Catholic Universities: Identity, Faith, and Power

We are fighting to preserve and recover the Catholic faith in our schools precisely because it has been replaced by “Catholic identity.”

In the 1960s and ’70s, the name Marshall McLuhan became a household word for the bourgeoisie of the western world, and something of a mantra for its intelligentsia. McLuhan’s ground-breaking and often prophetic insights into the transformative effects of mass media and technology upon human consciousness gave him a rare status among professional academics—not only was he a professor of English in the every-day world, but a rock star in the realm of pop culture. While my own research in literature and postmodern culture has brought me into contact with McLuhan’s work many times in the last 15 years, it was not until several years ago that I learned that McLuhan, in addition to being a counter-culture icon, was also a devout Catholic.

Recently, while web-surfing for information about McLuhan’s faith, I came across a brief video snippet from his 1977 talk show appearance with TV Ontario’s Mike McManus.

In this interview, McLuhan was offering some ideas on why separatism and sectarian violence were inevitable in a globalizing world. In response to McManus’ observation that global tribalism had not resulted in a more “friendly” world, McLuhan agreed, noting that, “when people get close together, they get more and more savagely impatient with each other.”

“The Global Village,” McLuhan observed, “is a place of very arduous interfaces and very abrasive situations.”

He added that these “abrasive situations” and incidents of “savage” impatience emerge because people feel a need to define and assert their identity in a world that increasingly and systematically forces them to trade their individuality for membership in a global tribe. “All forms of violence,” McLuhan asserted, “are a quest for identity.”

I have spent a great deal of time over the last few weeks pondering this provocative remark and considering its implications for the work of preserving Catholic culture on the campuses of Catholic universities. It was never my intention, when I began teaching at a Jesuit university, to take up arms in the great ecclesiological culture war, although I have been drawn into it as a combatant of sorts. It has been very disquieting at times because despite the satisfaction one inevitably gains from standing for one’s principles—and for one’s Church in an increasingly irreligious age—the end-game and the real stakes involved are never entirely clear.

My colleagues in this struggle would argue that the Catholic identity of our institutions is at stake, but even that is confusing, because the resident clerics and theologians who are the designated experts on things “Catholic” seem to be quite content with the general downward trend of Catholic representation on faculties, the downward trend of Catholic representation among the student bodies, the replacement of a theology departments with religious studies departments, the reduction of religious studies and philosophy classes in the core curricula, the radical decrease in Jesuit vocations, the replacement of an overtly religious community ethos with a secular ethos, etc., etc., etc. If the local religious orders and the administrations of our universities are content with this reality—indeed, if they proudly proclaim the success of Catholic identity in these conditions of clear failure, then what, to paraphrase Country Joe McDonald, are we fighting for?

I believe McLuhan has helped me make sense of this:

We are, it appears, fighting to preserve and recover the Catholic faith in our schools precisely because it has been replaced by “Catholic identity.” If McLuhan’s link between violence (which I will liberally interpret as “the wielding of power,” pace Hannah Arendt) and identity politics is correct, then it actually makes sense that an institution would go to great lengths to affirm its Catholic identity in an environment of weakening adherence to the catechism of the Catholic faith and obedience to the Church hierarchy. It is the distinction in consciousness, however subtle, between “identity affirmation” and “faith practice” that has eluded me for so long, but yes—they are different things, and they mark the turf of the two sides in the ongoing ecclesiological debate on Catholic campuses today. One side claims the power to define identity; the other side claims the freedom to practice and celebrate the traditional faith. Identity is constructed, faith is expressed; identity is projected, faith is lived; identity wields power, faith endures the operations of that power.

We must regularly remind ourselves that a faith tradition is the property of the people who actually profess and obey the faith. It is not the property of those administrators, theologians, or priests who, with the very best of intentions, seek to deconstruct the tradition (finding it unjust), or stretch the definition of the faith (finding it too exclusive) to the point that it loses its original meaning. Unfortunately, this is precisely what has happened in the last 60 years throughout the Catholic Church and the Catholic academy—the net result of these modifications has been to encourage the invention of something called “Catholic identity” and to discourage and even demean the proliferation of Catholic faith.

The more I ponder the unfortunately real (yet persistently counter-intuitive) division between “faith” and “identity,” the more persuaded I become that the manipulation of identity politics must be the greatest strategy ever devised by the dominant secular culture to erase the kind of real difference and authentic diversity that religious faith invariably represents in a homogenized political culture. What McLuhan invites us to consider is that when you have a climate in which every group is simultaneously encouraged to empower itself in a “quest for identity,” you do not get a happy outcome—you get “arduous interfaces” and “abrasive situations,” a cultural free-for-all in which no peace is really possible—unless of course, the peace is managed strategically by determined identity-manipulators.

Using McLuhan’s observation as a lens through which to view Catholic higher education, it becomes clear why, for example, “religious studies” is preferable to “theology,” or why “interfaith dialogue” is preferable to “evangelization.” These swaps make it possible for a secular consciousness to colonize the turf of Catholic faith and reconfigure it as an identity that satisfies the imperatives of a progressive political culture.

Our situation is reminiscent of the Mughal Empire under Akbar the Great, who ruled India as sultan from 1556 until 1605. A Sufi-leaning Muslim, Akbar was fascinated by other faiths, and built a Hall of Worship to which he would invite clerics from a variety of religions—Shiites, Sunnis, Hindus, Zoroastrians, Christians, etc.—to discuss matters of theology and mysticism. While he admired all of these religions, he was disturbed by the often sharp disagreements in the “interfaith dialogues” at the Hall of Worship, and decided to formulate his own religious movement as a way to harmonize the antagonisms. Members of any religion were welcome to participate, provided that they submit to his unifying authority over all of them. Akbar’s gesture of subordinating the messy disputes of religion to the tidy power of the ruler is much akin to the gesture performed by the modern state that “grants” its constituents the freedom to worship their gods, provided that their identity as loyal citizens is understood to be the higher order of allegiance. As we know, nobody really gets in trouble for missing Mass—but see what happens to the citizen who fails to file a tax return.

It is apparent that a similar gesture takes place in the Catholic university, where the combined authorities of Ministry, Mission, and Student Life make sure that all faiths are welcome, but that none, especially Catholicism, disrupt the smooth operation of humanistic, Catholic identity.

In the final analysis, I am left with one observation and one serious proposal. The observation relates to the violence that McLuhan says stems from the quest for identity, and the proposal deals with a new way of proceeding. I believe McLuhan left out a significant piece in his analysis (although he was not making a formal analysis, but rather thought-provoking talk-show banter). He ignored the first pass of violence and identity formation, which is, of course, the appropriation by the secular culture of the ground on which faith ought to be free to flourish. In other words, globalization itself is the first wielding of power. The resistance to globalization, in the form of the particularistic identity quests, which run the gamut from “checking out” to throwing bombs, is only to be expected. It goes without saying though, that a Christian faith tradition must not and cannot answer violence with violence.

The Catholic faith cannot operate as a regime of power and still give proper praise, reverence, and worship to God. The Catholic faith cannot operate as a regime of power and bring souls to Christ. Whenever the Church has used violence in the past the results have been disastrous. What the faith needs to flourish is not status, recognition, or power, but rather the free space in which to be and to let the grace of God work through it to save souls.

Preparing and preserving this space—by actively teaching Catholic theology and liturgy, encouraging the sacramental life, and providing catechesis in conjunction with spiritual direction, is the highest obligation, as well as the greatest opportunity available to a Catholic university—not merely because in doing so the school fulfills its Catholic mission faithfully, but because in doing so it transforms the violence of the quest for individual identity into a loving subordination of the self in its quest to serve the greater glory of God.

I wonder if it would not be prudent for all of us engaged in these struggles to avoid the pitfalls of the identity quest, and seek instead to preserve and recover Catholic faith at our institutions. Again, it seems like a minor difference, but it is not. Recognizing the difference invites us to stop wasting time trying to change a culture from the top down, and concentrate on a bottom-up evangelization, nurturing our students in their attempts to learn about their faith, live a prayerful and sacramental life, and cultivate personal sanctity in a non-supportive climate—in a sense, to undo their “identity” as St. Ignatius did, and as all saints have done in putting on the new man in Christ.

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About Dr. Eric Cunningham 0 Articles
Dr. Eric Cunningham is Associate Professor in the Department of History at Gonzaga University. He specializes in modern Japanese history and also teaches courses in world and East Asian history.