Speaker: Catholic higher education is amid sea-changes

November 9, 2017

“Knowledge is no longer a product you identify as naturally with a university as it used to be,” said a Villanova historical theologian during a campus talk Tuesday that weighed the impact of market forces and technology on education and probed who today has real access to knowledge and power.

Concurrently, he broke down sea-changes in Catholic education — since the Middle Ages, since Vatican II and since a seminal 1967 assertion of academic freedom by U.S. Catholic college and university leaders.

Massimo Faggioli told more than 50 listeners in the Dion Center Roy Room that any contemplation of Catholic education’s proper role in the modern world need recognize that “knowledge is moving out of the universities and going where money easily is poured in – think tanks, big corporations …” When modern younger students think of knowledge, Faggioli said, they think of “Google or Apple” more than they think of “university.”

“We have reduced everything to what responds to demand and need of … the job market and a technological mentality,” he said, suggesting Catholic education may well be “the last thing standing between an idea of education that has a certain human idea of the human person, and another idea that it makes no difference [if a job is done] by a person or a robot.”

This is the real challenge for the next few years, he said. The ascendency of lay church and Catholic college leaders and faculty amid a dwindling clerical influence also looms large in the conversation — particularly the greater role for women – and is something to frankly recognize and welcome rather than lament, he suggested.

He cautioned against romanticized imaginings about Catholic colleges of medieval times or even in the U.S. during the 1940s or 1950s U.S. — illusory constructs that never existed in reality, or are much too simplistic, and yet commonly are asserted as right-thinking Catholic traditionalism on the Internet and blogosphere.

The speaker’s larger formal topic in his late-afternoon Nov. 7 talk was “Catholic Higher Education and the Catholic Intellectual Tradition Fifty Years after the Land O’Lakes Conference.” With charm and frequent humor, he presented his audience a feast of thought-provoking and challenging insights about Catholic universities and the Church.

Faggioli chiefly framed his insights against both the original notion of “Catholic university” from the Middle Ages and that idea’s later, peculiarly American expression at Land O’ Lakes in Wisconsin in 1967, when U.S. Catholic university and college leaders formally asserted full academic freedom from juridical oversight by the Church hierarchy. Pope John Paul II’s Ex Corde Ecclesiae of 1999, seeking to reassert more explicit church-university ties in Catholicism, also was a milestone, he recognized, sparking controversies that endure today.

The speaker often referenced ideas from his recent article about the Second Vatican Council and the role of Catholic higher education in the contemporary world, titled “Reading the Signs of the Times through a Hermeneutics of Recognition: Gaudium et Spes and Its Meaning for a Learning Church”). Gaudium et Spes was a Vatican II statement on the place of the church in the modern world, and in the speaker’s viewFr. Ray asks question, a statement that would properly be intrinsic to most good conversations about Catholic higher education topics — but its importance is too often overlooked in America, where merely political and sociological notions of “’Sixties” culture commonly displace more important theological wisdom from the statement.

His talk also explored where Pope Francis comes in on these Catholic higher education issues, particularly in his encyclical Laudato ‘Si¸ which, the speaker said, addresses so much more than the environment, though that’s what it is most known for.

A sampler of Faggioli’s more provocative key points Tuesday, in the order he laid them out:

  • Those voices who say the Land O’ Lakes assertion of academic freedom is a sellout of Catholicism to post-modernism or the beginning of the end of Catholic identity in the academy are naïve and not properly understanding history, he said. By the standards of those voices, he said, some scholars have convincingly questioned if even those original medieval Catholic universities were “properly Catholic.” “The idea of a Catholic university in the middle ages was something much less under the control of the institutional church than most of us assume,” he said, noting that universities “were the voice of theology in those days” and that “the freedom of teaching in those medieval universities was one of the first steps to construction of the modern idea and understanding of human rights.” The speaker said it is important to appreciate such nuances and not be too simplistic.
  • It’s time to recognize the “elephant in the room”: “If we compare the public credibility of the Catholic Church in 1967 and today, it’s a very different picture.” He said that in the U.S and the church in general, “theologians will have to draw theological consequences of the sex abuse crisis – not just PR, but what does it tell us theologically?”A temptation, he said, is “to try and create a Catholic identity of higher education completely detached from the Catholic Church” – which he called “a trick even Houdini cannot pull off.”
  • We are dealing with a notably polarized Catholic Church: “not even in two camps but many camps,” partly a result of the “virtualization of Catholicism,” with “your identity shaped more by what you see online than by what you experience from other Catholics in your life.”
  • “I suspect we are exiting 1,000 years of ecclesiology when you had a Catholic Church with two kinds of members — the ordained and the other ones…I suspect we are going to a model of church membership no longer driven by the ordained (as it has been in the past 10 centuries), which will have an impact on Catholic culture, scholarship and knowledge.”
  • The message of Pope Francis is very relevant in the debate on Catholic education for a series of reasons that have been largely dismissed so far, Faggioli said. “What makes him an exceptionally interesting Christian is that he’s rearranging the priorities in Christianity and Catholicism between what is called propositional – what you have to know and accept intellectually – and what is testimonial — what you accept in your life because this is what Jesus told us to do,” he said.
  • The Church typically “lets things develop and then we make sense theologically of them after they have happened,” a historically tried and true Catholic way of doing business — but it is now time to “try and say something on what is the role of Catholic colleges and universities in the Catholic church”– is it just a label, a legacy of the past? What is the constitutional role of the centers for the production of knowledge and education in the Catholic Church?
  • “We should maintain the hard-gained academic freedom from intervention of people who know nothing about science and theology, but at the same time, “the biggest threat out there is more subtle”; in response, what he called a “Land O Lakes 2.0” should say something about the ‘corporatization of the university, the marketization,” which he believes is “an existential threat, not just for Catholic universities but for a certain way of looking at the university.”
  • After the recent news about backlash over Jesuit author James Martin’s book calling for the church to be open in a new and more positive way to our gay brothers and sisters, Faggioli said, “The virtual world of religion and Catholicism has claimed the power of asking colleges and universities to disinvite people, and that is outrageous … and worrying.”

Fr. David Theroux, SSE, of the College religious studies faculty, said he lecture was “in keeping with the recent changes to the Liberal Studies Curriculum, recently approved and waiting to be implemented.”  He said it was intended as “an occasion for faculty members and other interested individuals (students, staff, and so forth) to learn a bit more about the Catholic Intellectual Tradition as we attempt to implement a new Liberal Studies Curriculum.”

Faggioli received his PhD from the University of Turin in and moved to the United States in 2008. He was a Visiting Fellow at the Jesuit Institute at Boston College in 2008-9 when he became Associate Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas, where he also directed the Institute for Catholicism and Citizenship. He joined Villanova University as full professor in 2016. His publications include Vatican II: The Battle for Meaning (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press), True Reform: Liturgy and Ecclesiology in “Sacrosanctum Concilium” (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press,); Sorting Out Catholicism: A Brief History of the New Ecclesial Movements (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press); and Pope Francis: Tradition in Transition (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press).

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