Friday, November 09, 2007

What Does It Mean to Be a Catholic University?


The Star Tribune’s token “conservative” columnist Katherine Kersten has reached a new low in whining about her pet peeves – you know, all those “‘60s bugaboos” of liberals, like “the oppression of women [and] environmental catastrophe.” (Hey, of course these are all just “bugaboos” from the past. After all, we all know such things have been eliminated from our world, don’t we? Just ask the women of Saudi Arabia, or visit the open waters of the Arctic or the burnt remnants of California.)

But seriously, Kersten is currently in an actual frenzy about “Baby Boom professors” at the University of St. Thomas “shock” treating freshmen students with The Handmaid’s Tale, a work of dystopian fiction by Margaret Atwood.

Writes Kersten about the book’s plot:

Right-wing Christian fanatics have taken over America and imposed a theocratic state. Women are virtual slaves, the continent is awash in pollution, abortionists are executed. Many fertile women must become “handmaids” – reproductive machines – who are compelled to breed with male “Commanders.” “The Handmaid’s Tale” portrays the dominant Christian culture of the future as totalitarian and consumed with hatred toward women. The book includes graphic scenes of sexual abuse.

It’s a grim view of humanity’s future, for sure. But, sadly, one that is not totally implausible. Any religion - Christianity included - has its shadow side that can (and has) reared its terrifying head and dragged the blood-soaked thread of religious-sanctioned violence across human history. Hey, let’s not forget the “witches” and “faggots” burnt at the stake by the Inquisition.

To his credit, University of St. Thomas president Fr. Dennis Dease has stood his ground against accusations by a minority of parents and students that the book is not suitable for a Catholic university, and, accordingly, this same minority’s demands for the book’s removal from the curriculum. St. Thomas spokesperson Doug Hennes explains why:

Father Dease allowed the Department of English to use “The Handmaid’s Tale” as the common text this fall because the novel fits the criteria for the common text program: to be an innovative piece of literature that asks students to grapple with complex and timely ethical and political issues.

While it is appropriate to be shocked and horrified by what goes on in the Republic of Gilead, the novel is not meant to be an attack on religion in general or Catholicism in particular. Instead, it is intended to explore the question of how authentic religious expressions and institutions might be co-opted for other purposes - a theme certainly relevant to the intellectual life of a Catholic university.

“The Handmaid’s Tale” presents Christians as resisting the new regime, and has been interpreted as a novel in which the most authentically religious persons fight totalitarianism and affirm the power of scripture and the integrity of one’s conscience.

Well, that certainly feels like a refreshingly cool splash of reason compared to Kersten’s vitriolic diatribe!

Kersten’s predictable rants are, of course, easy to dismiss. And this particular one is no different. Yet what this latest brouhaha at the University of St. Thomas does serve to do is draw attention to that important and often pondered question: What does it mean to be a Catholic university?

It’s a question that seems to be off Kersten’s radar, yet one that I find especially intriguing given the fact that Catholic schools across the U.S. are situated at all points across quite a wide spectrum.

For instance, schools like Ave Maria wouldn’t think of hiring someone who’s ever been divorced. And if you get divorced while employed there, you’re fired. Thomas Aquinas College requires all faculty and staff to make an oath of fidelity to every aspect of Church teaching.

At the other end of the spectrum there are Catholic institutions like Georgetown, the Jesuit university that has extended health care and other benefits to employees’ domestic partners; and let’s not forget De Paul, which just last month hosted the “Out There Conference” for Catholic college faculty and administrators ministering to gay and lesbian students in Catholic colleges and universities.

Perhaps the current president of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities, Richard Yanikoski, sums it up best. In an article entitled “Do Catholic Universities Make the Grade,” in the November 2007 issue of U.S. Catholic, Tanikoski notes that: “Catholic colleges and universities manifest their Catholic identity in very different ways, depending upon their founding charism, mission, resources, sponsorship, size, and student body. Yet each is Catholic and adds to the church’s mission in unique ways.”

To support this view, Yanikoski cites the findings of Melanie M. Morey and Fr. John J. Piderit, S.J., who in their book Catholic Higher Education, identify four models of Catholic higher education. As Yanikoski notes, each one of these models represents “distinctive rather than mutually exclusive points of emphasis.”

Here’s how Yanikoski summarizes Morey and Piderit’s four models:

Immersion colleges serve only staunchly Catholic students, who are required to take at least four courses in Catholic theology and philosophy. Campus life is infused with Catholic moral teaching, sacramental opportunities, and spiritual vitality. Faculty are overwhelmingly Catholic. Most institutions in this category are relatively small and located outside urban areas, such as Southern Catholic College in Georgia. With nearly 2,000 undergraduate students, Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio is considerably larger than the typical immersion college.
(Thirteen percent of readers surveyed by U.S. Catholic said they would prefer to send their child to this type of Catholic institution, while eighty percent disagreed with the statement that immersion colleges should be a model for all Catholic colleges and universities.)

Persuasion schools seek to instill in all students, Catholics and others, “a certain religious maturity in knowledge of the Catholic faith.” Required Catholic courses number about half of what is expected in immersion schools. Persuasion universities provide Catholic worship services and activities, but participation is encouraged rather than expected. Catholic professors are actively recruited but do not necessarily predominate. This type of institution is the most common and includes, for example, Villanova University in Pennsylvania and Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.
(Forty-eight percent of readers surveyed by U.S. Catholic said they would prefer to send their child to this type of Catholic institution.)

Diaspora universities, often located in inner cities or in predominantly non-Catholic regions, serve a student body in which Catholics are a minority – although Catholics are actively recruited. These institutions encourage but seldom require students to take courses on Catholic teaching. Catholicism anchors the institution’s character and provides a clear guide to activities and policies, while a predominantly non-Catholic faculty strives to blend Catholic teaching with interreligious sensitivity. DePaul University in Chicago is the most prominent of the diaspora institutions.
(Sixteen percent of readers surveyed by U.S. Catholic said they would prefer to send their child to this type of Catholic institution.)

Cohort universities attract academically distinguished students who as graduates are expected to exercise considerable social influence in promoting viewpoints informed by Catholic teaching. Among an internationally distinguished faculty and student body, Catholics are well represented but typically are in a minority. Students usually are not required to take Catholic courses but may do so. Catholic students, who form a “cohort” at such institutions, are given generous resources to strengthen and express their Catholic faith outside the classroom. Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. is the most prominent of the cohort institutions.
(Fifteen percent of readers surveyed by U.S. Catholic said they would prefer to send their child to this type of Catholic institution.)

(NOTE: Three percent of readers surveyed by U.S. Catholic said they would prefer to send their child to a non-Catholic school, while 5% said some “other” type of school. Eighty-six percent of readers said the various ways a college could be Catholic, as described by Yanikoski’s article, are all legitimate.)

All this variety, concedes Yanikoski, can be “unsettling to some people.” Yet he is adamant that it also “helps to address the complex and seemingly endless needs of the church in secular society.”

Yanikoski is convinced that “across-the-board uniformity among Catholic colleges and universities would diminish rather than enhance the church’s impact in the world.” He also says that “in part for this reason, Pope John Paul II’s apostolic letter Ex Corde Ecclesiae guarantees a generous degree of autonomy to institutions.”

Yet surely there must be some things that all these Catholic colleges and universities share in common!?

Again, Yanikoski turns to Ex Corde Ecclesiae, noting that in this document Pope John Paul II “wrote that the fundamental responsibility of a Catholic university is ‘to consecrate itself without reserve to the cause of truth.’ He added that every Catholic university must exhibit four essential characteristics: Christian inspiration, research and reflection in light of the Catholic faith fidelity to the Christian message, and an institutional commitment to service.”

Hmm, the “cause of truth.” Now that opens a whole new can of worms!

Is this “truth” defined and possessed only by “the Church” as understood as the magisterium?

What about the “truth” of women’s lives? Of gay people’s lives? Do these folks get to contribute to the process of discerning “the truth”?

And what of science? Are it’s insights welcome? What if they, like the experiences of women and gay people, challenge centuries-old teachings of the church? What then?

And what happens when authors such as Margaret Atwood disseminate these challenging experiences and insights through their writings? Do we ban their books?

These are important and legitimate questions. It’s clear from the work of Melanie Morey, John Piderit, Richard Yanikoski, and, no doubt, others, that there are Catholic centers of higher education willing to wrestle with such questions. And for that I’m thankful


Postscript (November 12, 2007): The following responses to Katherine Kersten’s column on The Handmaid’s Tale have recently appeared in the Star Tribune.

A novel, not a tract

What I find most shocking about Katherine Kersten’s Nov. 8 column, “Shock therapy for freshmen at St. Thomas shockingly trite,” is her utter inability to see the book she discusses (Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale) for what it is – a novel.

While the book obviously addresses political issues (what narrative doesn’t?), it is not a political tract – not a description of reality, a series of recommendations, etc.

Kersten describes Atwood’s novels as “a dime a dozen,” and says that “in literary circles,” they are “utterly passé.” Why, then, has Atwood either won, or been shortlisted for, virtually every major literary prize for which she is eligible?

I mean no disrespect to Kersten, but to treat Atwood as a hack (or to simply dismiss her with the term “feminist novelist”), rather than portraying her as the major literary figure that she is, is at best deeply dishonest. As such, Kersten’s column has the opposite effect from the one she intends, as it demonstrates the importance of teaching great writers like Margaret Atwood – the importance, that is, of teaching students to think about literature in original and non-reductionist ways.

Cory Stockwell
PH.D. candidate, Comparative Literature Program, University of Minnesota
November 9, 2007

Too tough for Kersten

“Trite.” That’s the word Katherine Kersten used to describe the challenge first-year students at St. Thomas University would experience reading The Handmaid’s Tale, a futuristic story about life under extreme fundamentalist Christian law.

Katherine spins this choice of common reading at St. Thomas into a broader diatribe about liberalism in universities and the blame-Western-culture-first attitude she attributes to academics.

Judging from Kersten’s own writings, I suspect she would have been quite satisfied had St. Thomas chosen a book describing a futuristic world under extreme Islamic shariah law, which, borrowing from Kersten’s playbook, I boldly attribute – sans evidence – to her blame-everyone-else-first attitude. Perhaps the challenge of imagining her religion made the boogey is too much for Kersten.

Justin Revenaugh
St Paul
November 9, 2007

Real world, real abuses

So Katherine Kersten is upset over another college book choice (column, Nov. 8). In the literary circles I travel in, Margaret Atwood is a writer of great depth and The Handmaid’s Tale is not “utterly passé” but prescient. The suppression of women and environmental catastrophe – what Kersten calls “‘60s bugaboos” – are very real dangers we face today.

I realize that on the ideological block where Katherine Kersten lives, a female college student’s big worry might be “finding an equally well-educated man to marry” and the sun always shines through a pure and cloudless sky, but if she crossed the street into the real world, Kersten would recognize the abuses against women and our planet are massive in scope.

There is a chance that if Kersten put on her backpack and attended a classroom discussion of The Handmaid’s Tale, she might be exposed to thoughts and ideas that run contrary to her own – is that the “liberal indoctrination” she’s so afraid of?

Lorna Landvik
November 12, 2007

A timely assignment

Katherine Kersten rails against the selection of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale as the common text at the University of St. Thomas, in part because the abuses depicted in the novel have no relevance to the lives of modern college-educated women. But if she thinks that women have nothing to fear from the dominant culture at St. Thomas, I’ll refer her to the series of hate crimes directed against three women that occurred in their residence hall the week of Oct. 29.

But those hate crimes were racially motivated, not gender motivated, Kersten might respond. Those were black women and the crimes involved racial slurs and threats. Oh, I’m sorry, you’re right: So a book about the dominant culture subjugating a minority group through fear and violence has no relevance at St. Thomas. Sorry, my mistake.

I applaud St. Thomas for choosing a controversial book that will engender spirited discussion among all its readers, and I feel sorry for anyone who is so threatened by the book’s message that they would rather deny that discussion than allow an open dialogue.

Wood Foster Smith
November 12, 2007

Recommended Off-site Link:
Jesuit University Says Support to Gay Organizations is "the Catholic Thing" to Do - Catholic News Agency.

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
A Not So “New” Catholic University
Out at a Catholic University

Image: The beautiful ornate doors of the chapel at the College of St. Catherine, St. Paul, Minnesota - where I came from Australia to study theology (1994-1996). The school is renowned as the country’s largest women’s college, yet its graduate programs are open to both men and women. During my years of study at St. Kate’s, I lived in the men’s dorm of the college’s Minneapolis campus - the former St. Mary’s School of Nursing. After graduating in 1996, I taught for a number of years various theology classes in the Liberal Arts and Science department of the Minneapolis campus.

1 comment:

Paula said...

Thanks for the thorough article on Catholic identity in a university, Michael.

Patrick A. Heelan, S.J. has an analysis of John Paul II's encyclical Fides et Ratio. His description of how truth is arrived at is apropos of your discussion:

"How do faith and justice, truth and responsible freedom apply to the academy? I hope you would draw with me the following conclusion. Justice and responsible freedom within and beyond the academy are best served both by students and teachers in recognizing that the process of learning truth is embodied, dialogical, evolutionary, emergent, metaphorical, imaginative, lifelong, and committed to the entanglement of goodness and truth. These, perhaps, rather than in scholastic metaphysics, are the conditions under which John Paul in his complementary discourses thinks we would be most open to the discovery of Christ and God in the 'everyday things of this world.'"