Customarily, this space is given over to reflections on the state of the undergraduate program, its activities and events of the past semester, and its plan and vision for the future. But the times are unusual these days and breaking away from the more expected routine seems permissible.
Indeed, it appears almost inappropriate to draw one’s attention to the apparently trivial concerns about the number of majors, guest speakers for the year, seminar projects and the like. At the time of this writing, it’s been one month since the attack on the United States occurred and just a few days since we began our military response. No one can rightly predict the outcome.
Of course, none of the motives offered for such atrocities justify such acts, but it is interesting to note a common theme emerging from the din of commentators. Many suggest that at the heart of this extremist animosity lies a bitter resentment, indeed fear, of an encroaching secularization, an ever increasing Americanization of the global culture. They see themselves on the losing side of a culture war and find violence to be its only solution.
Ironically, Catholics can share some of their concerns. Following the lead of the Holy Father, we too are rightly concerned about the ever increasing secularization of culture, the unchecked spead of a global consumerism animated by the spirit of acquisition and the glorification of wealth.
But if we recognize similar concerns, one immediately is forced to raise the questions of our diametrically opposed responses. What is it, in other words, that leads one man in the prime of his life to invoke ancient temptations to hatred and terror, and another bent with age and a progressive disease, to speak of hope and joy, indeed a springtime of evangelization? Why do some promise a reign of terror while we wait in joyful hope?
Such questions of culture and our response in faith are at the very heart of our national dialogue, and, it turns out, our program in Catholic Studies.
To be more precise, it is not so much that such “questions” animate our program. Rather, it is our living conviction that such “answers” lie in the mystery of Christ. In fact, the Second Vatican Council boldly declares, “It is only in the mystery of the Word Incarnate that light is shed on the mystery of man.” Here in the mystery of Christ lies the beginning of every authentic inquiry into the meaning of the human community and its cultures. And it is precisely this conviction, held in faith and expressed in humility, that we seek to share with our students in an atmosphere that is at once critical, comprehensive and convincing. The program, open to students of all faiths and none, seeks to address the questions of contemporary culture that face anyone who takes the drama of Christ seriously.
The point of our core course – Catholic Vision – invites students to consider the difference the Catholic faith makes in one’s sense of literature, history and art. The living sense of the faith is what animates our Engaging Truth sessions, in which we discuss issues of recent importance from a Catholic perspective. One week following the initial attacks on the country, nearly 50 students gathered to consider the Catholic response to suffering. Our panel, including two philosophy professors and a priest, pointed to the intrinsic value of our sacramental tradition in aiding all of us in coming to understand evil, suffering and our place within the plan of redemption.
And so we share, in part at least, some of the criticisms that so many in other cultures have raised against a tendency toward American cultural imperialism. We seek to develop students who, though successful in business are also aware of its delusions, though competent in a profession also acknowledge its limitations, though committed to a religious vocation are also conscious of the need for humility and patience. “We hold a treasure in earthen vessels,” and so recognize the need for an honest self-awareness at the heart of the task of evangelization.
But while some questions are perhaps shared, there is an obvious difference. No one suggests that the critique of culture demands its rejection or – God forbid – its destruction. That would be to betray the very thing, indeed the Person, we profess.
Perhaps what we do here is not so trivial after all.