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Opposition to Grace: Giannone as a Microcosm of Fordham

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | May 30, 2012

I’ve pulled it back out of my trash can. I’m talking about Richard Giannone’s new book, Hidden: Reflections on Gay Life, AIDS, and Spiritual Desire. Giannone is a Professor Emeritus at Fordham. His book’s title strongly suggests its contents; it describes the quest of a man to find spiritual acceptance with his ex-priest gay lover, for the sake of whom he ended six years of sexual abstinence.

It also describes the author's personal growth in caring over the years for two elderly women, one with dementia (his mother), and perhaps even a growing recognition of God. I do not mean to minimize this suffering, this service, or this recognition. But Giannone is determined to recast God to suit himself, holding Him apart from the moral teachings of His Church, which he rejects with the standard clichés. God definitely enters the picture only on the author’s terms, and Giannone’s conclusion, on the last page, is by now predictable: “God will have to take me as I am and evermore shall be. For him who dined with sinners, tax collectors, and the uncircumcised who did not follow Mosaic law, that should be no obstacle.”

Here, then, is a thoroughly contemporary man, mired in the spirituality of changing cultures, accepting sin but rejecting repentance—the quitessential modern figure who has refused “to repent and believe the Gospel” (Mk 1:15). Unsurprisingly, therefore, the book is endorsed as a “classic in the revered genre of spirituality”, placed in the same class as Thomas Merton’s Seven Story Mountain, by the Jesuit Mark Massa of Boston College (the antihero of my 2010 review, Theology by Happenstance). And naturally his book is proudly published by Fordham University Press.

I’ve pulled it out of my trash not to look at the text more closely. No, it took me only few minutes to get the gist of that. Rather, I retrieved it as an occasion for further reflection on the deep corruption of the Catholic intellectual establishment, the failure of most of our mainstream Catholic universities to accept grace as a defining element of their mission and life. For when a university press publishes a book like this, and by a professor like this, the book itself may be fairly taken as a microcosm of the university itself.

The Demise of the University

There is so much to be said about this, and it is all so sad. The university is a Christian creation. It depends on four convictions: (1) The existence of God explains all that is and imbues everything with a consistency without which study and learning of any kind are impossible; (2) Created reality is ordered to an intelligible end; (3) Truth is the mind’s conformity to reality; and (4) Divine grace is necessary to fallen men in seeking truth.

And yet now the modern university has collapsed to the point of regarding each of these convictions as irrelevant to its mission. It insists, contrary to reason, that questions about God can be safely ignored; that there is no necessary structure of meaning underlying the things that we study; that the purpose of study is to provide useful information; and that the quest for information is a value-free enterprise which depends not at all on grace.

It is precisely this deliberate agnosticism on the part of modern universities which enables each person to write his own spiritual narrative, with or without God, with or without Revelation, with or without Truth, as yet one more example of personally-constructed meaning. Such meaning is valuable only insofar as it produces those feelings of justification and consolation which each of us, in our weaker moments, so assiduously seeks. But even more, it is precisely this deliberate agnosticism which turns the university into a machine tuned to churning out information, without any respect for truth, as long as there are people who find this information either useful or interesting enough to pay for.

In those studies which specialize in matter, technological utility is the coin of the realm; in those studies which specialize in ideas, an endless exchange of ideas tends to substitute for the quest for understanding. Indeed, that very quest is redefined as the simple task of observing all the meanings different people create for themselves. A small number of those who delight in this sort of study perpetuate themselves at reasonable pay rates by playing the role of savants for the chattering classes; the rest go find something useful to do, something for which their years of study (thankfully) have no relevance.

Scholars without Meaning

Have you ever considered that nothing makes sense without God? The success of the Western vision of the universe depends completely on the Judaeo-Christian understanding that reality is not an inexplicable randomness but a creation rooted in the being of a providential Deity. It is quite simply impossible to conceive of gaining anything through study apart from this conviction. Even if we are unclear on whether we can prove the existence of God from nature (a point on which we should not be unclear), it is philosophically inescapable that without teleology—without the existence of purposes and ends to which all of reality is somehow bound in an essentially orderly way—human learning is impossible.

Without God, not only is order impossible, but (apart from inherited habits from a wiser age) the conviction that reality is ordered is impossible. And without the conviction of an ordered reality, study and learning are meaningless. This is why what passes for study and learning today so often reduces itself to “whatever thoughts feel congenial to me”. But at a more material level, technological success actually proves in ways immediately grasped by our senses that such order actually does exist, that things do not work when a proper understanding of ordered purposes and ends is ignored, and that the university ought to be motivated, above all things, by the value of probing, elucidating and ultimately grasping the sources of this fundamental order.

Unfortunately, as soon as we distance ourselves by one step from the utilitarian processes of technology, we begin to fudge. We are tempted to insist that the only real truth is not the mind’s conformity with reality but reality’s conformity with the mind. We are tempted to accept only that which validates our own preconceived notions, which flatters our own pride, which permits or even justifies our own lusts. Thus the scholarly world, separated from God and grace by a huge and nearly impenetrable layer of false pretenses, thrives primarily on a sort of fashionable tickling of the ears, a pandering to human vanity. Study becomes a game. Learning is measured by the worldly success of those who claim it.

Thus university presses now exist to validate colleges and their professors, who themselves exist to attract grants and students, who in their turn come to seek status at the feet of those who have already learned to play the game and win. And the first thing most students learn from most teachers, the very first lesson of “higher education” generally, is that though truth does not have any authority or power over us, we have authority and power over truth. We are not in school to grow in wisdom, but to manipulate theories to suit our desires.

Inescapably, most of what is espoused will be whatever reflects the values and attitudes of the dominant culture, no matter how many times those values and attitudes change. The professoriate has become the hammer which shapes young minds on the hard anvil of What Everybody Knows. Every age seeks a justification for its own particular temptations, in their own particular form. Without God and order, such justifications come cheap. Ultimately, habituated to this intellectual collapse, we learn to reshape even God to cater to our own temptations. And like Richard Giannone, if we ultimately find acceptance by our cultural elite, we are rewarded by being permitted to call this “spirituality”.

Augustine’s Axiom

As I have written elsewhere in commenting on Alasdair MacIntyre’s striking book God, Philosophy, Universities, the great Saint Augustine was perhaps the most influential of those early Christian thinkers who learned an important lesson about truth from both classical philosophy and Christian Revelation. The lesson is that God is essential not just to the ordering but to the understanding (see Augustine: Reason and Faith, Philosophy and God). Augustine realized that our emotions, our attachments, and the waywardness of our wills all interfere with the clear and consistent working of our intellects. Again, some pagan philosophers realized as much. Simply through natural observation, a few disciplined ancient philosophers were able to see how easily men are moved by their passions, so that their thoughts, explanations and convictions vary constantly with their desires. Clearly, habits of self-discipline and natural virtue are essential to the proper reading of reality.

But as a Christian, Augustine could take this a step further. Not only are natural self-discipline and virtue necessary, but grace and Revelation are enormous helps. By our cooperation with grace we gradually overcome our passions and other weaknesses, so that we can more steadfastly explore reality and grasp truth, with less risk of distortion by our own selfish inclinations. Moreover, Revelation provides a store of certain knowledge, on the very authority of God Himself, which in other areas of study can either point us in fruitful directions or warn us when we are going down a false path. Precisely because reality is consistently ordered, anything we learn in one area can help us avoid exploratory errors in another. When Revelation heads the list of what we know, and grace tempers our passions and weaknesses, we place ourselves in a far better position to be successful at conforming our minds to reality.

But there is also the opposite circumstance. Can anyone seriously survey the wreckage of the modern university or the cacophony of modern books, journals, magazines and newspapers (and their electronic equivalents) without being convinced that one “expert” after another has been led down the primrose path by his own desires, producing a body of work most notable for its lack of illumination by grace? And how often do we encounter in these same “experts” the self-knowledge, humility and virtue which grace engenders? Augustine rightly saw that we are prone to self-interest, self-deceit and error, and that only through grace, discipline and virtue can we hope to progress very far in understanding reality and in articulating what is true.

In a Catholic university, therefore, we would rightly expect that respect for Revelation and openness to divine grace, both leading to the cultivation of virtue, would be upheld as integral to the academic life. But actually the opposite has become the case, as Catholic colleges and universities have fallen prey to the same cultural blindness which afflicts their secular counterparts, and have even thought that the imitation of more powerful secular institutions was an essential path to academic prestige. The dismantling of the Catholic identity in ostensibly Catholic institutions has been as obvious as it was odious. Blind guides! This has been a monumental stupidity, and a craven one.

The Collapse of Culture

Anyone with ears to hear and eyes to see can discern the decline and perhaps imminent collapse of culture in the rapidly declining West, once so animated by Christian principles. Technological prowess, which is more closely rooted in the senses than other forms of knowledge, may remain for a time, but even technological prowess is being progressively placed in the service of increasingly dubious ideas, ideas which are about as far removed from reality’s properly ordered purposes and ends as one can imagine. Embryonic experimentation? Organ harvesting? Sex changes? Exhaustion of natural resources? The rape of nature? Hydrogen bombs? Robotic warfare? The manufacture of babies? The universities, and the chattering classes they have produced over the past several generations, lie at the very heart of this decline and collapse.

Catholic universities are, far too often, no different, and they also unfortunately lie at the heart of the extreme difficulty the Church as a whole has faced in attempting to orchestrate an effective renewal. She has struggled to inaugurate a genuine renewal in our modern context since at least the mid-20th century. But even as the Church’s bishops, younger priests, and substantial portions of the laity have slowly begun to step back from the abyss of our cultural self-annihilation, the Catholic universities and the professionalized religious communities they helped to create remain the chief obstacles to striking out in a new direction, a direction based on a fresh appreciation for Revelation and an urgent desire to be transformed by grace.

At the theological level, the broader cultural trend has been aided, abetted and justified in Catholic institutions by Modernism, which insists that the content of Revelation is not static, but rather something transmitted through the ongoing cultural experience of different peoples in different times and places. I have called this “theology by happenstance”, and so it is, but it is also a sinister and malleable variation on Alexander Pope’s famous theme that “whatever is, is right”. Whatever values have evolved in our own time and place (that is, among the experts, the chattering classes, “our betters”) are, according to the convenient coincidence of Modernism, the very values which God wants us follow and to teach others to follow. Like Narcissus, the Modernist sees himself in the mirror of culture, and finds himself beautiful. And not only beautiful, but normative. Why look further?

No wonder we remake God in our own image. No wonder Richard Giannone has written a “spiritual classic”. No wonder Fordham University Press has published it. And no wonder I am now once again laying it aside. But the action is deeply symbolic. Along with this book I see the whole chattering structure of modern society, along with the many falsely Catholic universities (like so many prostitutes at an academic cocktail party), sliding slowly into my trash can. There they lie, a short hop from the curb, where they will soon enough be upended into a truck and dumped into a landfill. But, merciful God, it is inexpressibly sad that a university and a landfill should smell the same.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: AgnesDay - Jun. 06, 2012 11:29 AM ET USA

    What a frightening reflection. No one has taken time in the midst of economic turmoil to contemplate the ruin lurking over universities mired by debt and spending on the most egregious foolishness. This will take almost everyone by surprise, but it is entirely predictable and I fear, not far away.

  • Posted by: Justin8110 - Jun. 05, 2012 5:05 PM ET USA

    The light at the end of the tunnel is that there ARE people who are waking up and embracing Catholic orthodoxy as priests and laity. Western Cultue and society is falling apart and largely what I think will put the final nail in the coffin of secularism is Islam, especially in Europe. A Muslim majority in Europe will have no shame or remorse in crushing the "believe in nothing fall for everything" ideas of secularism and maybe this will bring people back to their Catholic Patrimony.

  • Posted by: thx1688 - Jun. 01, 2012 4:58 AM ET USA

    To paraphrase: Here, then, again, a collapse and problem resulting in no small part from an almost total lack of leadership from the many thoroughly contemporary Bishops, themselves mired in the spirituality of changing cultures, embracing post-modernism while rejecting orthodoxy, the quitessential modern figures who have steadfastly refused believe and follow Mother Church and have all but personally served up their flocks to ravenous wolves.

  • Posted by: - May. 31, 2012 3:28 PM ET USA

    Why expect anythins much different from a "university" [say, overgrown college] whose foundation was funded from the sale of slaves? Or from an institution in the Jesuit tradition of getting around clear rules? The rot came in with money - the search for government funds and foundation grants. Both of these sources have an inbuilt anti-Catholic bias. Thus like any social climber, these institutions attempt to cover their origins.

  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - May. 31, 2012 12:34 PM ET USA

    "Indeed, that very quest is redefined as the simple task of observing all the meanings different people create for themselves." Two years ago I was appointed to two university task forces. In each of these task forces the business of the day was typically academic: to observe all the meanings different people create for themselves. At the end of the day (one year later), one or two people in each task force completed the work and wrote the report. Most of the meanings did not enter the report.

  • Posted by: jplaunder1846 - May. 30, 2012 8:25 PM ET USA

    An excellent and perceptive analysis of why Western Society is in such a mess despite all the technological successes of the past 200 years. We have abandoned God, because of the self serving 'spiritual insights' of the Giannone's of the world and the subsequent slide into a moral chasm.