Young Catholic Scholars Bring New Energy to Professional Organizatino

PROFESSOR Gerry Bradley looks scarcely older than his students at the Notre Dame Law School. And in another scholarly arena, the tall, casually dressed 40-year-old whose memories can't summon up a pre-Vatican II Church, really does represent the “younger generation.” Bradley is president of the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars, the 750-member association of Catholic academics which marked its 20th anniversary last summer.

If Bradley's election as president several years ago signaled a generational changing of the Fellowship guard, it does not represent a shift in the group's philosophy or focus. “The people who founded the Fellowship are now senior citizens,” explained Bradley. “They're retiring.”

Msgr. George Kelly of New York, Professor James Hitchcock of St. Louis University, and Father Ronald Lawler OFM Cap. of The Catholic University of America were prominent among those who founded the Fellowship at St. Louis University in the summer of 1977. They wanted to help redirect Catholic scholars to accept the teaching authority of the Church.

In the turbulent aftermath of Vatican II, dissent from Church stands on issues like birth control, women's ordination, and pre-marital sex seemed to characterize the private opinions and classroom lectures of too many Catholic academics, Fellowship founders maintained. They wanted an organization of Catholic scholars who supported, and even championed, the authority of the Magisterium, the Pope, the bishops, and did not reject Vatican II.

Founders were just as quick to point out what the Fellowship was not. It was not to be a political action group—of any sort. The Fellowship does not become involved in campus disputes over Catholic issues. In fact, there are no campus chapters. Only the Board of Directors was given a “voice” to issue statements or communicate with the Bishops Conference. Fellowship members were encouraged to individually support Catholic teachings, such as the opposition to abortion.

In lieu of an advocacy organization, the Fellowship was to develop as an oasis of theological orthodoxy for Catholic scholars. Many were increasingly “lonely,” marginalized by their beliefs. And the Fellowship was designed to welcome all academic disciplines. It was hoped that Catholics from the sciences, the humanities and the arts—as well as those from theology—would feel at home in the organization.

Although the sciences are not yet well represented, the Fellowship has evolved as planned in almost every other way, its members claim. Bradley boasts that the seven original Statements of Purpose hammered out in '77 remain unchanged. Fellowship members must have doctoral degrees or the equivalent, and they must “regularly engage in scholarly work.” Members must also ascribe to the seven Statements of Purpose.

One Statement commits Fellowship scholars to “see their intellectual work as an expression of the service that they owe to God.” In another Statement, scholars express that they “accept as the rule of our life and thought the entire faith of the Catholic Church.” They find this faith, “not merely in the solemn definitions but in the ordinary teaching of the Pope and those bishops in union with him.…”

The intellectual cohesion that such statements imply has been very beneficial in his own life, Bradley says.

“I went to Cornell for undergraduate studies and law school. I was then at the University of Illinois for nine years,” he says. “As a person who strives to be a practicing and believing Catholic, but who was an academic in a professional discipline (law), it wasn't easy for me to pick up a Catholic intellectual infra-structure—even in this Catholic law school. It just doesn't come across my desk easily—the kind of deeper intellectual appreciation of my faith.”

“The Fellowship delivers on its basic promise to identify people of like minds and aspirations, that is, people who wish to live the Catholic intellectual life.” Bradley is very sure about that. At Notre Dame, there are less than ten members of the Fellowship. So, his friends in faith are far flung among the 250 American Catholic colleges and universities. Other members are on secular campuses.

One of Bradley's Fellowship friends is Professor Robert George, a member of the Department of Politics at Princeton. George teaches legal philosophy and Constitutional law. He thinks that he's the only Fellowship member on his campus, though he berates himself for not recruiting several Princeton Catholics who would probably join.

“I've written articles with people I've met through the Fellowship. I've worked on projects motivated by academic interest in which I tried to put my own scholarship at the service of the Church,” reports George. “It's become part of my professional life.” He joined the Fellowship in 1985 and, like Bradley, he sees a new and younger generation of Catholic intellectuals embracing the Fellowship.

“What has become clear,” George maintains, “is that the set of commitments represented by the Fellowship is not dying out.” Young Catholic scholars have not been converted to the “theological liberalism of the mainstream Catholic academy of the '60s and '70s.” George now wonders whether that liberalism—often expressed in challenges to Church authority—will survive.

The Fellowship is even spreading internationally with chapters in Australia, Ireland, and Canada.

Dr. Janet Smith, a member of the philosophy department of the University of Dallas, has been too busy to make any recent assessments about theological liberals. Smith is a 17-year member of the Fellowship. Outside of the classroom, she spends her energies giving talks to support Humanae Vitae (On Human Life), the 1968 encyclical of Pope Paul VI that forbids artificial birth control.

Smith'views on Humanae Vitae and other Church teachings had set her apart from many of her Catholic colleagues. She was isolated, “lonely” in an intellectual sense. She joined the Fellowship in 1980, and now particularly relishes the quarterly journals. “They are very good and getting better,” she says. But she also agrees that the friendships with like-minded Catholic scholars is the greatest fruit of the Fellowship.

Smith hopes that the Fellowship will be increasingly recognized as a Catholic intellectual resource.

“I'd like to see the media and even the U.S. bishops coming to the Fellowship instead of always consulting with members of the Catholic Theological Society,” she says. “This is an organization of people who are academically high powered but who are still totally supportive of the Church.”

Sister Timothea Elliott RSM, a professor of Scripture at St. Joseph's Seminary at Dunwoodie in Yonkers, N.Y., has three or four Fellowship friends on the faculty at Dunwoodie. “We are continuously sharing information,” she says. She relishes that support on her own campus but also enjoys attending the annual Fellowship meetings.

“There's a unanimity of purpose in the Fellowship meetings,” she says. “In many organizations that I belong to, there's such a pole within them. You feel defensive very often.” In the Fellowship, “you don't have hidden agendas and power plays—that sort of thing.”

Bradley believes that some agendas and issues brewing on Catholic campuses will increasingly preoccupy the Fellowship. The organization will continue to support Ex Corde Ecclesia, a document from Pope John Paul II about the mission and identity of Catholic higher education and the norms that should govern Catholic colleges and universities. “We have attempted to put out some position papers which could suggest to the bishops, and anyone, what needs to be done on Catholic campuses to recover a Catholic character and an understanding of a Catholic charism,” Bradley said.

But Bradley also believes that the American Catholic academic establishment—especially theologians—will be on a collision course with the Vatican. “The Holy See remains determined to secure some kind of application of canon 812. That says that theologians must have a mandate (for teaching theology) from the competent ecclesiastical authority (or bishop). I am convinced that the vast majority of Catholic colleges simply will not accept such a role for the local ordinary.”

Professor Bradley is convinced that the healthy and growing Fellowship of Catholic Scholars will be on hand to serve the Church, no matter what flash-points develop on Catholic campuses in the next few years.

Catherine Odell is based in South Bend, Ind