In Some College Classrooms, a Potent Dose Of Catholic Social Teaching Awaits Students

Though Catholic social teaching is gaining new audiences among the laity and even among non-Catholics, most college students on the nation's 241 Catholic campuses still have only limited exposure to it. They have little opportunity to learn about and apply the rich and ancient tradition of the Gospel and pastoral wisdom to the issues of the day.

But in the classrooms where Catholic social thought is being presented and discussed—usually in theology or ethics classes—the parable Jesus told about the tiny mustard seed may be perfectly applicable.

Dr. Robert Kennedy of the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn., routinely reminds his management students that Catholicism is a uniquely useful creed for those who want to do something for the world.

“Catholicism is a faith that is particularly concerned with community. The Protestant notion that we all establish individual pipelines to God is really antithetical to Catholicism,” Kennedy says. “From the earliest times, certainly from the patristic times, there was a great deal of concern among Catholic theologians about the justice of the community and so on....”

Kennedy's intense interest in Catholic social teaching was reignited about a dozen years ago. After earning a doctorate in medieval studies, he served in diocesan ministry. Later, he moved into the realm of business, working in retail sales and real estate. As he moved back into academia, he re-examined the Catholic tradition—Church history, the papal encyclicals, the writings of the Church fathers and doctors.

Awed by what he found, he began to incorporate more of Catholic social teaching into his courses on management, business ethics, and philosophy.

“I and others thought that there was a considerable coherence between some of the principles of Catholic social thought and good management,” Kennedy explains.

In recent decades, there has been little difference in the way Catholic colleges and secular colleges trained young people for business careers. But Kennedy and others believed that the Church had something important to teach them. St. Thomas will soon be offering a new major called “Catholic Studies,” adding to its commitment to present Catholic social teaching.

In his economics and management courses, “we talk about a variety of issues,” Kennedy says. Students might read sections of Pope John Paul's 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus, which deals with such topics as private ownership, the legitimacy of profit, and Third World debt. Students can grapple with big questions situated in an ethical framework. For example, “How do we assist less-developed nations to become more developed? What are the responsibilities of multi-national corporations?”

Kennedy also presents the micro-economic issues—the kinds of problems that business professionals will deal with personally. “Are there some kinds of products that we shouldn't be developing, even if there's a market for them? What about plant locations and down-sizing? What role does faith have in the work place? What about fair wages, job discrimination?”

Several years ago, Kennedy also founded the Institute for Catholic Social Thought and Management. The institute has already sponsored several international conferences to highlight what he describes as “Catholic social thought's relevance to business management.”

But faculty in fields outside of management and business are also deeply concerned about strengthening Catholic social teaching in the college curriculum. That concern was the motivation behind a book written by Dr. Michael Schuck, a professor of theology at Loyola University in Chicago.

He became interested in Catholic social thought as a graduate student in political science and while in divinity school at the University of Chicago. He wondered about papal encyclicals. Did statements the popes made 200 years ago about family life resemble teachings from the 20th century vicars of Christ? How did the teachings about war, capital punishment, sexuality, and the value of human work compare?

In many areas, Schuck found a remarkable and timeless coherence in the encyclicals. In other areas, such as in the area of religious freedom and Church-state relations, “There have been 180-degree changes in papal teaching,” he notes.

Schuck's book —That They Be One: The Social Teaching of the Papal Encyclicals, 1740-1989—was published in 1991.

“From 1740 to the present, society has gone through tremendous transformations,” he says, “and papal social teachings kept abreast of those transformations and commented on them. The earliest encyclicals comment directly on the French Revolution, then on the Industrial Revolution, and later on fascism and communism.”

Schuck was surprised at how consistently responsive the popes were to crises in social morality. But young Catholics aren't likely to hear about it.

In his own department of theology, “Catholic social teaching is given sufficient attention, but we also have a political science department, a sociology and anthropology department, and a social work department where I suspect it's not.”

But Schuck and Professor Dan Finn of St. John's University at Collegeville, Minn., agree that people in the parishes—and Americans in general—have more exposure to Catholic social teaching now than they did 25 years ago. In fact, a new sensitivity and respect for it have emerged.

“Credit for that goes largely to the U.S. bishops and their pastoral letters on peace (The Challenge of Peace, 1983) and the economy (Economic Justice for All, 1986),” Finn maintains. He says that when the bishops invited and encouraged public dialogues about these issues, Catholics were impressed when such “worldly” issues were so fruitfully discussed against the backdrop of Gospel principles and Church teaching.

Finn, who is a professor of both theology and economics, is just as concerned as others that Catholic social teaching get more attention on Catholic campuses. But he believes that you can't assess progress “by counting courses on Catholic social teaching” in college catalogues.

Important as they are, “those focused courses reach only a small group of students,” he argues. Another approach is to filter Catholic ideas and teaching into many different academic fields.

“You might want some papal statements on ecology given attention in Biology 101. Or, you might get the economics department to spend a few days discussing ethical issues related to the environment.”

In other words, Finn says, get young Catholics to listen and discuss what their Church is saying.

According to Finn and Kennedy, Pope John Paul II has done more to single—handedly bring issues of Catholic social teaching before the world's eyes than any pope before him.

“He has been so visible in his travels and people have had a chance to see and hear him whenever he travels,” says The Catholic University of America's John Gabrowski, an associate professor of moral theology. He believes that Pope John Paul has unified the social teaching of the Church in a way that may make it easier to present. The Pope grounds his teachings in a concept from Vatican II's Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes, which says that Christ shows us what it means to be human.

It is the intellectual energy and unifying voice of the Pope and that precious heritage of a Church with its eyes and heart ever on the community that encourages Catholic academics. Catholic social teaching will continue to teach new generations in many ways.

Catherine Odell writes from South Bend, Ind.