Monday, April 14, 2014

Gold Nuggets from Dr. Jeannot on Catholic Identity and Education

I don't know what the context of this essay was, written by my former philosophy professor at Gonzaga University Dr. Tom Jeannot, but I thought he brought up some really brilliant points. I can hear his voice in my head as he meanders slowly and windingly but surely to his point, stopping at the necessary points that establish his thesis. You have to bear with him to see the gold. Unfortunately the class setting often didn't allow enough time for him to do this, but an essay perhaps is a freer environment (in some strange way).


But what it means to call ourselves "Catholic" can aspire to the objectivity of a comprehensive viewpoint at the level of institutional identity only if the corporate body itself is asking the relevant question, actively inspecting the relevant issues, submitting itself to serious study, and following out the leads of the further relevant questions that would inevitably arise once the institutional fuse of inquiry was lit. (I understand that "corporate bodies" do not ask questions but only persons do; but at the institutional level, persons would have to be authorized--conceivably everyone--if an institutional answer were to be sought; sought more profoundly than the bromides entailed by the "branding" of our "label.") What I think calls for an explanation, then, is why the question is not being asked on this level and in this way. My hypothesis, offered under a fallibilist constraint, is that Lonergan has an answer: what he calls the general bias of common sense makes the inquiry seem irrelevant to our everyday lives at work and institutional norms and practices. Therefore we can safely ignore it. (8-9)

On the other hand (in consideration of Fr. Cook's reference to "a Western-centered Church"), there's something comical about the fashionableness of westerners deploring an undifferentiated fictional monolith called "the West" (as if it too were a Platonic Idea in the cartoonish sense); especially when in their majority they're breast-beating "white" people prattling on endlessly about "globalization" and "diversity" while they happily imbibe the blessings of their bourgeois affluence (in an environment it would be embarrassing to call "diverse" in the sense in which they typically mean the term); and when the terms and relations of their critique are derived from the pedigree "western" virtues themselves of liberal tolerance and celebrating diversity. (12-13)

Moreover, just as a binary opposition between inclusion and exclusion turns the interlocutors into ships passing in the night, so too does a one-sided emphasis on either unity or diversity. Prof. McCruden used the term "countercultural" twice in his essay, but Apple and Google bear witness that an uncritical, unprincipled multiculturalism is not in the least countercultural. Perhaps he would accept an amendment, then, to the effect that the dialectic of unity and diversity privileges neither term against the other. (14-15)

So while communion with Rome and the guidance of the Holy Spirit do distinguish Catholicism, ecumenism is a generic movement as alive for Thich Nhat Hanh as for the Catholic aggiornamento. Likewise, an appeal to the Mission Statement can only qualify as generic as well, as alive (or not) on other campuses as Gonzaga's, secular as well as religious, in the absence of a prior grasp of the Mission itself, which it does require an Ignatian composition of place in order to understand as a gestalt on the institutional level. A decontextualization of the sources explains the breakdown of communication between ships passing in the night, which it seems to me has happened in a more or less obvious way by virtue of a failure to answer the initial question. Jim Infantine quoted from Ex corde Ecclesiae, arguing that the provision requiring a "majority Catholic faculty" counts as an important factor in the Catholic identity of the university. He did not give an argument; rather, he appealed to the authority of the Apostolic constitution itself. But in the further discussion, neither were there rebuttals of Ex corde Ecclesiae (except in the way of a subtext). The Apostolic constitution simply dropped out of the picture, to be replaced by a misleading distinction between inclusivity and exclusivity. And the reason why the distinction is a miscue is that inclusivity is not a synonym of diversity and exclusivity is not a synonym of unity. (15-16)

[...] it wasn't until the blessed trinity of publicists for militant atheism, the late Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and Richard Dawkins, achieved their cultural (not countercultural) cachet, that it came home to me momentously that there was a difference in kind between one kind of grounding for academic freedom and another, one grounded in the Catholic intellectual tradition and the other grounded in the flattery of the age. This difference also gives rise to the further question of what is countercultural about Gonzaga. The University of Central America in the San Salvador of the eighties was countercultural, but it seems reasonably clear that Gonzaga is not the UCA. What then is it that makes our institutional Catholic identity a countercultural one? (16-17)

Past the theatrics of the dramatic pattern of experience, a hermeneutics of suspicion might lead us to suspect that what I've recounted here is really a sideshow. The President will not convene a faculty plenum for 2015. The Academic Vice President will not enjoin us to a more faithful witness to our Catholic identity and mission (a "Moment for Mission" showing up in our inbox notwithstanding). It's hard to imagine how the memorandum would be written without being read as a causus [sic] belli ["an act justifying war"]. But the deeper reasons are impersonal, not on account of malevolence, bad faith, or ill will. I think they reflect some characteristic features of the nature of administrative-bureaucratic rationality, which are related to the sedimentations of the general bias of common sense. In terms of general bias, it is hard to see how the question of Catholic identity is relevant to the work we actually do in teaching chemistry or accounting. (18)

It can be argued that the general bias of common sense has set in at Gonzaga, together with its implications for a longer cycle of decline. Such an argument would be predicated on the breakdown in the intelligibility of the meaning of its Catholic identity: who knows what it means? In the limit, as Lonergan put it, society would have no need of the university. That is, not only would it have no need of theology, philosophy, the humanities, and the arts pursued for their own sake (as a necessary component of the rumor afoot that we "educate the whole person"), but it would have no need of mathematics and the sciences as well, except for their immediate relevance to technical and commercial applications. (19)

One friend told me that in a conversation with another faculty member as they walked away from one of the endless meetings, the question came up: why are you here? It's true that this question could be asked in the spirit of an inquisition, but my friend was sincere and the question came up naturally enough because they'd been talking about Catholic identity. In the end, the other party answered, "Because they offered me the job." This answer is good as far as it goes; it's the "hardheaded practicality" of the situation we're in. Offers are scarce, but it could have been Eastern (a good university that happens to be neither Catholic nor Jesuit). So the trouble is that as an answer, it isn't good enough. (20)

Another friend told me about a different answer: Gonzaga is Catholic because Catholicism is "adjacent" to it. This answer seems good too as far as it goes: there's a chapel that offers conveniently located daily mass, there's campus ministry, there are crucifixes on the walls of the classrooms, there's a beautiful new grotto of Our Lady, there's a retreat program, there's a University Vice President for Mission, and so forth. Sarcasm would be unworthy: these signs, including the university logo itself, do in fact signify Catholicism. But the adjacency of Catholicism to the university is also not a good enough answer when it comes to the heart of the matter. (21)

Another friend told me about a third answer to the meaning of our being a Catholic and Jesuit institution; namely, that it is a "heritage." On being pressed, a distinction was drawn between a "heritage" and a "living tradition." Once the distinction came into play, the conversationalist turned out to mean the past tense, a synonym of "bygone," like an artifact in the Rare Books Room at Foley. Since the past has its admirable qualities, everyone with a curator's heart is free to admire them in their pleasing aesthetic way. It's a beautiful heritage, we can all agree, and it's a better way of living if the aesthetic pattern of experience enriches all of our lives. But then we'll go to the beautiful chapel in College Hall as tourists, and tourism also isn't a good enough answer to the question of conserving our institutional Catholic identity, especially considering that the remembrance of things past can have a profound effect on the present if we let in the light. (21-22)

My point will be that we may be coherent to ourselves individually when we say such things--we know "in private" what we mean by them-- but on the institutional level and corporately considered, there's an institutional incoherence attributable to the settling-in of the general bias of common sense. (22)

For example, the diction of the whole person is a cliché that borders on meaninglessness if we don't know who the whole person is. Lonergan concludes his presentation of common sense with an allusion to the tower of Babel. We say that we educate the whole person in body, mind, and spirit. With respect to the terms and relations of this formulation, what does it mean? As a corporate body, what is our philosophy of mind? Worse still, considering the ubiquity and also the importance of cognitive science, what is our philosophy of spirit? My point is not to answer such questions but to observe that as a corporate body we don't ask them. It would probably be inexpedient to ask them in an intellectually serious way. Besides, someone will say, their meaning is obvious (when it isn't). The dismissive gesture characteristic of the general bias comes next: why make a mountain out of a molehill?  (22-23)

Next, we say that our charism is the care of the person. But what is a person? We can give any answer we like, but with respect to our corporate identity as Catholic, can many of us say that we know what this means, besides "superior customer service," as an "outcome" of our sustained study of Ignatian spirituality in its historical roots and contemporary interpretations? [...] Are we religiously, theologically, and philosophically personalists? If we're not, then presumably we have some other answer on offer. So what is it? (23)

Is the care of the person consistent with the Google engineer and futurist Ray Kurzweil's forecast of a "technological singularity" (based on an extension of "Moore's law") scheduled to occur around 2045, by which time he predicts that "the pace of change will be so astonishingly quick that we won't be able to keep up, unless we enhance our own intelligence by merging with the intelligent machines we are creating"? Would it be our mission to hasten this day of splendor and glory, merely to descry it, or to criticize, repudiate, and if possible to reverse it? Is there a "design flaw" in human biology that nanotechnology holds out the prospect of correcting? Is it the utopian or the dystopian imagination at work? (But everybody know that the real question is: are there grants?) (23)

[...] we say that we are about diversity in a globalized world, but if we say this, we should also carefully study the aerial photograph (digitally down to the pixel). If we then correct ourselves and say this aspirationally rather than indicatively, well then so does General Electric. So what is the meaning of diversity? What are the implications of globalization? And globalization of what? These questions are generically important: what then constitutes the specific difference of asking them in the milieu of a Catholic university? In other words, it's an exercise in the obvious to notice that every institution of higher education is about diversity in a globalized world, as is every corporate organization except for some ranches in Wyoming. (24)

Finally, we say that we are about social justice and that this is what distinguishes us as Catholic and Jesuit (though in fact it doesn't, since virtually the same diction is in play at Evergreen). But if we were to press the point, then how would we link up with the social teaching of the Catholic Church--institutionally and as a corporate body--or with the point of departure of this idiom in the Thirty-Second General Congregation of the Society of Jesus? Or does it even matter whether we draw such links or fail to draw them? On the other hand, if we don't link up in this way, then what we mean by social justice per se is indifferent to Catholic and Jesuit signifiers, and then when we name ourselves Catholic on this basis, the bait-and-switch maneuver has succeeded. (24)

Part of the trouble is the trouble with Catholics themselves when they are asked to say what they mean. But Catholics will continue to have their intramural fistfights whether Gonzaga conserves its Catholic identity or calls it a "heritage" instead. (24)

But when it comes to the Catholic identity of Gonzaga and the general aversion to talking about it (too much), Lonergan's allusion to Babel is apt. In the corporate body, the general bias prevails. We can't say or we don't know what we mean by "Catholic" in a way that gains institutional purchase beyond small coteries, cliques, and factions. (25)

The point is that if "Catholic identity" devolves into marketing slogans and public-relations strategies, but by design we obscure its meaning or can't answer the question coherently as a corporate body, sooner or later someone is going to say that we reek of inauthenticity. (25)


Source: Dr. Tom Jeannot, "General Bias and Catholic Identity," November 29, 2013, accessed April 14, 2014, personal file. 

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