Lifetime of discovery

By Russell Hittinger, Warren Professor of Catholic Studies

When I went to Catholic grade school in the mid-1950s — so long ago that the Dodgers still played in Brooklyn — I could not have imagined the work I do today as a teacher and writer and chair of Catholic studies at The University of Tulsa. Even less could I have imagined working as an international scholar in two pontifical academies in the Vatican as I do now. Neither of these opportunities appeared until I was mid-way in my career in the 1990s. The lesson I draw from my own experience is that education prepared me for things that were not on my immediate horizon.

Russell Hittinger
Russell Hittinger

The Catholic schools of that era were called “parochial,” which meant something related to a parish or neighborhood. For all practical purposes parochial meant Catholic. Of course, even back then the Catholic Church was a big church, but our experience of it was rather small. Except for military personnel, ordinary people did not travel internationally. I saw Elvis Presley on Hit Parade in the 1950s, but I cannot recall seeing a pope on television until the 1960s. Real-time coverage of papal conclaves didn’t happen until 1978, when two popes died and a third was elected, who turned out to be the first non-Italian pope in 400 years. Along with everyone else, we watched it live. The Polish pope John Paul II quickly became more recognizable to Catholic school children than the face of their local bishops. Communications made the global the new parochial.

The smaller and familiar Catholic world of my youth changed not only because of technology but also because of profound demographic developments, which quickly affected the Catholic Church.

The original “globalization” of our lifetime began with the process of worldwide European decolonization of Africa, the Middle East, and Asia in the late 1950s and early 1960s. It took another 50 years until the first pope from the New World was elected, Pope Francis. His Mass for 6 million people in Manila this past January reminds us that, of the 1.2 billion Catholics in the world today, nearly 70 percent live in developing nations. The Democratic Republic of the Congo (the former Belgian Congo) is a striking case of Catholic demographics. Within one generation, there will be another sixty million Congolese Catholics, who speak five major languages, and dozens more. Who would have thought when I was a child that the sub-Saharan Congo would have more Catholics than France or Italy?

Whereas a generation ago the fate of the world seemed to hinge on the stand-off in Europe between two heavily armed and ideologically opposed “blocs,” today the most pressing human issues are not so obviously centered in Europe. When we consider the environmental problems and the perplexities of political economy affecting wealth and poverty between individuals and nations, as well as the important but uncertain project of human rights since World War II, we are probably not thinking in the first instance of Belgium.

At the top of my list is the challenge of inter-religious dialogue. Today, everyone understands that much depends upon religious leadership and dialogue in a world that is still vigorously, although not always peaceably, religious. The complicated challenges of the “global commons” affect everyone. But it has a special resonance with Catholics because the Church includes an astonishing panoply of humanity, with its different cultures, languages, and histories. Thus, when Pope Francis recently appointed new Cardinals, he went to the global “periphery,” selecting Cardinals from Tonga, Cape Verde, Uruguay, Thailand, Myanmar, Vietnam, and Ethiopia. Demography has made the periphery something like the center.

There are many other important changes in the Church. One that strikes close to home is the fact that 90 percent of Catholics in America now matriculate in non-Catholic colleges and universities, and by some estimates constitute 25 percent to 30 percent of the student body at leading colleges like The University of Tulsa. No one saw that coming when I started my education.

In fact, no one sees into the future very reliably. Therefore, it is counterproductive to limit one’s education to what one can see in the short term. Perhaps 50 percent of the jobs 10 years out have not yet been invented. Given our life expectancy, changing jobs and even careers two or more times will be the norm rather than the exception. There is an old adage that turns out to be more than a mere cliché: “There is no future in any job because the future lies in the person who holds the job.”

When I went to the University of Notre Dame as an undergraduate, I began to study broadly the subjects that I teach today at The University of Tulsa: philosophy, theology, history and social sciences. Then, in graduate school, I selected a particular academic discipline and learned its methods rigorously but rather narrowly. The salient fact, however, is that the job I took at TU did not exist when I began graduate work. What’s more, the multidisciplinary thing that we call Catholic studies did not yet exist in American academia. In the twinkling of an eye, so to speak, several dozen chairs and programs in Catholic studies emerged in universities across the country — at Harvard, Yale, Chicago, Duke, Tulsa, Claremont, Northwestern, the University of Illinois, and the University of Kentucky, to mention only a few schools. Now Catholic studies are sprouting like mushrooms in Catholic universities, too. Yes, I was educated to do my present work by broad studies in the humanities. But I was not trained for it in graduate school, where my training was to be an expert in certain questions arising in Medieval legal philosophy.

I am using examples from my own life to illustrate a larger point. Education is for the long run rather than the short term. University-educated people will need to know more than one discipline and to develop intellectual habits that prepare them to think and act responsibly at the periphery of their educational comfort zones. This is not a prediction, it’s already happening not only in the humanities but also in the social sciences and sciences.

One last example of what I just said will suffice.

Since 2009 I have been a member of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences. It consists of about 50 scholars from around the world representing several disciplines and religious backgrounds. The pope asks the academy to study issues of interest to the Holy See. Three years ago I organized a meeting of the academy on problems of world peace and presented our findings to the pope. Last year, Pope Francis asked the Academy of Social Sciences to meet together in conjunction with the Academy of Science to study the issues of the global environment. This year, he charged the social sciences academy with the task of studying the international sex trade.

Academy scholars and professionals are at the top of their game. But no academy member knows everything, and everyone must know more than his or her specialty. So, for example, at the meeting I recently organized at the Vatican, participants included Jimmy Wales (founder of Wikipedia), Hans Tietmeyer (former president of the German Central Bank), Veerabhadran Ramanathan (climate and atmospheric science, UC San Diego), and Alan García Pérez (president of Peru), among many other luminaries in economics, political science, sociology, law and religion. The economist now needs to understand demographics; the politician trying to reform his country’s economy now needs to be able to evaluate the surfeit of large data sets; the theologian now has to understand the provisions of unfamiliar legal systems; the climatologist now needs to learn something about game theory; the philosopher now needs to grapple with social scientific accounts of how policies function “on the ground.”

What I just described is life beyond college graduation in the corporate world, government and policy studies, law, the sciences and all of the professions. An educated person is someone who can intelligently and responsibly continue his or her education, becoming competent in two or three more fields, and working in teams with others who are doing the very same thing.