Arts and Culture

An Optimistic and Realistic Dialogue

Father Robert Lauder

OCCASIONALLY a friend will ask me if I experience a great deal of pressure trying to write a weekly column. I confess that when I started writing columns 40 years ago, I did feel a considerable amount of pressure.

When I accepted my first editor’s invitation to write a weekly column, I wondered how I would be able to turn out a column with such regularity. For some reason, and right now I can’t recall what the reason was, I often worked on a column in the afternoon after lunch. I have a vivid memory of walking toward my room after lunch with a kind of dread because I was not quite sure what topic I would address in the next column that I had to produce.

In the beginning of my assignment, creating a weekly column seemed like a heavy burden, a commitment which was never really finished.

Deadlines seemed to roll around very quickly. No sooner had I finished a column when I began to think about writing the next one. It took time before the anxiety related to producing the column disappeared.

That dread has disappeared but I do find that the column is often on my mind even when I am not directly involved in writing. What has happened over the last 40 years is that half-consciously, or perhaps subconsciously, I am always on the lookout for some ideas around which I can shape a column. Sometimes the ideas come to me while I am viewing a film or a play. Often I get an idea for what I think might make an interesting column when I am teaching a class at St. John’s University. Reading a book or an essay frequently provides me with ideas for a column, especially if I feel strongly about what I am reading. If what I am reading makes an impression on me, I want to share what I take to be interesting or important insights with readers of this column.

In October, an essay appeared in the St. John’s Center for Teaching and Learning Newsletter that caught my attention. The essay did not teach me anything that I did not already know but it reminded me of how important it is that we, as believers, dialogue with our culture, that we exchange insights and stories with our contemporaries.

The title of the essay was “The Word ‘Catholic’ in a Catholic University: ‘Here Comes Everybody.’” It was written by my friend, Sister Peggy Fanning, C.S.J. I would have a hard time thinking of someone more suited to write the essay than Sister Peggy. Possessing a doctorate in chemistry, Sister Peggy taught science in high school for several years. Seeing a need that science and theology not be strangers to one another, she attended Fordham University and obtained a doctorate in theology. She now teaches theology at St. John’s University. Someone with her background can be a special blessing at a Catholic University.

A popular but erroneous view is that science and theology are two intellectual disciplines that contradict one another. With her expertise in both, Sister Peggy can easily demolish that flawed perspective.

In her essay, she stresses that a Catholic university should take as its vision of education what was promulgated at Vatican II. Referring to some of the Council’s important documents and commenting on Gaudium et Spes, she writes that it “calls Catholic colleges to a new kind of engagement and dialogue with the world. It challenges the Church’s educational institutions to plunge into the critical questions and controversies of the contemporary world as full partners in an on-going dialogue about civilization and its problems. It calls all Christians to an optimistic and realistic dialogue with all peoples and declares that in today’s complex world, the common good involves the rights and duties not only of the local community, but of the whole human race, and extends to the care of the planet itself.”

Much of what I do as a teacher and writer is an attempt at dialoguing with the contemporary world. I try to embrace what is good in contemporary culture and criticize what is wrong. Reading Sister Peggy’s essay reminded me of how exciting and inspiring the Second Vatican Council was. Her words, “an optimistic and realistic dialogue,” are a good description of what I try to do in this weekly column. I suspect that I often fail but that does not make the attempt a mistake. It probably means that I have to be more receptive to the presence of the Holy Spirit.[hr] Father Robert Lauder, a priest of the Diocese of Brooklyn and philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica, writes a weekly column for the Catholic Press.