Wanted: the will to change

Ours is a culture in which there is the sharpest of contrasts between the rigor and integrity with which issues of detail are discussed within each specialized discipline and the self-indulgent shoddiness of so much of public debate on large and general issues of great import (compare Lawrence Summers on economics with Lawrence Summers on gender issues, Cardinal Schönborn on theology with Cardinal Schönborn on evolution). One reason for this contrast is the absence of a large educated public, a public with shared standards of argument and inquiry and some shared conception of the central questions that we need to address. Such a public would be a good deal less willing to allow issues that need to be debated to be defined by those who are so wedded in advance to their own particular partisan answers that they have never found out what the questions are. And it would be unwilling to tolerate the straitjacketing of debate, so characteristic of television, within two- to five-minute periods, during which each participant interrupts and talks down the others.

The adoption of such a curriculum would serve both universities and the wider society well. But it would be of particular significance for a Catholic university and for the Catholic community. Newman argued that it is theology that is the integrative and unifying discipline needed by any university, secular, Protestant, or Catholic. And it is in the light afforded by the Catholic faith and more especially by Catholic doctrines concerning human nature and the human condition that theologians have a unique contribution to make in addressing the questions that ought to be central to an otherwise secular curriculum. It is not just that Catholic theology has its own distinctive answers to those questions, but that we can learn from it a way of addressing those questions, not just as theoretical inquiries, but as questions with practical import for our lives, asked by those who are open to God’s self-revelation. Theology can become an education in how to ask such questions.

On this point, it may be said, that theology departments are unlikely to achieve this goal, if only because they commonly suffer from the same ills of specialization and fragmentation as other departments. Yet of course the degree to which this is so varies a great deal from university to university. It is also true that everything or almost everything that must be taught in a reformed curriculum is already taught somewhere in most universities, yet not at present in a way that allows students to bring together the various things that they learn, so that they can understand what is at stake in answering the key questions. We do possess the intellectual resources to bring about the kind of change I propose. What we lack, in Catholic and in secular universities, is the will to change, and that absence of will is a symptom of a quite unwarranted complacency concerning our present state and our present direction.