In Jefferson's Shadow: Can Catholic theology thrive at a public university?

In seventh grade, I posted a picture of a cross adorned with roses inside my locker. I had drawn it with markers on a sheet of notebook paper during homeroom. A teacher noticed the drawing and asked me to take it down. She informed me that religion was not allowed in public school and scolded me for breaching what Thomas Jefferson famously called the “wall of separation” between church and state. Embarrassed, I immediately removed the image from my locker. This was my earliest lesson about the role of faith in public institutions: I would do well to keep my religious beliefs out of view.

So it was with no little trepidation that I accepted a position in the religious studies department at the University of Virginia, founded by our third president and known affectionately to students and faculty as Mr. Jefferson’s University. I had managed to stay squarely on one side of “the wall” for my first two decades in academia. After earning two degrees in theology (at private institutions), I joined the faculty of Saint Anselm College, a Catholic, Benedictine liberal arts school in Manchester, N.H. There I could pursue theology in its purest sense, as fides quaerens intellectum—faith seeking understanding—to use the words of St. Anselm of Canterbury.

This was my earliest lesson about the role of faith in public institutions: I would do well to keep my religious beliefs out of view.

Moving from Saint Anselm’s college to a public university, I was confronted with questions about how I would teach the Catholic theological tradition in an institution founded, in part, to keep theology on the margins of academic discourse. Thomas Jefferson gave architectural representation to this commitment by replacing the chapel typically located at the center of universities with a library housed inside of the gleaming Rotunda. I faced a barrage of questions from my former colleagues: Why would a Catholic theologian wantto work in such an environment? Is it possible to translate the richness of the Catholic tradition without transgressing the boundary between church and state? How can you shed light on the Catholic tradition without stating anything as truth?

I shared their concerns: Could I really teach theology, in its confessional fullness, at a public university?

A Wall of Separation

The answer depends on how one conceives of the disciplines of theology and religious studies. Theology reasons from within a particular tradition. It is often a confessional activity, one that involves the pursuit of truth through reflection on Scripture, tradition, reason and experience. But it also has an objective dimension, ideas that can be studied and appreciated regardless of one’s personal faith commitments. Religious studies attends to the lived realities of religious traditions. It investigates religion as expressed in the treatises of reformers, in the poetry of mystics, in the lives of martyrs. At a public university, one can earn a degree in religious studies but not in theology. The challenge of teaching about theology within the constraints of religious studies in the public university, then, is to convey the lived reality of faith, illustrating the complex and dynamic relationship between doctrine, belief and practice.

I am not the first Catholic theologian to negotiate the church-state boundary in the context of a public university. Anne Clifford, C.S.J., joined the faculty of Iowa State University in 2008 as the Monsignor James A. Supple Chair of Catholic Studies in the department of philosophy and religious studies. Her research on the doctrine of creation and environmental ethics offers a crucial dimension to public reflection on the global ecological crisis. The university welcomed her arrival, yet she noticed reminders of the wall of separation at every level of her interview to join the faculty.

Could I really teach theology, in its confessional fullness, at a public university?

“I do not know if this is the standard practice for the position or one adopted in response to the fact that I am a vowed woman religious,” Sister Clifford says, “but I have tried to conceive of my courses and individual classes with my commitment to the ‘separation of church and state’ in mind.”

Richard Gaillardetz, now the Joseph Chair of Catholic Systematic Theology and chair of the theology department at Boston College, worked for a decade at the University of Toledo. Like Sister Clifford, he found that some university community members were worried about religion having any role in the life of the university. Many of his fellow academics, he says, “presumed outdated 19th-century notions of social scientific ‘objectivity’ and then used that as the basis to negate any place for theology, properly speaking, to be included in the public conversation of the university.” In this theory of knowledge, detachment is consecrated as the first principle. Catholic theology, by definition, cannot be extracted from its foundational principles—faith in the triune God, Scripture as the revealed word of God and the church as mediator of revelation, to name a few—and thus can generate suspicion among those who would seek to protect the religious neutrality of public institutions.

But this drive for scientific objectivity and perfect neutrality fails to account for the ubiquitous presence of religion in U.S. public life. According to the Pew Forum’s Religious Landscape Study, more than three-quarters of people in the United States claim to be religious. Religious language pervades political discourse from protests to presidential elections. Religious beliefs are implicated in some of the most challenging social issues of our time. Former Secretary of State John Kerry once warned in the pages of America that “we ignore the global impact of religion at our peril.” Failure to attend to the religious dimensions of our common life hinders the pursuit of the common good.

Failure to attend to the religious dimensions of our common life hinders the pursuit of the common good.

From my perspective as a Catholic theological ethicist, it is precisely theology’s strong, consistent affirmation of the particular values of the Catholic social tradition—dignity, justice and the common good—that allows for its unique perspective on the relationship between belief and practice. The Catholic faith is a public faith, asserting truths that touch every aspect of human life. Its public character emerges from its specific theological claim that each human being is created in the image of God and thus has inherent dignity. Scriptural mandates to care for the most vulnerable members of society pervade the church’s theological and moral teachings. Implementing these goods calls upon Catholics, and people of different faith traditions, to engage their beliefs in a religiously and culturally pluralistic public realm.

I was grateful to find a community of scholars who either shared, or at least respected, the demands of living out a public faith. Faculty members in my department had a range of relationships to Catholicism: some had been raised Catholic, some had attended Jesuit schools and some were theologians from other traditions. As luck would have it, I moved into the office next to a renowned Jesuit historian who helped me connect to a local parish and kept me grounded in all things Ignatian.

But this hospitable and collaborative environment did not always extend to the rest of the university community. In some quarters, I found my scholarship was considered conservative for engaging sources from deep within the Catholic tradition. In others, I was called a radical for my commitment to social justice and my methodological commitment to experience and context as crucial sources of knowledge. Both camps viewed my work as marginal and dangerously close to breaching the wall.

Communion in the Classroom

These tensions take on new dimensions in the undergraduate classroom. Even in classes on Catholic themes, instructors cannot expect students in public universities to have encountered Catholicism. In some cases, Catholicism is entirely novel to students, who have never heard of Mass or the Eucharist, let alone soteriology or subsidiarity. Students are often well versed in individualism and skeptical of the call to communion that orients Catholic life.

At times, this proved to be a stumbling block for me. Early in the semester, I bumbled my way through a lecture on human dignity as the bedrock of Catholic ethics while trying to avoid making the vaguest theological truth claims. This lecture had always been my favorite to teach in classrooms at Catholic universities. I taught it well because I hold it to be true. Offering the same lesson in the lecture hall of a public university, I swallowed my enthusiasm in an effort to avoid intellectual or religious bias. Communicating in this way, the lesson lost touch with the power of the Catholic social tradition that has inspired the faithful to struggle for dignity, justice and human rights. My tongue “clung to the roof of my mouth” as I tried to sing the song of my people in a strange land.

Students are often well versed in individualism and skeptical of the call to communion that orients Catholic life.

But while theologians working in the public university face unique challenges, I have also found they are uniquely positioned to articulate a public theology that can renew the church’s engagement with a religiously and politically diverse world. In a public university, the tradition is exposed to new lines of inquiry and criticism on a daily basis, illuminating new questions and seeing enduring ones in a new light. For example, the concept of human dignity in Catholic theology is robustly communal; human beings are created in the image of a specifically Trinitarian God. Arguing this idea in the public university, one is likely to receive opposition from several religious and philosophical traditions with more individualistic accounts of human identity. In the context of respectful and collegial dialogue, however, this conflict generates an opportunity ask important questions about one’s own tradition and the traditions of others. Does Catholic theology say enough about personal faith and individual rights? Do more individual-centered traditions say enough about social obligations or the necessity of a common good?

And as students bring their perspectives to bear on Catholicism, our theological tradition offers them essential resources for engaged citizenship in the 21st century. Catholic theology offers distinct and identifiable definitions of concepts like dignity, solidarity and mercy. As a global religion with adherents across the world from all walks of life, Catholicism offers a distinctive perspective on our common humanity and the necessity of justice and solidarity for the sake of societal flourishing.

These gifts of Catholic theology in public life were on full display in a seminar I offered this past fall called Religion and the 2016 Elections. The class, held in a room on the ground floor of Mr. Jefferson’s Rotunda, was made up of students from a range of religious backgrounds: Catholics and Methodists, atheists and evangelicals. Students followed media coverage of religion and the presidential campaigns, interpreting these stories in light of their readings in religious and theological thought. The elections took on a sense of urgency among a variety of religious communities, their concerns ranging from abortion to immigration to the economy. Students hotly debated whether abortion should be legal, whether the United States has an obligation to welcome Syrian refugees within our borders and whether the government has a responsibility to care for poor people. Although we discussed matters of public interest, students shared openly their religious and political positions with their classmates in these conversations.

As scandals accumulated and vitriol intensified leading up to Nov. 8, I turned to Catholic virtue ethics to offer guideposts for our conversation. The students were particularly attracted to an essay on the need for civility in support of the common good written by the moral theologian James Keenan, S.J. They appreciated his distinction between civility and politeness, and the need for courage and fortitude in order to pursue this virtue. While civility is a public virtue, the Catholic expression of the virtue is predicated on its service of the common good, in which society has a responsibility to honor the imago Dei present in every person. When we begin to think of dignity as inherent to human identity, it becomes more difficult to disrespect another person’s humanity. While the students debated some of the theological and social premises of the Catholic account of civility, they also adopted it as their collective virtue, holding fast to the commitment they made to each other even as the rancorous political season unfolded.

Catholic theology thrived in Thomas Jefferson’s Rotunda, revealing its insights for a world longing for humanizing hope.

In the days after the election, the students turned to other virtues we had encountered in the Catholic tradition to help them restore their relationships with each other and look toward the future: solidarity and hope. They shared stories of hopes and fears for the next four years, never losing sight of each other’s inherent dignity; this felt miraculous during a time of national turmoil and distrust. Catholic theology and practice guided this public conversation, helping the community to pursue a common good even in the most polarized of political environments. Catholic theology thrived in Thomas Jefferson’s Rotunda, revealing its insights for a world longing for humanizing hope.

Of Walls and Gardens  

There is a series of walled gardens adjacent to The Lawn, the university’s central quad. It is common to see students and community members strolling the paths along the gardens, peering at the beautiful trees and flowers that spill over the side of the walls. There is constant traffic between the gardens: people, plants, birds, squirrels. Each garden delights the eyes, life sipping soft rain, color bursting forth in the warm Virginia sunshine. People gather here to write, sing, paint, talk and pray.

The gardens are bordered by serpentine walls composed of ancient, porous brick, a graceful design chosen by Mr. Jefferson himself. These walls draw boundaries around the garden, but they function more like a frame than a barrier. Each garden is different from the others. One is carefully curated, the next is covered with foliage. One is designed as a structured grid, the next as a labyrinthine path. Each garden has several wooden benches, beckoning visitors to sit and contemplate the particular beauty illuminated there. These gardens foreground something distinctive about the world around them while still existing as a part of the local environment.

To speak of a wall of separation implies that religion and public life are mutually exclusive realms, sealed off from each other in airtight compartments. This language implies that a public life that respects religious freedom is a fortress with high, impenetrable walls. It imagines that the business of public life happens behind a veil of ignorance, that the common good can be pursued without accounting for human hopes, human fears and human loves.

If public life were a fortress, it would wall out some of the most monumental contributors to our societal common good.

If public life were a fortress, it would wall out some of the most monumental contributors to our societal common good. It would exclude the testimonies of Fannie Lou Hamer and Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King Jr. and Cesar Chavez. This cloud of witnesses testifies to the power of particular religious thought, imagery and practice to appeal to a diverse public and to ignite our collective conscience. Their words and actions unveiled something true, good and beautiful accessible to all people.

Perhaps the garden is a better image for our public life. The garden shares ground with the world around it. It participates in the surrounding ecosystem. It is inhabited by the creatures of the wider surroundings, even if is distinct from its immediate environs. The garden foregrounds something particular, inviting us to contemplate the unique constellation of life gathered there.

The garden offers a way forward for engaging Catholic theology in the public university. In the garden of the public university, Catholic theology lives among the flowers of the garden. To encounter this tradition requires attentiveness to its distinctive character. It calls for close examination of its mission, its history, its teachings and its practices. This encounter can be dialogical and argumentative, but it must also be meditative, privileging attentive listening over impressionistic assertion. Coming to know the tradition necessitates spending time in its environment, seeing its place in relation to other modes of inquiry.

Public universities are at their best when they move from translation to interpretation, seeking to understand traditions on their own terms rather than demanding that all traditions speak the same language.

Encountering Catholic theology in the public university offers a template for Catholic engagement in a pluralistic society. Greater familiarity with our tradition invites us to explore other traditions. At Iowa State University, Sister Clifford contributes to an interdisciplinary workshop on sustainability systems that reflects on the interaction between natural and human ecologies. Her environmental theology enriches the intellectual soil at Iowa State even as her own thinking is nurtured in conversations across disciplines. At the University of Toledo, Dr. Gaillardetz offered his expertise in Catholic theology to an interdisciplinary course on Jesus and film, co-taught with a professor from the film department, in which the students reflected on both the cinematic and theological dimensions of films about Jesus or with Jesus figures.

At the University of Virginia, I find that my own work has become sharper and more persuasive in this public environment as I learn to offer a passionate vision of human identity in relation to God that invites others to learn the language of the Catholic tradition. Public universities are at their best when they move from translation to interpretation, seeking to understand traditions on their own terms rather than demanding that all traditions speak the same language.

I keep an array of Catholic images in my office in the religious studies department: a Jerusalem cross, a painting of La Virgen de Guadalupe and a John August Swanson print featuring Cesar Chavez quotations and images from the United Farm Workers movement. These images are in full view, greeting my students and colleagues when they enter the space. No one has accused me of “breaching the wall” or demanded that I take them down. Instead, students ask me questions about them, and I explain their significance to me and to the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics. These images serve as a backdrop for every encounter that takes place in the office: debates about Mariology, contemplation of Sufi poetry or elaboration of concepts in Jewish bioethics. This is religious belief in public view, ensconced within the university walls but looking outward and offering a particular expression of faith in an immensely diverse world.
Carolyn Capuano, HM
1 month 4 weeks ago

I am privileged to team teach a capstone seminar, Spirituality and Medicine- Implications for Clinical Practice, at our area, state run, medical school. Ms Flores' experience ( God Talk at Mr Jefferson's University, May 29) is similar to mine. Students are quite eager to hear and share personal experiences of spirituality, faith and religion. One student told us that following a session featuring a guest presenter from the Islamic tradition he was able to have a meaningful discussion with his Muslim room mate of 3 years. Others say that they have wanted to discuss such topics but never had the opportunity until our class. The key is always mutual respect and acceptance. Students leave with a better sense of how to care for their patients as whole persons.

THE CHRISTOFFERSONS
1 month 2 weeks ago

The opening experience of the author in seventh grade was a disappointment, nicely counterbalanced by the closing example of Catholic images in her office at Mr. Jefferson's university.

There are many different gifts, but the same Spirit. There are many different cultures, but the same Spirit. And there are many different ways of imaging God, but the same Spirit.

A fully Catholic theology recognizes the same Spirit in those of different faith traditions whose images of God are different. Indeed, Catholic universities typically have those of different faith traditions on the faculty, teaching those different traditions.

God is big. You and I are little. I envision a fully Catholic theology that is as inclusive as God. As Francis said in a different context, "who am I to judge?" And I hope that such a theology would be welcomed at a Catholic university, even if taught by a Catholic theologian.

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