Academic journal article Communication Research Trends

Walter J. Ong, S.J., as an American Catholic Thinker: On the Occasion of the Ong Centenary Year

Academic journal article Communication Research Trends

Walter J. Ong, S.J., as an American Catholic Thinker: On the Occasion of the Ong Centenary Year

Article excerpt

Walter J. Ong, S.J. (1912-2003), a member of the religious order in the Roman Catholic Church known as the Society of Jesus, flourished from the early 1950s through the early 1980s in terms of his public ministry. Retired from teaching English at Saint Louis University in May 1984, he has more than 400 publications to his credit. For Ong the Jesuit priest, his publications were part of his public ministry as a Jesuit priest, as were his classroom teaching, public lectures, and professional service. People who want to can still read his publications today. Many of his scholarly publications are not explicitly about religious faith, his own religious faith or anybody else's religious faith, as for example, Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word (1982). But some of his scholarly articles and books are explicitly about religious faith--for example, Hopkins, the Self, and God (1986). Nevertheless, in most of his publications Ong saw to it that the abbreviation "S.J." (for the Society of Jesus) appeared after his full name someplace in the publication.

Non-Catholics who may be interested in reading Ong's non-religious publications may think him an interesting thinker who just happened to be a Catholic priest. We tend to think that authors are supposed to check their religion in at the coat-check when they enter the public arena of public discourse, including the public arena of the academic study of religion. Fair enough. When I read an author's publications, I usually like to know where the author is coming from, as we say. After all, an author's publications can be understood as the autobiography of the author, at least to a certain extent. A publication is a public expression of the author's consciousness, at least to a certain extent. Where is this author coming from? In the case of Ong's books, I think that readers should understand, for example, that he is an American, not an Asian (his family name is English); that he is a Catholic, not a non-Catholic; that he is an American Catholic, not a French Catholic, even though he lived in Paris for three years and loved to speak French. Ah, but if you are yourself American Catholic, what are your expectations of an American Catholic priest who advertises that he is a member of a religious order by publishing "S.J." after his name and who advertised that he was a priest by wearing clerical garb wherever he lectured in the United State? Do you perhaps see American Catholics through the prism of recent Catholic immigrants such as Irish-American Catholics or Italian-American Catholics or German-American Catholics? Ong's mother and her family were German-American Catholics. But Ong's father and his father's family were Protestants. For Ong, his family life involved inter-faith dialogue. As a result, Ong himself was intimately familiar with U.S. Protestant culture. In addition, he did his doctoral studies in English at Harvard university when it was still a bastion of that culture. Furthermore, he wrote his massively researched doctoral dissertation about a Protestant martyr, the French logician and educational reformer Peter Ramus (1515-1572). (Ramus was killed in the St. Bartholomew's Day massacre in France in 1572.)

What are we to think of a Jesuit writing about the work a Protestant martyr? Besides the fact that he was a Protestant, why should American Catholics today or anyone else be interested in a book about a logician and educational reformer (unless they happen to be interested in the history of logic and/or the history of education)? After all, before the 1930s, how many Americans ever even heard of Peter Ramus? Before the 1930s, he had dropped off most people's radar screens.

Even today, Ramus is not well known except to specialists, even though he and his followers had enormous educational influence in the 16th and 17th centuries in England, Germany, and the Massachusetts Bay Colony, for example. The educational influence of Ramus and his followers was probably on a scale with the educational influence of the early Jesuits. …

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