Form Criticism

In the dark days before the 1960s, when the whole world lay unhip and unenlightened, people in the Church used to talk a lot about form. It was a philosophical holdover from long-dead figures like Aristotle and Aquinas. Few places teach it anymore, but you can still look it up in philosophical dictionaries. In somewhat simplistic terms, a form is what makes something the thing it is. Knowing a thing’s form, you might also make reasonable judgments about what is the proper way for it to operate and what is not. Without that knowledge, you get mush. Terms like good and bad, right and wrong, appropriate and inappropriate thus were simply thought to refer to something real, though it might take some complex thought to figure out what the reality of that thing (really) is.

Even in secular circles, that kind of thinking still had serious currency. In those days, for example, a president of the United States appearing on a late-night comedy show would have been considered bad form. The informal nature of the setting and the consequent temptations to make inappropriate jokes about, say, bowling like you were handicapped, to say nothing of confusing formal and important matters with entertainment, would have given an American president and his advisors great pause. Back then, the dignity of the office of POTUS (as we now abbreviate) was thought by definition something conferred on him by the people in a solemn act that transcended any particular individual and therefore was not his lightly to do with as he wished. To exercise the presidency in a comedy format – however well intended and good natured – just did not seem to be part of an office occupied by names such as Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln. We know how Washington revered the dignity of the office, and he would have been stunned, to say the least, that anyone would treat it so.

In similar fashion, a Catholic university’s formal reason for being is, to use an old formula for brevity’s sake, “faith seeking understanding.” To invite our most pro-abortion president ever (the same one, as it happens) to deliver a commencement address hot on the heels of his repeal of several federal restrictions on abortion, and with the still real promise of his signing FOCA into law, which would essentially bar real Catholics from various professions for conscience reasons, is – at best – a long carom shot for any institution claiming to be still serving that mission. As the modern Scripture scholars who invented “form criticism” have taught us, the form of such acts tell us much about their meaning. Summoning such a president to address students headed out into the world says: what? At the very least, that your Catholic university has no grave problem with the most powerful proponent of a repugnant moral position in America because he is, in so many other respects, a “leader.” And perhaps you might also be telling students and their families that they need not get very worked up over the way the Church has kept abortion a crucial question either.

The Land O’Lakes statement, which our colleague Professor McInerny invoked on this site yesterday as the taproot of many subsequent problems, mentions form twice: “As a community of learners, the Catholic university has a social existence and an organizational form. Within the university community the student should be able not simply to study theology and Christianity, but should find himself in a social situation in which he can express his Christianity in a variety of ways and live it experientially and experimentally. The students and faculty can explore together new forms of Christian living, of Christian witness, and of Christian service.”

Perhaps well meant at the time, but if anyone thinks the “organizational form” of most Catholic universities today (after the ministrations of Land O’Lakes) helps them to perform a mission substantially different from that of secular institutions, please raise your hand. Forty years into the experiment, the data lie before us. We also know a bit about the “new forms of Christian living” envisioned by Land O’Lakes and many other progressives. They have indeed been new. But even allowing that there’s been some authentic renewal, the vast majority of these experiments long ago passed the point where they might be called Christian, let alone Catholic.

Ecclesia semper reformanda (“A Church always in need of reform”) is a good principle, properly construed. The Catholic Church is a living body, indeed the very Body of Christ by its self-understanding. Like every living thing, to survive it must change to meet new challenges while retaining its essential nature. Re-forming, however, means we know what form we seek. The Church and individual Christians have – and can only have – one overarching goal: to conform themselves to Christ, in the long accepted language of our tradition.

We are fallible beings and easily make mistakes along the way. Sometimes the shift is subtle or slow that takes us to a different destination than we thought we were pursuing. But that is no longer our situation. We now know that what many Catholics believe they are aiming at is not a new and better form, but another and quite dubious matter.

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent books are Columbus and the Crisis of the West and A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.