cath-o-lic (adj.) 1. (CAPITALIZED): of, relating to, or forming the ancient undivided Christian church or a church claiming historical continuity from it 2. (non capitalized): comprehensive, universal; especially: broad in sympathies, tastes, or interests (Merriam Webster).
I didn’t go to Catholic school until I went to Seton Hall University at the age of 17. It seems fitting that both “catholic” and “university” reflect the same meaning of broad and comprehensive. I don’t know precisely why my parents, devout Catholics but themselves products of public high schools, sent all three of us to public school. Perhaps it was just natural frugality — in them, born during the Depression (although my father was more or less only dropped into the US economy when they emigrated in 1939), a virtue rather than a limitation. Perhaps it spoke to something more egalitarian; a belief in the role public education played in American life.
I remember some of my more cynical post-Catholic agnostic relatives suggesting with something of a sneer that going from public high school to Catholic university was bound to make me an atheist or a nun. I was reminded of this, of course, last weekend when presidential candidate and practicing Catholic Rick Santorum presented statistics about young people losing their faith in college. It would seem that I had followed the opposite trajectory: I had attended a purely secular school with a healthy mix of Protestants, Catholics, Jews and some Muslims; had not particularly distinguished myself in my Christian education classes at church; didn’t really read the Bible. Then I went to Seton Hall where I found an even healthier mix of religious, social, and economic diversity. This population seemed relatively unfazed by the religious atmosphere — the older professors still choosing to wear their cassocks; the chapel bells, the seminary students, the “Introduction to Catholic Theology” that replaced the more usual titles as Philosophy 101, a core requirement. If anything, the “you might become a nun” seemed the more likely of the two dire predictions made for me. I was immersed; I was swimming in it. I read the Bible for its theology and for its poetry. I learned about the documentary hypothesis in one class and, in another, the lessons we should take from Augustine and Paul. One of my best friends among my fellow students in the graduate program was Sr. Helen Sanchez, a wonderful educator and all around delightful, funny, thoughtful person. At least two of the people I consulted for counseling and guidance were nuns. And I never had a better human experience than when I was introduced to Fr. Eugene Cotter, the Classics professor who taught me to love the English language through its Greek and Latin origins. The reason that I now teach more than just the traditional courses in “English” (literature and composition); the reason I am able to teach philosophy, myth, comparative religion, ethics, logic; is because of that incredible humanistic, catholic, comprehensive and universal education.
I didn’t become a nun (I got married two and a half months after I took my Master’s from SHU). I didn’t become an atheist. I haven’t stayed a particularly dogmatic Catholic, either. I also find atheism to have quite a dampening effect on intellectual inquiry. It’s a position that has drawn a conclusion and is dismayed by the phenomenological evidence that is the experience and habit of entire large swaths of human beings. I see it this way: both atheists and those who read the Bible for historical accuracy are two sides of the same coin. They both believe that if something in there conflicts with natural science, the entire book needs to be tossed on the trash heap of irrelevancy. Atheists welcome and encourage this; fundamentalists fear it and fight it. Many of us who had a catholic Catholic education do not find ourselves backed into that corner. We get to eat our cake and have it too. See, we don’t stop reading Dante because exploration of the world hasn’t yielded an actual giant inverted ice cream cone with a frozen-Luciferian center. (Of course, this exists on Planet Literature). Milton met Galileo; he knew darned well the universe was not actually comprised of a cloudy Heaven where angels shot other angels with cannon and Earth depended from a gold chain like a Christmas tree ball. But who had more faith and trust in Scripture than Milton? Who teaches us Adam’s lesson more fully and faithfully? Poetry does not truck with science and vice versa; our terrestrial and physical sphere is Planet Earth and all its intricacies, horrors, beauties and vagaries; poetry lives on Planet Literature and gave us that masterwork the Christian Bible; also the Hebrew Bible, the Qu’ran, the Vedas, the Upanishads, the Popul-Vuh, the Enuma Elish, the Book of Kells, the Prose Edda. A truly catholic education gives us all of it, and more.