Published January 11, 2007
St. Teresa of Avila, Galileo Galilei, Flannery O’Connor, John Henry Cardinal Newman—beginning this January, Emory University students can study these and other famous Catholics as part of a new Catholic studies minor at the liberal arts university.
The program is the only such minor in the country within a non-Catholic college or university.
With a significant number of Catholic students at Emory, the minor will afford an opportunity to these students to learn more about the roots of their faith. Another hope associated with the new minor is that by exploring Catholicism’s impact on Western culture one may better understand the church-state relationship and perhaps gain new insights that more successfully address the polarizing debate of how to bridge the divide between “the sacred and the secular,” according to Jack Zupko, Ph.D., assistant professor of philosophy at Emory University.
“We need to train student scholars to look at religion and secular interests in a way that’s not hostile.”
The minor concentrates on the impact of Catholicism’s intellectual and cultural traditions on Western thought, and is “entirely secular and academic.” It is not to be confused with any intention of formation in the Catholic faith, he said, but continues the scholarly approach Emory faculty are noted for in courses pertaining to religion and faith traditions.
The new endeavor grew out of interest by Catholic faculty members associated with the Aquinas Center of Theology, an autonomous affiliate of the university, which seeks to provide a “Catholic scholarly presence” that is “ecumenical in spirit.”
The beginnings of the Aquinas Center date back to 1984 when Dominicans of the Southern Province set up a residential study center near the university. When the center solidified its relationship with the university in 1987 it adopted its current name and began to attract Catholic scholars to the campus.
“This (new minor program) … came about because of the number of Emory faculty associated with the Aquinas Center,” Zupko said. “We asked ourselves ‘how do we bring more of a Catholic presence here that is compatible with Emory’s mission?’”
It didn’t take long for them to see “the elephant in the room,” he mused.
“It was really the result of sitting around and seeing that ‘Hey, this is what we’re already doing.’”
Zupko noted that there were Catholic faculty sprinkled within a number of departments, including one who was cross-appointed in the school of religion and the sociology department, and who, like other professors, taught classes, from art to history, that illustrated Catholicism’s influence.
Crafting a Catholic studies minor in a relatively short amount of time, then, was “plausible because there were so many interests covered already.”
“There’s a real kind of pastiche of things that are all unified by the Catholic intellectual tradition,” he added.
Students choosing the minor must complete five courses, including one required course, “Religion 313: Modern Catholicism.”
“Modern Catholicism looks at the history of the Catholic Church after the Council of Trent. To understand that, one must look at the medieval church and discuss the evolution of the church, including the Reformation. It’s really … an engagement with modernity.”
Students can choose their remaining classes from among 29 other classes ranging from the study of the Italian Renaissance, Sociology of Religion, Jesus and the Gospels, to looking at Catholic authors or literary movements.
“We wanted to keep it simple. The students already have many area requirements and there is not much room for electives.”
The program was approved in spring 2006 after the university’s curriculum committee, which guards against “a proliferation of minors on campus,” gave its affirmative nod. Zupko and others had rallied for the non-traditional minor by presenting to the committee how Catholicism has contributed “hugely” to Western culture.
“That was the pitch,” said Zupko, who later added that the university plans to evaluate the “pilot program” in three years.
While its roots are in the Methodist Church, the university is considered today a non-denominational campus, with significant numbers of Jewish and Catholic students who take advantage of its prized interdisciplinary model of education, Zupko said.
He expressed his excitement over another initiative at the university that will fund a Candler and Ethics Center that will eventually house the Aquinas Center, located now in converted campus space.
This development points to the university’s commitment to furthering an understanding and knowledge of the importance religion and ethics play in all aspects of life.
“So much of American politics, dialogue and political debate needs to be engaged in a different way. You can’t pretend to keep the sacred and the secular separate,” Zupko explained.
He described the “disconnect” some want to see between faith and reason but explained that St. Thomas Aquinas argued to the contrary. The growth of a person is “articulated upward toward the theological and God.”
The Catholic studies minor, he hopes, will be one opportunity to formulate a new approach to this dialogue.
“It’s not as if the truth of faith is different from the truth of reason. We need to seek out a method to bring them together and not compartmentalize things.”
When reason and faith are separated problems of ethics arise.
“Ethics is deeply formed by religion and affects what is borne out in politics,” he added.
Too often today, he said, people become so entrenched in their views that they “get to the point where people seem to talk past one another.”
“I think one of the fallacies of the secular/sacred separation is that, let’s suppose you get everyone on the same page—you’ve made everyone secular. But religious beliefs and practices are so fundamental that you can never make everyone secular. People’s religious beliefs would trickle in. We must acknowledge them, instead, and be educated.”
When he teaches he hopes that students will re-evaluate their notion of the separation of church and state.
“Students come in with the assumption that faith and reason are distinct, but then (I hope they see) ‘well, maybe not.’ They’re complementary.”
Catholic students at the university have access to the Emory Catholic Center for religious formation and for receiving the sacraments. The minor does not address these areas but can instill a deeper appreciation for the depth and breadth of the Catholic experience, which perhaps current students may not have.
“There is profound ignorance about religious traditions and practices that I have seen in some students, even among Catholics.”
He relayed a story from one professor who came upon a class, with Catholics included, unfamiliar with the rosary. The professor brought one in and explained the practice, which was “the common way” for Catholics to pray in “my grandpa’s generation,” he said.
Zupko hopes to attract students to the Catholic studies program by advertising in the campus newspaper and in other ways. “We want to get some kind of campus buzz going about it.”
But he understands the program will take some time to build.
“Students are usually cautious about which major or minor they choose,” he said.
Zupko also plans to contact parishes in the archdiocese about “the interesting new thing happening at Emory.” He has met with Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory, who supports the program.