Dominican Study and the New Evangelization: Initial Impressions

Michael Mascari

Brothers, I would like to share with you my initial impressions of study in the Order from the perspective of the evangelization that we must undertake and the way we may make it effective. When I came to Europe in September, the Order sent me to study Italian in Florence, where I took classes with students who could easily have been my children, almost my grandchildren.  When I introduced myself as a Dominican friar and a Catholic priest, my classmates responded with looks of genuine puzzlement.  One young woman from Norway whispered to her neighbor, “What is a priest?” I could have said I was a man from Mars and have been more easily understood.  Perhaps most troubling was how my classmates identified themselves in terms of religion. From Holland, Norway, and England, I expected the response of Calvinist, Lutheran, or Anglican. From Bavaria, Austria, and Spain I expected the answer Catholic. What I heard instead was “Io sono atheo,”  “Io sono agnostica,” “Io non lo so.” This was all very surprising to my perhaps naive American ears, where people may not go to church each week but where most everyone believes in God.

What is the problem? In Europe, West and East, as well as in the United States and Canada, our Atlantic culture is experiencing a genuine crisis of meaning. We may describe this in the language of post-modernism, which has critiqued the possibility of universal categories, general understanding, and objective truth. Or we may reflect upon my experience in Florence, where I was surrounded by bright young men and women, all of them people of good will and generous spirit, who nevertheless have been cut off from the faith that shaped their culture as Europeans.   As Europeans and North Americans, we are politically free and, until recently, economically secure, yet the men and women in our culture increasingly find their lives empty, without real purpose and direction, disappointed with the things they have, hungry to find meaning, longing for something that will integrate their fragmented lives.

What is to be done? Certainly as Dominicans, ours is a philosophical and theological vision that shows the fundamental unity, intelligibility and meaning of all creation.  Although our Thomistic tradition continues to provide this compelling vision, we cannot simply assert it in our world like the first apostles who proclaimed the kerygma. Rather, like the patristic fathers and the early apologists, we must appeal to the minds and hearts of our listeners by constantly striving to find connections, to make the link, to respond to the questions of the men and women of our time both intellectually and through the witness of our fraternal life.  Dominican study must do more than ground us in the neo-Thomism of the first half of the twentieth century or even the historical Thomism of the second.  It must be responsive to the questions, to the critique, and to the search for meaning that is one of the defining characteristics of men and women today, whether it is the postmodern philosopher, or the young person caught in the materialism and the individualism of our contemporary culture. 

We must consider seriously how the contemporary fields of physics, biology, medicine, psychology, and law shape our thinking and the way we view our world. How can our own Dominican tradition engage these, not merely by showing their errors and false moves, but by allowing these perspectives to deepen our own understanding of truth so that we might indeed be better ambassadors to our world? Our brother, Marie-Dominique Chenu, reminds us that our Dominican tradition is one that recognizes the creative tension between different presentations of truth. In the dynamic of the dialectic, through the use of critical reason and through the experience of shared relationship and openness to the other, we are able to come to a more profound and more complete grasp of the truth. How does our theological and philosophical engagement with the world of science, law, and medicine help us to do this and even to transform our own thinking? Similarly, how does the digital world in which we live with our I-phones, and I-pads, or YouTube, and Facebook challenge our presuppositions about human relationships and even our view of reality? To what extent does our Dominican intellectual tradition take into account this virtual world, which the young people of today live and breathe, and are perhaps more at home with, than with the world of esse and actual being?  Again, for European and North Americans, where increasing contact with Islam and the great religious traditions of the East have begun to transform our societies, how does our own Dominican understanding of God’s presence in the world and our relationship to him as people saved by Christ Jesus in the power of his Spirit address the challenge of these other religious traditions? It is, I think, this culture of dialogue, this dynamic of the dialectic, which we as Dominicans have especially to offer to the Church.

As Dominicans we know that the good preacher and the good teacher is the one who not only knows his content, but also is attentive to the questions of the men and women before him. We observe, we listen, we struggle to make the connection, to establish the relationship before we speak.  Dominican study therefore cannot take place in a vacuum, it must truly be one that is rooted in the world where we live and work and pray. Our provincial programs of study must therefore provide us both with the theological and philosophical grounding on which to stand with confidence, as well as the suppleness and flexibility to engage others critically and humbly, so as to probe more deeply in our search for truth. It is for this reason that the last Chapter has called for a revision of the Ratio Studiorum Generalis. As provincials and vicars who are responsible for the life of study in your provinces and vicariates, we would ask that you reflect upon the intellectual needs of your province and region at one of your provincial council meetings or at your provincial chapter before the next meeting of regents in Avila so that we can address these concerns in the revision of the Ratio.

This clarity and firm ground, as well as this flexibility and adaptability, must also be apparent in our own institutions of study. Our recent general chapters have urged provinces and centers of study to think strategically and to share their intellectual resources rationally so that the Order may have the greatest impact possible. At the same time, we are aware of our own provincial needs, the need for professors in our own centers of study that will contribute to the life of our provinces. How do we share what we have, without giving up the particular perspective that we have to offer, our local ability to flourish, our capacity to form our students with the kind of initial formation that we believe they should have? I am aware of the fragility of many of our centers of institutional studies; they often suffer from the same weaknesses: lack of professors, too few students, and not enough money. This same analysis could be applied to the centers under the immediate jurisdiction of the Master: not enough money, too few professors, and a lack of qualified students.   How do we balance the individual good of the province, with the common good of the region and of the universal Order?

We must look first and critically at what we have to offer and how we might best respond to the theological questions and the longings of the men and women whom we serve in our provinces and regions. For this reason, we have asked the moderators of our centers of institutional studies to take an inventory of the resources that we possess-beginning with our buildings, our endowments, our faculties, our staffs and administration, the number of our students. These inventories will be shared at the regional meetings of regents.  This sharing of information is only the first step.  We must proceed to the deeper and harder questions. Does our center promote a Dominican vision of study where there is a clear and visible link between the fraternal life and the intellectual life so that our brothers are rigorously trained in both? I am aware that some centers and formation programs do an admirable job in forming their students in community life and pastoral competence, but are weak academically. Then there are those programs where the academic training is rigorous but the pastoral and fraternal dimensions are lacking. Does our center and formation program do both? Does our center nurture the development of future teachers capable of making a contribution to both our fraternal and intellectual life? Does it present our theological and philosophical tradition in such a way that it takes into account the culture in which we live and the needs of the people whom we serve in our province, in our region, and in the universal Order? Does our center of studies remain isolated from other centers, or does it see itself as part of the larger regional and universal mission of the Order?

We cannot fall into a kind of post-modern trap ourselves. We cannot allow our philosophy and theology to become self-contained systems that operate in a vacuum and that contribute to the fragmented vision of our world. In such a case we become simply one more esoteric group in a world of esoteric groups, people who can talk to each other but to no one else.  As you know, this was not the vision of Gaudium et Spes.

Nor can we allow the needs of our provinces and the needs of the universal Order to be seen in isolation from each other, and even in conflict with each other, so that a kind of fragmentation takes place even in the Order.  Our institutions under the jurisdiction of the Master must truly serve the Order, the provinces, and the centers of institutional studies. If the universal Order is to ask the provinces for professors and financial assistance for these institutions, then there must be a kind of mutuality where the provinces receive something back that is beneficial to them, where there is truly a mutual relationship. Brothers, these are a few of the questions that we must address as provincials and vicars, with the help of our regents, if we as an Order are to meet through our study the challenges of evangelization in a postmodern world.