'Where is Knowing Going?'

Roman Catholic universities continue to discuss (and to receive flack for, in the case of the controversy over President Obama's commencement talk at the University of Notre Dame this year) the way they balance their various missions. A new book, Where is Knowing Going?: The Horizons of the Knowing Subject (Georgetown University Press) examines these issues based on discussions with those who teach at and lead Catholic universities. The Rev. John C.

December 9, 2009
 

Roman Catholic universities continue to discuss (and to receive flack for, in the case of the controversy over President Obama's commencement talk at the University of Notre Dame this year) the way they balance their various missions. A new book, Where is Knowing Going?: The Horizons of the Knowing Subject (Georgetown University Press) examines these issues based on discussions with those who teach at and lead Catholic universities. The Rev. John C. Haughey, a senior fellow at Woodstock Theological Center, Georgetown University, and the author of the book, answered questions about it via e-mail.

Q: When you talked to faculty members at Catholic colleges and universities, how concerned were they about issues of religious identity?

A: The data for my book, Where Is Knowing Going?, came from workshops with faculty at a number of Catholic colleges and universities. Since invitations to potential participants did not focus on the issue of Catholic identity I can only indirectly answer your question about how concerned they were about issues of religious identity. The process that was used in the workshops was one-to-one interviews, with each participant interviewing another in the workshop they had not previously known. This was followed by each of the participants narrating the description of “the good” they heard the other was seeking through their academic work. I did not talk about Catholic identity as already packaged since my interest was listening for the identity issue from below, so to speak. My methodology was steeped in the philosophy of Donald Rumsfeld – “you go to war with the army you got!”

Q: Are they worried about being seen as too Catholic, not Catholic enough or some of each?

A: Having had academic stints via chairs and tenured positions in six of these universities I can say with whatever authority experience counts for that the being “worried about not being Catholic enough” is virtually nonexistent as a concern. An occasional colleague, in my impression, can be “too Catholic” and push a Catholicism that is annoying either because it is not sufficiently informed or it lacks the inclusivity mission needs to have in a pluralistic milieu.

Q: Much of the public discussion of these issues focuses on those who dissent from Church teachings -- how much of that dissent did you find? Were you troubled by that?

A: Dissent from “Church teachings” might appear to be widespread in these institutions, but dissent, like assent, is a very protean category in academe. We make a living, whatever our discipline, swimming between these two shoals. But with respect to the Church’s teachings on sexual matters, these are usually regarded as out of date. On doctrinal matters there is less dissent probably because there is less knowledge about or attention paid to them. In theology departments assent or dissent would be more likely because doctrine is part of what members of such departments think about. But even here theologians are likely to be neither wholly on board nor wholly at sea since knowing is usually migratory.

Was I troubled by the dissent I found? Not really since I have my own areas where I believe the Church’s teachings need much more development, developments that theology and many other disciplines could assist in supplying. That having been said, there is a real strength in having an institution with a past that is retrievable and with teachings that can be assented to or dissented from depending on the competence of those choosing to do one or the other.

Q: Should a discussion of Shakespeare or physics or economics be different in a classroom in a Catholic college as opposed to a secular institution?

A: We who teach in such places think the teaching should be competitive with any discipline taught in the best secular institutions. We also think the horizon within which the institution and its professoriate teaches should have an openness to and an acknowledgement of the transcendent realm of meaning which Catholicism has been seeking to name and understand for centuries. Must isn’t what faculty I know experience and wouldn’t tolerate if it were demanded.

Q: Many Catholic colleges that once relied on a critical mass of priests and nuns now have largely lay faculty (and, in many cases, presidents). How does this change these issues?

A: The change from a critical mass of priests and/or nuns in these institutions has paralleled theological and doctrinal developments that have moved from a dependency on them, the appointeds, to seeing the sacramental stature of the anointeds in a new light and a new appreciation by the teaching Church. So, yes there is a definite change but the change is in the direction of greater autonomy of the institution, in particular, on the need for academic freedom. There is an appreciation of the fact that these are schools first but with the endowment of a past that can enrich the present, a tradition that has no intention of being a museum piece.

Q: What advice would you provide to Catholic college presidents about how to balance the issues you explore in your book?

A: This question is like catnip for the cat who wrote the book. Every page is sage, a feast of reason, an elaboration of a faith that reasons! What else could I say except to add how much I respect the balancing act that the task of the presidency of one of these places entails. From many good presidents I have learned much. I hope the contents of the volume does them justice.

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