Catholic Studies Is Serious Business: At St. Thomas, Business Students Get a Solid Dose of Catholicity

Article excerpt

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. …