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Saturday, April 26, 2003

Notes from the Death of Catholic Higher Education, Part I.

A Catholic professor describes the rearguard action to preserve Catholicism at a historically Catholic university:

[T]he [Augustine] class takes a toll, partly of the sort I had dreaded several years ago when my department chairman asked me to work up the course. I tried my best to get off the hook, but there was no course in Augustine anywhere in the university's curriculum, and my chairman was eager for the classics department to fill the gap.

"Why me?" I recall asking. My own graduate concentration was in Greek. I had no formal training in patristics, no expertise in late antiquity, mostly zero of the formal qualifications the department would reasonably expect of anyone it might hire from outside to teach the course.
The chairman listened quietly. "Well -- yeah, I'm asking a lot," he said, "but this is still down the road a ways -- you'd have two years to prepare the course. Besides, Augustine is like any other topic; it takes a certain ... instinct as well as raw knowledge and training."

I looked at him blankly before he nailed me with his clinching argument: "You're the only Catholic in the department."

* * *

Down in the stacks at the main library on campus, I pulled a copy of Jacques Maritain's memoir The Peasant of the Garonne, a book I hadn't read in years. Published early in 1966, just a few months after the close of the Second Vatican Council, Maritain's reflections drew liberal fire in those days for bemoaning the "foolery" already evident in the wake of the Council.

Maritain, who died in 1973 at age 91, was a prominent Neo-Thomist philosopher, one of several Catholic thinkers I had cut my intellectual teeth on during my college years in the 1960s. Paging through the book, I noticed that the due slip in the back recorded a steady stream of check-out dates until 1971. Apparently, no one in the university had looked at this famous book for 32 years.

On a hunch, I looked up a few other Maritain titles. Then I got into it, and spent the next hour combing the stacks and pawing through the library's huge collection of, to me, familiar Catholic writers: Knox, Guardini, Newman, Chesterton, Belloc, Gilson, Pieper, Benson, Dawson, Lunn, Dimnet. With few exceptions (often as not, a date when I myself had checked out the book), the due slips told the same story, again and again: a long series of check-out dates stopping, suddenly, in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Dazed by this discovery, I sat at a reading table to gather my thoughts. How many thousands of students, I wondered, have passed through this school since 1970? Is it even mathematically probable that these worthy, well-thumbed books would suddenly, at about the same time, stop being read?

Here, I thought, was a kind of archaeological evidence for the collapse of Catholic identity at an historically Catholic university. Santa Clara's collection of Catholic authors from the 19th and 20th centuries is fabulous -- 157 volumes of Chesterton alone. Yet for all the use to which these volumes are now put, they may as well be sealed in plastic wrap and stored away in packing crates.

* * *

A faculty poll taken some years ago by our political science department of "attitudes" about religion and politics showed more than 60 percent of the faculty at Santa Clara professing no belief whatever in any transcendent order. Fewer than 20 percent are practicing Catholics. Forget theology. All you need is arithmetic: Santa Clara is no longer a Catholic university as defined by the Roman Catholic Church.

I'll conclude with a final quote, and yet another reason to suppress the Jesuits (or at least the California branch):

Now ponder this garland of committee prose in the current working paper on Catholic and Jesuit identity: "Jesuit education is distinguished by praxis, or the integration of the intellect and faith with practice and an intelligent foundation for active engagement in the promotion of social justice. It seeks a more just and humane world through personal commitment; whereas Catholic education tends to be more parochial, more doctrine-based, and less actively concerned with change."

Which reminds me: Cheap ideas, Augustine likes to say, often come dressed in gaudy patter.

Cheap ideas, gaudy patter: the perfect motto for Catholic academia in the 21st Century.

[Link via Peppermint Patty]

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