Catholic Studies Strikes at the Heart of Relativism


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Six bishops and several priests processed toward the altar of Our Lady of the Annunciation Chapel at the University of Mary in Bismarck, N.D., earlier this fall. They had come to celebrate Mass for a conference to honor 20 years of Catholic studies and Don Briel, who founded the Catholic studies program at the University of St. Thomas in Minneapolis..

As the parade processed, I recalled the words of a long-lost friend and critic of Catholicism: “Bishops’ hats look so silly.” Witnessing the spectacle, I could see he had a point — a “point” quite different than he intended, however.

A bishop’s miter begins at the temple of his head, widens to a crown and comes to two peaks, pointing up and out. Perhaps these “hats” do look silly, but why on earth shouldn’t they? What more can be said about the upside-down crucifixion of the first bishop of Rome than that it was a little silly?

Martyrdom is a divine joke. It is a comedy that the worldly mistake as tragedy. The Church in our age needs more martyrs, Bishop Andrew Cozzens (wearing his miter) told the congregation in his homily. (Msgr. James Shea, president of the University of Mary and our host for the weekend, later admitted that upon hearing the exhortation of the bishop, he turned to the priest on his left and said: “You first.”) The martyr offers the most persuasive apologetic for Christ and his Church. Many doubt the sincerity of well-spoken words, but few doubt the sincerity of freely flowing blood.

The true martyr unavoidably points to something beyond himself, as does the bishop’s miter.

We might say the bishop in his miter becomes a vertical signpost: an arrow pointing to heaven. The martyr in his suffering takes himself a little less seriously and offers himself up to God. The bishop wearing his miter cannot take himself too seriously, for his “hat” unfailingly brings a divine silliness to otherwise serious men.

My lost friend, however, was also wearing a miter of sorts. In fact, everyone wears a miter of some sort, for we each live lives that point to one thing or another. Sadly, we frequently wear our miters upside down and point merely back to ourselves, the smaller given to God.

It has been the mission of Catholic studies and of Don Briel, who now holds the Blessed John Henry Newman Chair of Liberal Arts at the University of Mary, to turn as many miters back to God as possible. The task is altogether urgent: for the upside-down miter, having a big opening fit for God, covers our eyes and leaves us blind.

Catholic studies is not theology, nor is it philosophy. It is not history, nor is it literature. Catholic studies is nothing less than seeing the impact of the Incarnation on thought and culture. The Incarnation is present in the sighing marble lips of Bernini’s St. Thérèse, the exclamation of the dying grandmother in Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man Is Hard to Find, the “well-done” flesh of St. Lawrence in the Roman square and the smoke billowing from the cigar of G.K. Chesterton.

The student of Catholic studies is invited to see the truth as one and whole. The world is to be seen with Catholic, that is universal, eyes.
The skeptic of Catholic studies — or those merely confused by my description of it — would do well to consider the location of this conference. The University of Mary rests high on a hill overlooking the city of Bismarck. The landscape below is at once tiny and enormous, distant yet close, beneath yet somehow above. The river, the houses, the spires of the Cathedral of the Holy Spirit and the rigid rock of the state capital is all seen from on high — from the Catholic view.

From above, things ugly or unpleasant, such as a dumpster behind a gas station, become beautiful by virtue of their place among everything else. Little things are always endearing. The smallest child will soften the hardest heart. From the perch of the University of Mary, the whole of Bismarck becomes little and lovable. From the perch of Catholic studies, the whole of thought and culture becomes little and lovable, for it is seen as from above.

Peering down the rather steep bluff upon which the University of Mary sits reminds us of another Catholic idea: contemplating the fall of man. This conference, here on top of a hill, is best seen as a response to a conference once offered far below: The Land O’Lakes conference of 1967, at which most major Catholic universities, led by the president of the University of Notre Dame, declared their independence from the authority of the Church.

As fell Father Theodore Hesburgh, so fell most of so-called Catholic higher education.
The project of Catholic studies, carried out with gratitude for the apostolic authority of the bishops, thus finds itself as a prophet among lions. Father Paul Murray, from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas, gave name to these new lions — relativism, pessimism and fundamentalism — inviting conference attendees to see their jaws closed by the theological virtues.

Relativism is closed by faith. Before the truth, the believer sees himself in light of humility, and he bows. The relativist, however, sees himself in pride and wishes the truth would only be so humble as to not exist at all. Pessimism is closed by hope. The pessimist sees all things wrong with the world in light of his ever-present weakness. The man of hope sees all things wrong with the world in light of God’s omnipresent strength.

Fundamentalism is closed by love. The fundamentalist sees himself and others in relation to the enormity and difficulty of Christ’s commandments. The lover sees himself and others in relation to the abundance of Christ’s caritas.

All three lions are present not only without, but also within, a program of Catholic studies. Relativism became institutionalized at Land O’Lakes and now seduces professors through the allure of scholastic promotion and ease of publication.

Pessimism is easily acquired by a superficial glance at any particular part of the globe or any particular political question.

Fundamentalism is an ever-present temptation for the student of Catholic studies. Having seen the rich beauty and wholeness of the Catholic faith — from the bubbling joy in a Catholic barroom to the burning beauty of the solemn Mass — the student will find difficulty in encountering those who do not see Catholicism for what it is and hold it as a matter of little importance.

Catholic studies is, therefore, the beginning of an adventure. The life of mere study is given up for the life of vibrant living: wherein beauty and ugliness, peace and war, music and noise are wrestled with on the stage between heaven and hell.

Catholic studies is also the beginning of thought. Even a thoroughgoing secularist can agree that a group conversation is all the more enthralling and enjoyable when most participants can agree on most things.

If each one wishes to speak a different language, no conversation will take place. If each wishes to offer a lengthy speech, no conversation will take place. If each has his own pet subject and cannot engage with others, no conversation will take place.

The “limitations” of Catholic studies are, then, no limitations at all. Sharing a general agreement about the most important things, Catholic thinkers can get to work chewing on the most delicious of questions: What was God’s providential purpose in allowing the rise of evil Roman emperors? What does theology of the body have to say to non-Catholic thinkers? What does the Incarnation look like in America?

The much-maligned teachings of the magisterium make up the walls of the house that has become Catholic studies. It is no criticism against a house to say it is upwardly limited by its roof or outwardly limited by its walls. The roof and walls keep out the rain and keep in the heat. Only in a house can a group of friends find the warmth of a home.

This is what made the “20 Years of Catholic Studies Conference” unique: It was not a meeting of academics, but a gathering of friends. Compliments streamed from the podium far more frequently than criticism. Each evening was spent enjoying the overflowing generosity of our host, Msgr. Shea. Here was a man who could give the most eloquent lecture on Dr. Briel and the vision of Catholic studies and a few hours later sing along to the Irish folk classic The Wild Rover. Hospitality was freely flowing from the taps at Chesterton’s pub.

In short, what I saw in Bismarck was a growing movement, a babe already born. Conceived by Newman and Dawson and nursed to health by Don Briel and his collaborators, Catholic studies has emerged as a burning light on a hill, a bag of the strongest salt — or, perhaps, better, a wild truth reeling, but erect.

John Goerke is a writer living in St. Paul, Minnesota.

He is pursuing a master’s degree in Catholic studies at the University of St. Thomas.  

Aleksander Augustynowicz, “Alleluia,” 1906

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