Distinctively Catholic Keeping the Faith in Higher Education

By Heft, James L. | Commonweal, March 26, 2010 | Go to article overview

Distinctively Catholic Keeping the Faith in Higher Education


Heft, James L., Commonweal


In the twenty years since Pope John Paul II issued Ex corde eccksiae ("From the Heart of the Church"), his apostolic constitution on Catholic universities, progress has been made in articulating and reinvigorating the Catholic identity of the more than two hundred and thirty Catholic universities and colleges in the United States. Still, significant work remains to be done, especially in clarifying the distinctive intellectual foundations on which any university that calls itself Catholic must rest.

Once it was commonplace to assume that secularization and scientific and economic progress would eventually stamp out religion along with other "superstitions." Yet the death of religion, to paraphrase Mark Twain, has been greatly exaggerated. Both here and across the globe, religion continues to influence nearly every aspect of society. To be sure, modernity has purified religion of some of its pretensions. In the West, the church now recognizes the autonomy of science, defends the separation of church and state, and affirms religious freedom. At the same time, the church has demonstrated great resilience. Religion evidently is here to stay.

Yet for the most part, the secular academy remains indifferent, if not openly hostile, to traditional religion. While there has been a renewed interest in the study of religion in the history and sociology departments of some campuses, most secular universities are dismissive of the study of religion and especially theology. There are several reasons for this, one of which is the prevalence of "postmodernism." Found mainly in the humanities and the social sciences, postmodernism comes in two forms: hard and soft. Hard postmodernism proclaims the end of metaphysics, the end of all "totalizing" narratives (itself a totalizing narrative), and the reduction of all knowledge claims to various forms of power. Obviously, hard postmodernism is deadly for Christianity; it attacks Christian truths as ideologies of control and oppression. On the other hand, Catholic scholars should welcome soft postmodernism, for this way of thinking recognizes that a purely objective and totally accurate expression of reality is impossible, that the realities of power, gender, and coercion cannot be ignored, that all concepts have a history, and that all truths need to be put in their historical and cultural context. Rightly understood, a soft postmodernism helps us avoid both the pretensions of absolutism and a paralyzing relativism.

The academy's reluctance to study religion has gone hand-in-hand with the professionalization of the disciplines. Over a hundred years ago, American academics, inspired by their German counterparts, began to organize themselves into separate departments, which established their own journals and professional societies. The professionalization of the academy took place when the influence of science was at its peak. No doubt professionalization has increased methodological rigor and promoted more original research, but professionalization has also had negative consequences, one of which is called "physics envy": many academics think that unless their research is empirically verifiable, it will be dismissed as mere opinion. The best scholars know better, because they understand the limits of their methods. But because most religious claims are not, strictly speaking, empirically verifiable, few professors in the modern academy take the study of religion seriously. Most major secular universities have no room for theologians; those that do tend to isolate them in schools of divinity, where they are often seen not as producers of new knowledge but as trainers of students entering the ministry

In the face of these powerful cultural forces, what can Catholic intellectuals bring to the modern academy? First and most obviously, our tradition values tradition. If Catholics were to rely primarily--or only--on the study of biblical texts, they would bypass centuries of philosophy and theology, to say nothing of art, music, literature, and architecture. …

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