Peter Maurin, co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement, once said that Catholic scholars have “taken the dynamite of the Church, wrapped it up in nice phraseology, placed it in a hermetic container and sat on the lid.” In an effort to open the lid, so to speak, 170 faculty members from various colleges and universities across the country gathered at St. Thomas Oct. 23-25 for a conference, “Catholic Social Thought Across the Curriculum.”

Rather than having scholars from a single field presenting the fruits of their research, this conference brought together faculty members from a wide-range of disciplines to share their teaching. Convinced of the interdisciplinary character of Catholic social thought, professors of literature, management, education, sociology, computer science, philosophy, accounting, and other areas, demonstrated how various themes within the social teaching find resonance in their course material. Each session included lively conversation about how best to pass on the Church’s social teaching to undergraduates.

Among those involved in the conference were representatives from the American Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities (ACCU), Catholic Relief Services, and various departments of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (Social Development and World Peace and the Catholic Campaign for Human Development). Such organizations have devoted resources to curriculum development in Catholic social thought and have worked with college faculty to develop such curricula.

Some examples from the conference can give a sense of the innovative ways Catholic social thought can be incorporated into the curriculum:

  • Brennan O’Donnell, professor of English at Loyola College in Maryland, discussed the need for students to cultivate an imaginative vision of the human person and of the relation between the person and society – one that is different from the vision given in consumer culture and even in much of mainstream literature. Brennan proposed teaching writers such as Flannery O’Connor and Andre Dubus, both of whom challenge the radical individualism in American fiction.
  • Dan Lynch, an engineering professor at Dartmouth College, demonstrated how the anthropology at the heart of Catholic social thought speaks very concretely to the social responsibilities incumbent upon those entering the engineering profession.
  • Amy Uelmen, director of Fordham Law School’s Institute on Religion, Law, and Lawyers’ Work, reflected on the pressures in many professional cultures to take a neutral approach to work. She argued that “unless law students are firmly anchored in an intellectual framework that can sustain and support a commitment to justice … young lawyers find themselves at a loss for how to integrate into their day-to-day work any notions of justice informed by values other than those of the market.”
  • Suzanne Toton, a theology professor from Villanova University, and Ismael Muvingi, of Catholic Relief Services (CRS), discussed the ways that CRS and Villanova have developed a mutually beneficial partnership whereby resources can be shared. Villanova provides academic support for study and analysis of strategic international issues from a Catholic social teaching perspective. CRS provides access to poverty data and connects Villanova to the social mission of the Church internationally.

In setting the context for the conference, St. Thomas’ Deborah Ruddy and Michael Naughton explained that one of the major challenges for Catholic universities is the problem of “disconnection”:

  • the disconnection of religious identity from the life of the university
  • the disconnection of the liberal arts from professional preparation
  • the disconnection of academic life from the problems of wider urban and rural communities.

They explained that in order to prepare their students to have the moral courage and intellectual capacity to live out fully their vocations – to grapple with pressing social issues from a coherent framework rooted in Christian faith – Catholic universities must offer a curriculum that is theologically grounded, comprehensively engaged, and institutionally embodied. Several conference participants echoed these concerns by pointing to the need for universities to expose students to an interdisciplinary education that deals with the real problems of society in a way that embraces the moral and spiritual nature of the student.

Keynote speakers included David Solomon, director of the Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture, and Johan Verstraeten, professor of moral theology at Katholieke Universiteit, Leuven, Belgium. Solomon’s talk, “Placing Catholic Social Thought: Late Modernity and the Lure of the Ethical,” discussed the contradictions and inadequacies in contemporary ethical schools of thought. He explained how many secular ethics “experts” are unable to provide compelling and authoritative answers to today’s urgent ethical dilemmas. Catholic social thought, he warned, must avoid the pitfalls of secular ethics and resist reconstituting itself as “just another ethical theory.” Drawing from Alasdair MacIntyre’s work on tradition-guided moral inquiry, Solomon urged those interested in Catholic social thought to form students in the rich intellectual and spiritual tradition that is rooted in social teaching. He concluded that Catholic social thought will speak powerfully to contemporary issues if it engages the culture, trusting that its tradition can both instruct and inspire. Verstraeten’s talk, “From Doctrine to Discernment: Catholic Social Thought and Its Theological Foundations,” explained how the Church’s social teaching is part of a living, dynamic tradition that must avoid abstraction. What is needed, he argued, is “a revitalization of the Church as a community of witnesses, a community which is not simply a defender of abstract truths about the human person, but the living body of Christ whose mission is to serve real, concrete, historical persons.”

One such witness was Bishop Paride Taban from the Diocese of Torit in Southern Sudan. Taban spoke to conference participants about the challenges of witnessing peace in a country that has suffered the world’s longest running civil war. Bishop Taban has shepherded the Diocese of Torit through many painful struggles including frequent government bombings of Catholic Mission compounds, roadside ambushes, military attacks, the capture and loss of the town of Torit, and his own imprisonment in 1989. Taban expressed deep appreciation for Catholic social teaching which has provided Gospel-inspired guidance to the Sudanese church in the midst of great religious, ethnic, economic and political strife.

Thanks to the diverse disciplines and ministries represented at the conference, it was clear that even areas of increasing specialization can enhance and be enhanced by the wisdom of Catholic social thought. As business professors talked with those in sociology and philosophy, new partnerships began to develop. As those doing hands-on ministry met with those in academic settings, new possibilities arose for seeing the complementary relationship between the theoretical and the practical. Future initiatives of this sort will continue to build a more coordinated approach to the integration of Catholic social thought and the fruit of these labors will be an education that can guide students toward work that is truly vocational.

The conference was hosted by the John A. Ryan Institute for Catholic Social Thought and made possible by funds from the Lilly Endowment Project at the Univer sity of St. Thomas and the Humanitas Foundation.