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Teaching the Catholic Novel: What Took Me So Long?

From: American Catholic Studies
Volume 124, Number 3, Fall 2013
pp. 61-73 | 10.1353/acs.2013.0039

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My Introduction to Catholicism turned thirty this past spring. I have taught it every other year since 1983 at Colby College (Waterville, Maine) and during a brief stint at Gettysburg College during the mid-1980s. The original name of the course, “The Catholic Church in the Modern World,” was in honor of the Vatican II document Gaudium et Spes, but it was also strategic. It was to show my (Protestant) colleagues in a joint Philosophy and Religion Department at a traditionally Protestant liberal arts college that I intended to focus upon a topic of universal importance: the Catholic Church and Modernity. (The title also suggested a discussion of criticisms of the church’s responses to many aspects of modern life, and this is what has attracted a significant portion of my students.) One of my colleagues, an Episcopal priest, immediately recognized the reference to a pivotal conciliar text, but for the others, the course title was an assurance that I would not be teaching material of strictly denominational importance and appeal. What I did provide was a basic, though fairly sophisticated, course on the legacy of Vatican II. We started by reading Bokenkotter’s hefty Concise History of the Catholic Church, proceeded through my favorite Vatican II documents, and then moved on to the controversy over Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae (1968).

The rest of the course varied from year to year, depending on what was happening in the church at the time. Often we found a juicy controversy to examine together in the Catholic and secular press, which provided an opportunity to underscore my mantra, repeated as often as necessary: the Catholic Church is a living organism, not a fossil. Documents on nuclear weapons (1983) and economic policy (1986) issued by the American Catholic bishops provided material for especially heated debates, as did the conversations in the mid-1980s in preparation for the document on women that ultimately failed to materialize. Our prior discussions of the evolution of Humanae Vitae prepared us for the complexities and polarizations we encountered in these later conversations about Catholic responses to nuclear weapons, the economy, and women. Articles from the National Catholic Reporter, Commonweal, America, The Boston Globe, and The New York Times helped us to follow the evolution of the documents from draft to draft. We could see how the institutional church approached contemporary issues – and intramural dissent. When I aligned myself with the bishops’ ideas on the economy, it cost me the respect of a vocal group of senior (male) economics majors who challenged my competence – and the bishops’ – to discuss such issues, but this, too, was a teachable moment. Following these conversations gave us an opportunity to explore the crucial distinction (and interplay) between institution and movement in the history of the Catholic Church, a unifying theme in all of my History of Christianity classes.

Gradually, by the 1990s, a growing interest in life writings affected my syllabi, and the course was renamed “Catholics.” I shifted the focus away from the institution and toward Catholic people and their stories about living the faith. Classic Catholic memoirs such as Thomas Merton’s Seven Storey Mountain (1948) and Dorothy Day’s The Long Loneliness (1952) had been included in the original version of the course, usually one memoir toward the end, so that we could take a close look at how Catholic teachings were applied in real life. The shift toward Catholic people meant that we saw the institution through the narratives of individual Catholics rather than the other way around. This made a crucial difference in my students’ responses to the material. They became invested in the stories, and especially specific decisions made by the authors when faced with the complexities or contradictions of life and faith. They disagreed on the authors’ choices and perspectives, and on whether they were permissible options for Catholics. Could Catholics disagree with their bishops? Could they discern for themselves what the Gospel challenged them to do? These memoirs also provided students with glimpses into the strange world of the pre-Vatican II church. We stopped over individual incidents that seemed especially puzzling to them and this often led to fruitful conversations about the...



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