Field Test

I remember the day five years ago when the head of a conservative Catholic congregation of women religious asked me what I taught. “Catholic studies,” I replied.  “Oh,” she said, in a fairly good but probably unintentional impression of Lady Bracknell, “and what exactly is that?”

She may have had a point. After reading the many fine essays in The Catholic Studies Reader it is clear, as anyone who works in the discipline knows, that no consensus exists about what constitutes Catholic studies. The most correct but least helpful description might be that you are “doing” Catholic studies whenever your inquiry is related to the Catholic Church or the Catholic tradition. So the historian who writes about the Council of Trent, or the literary critic who examines Catholic tropes in Graham Greene’s novels, or the psychologist who tries to figure out whether there is a correlation between a tendency toward sexual abuse and the vow of celibacy are all engaged in Catholic studies, even though the disciplines they employ in these endeavors differ widely. Perhaps, then, it is not only a matter of what is studied but how. Still, that leaves the trickiest question: Why do Catholic studies?

The answers presented in The Catholic Studies Reader are loosely grouped into five sections: sources and contexts; traditions and methods; pedagogy and practice; ethnicity, race, and Catholic studies; and the Catholic imagination. Explaining the subdivisions, the editors write that until now Catholic studies has “generated remarkably little self-conscious reflection on its origins, interdisciplinary character, and prospects.” Unfortunately, the reader soon realizes the collection itself does not offer an organized, systematic discussion of the discipline, that in fact it might better be called a performative utterance because its range and content illustrate just how unfocused the field is.

The first two essays in section 1, for example, provide surveys of Catholic memoirs (Debra Campbell) and of “Catholic intellectual life” (Mary Ellen O’Donnell). They are followed by Sandra Yocum’s article on Catholic studies as a campus-wide exercise in “passing on the faith” at the University of Dayton. But it is only with the fourth essay, by David J. O’Brien, that we get a synthetic attempt to situate the field of Catholic studies relative to the academy and the church. O’Brien makes the important point that the academic work carried out, both in the general curricula in Catholic institutions of higher education and in Catholic-studies programs in particular—whether in private or public universities—will be of no lasting value unless it contributes somehow to the life of the church, though I suppose some hard-nosed secular sociologists might disagree.

Section 2, on traditions and methods, includes three serious efforts to explore Catholic studies from three distinct perspectives. Ann Taves, who directs the Catholic Studies Program at the University of California at Santa Barbara, considers its relationship to religious studies in general. Jeannine Hill Fletcher of Fordham wonders about defining Catholic studies at a time when there is growing uncertainty about how to identify who is and who isn’t Catholic. And Richard Liddy of Seton Hall examines Catholic studies in light of the thought of Bernard Lonergan.

Most of the remaining ten essays address pedagogical issues (the role of Catholic social teaching, and of gender studies, visual literacy, poetry, and fiction) or different subjectivities relative to Catholic studies (black, Asian American, and Latino/Latina). The final essay, by Maureen O’Connell of Fordham, is the most original contribution to the volume. She explores sacramental humanism through the prism of inner-city Philadelphia murals (see "Painting Hope," January 18, 2008). O’Connell’s piece might do the most to reconceptualize what actually constitutes Catholic studies, even though she doesn’t directly tackle the question.

While the five themes into which the essays are divided are not consistently clarifying, they do serve two valuable purposes. They try to define or redefine Catholic studies by challenging the field; and they illustrate the variety of fascinating topics that shelter under this particular umbrella. What they fail to address is O’Brien’s concern that this academic specialization somehow evince a pastoral concern. I have every reason to think that departments and programs of Catholic studies are doing fine work in bringing the riches of the Catholic intellectual tradition to their students. How this translates into actual involvement and commitment is a different story. Further, there is little debate that beyond the academy, the intellectual life of American Catholicism is thin, if not on life support. Bridging this gulf may be the most important task Catholic studies departments face. And here perhaps is where their preparation and academic excellence can coalesce with the church’s pastoral needs. For here is where the Catholic community, in an atmosphere of inquiry rather than of mere assent, can think in an adult manner about the tradition and their place in it. In a world and time that values both inquiry and integrity, Catholic-studies programs may help save the day.

Published in the 2012-04-06 issue: 
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Paul Lakeland is the Aloysius P. Kelley, SJ, Professor of Catholic Studies and Director of the Center for Catholic Studies at Fairfield University. His book The Wounded Angel: Fiction and the Religious Imagination (Liturgical Press, 2017) won the College Theology Society award for the best theology book of 2017. In June 2018 he begins a one-year appointment as president of the Catholic Theological Society of America.

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