Near the end of the past winter quarter, one of the courses I’d been teaching for the classics department was taking its usual, peculiar toll. The course is titled “The World of Augustine.” It’s about St. Augustine of Hippo (A.D. 354-430), the most influential and prolific of the Church Fathers, who wrote during a tumultuous era broadly similar to our own: the dissolute century issuing in the collapse of the western Roman Empire.
In some ways, it’s my favorite course. It draws above-average students who don’t flake out under a heavy reading load: Augustine’s Confessions, the massive City of God, the treatise On Christian Doctrine, and, through most of the quarter, Peter Brown’s chunky biography of Augustine. Each student also has an assigned research project requiring further reading in one or another of Augustine’s many treatises.
Amid all this intense study, the time-honored maxim of good teaching kicks in wonderfully: if you expect a lot, you get a lot. By the third week, I start getting lucid little commentaries and startling insights in the written responses I assign for each day’s reading.
Yet, as I said, the 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.”
So I spent the next two years, on a two-hour daily regimen among normal duties, preparing my course on St. Augustine and his times, reading deeper and deeper into a capacious and manly kind of Christianity, with growing dread at the prospect of teaching all this to a class of postmodern, jaded undergraduates.
TRY THIS, FOR EXAMPLE, AS A QUICK taste of the Augustinian worldview: The moral order is absolute, woven into the very fabric of creation. Personal sin, therefore, is never merely a private psychological event; owing to ignorance or stupidity or an idiotized upbringing, the sinner may be subjectively without blame, but the sin itself has objective consequences that claw at the well-being of the sinner and of others around him and of still others yet to be after him.
Imagine juggling such thoughts, day after day, with a class of bright 20-year-olds marinated all their lives in a culture of moral relativism. For most of them, the course seems to be their first encounter with the feebleness of their own culture. They don’t necessarily buy into all of Augustine (predestination, anyone?), but they respect him, and they want to talk about these ideas they had never before heard of.
No doubt I should feel privileged to enjoy their alertness, but the course always takes a peculiar toll, and by the ninth week of a twelve-week quarter, I want it to be over. In the tenth week of this past quarter, I learned why.
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.
Barely two years after the close of Vatican II, in the summer of 1967, the secularization began in earnest at a meeting of 26 prominent Catholic educators in Land O’Lakes, Wisconsin. The consequent “Land O’Lakes Statement” declared: “The Catholic university today must be a university in the modern sense of the word…. To perform its teaching and research functions effectively, the Catholic university must have a true autonomy and academic freedom in the face of authority of whatever kind, lay or clerical, external to the academic community itself.”
In retrospect, this absurd boilerplate set the college tone for a generation of wrangling between the Vatican and a majority of the 240-odd Catholic colleges in North America. Taken literally, the statement would mean that the Catholic leaders were declaring total independence for their schools: no more pressure from accrediting agencies, donors, federal mandates, state licensing commissions, local fire marshals. We’re autonomous!
BUT OF COURSE THERE WAS JUST ONE authority of a particularly religious kind that the educators had in their sights. The statement was not meant to be taken literally, any more than the historically Catholic colleges have bothered to take literally Ex Corde Ecclesiae, the apostolic constitution finally issued by the Vatican in 1990 — defining what the Holy See would thereafter recognize as a Catholic college or university.
The past thirteen years of dithering — mostly between weak bishops and stonewalling secularized colleges mysteriously clinging to the Catholic moniker — turns principally on a “general norm” of Ex Corde requiring that Catholic theologians be faithful to Church teaching. But another section of the same norm (Article 4, Section 4) requires more concretely that “non-Catholic teachers should not be allowed to constitute a majority.”
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.
Yet the dithering continues, and in the past few months, the administration, inexplicably, has delivered to a puzzled or indifferent faculty yet another working paper on Santa Clara’s Catholic identity. It’s all starting to remind me of a comment by Monsignor Ronald Knox, the Catholic chaplain at Oxford in the 1930s.
In the first chapter of his Enthusiasm, a celebrated anatomy of religious faction published in 1950 (last check-out date at Santa Clara: 1972), Knox explains his theme: “There is, I would say, a recurrent situation in Church history — using the word ‘church’ in the widest sense — where an excess of charity threatens unity. You have a clique, an élite, of Christian men and (more importantly) women…. More and more, by a kind of fatality, you see them draw apart from their co-religionists, a hive ready to swarm…. Then, while you hold your breath and turn away your eyes in fear, the break comes; condemnation or secession, what difference does it make? A fresh name has been added to the list of Christianities.”
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. But he also allows that the motives behind the ideas are inscrutable.
And so the Augustine course takes a peculiar toll of a sort I didn’t precisely anticipate back when I agreed to teach it. It casts the secularization of an erstwhile Catholic university into a relief of painful clarity. Think of it. In just over a generation, a great many influential American Catholics, inscrutably, have traded a heritage of nuanced and soaring thought for a pottage of murky bromides and gummy jargon.
What would St. Augustine say if he were zapped forward from his own era of widespread apostasy, half-baked pagan resurgence, and shallow cosmopolitan pretense? Always more interested in the personal backdrop, he would, I suppose, pick through the historical details carefully and then brush them aside to get at those inscrutable motives behind the events. And I suppose I could cap this essay with any number of apt quotes from the Doctor of Grace.
Instead, let me try to get into the spirit (so to speak) of secularization by quoting Jake Holman, the Steve McQueen character in his dying gasp at the disastrous climax of the 1966 movie The Sand Pebbles: “What the hell happened?”
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