Letters: Catholic Universities, Weddings, Cremation

Readers Respond

Mission Possible

I am grateful to R. Scott Appleby for reviewing my book Academic Freedom and the Telos of the Catholic University (“Reclamation Project,” July 12). In a collegial spirit I wish to note a few areas in his analysis that need correction. While he pokes some fun at my statement that Catholic universities should hire faculty with expertise in both their own disciplines and Catholic philosophy and theology (“Good luck with that!” he says), he omits the rest of what I wrote: “If the university is unable to recruit scholars with such dual expertise (and there are few today who possess it), then it must dedicate resources to train existing faculty who have a desire to [gain it].” The link between Catholic thought and some highly specialized disciplines may be a stretch too far (for example, molecular biochemistry), but there are many subjects where links are easier to make (evolution, cosmology, anthropology, psychology, literature). Some scholars, though not many, already do it and do it well.

Further, I was puzzled when Appleby stated that I “complain” that allowing and even encouraging scholars to “dwell solely within specialized domains ignores an inner teleology driving us toward greater understanding.” I make no such complaint. Here is what I actually wrote:

The mission of the Catholic university must be to provide a haven for the mind and spirit to follow their desire wherever it may lead and in whatever academic discipline a scholar may reside. If the desire calls one to explore some aspect of finite reality, and only that, then that must be protected. Not everyone must follow the mind’s desire to God. Not everyone has to explicitly relate knowledge in their disciplines to Christian truth. The university—any university—must protect both those who do and those who do not want to pursue research beyond the confines of their specialization. The Catholic university, however, has an additional obligation: to ensure that there are some faculty members in each academic department who not only want to pursue knowledge beyond their disciplines but to actively explore its relation to Christian philosophy and theology.

Unfortunately, Appleby omits this key statement from his analysis. While he is correct that sabbaticals and seminars in the Catholic tradition are not sufficient to change the culture of Catholic institutions, I don’t limit my suggestions to those two items. I argue also for: (1) adopting a new, theological understanding of academic freedom and incorporating it into mission statements and bylaws; (2) spiritual retreats for faculty; (3) fostering intellectual-spiritual community building outside disciplinary silos; and (4) strong support for faculty development by senior administrators with vision, backbone, and the wisdom not to impose Catholic theology on others heteronomously, but allow it to occur theonomously (another key concept Appleby overlooks).

Appleby asserts that Catholic universities must either abide by secular academic standards in order to get federal funds or refuse the funds and return to some form of Catholic sectarianism. That’s a false choice. I argue that we can be both catholic (universal, open to all viewpoints) and Catholic. Small-c catholicity negates sectarianism; large-c Catholicity implies a dialogue between Catholic and modern thought. This is not a novel idea: read the “Land O’Lakes Statement,” Ex corde ecclesiae, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Augustine, Aquinas, Edith Stein, Simone Weil, et al. I look forward to further discussions about the implications of my book for Catholic higher education.


Notre Dame, Ind.


The Reviewer Responds

My Notre Dame colleague Kenneth Garcia makes three points in his letter “correcting” my review of his book. I did scoff, gently I hope, at his proposal that Catholic universities should hire faculty with expertise in both their own disciplines and Catholic philosophy. Acknowledging that this bird is indeed a rare species of academic, Garcia quotes his equally implausible suggestion that Catholic universities “must dedicate resources to train existing faculty who have a desire to [gain it].” Unfortunately, he misses my larger point about how Catholic universities actually operate—those, like Notre Dame, Georgetown, Boston College, etc., that “take the money” in order to compete with the major state and secular private universities. These Catholic research universities reward their faculty for becoming grant-winning researchers and published scholars in one area (or closely related areas) of expertise. If they wish to be promoted and gain influence among their peers and administrators, these scholar-teachers go deep, not broad. (This sets them apart from many of their peers at the smaller sectarian colleges.) Some research faculty, especially those already inclined to do so, gain a passing familiarity with Catholic philosophy and theology through the seminars and extracurricular programs Garcia mentions—all to the good! But this kind of exercise hardly rises to the level of the faculty’s becoming “trained” in the academic sense, or even of their being able to articulate the “inner teleology” of their discipline in terms faithful to its standards as well as to Catholic principles, as Garcia seems to expect. As to his second point, he confuses complaint and proposal. He does, in fact, “complain”—on approximately one-tenth of the book’s 164 pages! The complaint about specialization and secularization takes many forms: it is a departure from classical Catholic educational ideals (pp. 2–9); it reflects an understanding of academic freedom that “is confined to investigating and discussing the problems of one’s particular science” (p. 74, italics in the original); it destroys the unity of knowledge, which must be restored by the integration of the disciplines within a Catholic theological and philosophical framework. (This unity must not be forced “prematurely,” p. 98). So much for his complaints.

As to his proposal, it falls far short of answering the book’s critique. “The Catholic university, however, has an additional obligation: to ensure that there are some faculty members in each academic department who not only want to pursue knowledge beyond their disciplines but to actively explore its relation to Christian philosophy and theology.” In the complaint sections of the book, it is clear that each discipline and department must include several faculty members who can bridge these two areas of knowledge. Of necessity, the narrow specialist is allowed to hang on; but the direction of reform is clearly toward the whole-of-faculty model—as his integrative goal would indeed require. Finally, Garcia wishes that I had covered all of his proposals and ideas with equal attention in my 1,500-word review; having been edited down to size many times myself, I know how he feels! Many of the proposals turn, however, on his concept of theonomy, a vague state of affairs that somehow avoids the imposition of Catholic standards and allows integration to occur “naturally.” What can I say? Good luck with that!



Kids These Days

I very much enjoy Fr. Nonomen’s column in your excellent magazine. I read with great interest his article “Wedding Crashers” in the July 12 issue. As a teacher in a Catholic high school that takes its religious identity seriously, I lament with Nonomen the fact that young people do not take religion in general and Catholicism in particular very seriously—even when receiving sacraments. Yet, with all due respect to good priests like Nonomen, the people who ignored him probably hadn’t been to church since confirmation. The young no longer find the Catholic Church a welcoming place—for themselves and those they love. For the unchurched, a Catholic priest represents an institution that treats women as second-class citizens while proclaiming their importance to the gospel message, describes gay people as “disordered,” and divorce as sinful. That, coupled with the fact that the Catholic Church has, for this generation, completely lost its moral authority because of the sexual-abuse scandal, might explain the shy smiles, texting, and even passive-aggressive gestures like nail polishing on the part of younger people who feel alienated from the church—or are actively hostile to it because of their own histories.


Danvers, Mass.


Ashes To Ashes

I read with interest Paul Schaefer’s August 16 article (“Looking Away: Funerals Aren’t What They Used to Be”), especially his reference to the growing acceptance of cremation, as opposed to embalming and viewing. I recently buried my older brother’s ashes in the family plot in Minnesota. As he was the first in our family to choose cremation, I was curious about the Catholic Church’s view of the practice, and found it in a July 25, 1968, issue of The Witness magazine, while doing research for a family memoir (my late mother wrote a column for the magazine). In a Q&A column titled “Cremation Allowed for Catholics,” Msgr. Ray Bosler was asked about the church’s long-standing opposition to cremation, which was banned in 1888, and whether Catholics who asked to be cremated would not be refused the last sacraments. He explained that Pope Paul VI had ordered the Holy Office to relax the church’s opposition to cremation in July 1963, and that those who asked to be cremated would not be refused the last sacraments. “Now a Catholic who chooses cremation may be given the sacraments and receive church burial unless it is clear that the choice is made from a defiant or irreligious motive,” he wrote. “The nineteenth-century ban was a response to such defiance because cremation then was looked upon as a challenge thrown in the face of the church, a gesture deliberately employed out of contempt for the Christian belief in the resurrection of the body. Now, however, it is so common and accepted a practice that all historical overtones have disappeared.” He continued: “It is still the position of the church that burial is preferred: cremation is only ‘tolerated.’ Though the choice of cremation is not conditioned by any permission from the local bishop, bishops are encouraged to do all they can to preserve intact the Catholic tradition of inhumation.”

I was glad to learn that because I saw to it that my brother received the last sacraments and his ashes joined the remains of my parents, three other brothers, and a sister. As the only surviving family member, I will also be cremated.


Falls Church, Va.

Published in the September 13, 2013 issue: 
Also by this author
Keeping Colleges Catholic

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