counsels and corrections of the world’s errors seemed to be put forth as the purpose of the proposed Jubilee Congress -- a goal not shared by the quite hopeful delegates, especially those from youthful developing countries, in spite of their monumental problems of social ferment and instability.

The Catholic church has a humanist tradition of great antiquity and of urgent relevance. It would be a sin against the tradition not to share this horizon of hope about humanist -- incarnational -- values with a world hungering to believe in, and to create, a viable global human future in the first century of the new millenium.

Fr. Michael J. Gillgannon is coordinator for campus ministry of the Bishops’ Conference of Bolivia and campus minister to the State University of La Paz.

National Catholic Reporter, November 19, 1999