Bernard G. Prusak
Bernard G. Prusak is associate professor of philosophy and director of the McGowan Center for Ethics and Social Responsibility at King's College in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania.
By this author
It’s alumni weekend at Notre Dame. I’m not an alum, but I’m on campus for a meeting of the Catholic Social Teaching (or Thought or Traditions) Research and Learning Initiative, which involves faculty from a dozen or so Catholic colleges and universities across the country, from coast to coast. We’re here on a “writing retreat” to push some of our projects along. One project is a rubric to assess student appropriation of CST, another an oral history on student understanding of CST at various institutions, another an investigation of obstacles and opportunities for the realization of CST principles in institutional infrastructures, policies, and practices: more concretely, such matters as employment policies, the use of adjunct and other contingent faculty, responses to unionization efforts, board composition and education, and strategic planning priorities.
The intersection of our meeting with the alumni reunion has proven fortuitous. For example, I shared a cab from the airport with an alumna from the class of 1976, which includes the first cohort of undergraduate women at Notre Dame. This alumna also happens to be the CEO of a nonprofit lender or “enterprise fund” that seeks to help small, emerging businesses unable to secure normal bank financing. In other words—in CST terms, drawn from John Paul II and reiterated by Francis—her work cuts against an economy of exclusion. It says no, though in an imaginatively positive way, to “the survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless.” She joined us for discussion on Friday.
With so many alums about, I’ve also found myself thinking about the intersection of “God, Country, Notre Dame,” words inscribed in stone on the Basilica of the Sacred Heart. Not being a Notre Dame alum—and having grown up blocks from Villanova—these words have struck me, on earlier visits to Notre Dame, as something of an unholy trinity: way too rah-rah for my tastes; tainted by football fandom and an untoward assurance of divine favor. (Not only did I grow up blocks from Villanova, but my own fandom for Villanova basketball sometimes compromises my “epistemic integrity,” as the philosopher Simon Keller argues that loyalty often will do….)
It’s not often that I feel I’ve gotten out more than Nicholas Kristof. In fact, before April 20 of this year, it had never happened. But Kristof’s New York Times column that day, entitled “Obama in Saudi Arabia, Exporter of Oil and Bigotry,” allowed me to feel, for a fleeting moment at least, that my corner of northeastern Pennsylvania is not so small after all.
Kristof’s column is a polemic. “Saudi Arabia should be renamed the Kingdom of Backwardness,” he writes; it “legitimizes Islamic extremism and intolerance around the world” and “is also a wellspring of poison in the Islamic world.” These are fighting words, but alas not mere empty provocations. As any reader of the news knows, there are plenty of reasons to question whether Saudi Arabia has become a dangerous ally to the United States; and like it or not, the once-durable U.S.-Saudi alliance has become strained. (Some might say: About time! Others might be more circumspect.)
Kristof knows, of course, that Saudi Arabia exports more than oil and bigotry. What was behind my fleeting feeling of being nearly as worldly is that, over the last fifteen years, the Kingdom has also been exporting increasing numbers of students. Saudi students started arriving in numbers at Catholic institutions toward the end of the last decade. At King’s College, there were none when I arrived in 2012, then a handful in 2013, thirty or so in 2014, now around ninety, with another twenty-five expected in the fall. As total enrollment at King’s is about 1,800 students, come the fall, Saudis stand to constitute more than 6 percent of our student body—a remarkable leap in so little time.
In an article some forty years ago on abortion, John Noonan calls line-drawing “the ordinary business of moralists and lawmakers.” In the wake of the San Bernardino massacre, line-drawing has seemed to me all the more urgent, though I’m tempted to despair, even in this season of Advent (of waiting, waiting, waiting), over the capacities of our democratic representatives in this regard.
That said, today brings what strikes me as some good news: the Supreme Court’s 7-2 refusal to hear a Second Amendment challenge to an Illinois ordinance banning semiautomatic assault weapons and large capacity magazines.
On the whole, what a wonderful visit it was! But what will Pope Francis leave us other than fine speeches, his spectacular example, and fond memories? Otherwise put, lest the question sound ungrateful, what will the legacy of his visit be?
There are, clearly, a number of possible answers to this question. The possibility that interests me here, however, is suggested by a recent “Declaration of Commitment” drafted and circulated by the Ignatian Solidarity Network. “Leaders of Catholic Higher Education Globally”—by my count, 175 college and university presidents as of this last week of September—have pledged:
- to work together regionally and globally, through all the means available to and appropriate for our colleges and universities as institutions of higher learning, to study, promote, and act on the ideals and vision of integral ecology laid out by Pope Francis [in Laudato Si’].
- More specifically, we commit ourselves as leaders in Catholic Higher Education globally to integrate care for the planet, integral human development, and concern for the poor within our research projects, our educational curricula and public programming, our institutional infrastructures, policies and practices, and our political and social involvements as colleges and universities.
It is an extraordinary commitment, which has rightly gotten attention in the press. My question is: What will it look like in practice, and how will it be done? More specifically, what bearing will this commitment have on “educational curricula” at Catholic colleges?
It should go without saying that a columnist for the New York Times enjoys an extraordinary power. What an opportunity to shape, if not opinions, at least the frame of a discussion! It should also go without saying that people without power often adulate those with it. Ross Douthat has power, and he’s gotten his share of adulation. He’s also gotten attention, including in Commonweal, and has brought Commonweal to the attention of the Times’ multitudinous readers, including in his Sunday column entitled “Springtime for Liberal Christianity.” In this case it probably goes without saying that the magazine’s editors and supporters owe him a measure of thanks.
Perhaps then it is a touch churlish to be frustrated with him. But “Springtime for Liberal Christianity”—the title makes me think of both Mel Brooks and Alexander Dubcek: hard to square—is a frustrating piece of journalism.
My wife and I don't watch much TV—I marvel that people have the time!—but we plunked down on Friday, after a long back-to-school week, to watch 20/20's "Pope Francis and the People." And we've been thinking and talking about it since.
The University of Scranton recently made national news by deciding to eliminate coverage for abortion from the health-insurance plans available to its employees. In order to comply with Pennsylvania law, the University’s plans had previously covered abortion in cases of rape, incest, and threat to the mother’s life. Now that the university is self-insured, however, its insurance plans must comply only with federal law, which does not mandate any coverage for abortions.
It’s no news that “core wars” have become rife at Catholic colleges and universities. As Gonzaga’s Academic Vice President Patricia Killen recently remarked in a paper given at King’s, the core curriculum has become “that project to which multiple and often conflicting desires, passions, hopes, fears, long-standing animosities, and deep commitments, both individual and organizational, cling like iron filings to a magnet.” (Core curriculum = an institution’s general education requirements, which all students must satisfy in some form or another.) The review of the core at Notre Dame, however, has become national news, thanks it seems to alumni rumbling and murmuring, expressed among other places on Twitter.
As I noted in a post a month ago, Father John Jenkins, C.S.C., President of the University of Notre Dame, was the keynote speaker at the conference “The Idea of a Catholic College,” hosted by King’s College in September. Father Jenkins’ paper, “The Challenge and Promise of Catholic Higher Education for Our Time,” is forthcoming in the Journal of Catholic Higher Education, along with a number of other papers presented at the conference. In the meantime, a video of his talk is now available through the King’s YouTube channel. (Go to 7:50 to bypass the introductions. The q & a begins at minute 54 or so.)
The editors extended to me an invitation to blog at dotCommonweal a good year ago; I can only thank them for their patience!
Foremost among the things that have occupied my time and attention was organizing a conference at King’s on “The Idea of a Catholic College,” 9/19-9/20. Select proceedings will appear in February in the Journal of Catholic Higher Education; my hope is to make a video of the keynote address, by Father John Jenkins of the University of Notre Dame, publicly available within the next few weeks. (If so, I’ll post again with a link.) By the way, “Commonweal’s own” Dennis O’Brien was among the presenters.
One month later, we’ve only begun working through the conference’s lessons -- for our core curriculum, professional programs, and student life -- though see here some more expeditious reflections posted by Jason King, from Saint Vincent College, on the blog Catholic Moral Theology. In any event, the national conversation goes on, most recently in an article by Beth McMurtrie, “Catholic Colleges Greet an Unchurched Generation,” in the October 17 issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education. (Unfortunately, the article is password-protected.)
The article focuses principally on initiatives at Marquette and generally strikes a quite optimistic tone. While we’re told that the “pipeline that once fed Catholic colleges is shrinking: Catholic secondary-school enrollments have dropped 42 percent since 1970,” and that more and more students and faculty alike profess no religious affiliation, the article’s interest is in what schools are doing to connect “their religious mission to topics of broad interest, like developing a meaningful philosophy of life or pursuing social justice.” So we learn that, while the “nones” feel little affiliation with Catholicism, “‘they can relate to the values’” -- presumably solidarity, preferential protection of the poor, concern for the common good, and so forth.
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