John Allen Jr. is a senior correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter. You may remember seeing him on CNN frequently when the Catholic Church was picking a new pope following John Paul II’s death. Â He visited the University of Dallas (in Irving) last week and delivered what he describes as his “standard stump speech” wherein he talked about extremes among members of the Church– from “Catholicism Lite” to “Taliban Catholicism.” One member of the faculty took issue with his characterization.
Some in the audience chuckled, but others weren’t so amused. One younger faculty member rose during the Q&A period to offer a thoughtful, and heartfelt, challenge:
“To say things with clarity is not to be the Catholic Taliban,” she said, adding that she found the phrase “profoundly offensive.”
“There are no suicide bombers in the Catholic church,” she said, “but we have had an epidemic of Catholicism Lite for the last 30 years.” Younger Catholics, she insisted, should not be dismissed as fanatics simply because they seek “fidelity and clarity.”
Her remarks were met with applause, suggesting she had struck a chord, though others later pulled me aside to say they found them strident.
The exchange reinforces the description Allen wrote about the University of Dallas itself. The way Allen reports it, it’s an institution that has not always been open-minded in its brand of Catholicism, but that there have been signs that it has tried to change that outlook:
One place to watch these tensions play out is the University of Dallas, where I took part in a panel discussion Monday night devoted to “the identity of a Catholic university.” The point of departure was Bishop Kevin Farrell’s commencement address last May, in which he warned against “dogmatism, closed mindedness, judgmentalism, [and] suspicion of another’s motives” in the life of a Catholic university.
Here’s what makes the situation especially interesting.
A strong current in Catholic life these days is what I’ve called “evangelical Catholicism,” meaning a drive for clarity and courage about Catholic identity. It’s both top-down, the most important policy-setting instinct in Catholicism, and also bottom-up, especially palpable among a cohort of younger Catholics usually tagged the “John Paul II generation.”
Dallas has just such an evangelical ethos. Given its recent history and the kind of person it tends to attract, the university is popularly regarded as a “conservative” alternative to Catholic institutions sometimes seen as more secular and liberal. (I chatted with one young man Monday night, for example, who told me there’s a cluster of students at UD from California who came here because they didn’t feel they could find a “serious” Catholic university back home.)
In other words, if you’re looking for an experiment as to whether it’s possible to be both unapologetically Catholic and yet civil in engaging disagreement, the University of Dallas represents a mighty interesting laboratory.