Catholic Universities: Identity, Faith, and Power | Dr. Eric Cunningham | CWR
We are fighting to preserve and recover the Catholic faith in our schools precisely because it has been replaced by “Catholic identity.”
In the 1960s and ’70s, the name Marshall McLuhan became a household word for the bourgeoisie of the western world, and something of a mantra for its intelligentsia. McLuhan’s ground-breaking and often prophetic insights into the transformative effects of mass media and technology upon human consciousness gave him a rare status among professional academics—not only was he a professor of English in the every-day world, but a rock star in the realm of pop culture. While my own research in literature and postmodern culture has brought me into contact with McLuhan’s work many times in the last 15 years, it was not until several years ago that I learned that McLuhan, in addition to being a counter-culture icon, was also a devout Catholic.
Recently, while web-surfing for information about McLuhan’s faith, I came across a brief video snippet from his 1977 talk show appearance with TV Ontario’s Mike McManus.
In this interview, McLuhan was offering some ideas on why separatism and sectarian violence were inevitable in a globalizing world. In response to McManus’ observation that global tribalism had not resulted in a more “friendly” world, McLuhan agreed, noting that, “when people get close together, they get more and more savagely impatient with each other.”
“The Global Village,” McLuhan observed, “is a place of very arduous interfaces and very abrasive situations.”
He added that these “abrasive situations” and incidents of “savage” impatience emerge because people feel a need to define and assert their identity in a world that increasingly and systematically forces them to trade their individuality for membership in a global tribe. “All forms of violence,” McLuhan asserted, “are a quest for identity.”
I have spent a great deal of time over the last few weeks pondering this provocative remark and considering its implications for the work of preserving Catholic culture on the campuses of Catholic universities. It was never my intention, when I began teaching at a Jesuit university, to take up arms in the great ecclesiological culture war, although I have been drawn into it as a combatant of sorts. It has been very disquieting at times because despite the satisfaction one inevitably gains from standing for one’s principles—and for one’s Church in an increasingly irreligious age—the end-game and the real stakes involved are never entirely clear.
My colleagues in this struggle would argue that the Catholic identity of our institutions is at stake, but even that is confusing, because the resident clerics and theologians who are the designated experts on things “Catholic” seem to be quite content with the general downward trend of Catholic representation on faculties, the downward trend of Catholic representation among the student bodies, the replacement of a theology departments with religious studies departments, the reduction of religious studies and philosophy classes in the core curricula, the radical decrease in Jesuit vocations, the replacement of an overtly religious community ethos with a secular ethos, etc., etc., etc.