Good Stewardship of Paradox: The Identity of a Catholic College

Inaugural remarks by Br. Dietrich Reinhart, O.S.B., September 13, 1991

I have chosen for this occasion a topic that, surprisingly, is not easy to talk about. I have chosen to talk about the identity of a Catholic college. That topic is embedded in bigger themes--the place of Catholic colleges and universi­ties within the larger Church, the conditions necessary for graduate study of theology in a Catholic context, the significance of scholarly resources like the Hill Monastic Manuscript Library for Catholic higher education, the contribution of non‑Catholics, non‑Christians and non‑believers to the mission of a Catholic college. It may seem that I am dodging these themes so central to the life's work of many in our academic community. But I am not. I intend to raise questions which are relevant to those themes. But I can only do that if I confine myself today within a smaller compass.

So why is it hard to talk about the identity of a Catholic college? Certainly not because of the presence today of colleagues and friends from other religious traditions. Certainly not because we are joined by representatives of colleges and universities whose missions are not articulated in religious terms. All of you have foundational values which it is difficult to talk about, which it is easier to acknowledge than to describe. All of you know what a challenge it is to ensure vitality in a mission grown old, what a challenge it is to keep such a mission in focus while nostalgia and bereavement for what once was keep distorting the lens.

So why is it hard to talk about the identity of a Catholic college in this obviously Catholic place ? Well you might not have noticed it among the Saint John's and Saint Benedict's faculty and administrators as we processed in, nor among the Saint John's and Saint Benedict's alumni of today and tomorrow who are sitting everywhere in this church. But there are Inquisitors in our midst, waiting for the tiniest slip of the tongue, longing to silence ideas which do not have a full and impeccable pedigree. There also are Ideologues, with rapid‑fire answers to questions they have rarely asked, armored with slogans, fired up with sentiment that to all the world looks self‑serving. Inquisitors, Ideologues . . . that's not all. If any hard‑wrought statement of faith or value comes out of this mouth, there are Scoffers here likely to taunt, knowing how upbringing or warped socialization has impaired my mental powers and those of my ilk. And sitting here quietly are Cynics, bemused, knowing that nothing much is gained by dwelling overmuch on the imponderable--after all, all of this has been said before and where has it gotten us?

Inquisitors and Ideologues, Scoffers and Cynics . . . notice I have mentioned no names. You know who you are! Indeed, in every member of a Catholic college each of these four demons makes his or her home--nibbling away at the mind, clogging up the heart, depleting energy which could be spent in service. Inquisitor and Ideologue, Scoffer and Cynic stalk every dialogue about the identity of a Catholic college. The Inquisitor in us tries to silence disagreement, the Ideologue in us to control it; the Scoffer within finds it easy to ridicule those who speak out of the center of their lives, the internal Cynic dismisses the whole enterprise of talking about values.

Inquisitor and Ideologue, Scoffer and Cynic are all a royal pain. Surely it would be sensible, much more practical, simply to avoid dealing with them. We could divide the identity of a Catholic college into discrete parts, each tended by people with the appropriate training and interest. For example, theologians could take care of exploring the relationship of the divine and the human in expected parts of the curriculum. The ordained and "liturgy types" could make sure that the right kind of worship occurs. "Peace and justice types" could take the Gospel into places where most of us simply cannot go. Certainly Roman Catholics could each have an opinion about whether or not theology, worship and service occupy their proper spheres here. And non‑Catholics could be welcome indeed to appreciate all of this, as long as they stay respectful and out of the way. Fragmenting a college's Catholic identity would allow things to work pretty smoothly. Inquisitors and Ideologues, Scoffers and Cynics would rarely break into the open. When they did it would be an offense against politeness --something we have spent much of our lives learning how to deal with.

Dividing a college's Catholic identity into discrete parts looks prudent, it looks safe. But in reality it is more dangerous than any demon. When broken apart into pieces of turf, each occupied by a specialist or at least a special interest group, when Catholic identity is thus fragmented, it ceases to matter. Sure the curriculum, worship and service long characteristic of the college live on. But they languish since they are unconnected to anything beyond themselves. If as the president of this Catholic college, I call on us all to come to a sharper, more explicit awareness of the college's Catholic identity, we will have to engage in dialogue suspicious of all boundaries, a dialogue in which no one has hegemony as a specialist and none can be excused on the grounds that their special inter­ est resides elsewhere. This is dangerous stuff. We will have to come to sharper awareness of disagreement, let go of control, resolve no matter what to affirm persons, and bear with ideas which seem half‑baked long enough to tease some­ thing worthwhile out of them. This will be a messy enterprise. We will become vulnerable. There will likely be name‑calling. Differences, seemingly unbridgeable, will emerge. And, odds are, the larger world will consistently misinterpret what we are doing.

But despite the risks, I use this occasion to call Saint John's University to come to a sharper sense of its identity as a Catholic college. In rejecting other, seemingly safer courses--those which promise immunity from Inquisitor and Ideologue, Scoffer and Cynic--in rejecting those seemingly safer courses, we will have no other choice but to renew our commitment to wide‑ranging and inclusive intellectual inquiry.

In the balance of this talk I want to suggest (1) that Christian experience must be the foundation for inquiry into a college's Catholic identity, (2) that such inquiry has to be mindful of the dynamics of Christian history, and (3) that such inquiry will only be successful if curriculum and worship are anchored in service.

Christian Experience

There is no way to talk about Christian experience without embracing paradoxes--contradictions which tug against each other and, as they do so, open up a reality more spacious than the sum of the parts. The Judaic tradition from which Christianity originated was built on the massive solidity of law and temple, yet it honored unexpected bursts of prophecy. In the fullness of that tradition was born a God‑man, who spoke as the prophet Elijah, yet claimed that rather than destroying the law he came to fulfill it. This Jesus suffered a horrible death, but thereby broke the bonds of death for all time. The early communities who acknowledged this Jesus as Lord set up rules to govern their most basic interac­tions, yet discovered time and again that they were transformed "in newness of life." Law vs. prophecy, death vs. resurrection, a preoccupation with order vs. utter transformation--these paradoxes have been etched in Christian experience by a rich succession of doctrines and norms. Yet no one has ever quite been able to distill their full meaning in a tidy set of propositions. The Spirit of Christ has always been one step ahead, or (if you like) one fathom deeper, a notch or two simpler.

A Catholic college must draw its life from this rich paradoxical soil. It must teach the tradition, yet ensure that prophetic critique tugs against it--so that the tradition can open up a reality more spacious than the sum of the parts. Along with Jesus Christ, a Catholic college must enter with full heart into the abysmal alienation of humankind, yet--sharing Christ's own story--it must open up to utter transformation. A Catholic college must be unashamed to focus its best attention on ordering the mundane, yet cultivate a lively expectation that what is predictable is passing away. The foundations of belief must he clear in a Catholic college, but there ought to be a palpable sense of a new age breaking in with dynamics which defy expectation.

At times we would all like a simple description of a Catholic college--one which would allow us to name names and establish some standards of measurement. There is something insidious in human nature, something which whittles paradox down to scale. Within a Catholic college there must be something which resists that drive.

Christian History

We can get a sense of what good stewardship of paradox is by considering the dynamics of Christian history. From the earliest Christian times, believers have struggled to understand their relationship to God, tabernacled as it is betwixt the paradoxes of law and prophecy, death and resurrection, order and utter trans­ formation. Left to themselves, earthen vessels cannot hold these paradoxes for long. Therefore, in each age the Christian community has had to take care that the tensions within these paradoxes do not get out of kilter. Definitions and norms have been needed: definitions of the nature of Christ, the requirements for salvation, the nature of the church; norms for right living, the exercise of Christian authority, the respect due to civil powers. The list goes on and on . . . Each of these definitions and norms has been forged in debate and--once established--has set up parameters which rule out other possibilities, some because they squeeze out the most vital parts of paradox, others because they fail to hold those elements together in a proper tension.

In each age, then, the Christian community has decided what it has had to, what definitions and norms it needs. Christians believe that the Holy Spirit is in those decisions, but not confined to them. The age in which a definition or norm has been cast always gives way to another age, always gives way to an age animated by different dynamics, contending with challenges anticipated by some but experienced by most as absolutely unprecedented. This inevitable passage from one age to the next is hard on definitions and norms; their certainty starts to wobble and their power to fade. Ultimately the essential characteristic of definitions and norms--their ability to hold Christian paradox in its vital tension--is lost. Then the Christian community, amidst bewilderment and pain, struggles to regain what it has lost, to recast definitions and norms so that they once again succeed in opening up a reality more spacious than the sum of the parts.

As the Christian community struggles to do this, it makes a great difference how its members have adhered to the treasured definitions and norms inherited from the past. If the Christian community has held to its definitions and norms by annihilating diversity and debate, then when a new age breaks in, its members have--more times than not--missed the signs of that change. They have been overwhelmed by its challenges, sometimes even shipwrecked. On the other hand, if the Christian community has been confident enough of its definitions and norms to cherish the vitality of debate and value the persons of those who disagree, its members have had the wherewithal to bring their lives into dialogue with a new age and, under the Spirit's guidance, to break good ground within it. In the high noon then of each age's definitions and norms, it is good for alternative visions to live on, to contend and re‑contend, because such a dialogue helps the Christian community stay awake as time's shackles give way, one by one.

At times we would all like a Catholic college to put its feet down and establish what ideas belong and what ones do not. There is something insidious in human nature, something which would like to pickle and preserve what is most precious. The dynamics of Christian history suggest that a Catholic college dare not enter into the business of pickling and preserving. A Catholic college ought to be confident enough about its way of embodying Christian tradition to cherish the vitality of debate about that tradition and value the persons of those who disagree. If a Catholic college is a place where the tug of contradictions can thus be sharply etched in public life, then its members become resilient, attentive to the challenges of a new age and--most importantly--able to respond to those challenges with creativity and vision.

The Requirements of a Catholic Education

A Catholic college then must, first and foremost, have the wisdom to be faithful to the nature of Christian experience, to ground itself in the paradoxes of law vs. prophecy, death vs. life, order vs. utter transformation, contradictions which tug against each other and, as they do so, open up a reality more spacious than the sum of the parts. A Catholic college must be a place whose values and commitments are clear, but which resonates with a spaciousness greater than any formulations can provide. A Catholic college must also be courageous enough to embody Christian paradox in a particular time and place--to build a community which embodies the best understanding of the present, yet prizes personal integrity more than the herd and listens to all voices, especially the un­ expected and the dissonant. Out of these commitments a Catholic college creates an atmosphere for studying the curriculum, for assembling in worship and for extending itself in service to others. I would like to suggest that good stewardship of Christian paradox from one age to the next requires that a Catholic college's curriculum, worship and service be drawn into a strong, recurring dialogue.

The curriculum of a Catholic college is extremely important. Theology courses must occupy pride of place as a staple within graduation requirements, introducing students to central aspects of Christian revelation--the essentials. But not only the essentials! All students need to develop a sixth sense of the inner paradoxes of Christian revelation and how it unfolds. They need to develop a hunger, however protean, for more understanding. Beyond that basic graduation requirement, a Catholic college must also provide a strong major in theology, so as to ensure that some undergraduates can inquire deeply into the tradition and, through study and conversation with professors and fellow students, become adept at understanding how the paradoxes of the tradition are re‑articulated in the face of great historical challenges. Whether on the level of graduation requirements or the major, students studying in a Catholic college must encounter theology in the context of alternative systems of meaning, so that their thinking becomes caught up in the debate which anchors Christianity's paradoxical tradition and sets the trajectory for its development from age to age. Partly, this is a matter of how the theology courses are conceived and taught. But perhaps of greater significance is the commitment of professors and students in every other discipline within a Catholic college to make explicit, time and again, how their own discipline reckons with Christian tradition--ways in which at different times that reckoning has been appreciative, or antagonistic, or simply non‑existent; reflecting with insight on why those encounters with Christian tradition have proceeded as they have. Only by this broad curricular dialogue can the seeds planted in the study of theology receive the richest possible nurture. Only then can a Catholic college really be said to be a good and faithful steward of Christian paradox.

Too often worship on a Catholic campus is regarded as a way to compensate for the necessary limit to the number of theology courses which the general student can be required to take. On the other hand, it is sometimes expected to be an arena for emotion, since the intellect supposedly gets so much attention in a college's curriculum. In actuality, worship is something quite different than a supplemental curriculum or compensatory emotion. Ideas and emotion inter­ sect in word and sacrament, but the purpose of that intersection transcends both. Christian worship is all about the Word breaking into lives to create a space for wrestling with questions and for resting for a time with answers not easily grasped. Christian worship holds up a mirror to the restless human heart and mind, and then goes one step further to provide the experience of purest Gift. Christian worship draws individuals of many different dispositions together into community and then sends them on with a transformed sense of the challenges they face. As it quickens a lively sense of community, worship also sharpens awareness of the stark and lonely requirements of personal integrity. A Catholic college must put great energy into worship. It must make sure that preaching and prayers, music, art and gesture are familiar to the individual, redolent of the communal memory of ages past. Yet at the same time, each of these facets must be so crafted that they scrape away at the commonplace, weaken adherence to half‑hearted compromises, provide alternatives to complacencies of every kind.

The relationship of curriculum and worship in a Catholic college is strong, though not at all simple or straightforward. The curriculum is not a form of worship with a syllabus, nor is worship a way to learn something without tests. It is in the common commitment to service that both curriculum and worship find ground to share and work--in their own ways--to shape the identity of a Catholic college. On one level that commitment to service is focused upon the members of the college. Each year the boundaries of a Catholic college are redefined as new people become members. Each new member has precious talents which the college must help them to develop and to share. Each new member has personal dilemmas which the college will need to focus on quite explicitly at times, but most often with a light touch, simply creating a free space in which human growth can occur. A Catholic college, however, does not just look inward. Each year the boundaries of a Catholic college also expand as students, faculty and staff provide help to the needy, join with the disenfranchised in their plight, and then--as is the case whenever one gives of self--return to the campus with a transformed sense of human value, a transformed notion of what really is important in life. It is through providing service to one another, and extending service to a world in need--redefining and extending its boundaries--that a Catholic college's curriculum and its worship are renewed in paradox. A value‑laden curriculum like that offered by a Catholic college has the needed edge only if it is taught and studied by persons attentive to their own strengths and dilemmas, engaged in one way or another with the tangible travails of the larger human community. And the worship which calls the members of a Catholic college together into community is saved from smugness and narcissism only when the individuals who make up that community risk linking their life stories and making room within them for the brokenness of the world.

It is at this point that my remarks begin to wind to a conclusion. The identity of a Catholic college is found in its vigilant, self‑conscious and humble stewardship of the paradoxes of Christian revelation--contradictions ever in need of careful tending so that Christian experience can, from one age to the next, open up to a reality more spacious than the sum of the parts. There is joy in such an identity; also a sense of being poured out in some larger scheme of things.

Perhaps Frederick Buechner expresses it most succinctly: "The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world's deep hunger meet." 1  There is gladness in inquiry well‑conceived and debate well‑conducted--such gladness meets a gnawing hunger in the human family for new knowledge and dependable arenas in which it can be discovered. There is gladness in belonging to a community whose identity in time is secure precisely because it provides space for individual integrity--such gladness speaks to a world where the ballast provided by traditional values in all cultures is dangerously diminished and respect for persons is merely one desideratum among a bewildering array of others. There is gladness in having a mission which succeeds only if head, heart and hands are in dialogue and at the service of others--such gladness is a re­ sounding affirmation of the good in human life and all that struggles against the odds to enhance its quality.

A Catholic college must be very clear about the paradoxes which make for its "great gladness" and never cease to sharpen the vitality and significance of its members' insight into those paradoxes. In doing so it meets "the world's deep hunger," empowering all its members to be light in the midst of darkness, precious and well‑loved, providing the world fresh reason for hope.

Br. Dietrich Reinhart, O.S.B.
September 13, 1991


1 Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC (New York: Harper & Row, 1973), p. 95 as quoted in Sharon Parks, The Critical Years: Young Adults and the Search for Meaning, Faith and Commitment (New York: HarperCollins, 1986), p. 200.