The Catholic Studies Department

We?re no longer a program; we?re a department

If that doesn’t make you want to sit up and read further, I can understand. It seems to be one of those administrative changes of little or no significance.

But in truth it does signal an important move forward for Catholic Studies – out of the early stages of infancy and into a stage of a more complete, fuller participation in the life of the university. The transition means that Catholic Studies is no longer perceived as a fledgling, experimental project, something put together to meet a passing fad. The 2001 decision by the university’s Board of Trustees to recognize our body of faculty as members of a department echoes the university’s commitment to make Catholic Studies a lasting reality. Like the remarkable renovations of Sitzmann Hall, the transition makes a bold statement that Catholic Studies has arrived.

The transition also signals, from the perspective of the faculty who have joined the department, a willingness to commit to the project of developing a new intellectual community. This past summer, faculty gathered to affirm this very fact. Assembled together as a departmental body, Catholic Studies faculty were asked quite candidly: why did you commit yourself to this new configuration? Two lines of thinking emerged: first, we are committed to this project because we’re interested in developing a new intellectual community in university life; and second, we are here because we see our lives principally in terms of our service to the Church. An intellectual community in service of the Church – not a bad way of configuring a department of faculty in a Catholic university.

Of course, it is easier said than done. And while one should never underestimate the verbal sentiment, actually making this vision a reality is hard won. It takes time and effort on the part of students and faculty alike.

Faculty, for example, pooled their energies and hosted Father John Kavanaugh, S.J., for a week of events. We were fortunate to have a leading Catholic philosopher serving as the catalyst for an extended series of conversations and exchanges. One of our faculty, Michael Naughton, assigned Kavanaugh’s book, Following Christ in a Consumer Society, for his undergraduate course in business. Others brought his work in philosophy of the human person to bear on their graduate courses in Catholic theology and education. Students gathered informally to discuss questions on at least two occasions during the week, thus allowing them to pursue their lines of inquiry in a more coherent and fully developed way. The week’s events ended with the celebration of the Mass – a fitting conclusion to an intellectual community in service to the Church. These kinds of sustained encounters with Kavanaugh made the visit of our first Habiger scholar-in-residence more than simply a quick “impression” of another man’s thoughts. Instead, the events facilitated the creation of that very intellectual community our Catholic Studies faculty talked about earlier in the year.

“Humani nil a me alienum puto.” I recall Kavanaugh quoting the Greek playwright, Terence. “Nothing human is alien to me.” It was an arresting remark in an otherwise free flowing conversation about the promises and possibilities of Catholic Studies. The quote captured in a dramatic way one of the central insights of our project: the celebration of the human in the discovery of knowledge.

In Catholic Studies there is an attempt to retrieve what is common across the disciplines, the search for truth and the meaning of our human existence. As Catholics, of course, we have the grace of revelation that allows us to explore the human condition well beyond what Terence might have known in 154 B.C. As faculty, we have the privilege of sharing with our students some of the outstanding expressions of that search in our tradition, in its literary, philosophical and theological expression.

The dust having barely settled from the flurry of activities from Kavanaugh’s visit, Catholic Studies faculty soon prepared themselves to host a conversation with Catholic author Ron Hansen – one of the leading literary figures in the country.

Program. Department. I suppose it can seem trivial to some people. Here in Catholic Studies we see signs of new life.