A Catholic Presence: Duke's Wallace Fowlie

By Martin, Stephen | Commonweal, April 7, 2006 | Go to article overview

A Catholic Presence: Duke's Wallace Fowlie


Martin, Stephen, Commonweal


For Catholics of any generation, the question of how to remain loyal to the age-old traditions of our faith while also engaging new ideas poses plenty of challenges. For college students squeezed between modernity and Catholicism, the struggle for answers is particularly intense and given to extremes. Some students choose to remain loyal to their faith and shelter themselves from campus activities that threaten their beliefs. Many others can hardly wait to toss their religious upbringing aside entirely--and if that's what you wanted, Duke University was a thrilling destination in the early 1990s.

Being an English major in the department ruled by controversial literary critic Stanley Fish was even better. Longstanding assumptions about the meaning of literature, even about the act of reading itself, were under assault, gaining Duke national notoriety. For many of Fish's faculty colleagues, truth in literature and the larger world was relative, the notion of God passe. Though Duke had been founded by Methodists, it was by now a playground for postmodernists who had steamrolled much of the university's spiritual heritage.

All of that was fine with me. I felt a lingering attachment to the impressive faith of my mother and her large Italian-Catholic family. But could a church that had relied on twelve years of mediocre CCD classes to win my heart and mind really be onto something? I was caught in a tug of war between wide-open modernity and traditional Catholicism, between glittering new ideas and very old ones. And as when Duke's dominant basketball teams of my student days suited up, there wasn't much question about which side was going to win. I went to Mass my first weekend on campus and didn't go back for a long time.

It might have been much longer. But about halfway through college I learned that my strongest urge, where God was concerned, was not to rebel any longer but to reconcile--to make peace as it were between the Bible and Stanley Fish. I didn't come to this crossroads by accident. I was led there by a professor, a convert to Catholicism, who taught a popular course on Dante's Inferno and who, like Virgil, guided me out of the maze of my own misconceptions.

His name was Wallace Fowlie, and he was unlike any Catholic I'd ever met. A prolific writer and distinguished scholar, he never achieved the renown of Thomas Merton or Dorothy Day, but I've always thought he was very much in their class, as a writer, a thinker, and, above all, a pilgrim. Fowlie died in 1998, at the age of eighty-nine, but his influence lives on--in the more than forty books he wrote or translated, among the more than six-thousand students he taught, perhaps most of all in those of us who found a new depth of meaning and adventure in Catholicism through his example. Fowlie was a consummate educator who still has much to teach fellow Catholics about the crucial business of grasping and fulfilling our vocations in an increasingly fractured American church, about not only co-existing with modernity--those ideas and behaviors that characterize the current age--but actually learning from it, rather than fearing or ignoring it as many church leaders seem increasingly prone to do. If the church hopes to influence the modern world, if lay people and religious alike are to honor Pope John Paul II's insistent calls for the "evangelization of culture," we must first engage it--and that's what Fowlie did.

At eighty-five, Fowlie published the final book of his career: Rimbaud and Jim Morrison: The Poet as Rebel (Duke University Press). The book explores parallels between the work of nineteenth-century French poet Arthur Rimbaud and the songs Jim Morrison wrote as lead singer of the 1960s American rock band the Doors. Both men died young, becoming cultural icons after brief but spectacular careers defined by vivid art, personal adventure, and the reckless pursuit of self-liberation. (Morrison died of a drug overdose. …

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