Preserving Meaningful Catholic Identity

By: Mark Tarnacki

Fr. William Graham, an author-priest and prominent voice in national dialogue about preserving or restoring meaningful Catholic identity at historically Catholic U.S. colleges, revealed his admiration for Saint Michael's College during an invited campus talk Dec. 3.

"What I want to do is to celebrate where things work - and one of them is Saint Michael's, right here," said Graham, a notable scholar and diocesan priest for Duluth, MN. He's working on a book with the working title "Keeping the Catholic in Catholic Higher Education: Strategies for Church and Academy," which also was the title of his noontime Farrell Room presentation as part of the Edmundite Campus Ministry Food for Thought Program.

"The Edmundite community at Saint Michael's and the Campus Ministry program that they sponsor - I don't know of a finer campus ministry program in all the United Sates," Graham said. "It really is quite extraordinary." He's been a visitor to campus several times through the years for programs at the Edmundites' invitation.

Though Graham founded a Catholic Studies program at St. Scholastica College in his home diocese, he said that in a true Catholic university, from his perspective, such a program "would be redundant because the curriculum ought to be Catholic studies" in the sense that it "ought to produce thoughtful people of good will who move the world closer to the Kingdom of God." However, few mission statements at Catholic colleges make clear anything close to that idea, he lamented.

Graham presently is resident scholar at Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research at Minnesota's St. John's Benedictine Abbey near St. John's University. His push in his coming book and lectures is "not to rule anyone out of the discussion... but rather be inclusive as possible in the dialogue we're doing" about Catholic identity. He wants to identify issues that he feels need to be part of that dialogue, but sadly are avoided in favor of non-controversy. "We must be intentional about who and what we are becoming - we cannot afford simply to move on incautiously, seeking any revenue stream that will keep a university afloat, even if it means abandoning heritage and mission," he said, decrying universities that embody only "an insubstantial Christianity so wide and vague it cannot claim or even see truth." Graham said he is trying to announce the vision that "Catholicism in the academy can recapture its youth, believing with a transformative faith in the power of the Resurrection." The crux of the problem, he feels, is that "neither the academy nor church is providing leadership in discussing the issues involved, thus intensifying a sense of alienation."

A question Graham feels must be addressed more directly is "intentionality about hiring for mission that includes all departments," though he knows that's controversial. Yet he cited stories of strong non-Catholic scholars he knows who are more put off by universities that seem to have no confident or clear sense of their identity, than they are by those that appear to possess the strength of their convictions, frankly, openly and without apology.

"In hiring faculty, not only their expertise in the academic field must be taken in consideration but their basic philosophy or orientation toward life must be taken into account," he said. "Those universities that refuse to address this question, who hire Catholics only accidentally, will not be able to sustain a Catholic character and identification no matter how many values they adopt and label as Benedictine or Jesuit." He said hiring committees and authors of job descriptions at Catholic colleges need to be "describing and clarifying who we are, who we want to be and identifying the kinds of colleagues who can assist in such a mission." As simple a question as, "is a Catholic University necessary?" ought to be addressed, he said. His own view is that "there is uniqueness in a Catholic university that can be admired and even imitated, but cannot be replicated in a place where the foundation is other than religious."

"That is the core of the enterprise," he said, adding that such a college delivers a liberal, not professional, education. It also "recognizes the obvious: that seekers of the truth include people who do not embrace Catholicism. All people of good will can share in the task and mission so understood, including atheists."

"Some colleges may just need to decide it's time to close, if the plan is simply to attract students, even those unprepared to be true college students," because to Graham, that is not a viable mission. He suggested the key is assuring that the hiring powers at a college are invested in, or at least understanding of and sympathetic to, a Catholic mission. That means keeping out of the hiring loop "laggards" who actively or scornfully resist a faith-based mission, often while bringing little notable scholarship to the table. After the talk, Peter Tumulty of philosophy took Graham to task on this point, calling his argument "over-polemical" by simply "knocking down straw figures" with such negative general characterizations. Graham took his point, saying, "Yes, it's easy to find villains, but what would be good instead?"

Graham's talk offered some vision of that: "A Catholic University needs real faculty and a real curriculum; it should not be substandard in any way, but a true arm of the academy seeking truth in every department and discipline," he said. And, "There is one idea alone that must animate the discussion, or else it is sure to fail: Jesus, speaking with authority, gives a vision of the spirit in which the discussion must be undertaken." He then quoted Jesus' words in the Gospel: "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength... [and] your neighbor as yourself."

Robert Brenneman of sociology raised the idea of "teaching knowledge versus formation," the latter, to Brenneman's mind, involving "teaching people virtues, what to desire." Brenneman, who brings a powerful non-Catholic religious sensibility to the conversation, said, "I don't think what you're saying is too radical. In some ways it might not be radical enough - not in terms of how many Catholic faculty... but it seems what's missing from the discussion is [distinguishing] formation versus intellectual preparation." He said most scholars have a capacity to understand Catholic perspectives on a topic and teach that in a given discipline, but what students learn is impacted by where a teacher's heart is. "We all teach students what to love," said Brenneman. "Some of us teach them to love numbers, others to love inquiry, and we should, but it's not a completely neutral thing. We're teaching people what to value - we're culture purveyors."

Graham said the day's discussion amounted to just the sort of good conversation and dialogue he is campaigning for - another reason he admires Saint Michael's. "The place where that discussion would take place, that's the place I want to be - that's a Catholic college that has the discussion you just initiated. Folks might come down on different sides to that issue, but that's a Catholic discussion."

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