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A College Religion Course Panel Discussion1

On The Idea of a College Religion Course


[p. 79]

A variously motivated reluctance on my part to take a place in this panel discussion was chiefly overcome by the reflection that the occasion might be taken to dissociate my name from the experiment in college religion teaching that was undertaken in 1940 at Georgetown University and Loyola College, Baltimore, under my direction. Actually, it is at least four years since I was obliged for various reasons to give up active participation in the experiment; and the nominal dissociation, so to speak, would seem to follow naturally on this real dissociation. Moreover, whatever ideas I contributed are now publici iuris; and those who have carried on the experiment with much gallantry and intelligence will be more free to develop or relinquish those ideas, if this fact is accepted. The course has in fact seen developments with which I am not entirely familiar and which I cannot, and would not presume to, judge. They may or may not conform to my own ideas; it does not now matter. At all events, other names should stand sponsor for them. Finally, it should be obvious that my name is no sort of aegis!


The whole experiment was directed at contributing to the solution of three major problems. The first concerns the pattern of the college religion course. Here the way to a solution was conceived to involve primarily a clear formulation of the finality of the course. Finis est prima causarum. The end in view would inevitably determine the structural lines of the course, its content and emphases, its pedagogical principles and their application in teaching techniques, and even the literary form of the texts to be written.

[p. 80]

In turn, the formulation of the finality of the course supposes (1) an analysis of our own times and of the special spiritual crisis they are witnessing, and (2) a corresponding analysis of the mission and function of the laymen in the contemporary Church, as she confronts this special crisis, which is spiritual indeed, but posited in the temporal order, the order of the layman's life.

The second problem concerns the teacher. The principle here was that in the teaching of religion, more than in the teaching of any other discipline, the preponderant role must be assigned to the personality of the teacher—his native endowments of imagination and feeling, the perfection of his theological knowledge that would give him flexibility in its use, his pedagogical skills, his own sense of consecration that would be the source of an inspirational quality in his teaching, in a word, all that is meant by "authority" as the special attribute of the "prophet," specially necessary when the prophetic office is exercised in a classroom. It was a further principle that the undergraduate course in theology does not, as it is not really supposed to, equip a man to teach college religion. Some specialized study and training are necessary, their content and manner to be determined by thought and experiment. There was therefore in view a sort of Institute of Higher Religious Education; it had exceedingly modest beginnings in two summer-long seminars in 1940 and 1941. Among its values was to be the establishment of solidarity among the men devoted to this work; this would be the condition of fruitful collective thought and exchange of experience.

The third problem concerns the integration of the religion course both with the religious activities of the college and more particularly with the rest of the academic curriculum—notably with philosophy, and also with literature, history and the social sciences. Clearly, this is the most difficult problem of all. However, apart from its solution there will be no adequate solution to the college religion problem. The pattern of the course, for instance, would necessarily be modified, as integration with other disciplines is effected. And the vitality of the course will always depend both on what it can borrow from these disciplines and on what it can give to them. Furthermore, theology (even in the "college" sense) either is, or is not, the queen of the sciences. And if she is, she should be permitted to be imperious.


In what follows, on the pattern and finality of the course, I am simply borrowing some ideas from a memorandum I wrote some five years ago, as a platform of discussion with the men then engaged in the experiment. In most general statement the aim of the course would be "educa-

[p. 81]

tion unto religious adulthood, in intelligence, character, and sentiment." Adulthood in religious intelligence involves (1) a movement from the surface (Catholic practices, devotions, etc.) to the center, which is Christ, viewed in his full living reality; (2) an insight into Catholicism, in its doctrines, laws, liturgy, etc., as an organic whole, whose principle of unity is again Christ; (3) a personal possession of the whole truth of Christ, through a personal "discovery" of it; (4) a grasp of the relationship of Catholic truth to all other truth, and to the whole of life and all its problems; (5) the development of the faculty of Christian judgment on all that is secular.

Adulthood in religious character implies that insights have become fixed convictions principles of action, sources of felt responsibility. It implies too the acquisition of a certain "conquering quality of soul," as against so much Catholic defensiveness; an adult knows his powers as well as his responsibilities.

Adulthood in religious sentiment means all that is meant by "the Catholic sense," a habit of action and reaction that is instinctively Catholic. It means all that St. Ignatius meant by "framing one's affections to the true doctrine of Christ" (Three Modes), that is the secret of all high resolve and full spiritual energy.

This triple adulthood is what college religion should in general cultivate. More specifically, I should state the finality of the course as follows: (1) The theological instruction and religious formation (2) of the Catholic high school graduate, (3) that will leave him conscious of, and equipped for, his Christian responsibilities as a layman, and as a member of an elite among the laity, (4) in our contemporary world, in which the Church has assigned to such men a definite, imposing mission. Each of these four elements can here have only brief development.

1) "Theological instruction and religious formation. . . ." The course is conceived as an academic course with a religious finality; the paradox in the statement constitutes the whole problem in the matter. Ultimately, we aim at strengthening and clarifying the habit of faith and the life of grace in the student, at fostering his interior life and his full participation in the sacramental and apostolic life of the Church. However, we do our part, an instrumental part, toward this aim by properly constructing and teaching an academic course, that will leave the student in possession of a body of knowledge, as a body (hence theological, in contrast with catechetical, instruction; the latter aims less at synthesis). Our basic appeal must be to the intelligence; our method, suo modo scientific, not hortatory. The theory is that, if we can lead the student to an intelligent insight into the "whole counsel of God, the full mind of Christ and His Church, we must trust that this insight itself will motivate his

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living. We can only give him the Word, and hope that the Word itself will be in him the Verbum spirans amorem. Our effort can only be so to present the Word that the students will see that it is spoken to them and demands an answer in terms of life. For the rest, they must themselves furnish the answer.

2) The "Catholic high school graduate" is the material in view. Those who have not the religious instruction and training achieved on this level constitute a special problem; but this group cannot furnish a norm in constructing the college course. Otherwise we shall be cheating our best students.

In this material we suppose, as fundamental, the habit of faith, and therefore a certain connaturality with the truth. We must suppose, too, a certain hostility to the truth—a hostility of mind (scepticism, rationalism, resistance to authority), and of heart (superficiality, worldliness, moral problems). However, our effort is less to combat this hostility than to cure it, by cutting under it; it is relatively a thing of the surface. Finally, we must suppose the call of God to the youth of today; in its own way the course must make articulate that call. Therefore, it will not have the timelessness proper (up to a point) to the seminary course; it must rather have a certain timeliness, with the accent put on the truths which the Church herself is accenting today. By the same token the course will be constructed less in accord with the laws of logic, that insure dialectical consequence, than in accord with the law of grace as vocatio congrua, that insures psychological effectiveness.

3) The development of the layman's sense of his Christian responsibilities stands high among the finalities of the course. What these responsibilities are, in their distinction from those specific of the priest, I have elsewhere tried to say.2 In general, it is the layman's task to heal the schism that has been created between the Church and human society, between the spiritual and temporal orders, between the idea of "man" and the idea of "Christian." The Church today wants to create a new populus christianus in the old sense of that splendid term, as implying a special historic mission and vocation, but with a newly concrete meaning in the face of today's task, which is the creation from the bottom up (so to speak) of a new order of human life and institutions that will operate towards human ends because they are animated by the Christian spirit mediated to them by the Christian people.

Much could be said about the term "Christian responsibility," and about its prolongation, the notion of "civic responsibility." I would

[p. 83]

note here only that "responsibility" is, as it were, the middle term between knowledge and action. It is the consciousness of one's baptismal character, felt as a burden, and likewise as an energizing dynamism prompting to the apostolate as the normal accompaniment of the Christian life. The truth we teach should be felt as a burden, because its possession is something the student must answer for; it should likewise be felt as "the power of God unto salvation" (Rom. 1:6), a salvation that is more than personal.

I should add too that the college man has a special responsibility by reason of his educational privileges. We are dealing with an elite, and even within the whole group there will be those of particular intellectual and spiritual capacities. The course therefore must be, in regard of all, inspirational of something better than mediocrity, and, in regard of the better students, particularly taxing. These latter ought to benefit most from it, and it ought somehow to be geared to their potentialities; for they are the special hope of the Church, particularly in that apostolate in the world of thought which is perhaps primary among her concerns today. This means that the course must, first, make high academic demands, and secondly, propose high spiritual ideals.

4) It is the special needs of our contemporary world that give focus to the layman's responsibilities. Hence the course, as integrated with other pertinent elements of the curriculum, ought to leave the student with a very concrete and Christian understanding of his own world, the total intellectual and moral milieu that will be the theater of his action. For this reason a climactic importance attaches to Senior year, wherein the hope is to effect the final syntheses—faith and reason, nature and grace, Christianity and humanism, ecclesiastical duty and civic duty, Church and State, supernatural religion and human society.


I do not know whether this statement, necessarily rather general, of the "idea" of the college course is all that is expected of me. To go on to construct and fill out a framework of study fitting this idea, hoc opus, hic labor est. One would have first to distinguish, and define for each year, both the academic objectives and the special religious finality; and in regard of academic content, one would further have to distinguish the historical and the doctrinal. I do not think that any one detailed pattern could be considered uniquely ideal; a variety of patterns, differing at least in considerable detail, are possible. What is of cardinal importance is synthesis, the construction of a genuinely organic whole, a corpus doctrinae wherein part is articulated with part and the whole grows by orderly explicitation of certain major, closely interrelated ideas.

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As soon as one starts patching together, for "practical" reasons, a little of this and a little of that, one has left the college level. Just as one would leave the lay level by falling back into the divisions and categories that have become solemn with the professional theologian.

I once thought that the general progression of major ideas, each dominating a year, should be: Christ, the Cross, the Church, the Church and the World (i.e., the order of faith and grace in relation to the order of reason and nature; one might better use the title, The Divine and the Human). Each is a general rubric, denoting an organized body of doctrine, to which the introduction is historical, predominantly scriptural. It would be equally good, perhaps better, to invert the second and third ideas, putting the Church first. What follows is an indication in telegraphic style of the matter to be organized under each rubric.

I. Freshman. The historical part embraces a detailed and organized knowledge (1) of the Gospels as the sources of the life of Christ, (2) of the life of Christ in its structure and progression from his birth to the confession before the Sanhedrin, the climax of his prophetic mission. This history is the background for the dogma of the Incarnation, formulated as the faith of the Church at Ephesus and Chalcedon. These definitions display in archtype the notion of the supernatural: Christ, perfect man, perfect God, perfectly one. They therefore lay the foundation for the dogma of the Church as itself a theandric composite, and for the whole economy of redemption as involving at every turn the union of the human and the divine.

II. Sophomore. The historical introduction studies the Acts of the Apostles from the standpoint of the Holy Spirit at His principal work of gathering men into the catholica unitas which is the Church, the Body of Christ. This concept of the Church is further followed in the pertinent Epistles of St. Paul. The doctrinal study then bears, first, on this concept in its twofold aspect, the Body mystical and the Body juridical, whose inner principle of unity is the Holy Spirit, dwelling in the Church and in the faithful, whose visible principle of unity is the primacy of the Roman Pontiff; there is put here the analysis of the Church's magisterium and jurisdiction as the continuation of the prophetic and kingly mission of Christ. Secondly, the doctrinal study considers the process of the Church's gathering: God's salvific and predestining will is the origin of the process, as it is the first cause of actual grace, that does the gathering.

III. Junior. The historical introduction reviews the life of Christ briefly to see its steady movement toward the Cross, and then organizes the history of the passion, death and resurrection. The doctrinal study first explores the meaning of the Cross as our redemption (moving backward

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from the second Adam to the first), made real in us by baptism, whose grace is completed by confirmation and restored, if lost, by penance. Secondly, one moves to the mystical re-enactment of the Cross which is the Mass, the center and source of Christian life, and to the sacrament of orders whereby the priesthood of Christ is perpetuated in the Church. Finally, from the Eucharist, futurae gloriae pignus, one goes on to the "future glory" itself—the triumph of Christ, the Church, and the faithful (eschatology, and the sacrament of extreme unction).

IV. Senior. Equipped by this time with some philosophy, the student may turn to the problems involved in the relationship between the two orders of human thought and life. First, there is the problem of faith and reason; this ought to be studied in the amplitude of its contemporary position as indicated, e.g., by Aubier, Le problème de l'acte de foi (Louvain: Warny, 1945), wherein the weight falls on the problem of religion itself; the demonstratio christiana and catholica can be briefly treated, by an indication of their structure. Secondly, there is the problem of the mission of the Church in the temporal order, unto the renewal and reinstitutionalization of society; of this mission the layman is the bearer. There arise here the problems of marriage, the family, and education; of Church and State; of the socio-economic program of the encyclicals; of Catholic Action (lay responsibility, the institutional apostolate).

All this is a bare sketch of academic content. Admittedly, to fill it out, and produce texts, would be no easy matter. And the prime difficulty would be, not so much the sheer organization of material, but its organization in such a way that the academic study demanded would be a means of spiritual formation, centered progressively on clearly formulated religious finalities proper to each year. At this point, the initially theological work of constructing an ordered course goes over into a pedagogical problem of considerable magnitude. Both principle (e.g., utilization of liturgy as the vehicle of doctrine) and experience would need to be brought to bear on its solution. At all events, a solution should be available to imagination, knowledge, and hard work.

I should perhaps state in conclusion my own personal conviction that the work of designing the framework of the course and of writing (at least in first sketch) the textbooks ought to be in hands of one man. It is a matter of what Newman calls the "principle of personality," which is, as he points out, the operative principle when it is a question of getting done a work of thought. "Living movements," he says in the Apologia, "do not come of committees. . . ." And I have always thought of the solution to the college religion problem as likely to come only of a sort of "movement." The one man who would do the initial organizing of material and the first texts would of course consult others—

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and many books. And after lines had been laid down, and substance given to the pattern, and texts done, there would be a long state of collective thought. It would review the plan and detail of the course, to consider in the light of actual teaching experience whether it were viable and effective. However, it has seemed to me that no course with a genuine organic form, suited to its finality, would ever come into existence unless one man did the work of its formation. He should indeed so form it as to allow sufficient room in which the individual personalities of teachers might rattle round. On them, in the last analysis, the success of the course would depend. But the pattern of the course itself, if it is to be unified, can only come from one mind.

So I thought nine years ago; so I think now. I may very well be wrong. At all events, the one man is to be somebody else, not I!


1Papers of this panel discussion were delivered at the Annual Meeting of the Jesuit Educational Association, Philadelphia, Pa., April 18, 1949.

2Murray, John Courtney, S.J., "Towards a Theology for the Layman," Jesuit Educational Quarterly, Vol. XI, No. 4, (March 1949), pp. 221–28, gives a summary of more complete references listed.