Catholic Wisdom Presented With Flair

New DVD courses bring theology to the masses. Jan. 29 issue feature.

LIGHTS. CAMERA. THEOLOGY! Kevin Gallagher, director of Catholic Courses, consults with Father Alfred McBride, one of the course’s presenters, on the set. Conor Gallagher, executive producer of Catholic Courses, is pictured in the foreground with his back to the camera.
LIGHTS. CAMERA. THEOLOGY! Kevin Gallagher, director of Catholic Courses, consults with Father Alfred McBride, one of the course’s presenters, on the set. Conor Gallagher, executive producer of Catholic Courses, is pictured in the foreground with his back to the camera. (photo: Courtesy of St. Benedict’s Press)

With considerable pizzazz, a package of popular, faithful education programming in video and audio form has burst onto the Catholic market.

Once you get past the package’s generic title, “Catholic Courses,” you would be pressed not to be at least intrigued, if not hooked, by such teasers as “What we have here are the most notorious men and women who ever became saints” for the course “Saints With a Past.” It continues, “These are the depravity all-stars.”

Or how about a course called “Seven Myths About the Catholic Church and Science”? When you buy it, you will “Get the Real Story About Galileo, Evolution, the Big Bang Theory, Aliens and More!”

It’s Catholicism with attitude, certainly, and it’s not aimed at those seeking degrees, says the self-taught scholar who supervises the editorial side of the project. Joseph Pearce is writer in residence and professor of literature at Ave Maria University in Florida. “This is for Catholics who are aware of their faith, aware of the reasons the faith is attacked by its enemies ... but who want to move up a gear or two as regards their understanding of their faith,” Pearce said.

Pearce is the author of books on J.R.R. Tolkien and William Shakespeare and offers courses on both. While Tolkien’s Catholicism is well known, Pearce is the leading contemporary proponent of the idea that Shakespeare not only was born into a Catholic family but remained a believer throughout his life, despite such belief being virtually equated with treason in Tudor England.

While the “Catholic Shakespeare” thesis outraged Protestant England in the 19th century, says Pearce, it now offends a secular-humanist academia that seeks to claim the Bard as its own. He relies on both documentary research and Shakespeare’s plays to argue his case.

In his course, Benjamin Wiker fights the same fight for science, arguing that any true knowledge of the physical universe has to be compatible with Catholicism at a philosophical level. He then debunks such “myths” as: “The Middle Ages Were Scientifically ‘Dark’”; “The Church Persecuted Copernicus and Galileo”; “The Church Rejects Evolution”; “The Big Bang Theory Is the Alternative to a Creator God,” and so on.

Wiker, who has taught at Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio, and Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula, Calif., says a theme in many of the lessons is the overarching Catholic idea of a created, ordered and intelligible universe, how this was fundamental to the development of modern science, and how it is opposed by modernity’s view of a random, value-free universe. Science does not lie neutrally between, says Wiker, but, rightly understood, it proves the Catholic view.

He hopes his course will arm Catholic pastors with material for sermons, but he also wants them to spark discussion. “Every day,” he said, “Catholics are abandoning Catholic beliefs, even while sitting in the pews, because they are seen as contradicting science.”

The intent of the project as a whole is not necessarily apologetic, says the man behind the project, Robert Gallagher, though some individual courses may trend that way.

“This is not Apologetics 101 or RCIA,” Gallagher said. “This is to satisfy a need for the lifelong learner who wishes he had an opportunity to attend the best universities in the world — how to think with a Catholic philosophical understanding. This provides an opportunity to sit at the feet of the best minds in the world.”

In the Works

Such minds include Regis Martin, professor of theology at Franciscan University, who will look at “The Four Last Things: Death, Judgment, Heaven and Hell” and what the best minds in the Church through the centuries have had to say about them. Author Thomas Craughwell hammers home the lesson that many saints first led sinful lives before their conversions, as mentioned above, and Pearce will reveal “The Hidden Meaning of The Lord of the Rings” and Shakepeare’s Catholicism to round out the opening offering of courses.

Other courses in the works for 2012 are “The Foundations of Christian Theology” by Jesuit Father David Meconi, assistant professor of patristic studies at St. Louis University and editor of the Homiletic and Pastoral Review, and “The Nature of All Things: St. Thomas Aquinas’ Metaphysics” by Catholic University of America philosophy professor Gregory Doolan.

The courses are nominally priced at $89 for a four-DVD set, ranging down to $39 for an audio-only download. The opening promotion, however, will be $59 for the DVDs or $29 for the audio.

A promotional “magalogue” — a catalogue in magazine format — has gone out to 100,000 addresses, 40,000 of them already customers of Gallagher’s St. Benedict’s Press and Tan Books. Gallagher’s family company has been publishing Bibles for 75 years, the last six as St. Benedict’s Press. Tan Books, which was acquired three years ago, has 40 years under its belt publishing Catholic devotional materials.

‘Accessible, Engaging’

Gallagher says the idea for Catholic Courses sprang from the striking contrast between excellent secular content available in new media and Catholic material that was doctrinally suspect. He is afraid Catholics will rely on The New York Times or the Public Broadcasting Service for their worldviews simply because no one is offering the Catholic alternative. A worse prospect is that some Catholic material is being driven by an agenda that is not faithful to the magisterium.

“I’ve always enjoyed distance learning,” Gallagher said. “I’ve always liked listening to educational tapes in my car, for example, and now on my iPad. When you see these things you start thinking, Gosh, wouldn’t it be nice if there were really good Catholic material available?”

But what is out there is, in Gallagher’s opinion, low in production value: “Most of it looks like someone used their camcorder to video the last motivational speaker to come to their church basement and is selling the results for $5.”

In contrast, Gallagher hopes that the Catholic Courses project has been carried out with the vision of providing “accessible and engaging” Catholic content of the highest quality. A permanent studio and set has been built to shoot the lessons. The lectures themselves are intercut with illustrations in the best tradition of PBS documentaries, and between 15 and 20 production hours have gone into each hour of audio or video.

“People have an insatiable craving to learn,” said Gallagher. “Let’s satisfy it by providing the best minds on the most important topics.”

Steve Weatherbe writes from Victoria, British Columbia.