To Redeem the Time

Author: Daniel Philpott

philpott professor Catholic

I have a prayer. It is that my students would become people who would “redeem the time,” in the phrase of the great poet T.S. Eliot. The inspiration for this prayer comes from Frank O’Malley, the legendary professor who taught English at Notre Dame for almost 40 years and who carried a similar hope for his students.

O’Malley, wrote long-time Newsweek editor Kenneth Woodward ’57 in these pages, “showed us a Catholic way of seeing and thinking — broadly human, decisively Incarnational — to which we were the fortunate heirs. From that perspective, we came to understand, the purpose of a Catholic education was to enable each of us in our chosen ways to ‘redeem the time.’ In other words, he challenged us to transform the world we were about to enter, not merely graduate and join the affluent postwar crowd.”

I hope, too, that my students would be motivated by their Catholic beliefs (or analogous beliefs if they are not Catholic) to transform the world, perhaps even in matters of war, peace and justice, the subjects in which I teach and conduct research. This hope, this prayer, is what motivated me to come to Notre Dame, a university that is seriously Catholic — but one that is somewhere between Steubenville, Ohio, and Urbana, Illinois.

This is not merely a geographical statement. It defines Notre Dame’s location in higher education. It also defines the dilemma facing a professor who strives to discover how to bring the Catholic faith into its classrooms.

Steubenville, Ohio, is the home of Franciscan University, where students arrive with the strong expectation that Catholic teaching will be kneaded into all of their courses. A television advertisement for Franciscan features one of its students exclaiming that his math major helps him to understand the Trinity — now that’s integrating faith and learning!

The University of Illinois — here representing every secular university — is at the other end of the spectrum. Were I to teach from a Catholic perspective there, I would meet with confusion, protest and perhaps a request to visit the dean’s office.

Combining faith and studies

Notre Dame lies in the middle. I have learned this through my efforts to integrate Catholic perspectives into my undergraduate courses, which I teach in the fields of international relations and peace studies. Some students have welcomed the effort, expressing a strong desire to combine their faith and their studies.

Others, mirroring Notre Dame’s geography, have voiced mixed feelings, agreeing that their faith ought to matter in the classroom but also insisting on learning about the world outside the Church. One student in my introductory International Relations class told me that her study group would often wind up debating Catholicism’s place in the course. I was delighted. To have students actively debate any idea that one introduces in the classroom is a great victory for any professor.

Still other students, though, have been skeptical. One anonymous end-of-semester course evaluation came back thus: “Forget about the Catholic perspective on [international relations]. I don’t think it really matters at all, and it’s not like the Catholic Church’s opinion should matter . . . it’s one of the most flawed institutions in all of history. But that’s just my opinion.”

At a summit in Potsdam, Germany, at the end of World War II, Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin replied to Winston Churchill’s prediction that the pope would object to one of Stalin’s proposals by quipping, “How many divisions has the pope?” In essence, this was my student’s question, too.

It is at this longitude that I have sought to put into practice the following syllogism: If Notre Dame is a Catholic university, and if the purpose of a university is to pursue and transmit knowledge, then a Catholic view of knowledge ought to show up in Notre Dame’s classrooms. But the logic is less clear about how this is to be done. I am still learning and always experimenting.

In an effort to explain to my students why Catholic perspectives show up on their syllabus and in my lectures, I decided to write an essay explaining why I believe Stalin was wrong about the pope — that is, why Catholicism matters in international relations and peace studies. I hand the essay to my students on the first day of class in every undergraduate course that I teach. I ask them to write a two-page reaction to it. I clear the air: This will not be on the final exam.

Apart from whether you think Catholicism directly matters in the affairs of nation-states, it ought to matter for you, I tell my students at the outset of the essay. None of us can escape politics. Some of you may go on to work directly for the U.S. government or for the United Nations or the World Bank. Others will take up a political cause in a Catholic context — a parish committee, relief and development work or some other setting. Some may participate as a voter or maybe through heated discussions at the Linebacker bar or its counterpart in Buffalo. Even a decision not to vote or discuss is a form of participation.

But if you are involved in politics, I then ask, on the basis of what assumptions? Everyone carries basic assumptions about justice and about how the world works. When your roommate complains about global warming, I suggest, you might well ask her: Why do you think that? When she answers, you might press further: But why that? Eventually you will hit rock bottom and discover some basic beliefs about justice and about the way politics works that serve as her basic assumptions. She can offer no further reasons for them, and her thoughts on, say, global warming or the war in Iraq spring from them.

Assumptions guide our reasoning and our actions, but they may not completely determine our judgments about politics. For example, it is certainly possible that two roommates could each believe that the United States ought to safeguard its security and promote democracy in the world, yet differ over the wisdom of the Iraq War. But basic assumptions do shape our judgments strongly. A student who thinks that behind all politics is the power of rich multinational corporations will almost certainly reach a different judgment on the war than one who does not.

These basic assumptions function for us much in the same way that a compass does for a sailing ship captain who is seeking to reach a harbor hundreds of miles away but has only a sketchy navigational chart in hand. A compass tells him which way is north, and by extension which way is east, south and west, and he crucially relies on these directions. True, two captains headed for the same port with identical compasses might still choose different routes through the wind, waves and weather. But one can be sure that if their compasses pointed in different directions, they would chart very different courses.

An examined life

A key goal of a good education is that students learn to tease out basic assumptions. Which way is pointing north? We all hold such assumptions, whether we are religious or secular, a neo-conservative or an eco-feminist, a Protestant, a Jew, a Wiccan or Oprah Winfrey. But recognizing these assumptions is only the first step; the next, crucial step is to understand them, test and reflect upon them, perhaps revise them, and ultimately to commit to them. The good life, said Socrates, is the examined life. So, too, any life that transforms the world, that “redeems the time,” is one that is rooted in clarity about fundamental assumptions.

I realize that not all of my students are Catholics. Much of what I present, though, will hold true analogously for anyone, though to greater and lesser degrees depending on whether one is a non-Catholic Christian, a member of a different religion or not religious at all. Certainly, to be a Catholic is to hold some basic assumptions.

There are different ways to sum up the Catholic faith, of course. It is summed up in one way in the Nicene Creed and in a shorter way in the Apostles’ Creed. Others have said that the key to the faith is “holiness” or “grace” or “mercy” or “peace.” The Church says that the Eucharist is the “source and summit” of the Christian life, and Pope John Paul II taught that the “law of the gift” — living one’s life as a gift to others — is central to the faith.

My purpose is not to tell students whether or exactly how to sum up the faith or to identify their assumptions, but to point out that these assumptions deal with big matters — the origin, redemption and destiny of the universe, matters far larger than politics, far larger than Stalin.

Insofar as my students are Catholics who believingly profess the Creed, they carry assumptions that correspond to what the Church has taught down through the centuries. These are encompassing assumptions, I point out, dealing with nothing less than “all things.” And “all things,” the Letter to the Colossians declares, were created and redeemed by Christ, including “thrones . . . powers . . . rulers . . . and authorities” — that is, politics. Does this not imply that political pursuits are to be oriented toward Christ and His creative and redeeming work?

The fathers of the Church during the early centuries took this teaching to heart. They held that political authority, even the authority of the Roman emperor, was ordained by God for His good purposes and that he was subject to God’s judgment. Christians, it followed, were both to commit themselves to the common good and to resist political evil.

The anonymous author of the second century Letter to Diognetus claimed that the emperor ought to look upon Christians as model citizens, as contributors of the common good and not as troublemakers. But when emperors did not conduct themselves consistently with God’s purposes or the political order strayed from God’s purposes — say, by practicing idolatry — Christians were to call it into account and sometimes directly resist it.

The common good

Thus they have done down through the centuries, contributing to the common good through government and military service and active citizenship at all levels of society as well as resisting injustices and attacks on the Church, whether in England when Henry VIII was seizing the Church; during the Spanish conquest of Yucatan in the 16th century, when theologians spoke up for the human rights of native peoples in America; or in contemporary China, whose government exercises sharp controls on churches. Christians, of course, have been on the wrong side of injustices as well, but that does not change their calling.

That calling, I inform my students, is to participate in politics in some way, at the very least through voting, but perhaps also, I pray, through some more ambitiously transformative endeavor. Pope John Paul II carefully articulated our tasks as lay Catholics to follow our “divine vocation” by practicing the theological virtues of faith, hope and love, and to commit ourselves to building the kingdom of God. And justice and service to others, he explained, are the hallmarks of this endeavor.

Our beliefs about politics, then, are inseparable from our beliefs about all of reality. If these beliefs are what the Catholic Church proposes, and if a university is a place where we form and develop our beliefs in the pursuit of truth, then should not the study of international relations and peace incorporate Catholic perspectives?

My approach is not to teach Catholic perspectives without qualifications. Rather, through my lectures and my reading assignments, I bring the Catholic tradition into dialogue with our culture’s leading traditions of thought in international relations and peace studies as well as the thought of other world religions. Enter the conversation as you will, I tell the students, and form your own conclusions.

One of the key goals of my essay and of my courses in general is to convince students that the Catholic tradition does in fact offer a distinct outlook on international relations and the pursuit of peace. Beginning with the Old and New Testaments, proceeding through the early Church fathers, Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, culminating in the remarkable tradition of modern social encyclicals, the Church has developed sophisticated views of war and peace, economic development, human rights, globalization and a host of other matters.

These views both overlap with and diverge from the views of the oldest and still most prestigious schools of thought about international relations in the West: Realism and liberalism. The Realist tradition dates back to Thucydides, the ancient Greek historian whose description of the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta stresses one of Realism’s most enduring theses: the competition for power. Recent American Realists include the famous diplomat George Kennan, theologian Reinhold Niebuhr and the mid-1970s Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.

Realists are neither amoral nor power mongers. Most of them advocate caution in foreign policy and warn against dangerous idealist crusades, among which they have numbered the Vietnam and Iraq wars. Realism also resonates with the stress on original sin of Catholic thinkers like Augustine.

But deep differences exist between Catholicism and Realism, too. Realists, for instance, believe states to be bound by no absolute norms, while the Church has long taught that some norms are absolute and exceptionless — like the prohibition on intentionally killing civilians in war. Catholic morality, for instance, cannot support President Harry S. Truman’s decision to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 on the grounds that they targeted civilians as a means to the end of destroying Japanese morale and ending the war. Realists, by contrast, consider the matter contingent on lives lost, alternatives avoided and the like.

Catholic social teachings are closer to the liberal tradition, whose origins lie in the 18th century Enlightenment. Both share an emphasis on human rights, international law, humanitarian intervention, economic development and arms reduction. “I don’t see any difference between liberalism and Catholicism,” one of my students once commented to me.

But here, too, lie important differences. Far more strongly than liberalism, the Church stresses the divine basis of human rights as well as the importance of certain rights in particular, including religious freedom, toward which most of today’s human-rights activists are lukewarm, and the rights of the unborn, about which they are almost utterly silent. Other teachings of the Church, like Pope John Paul II’s call for forgiveness and reconciliation among nations, fall outside of liberalism’s ambit altogether. They illustrate best my general message to the students — that Catholicism indeed has a unique outlook on international politics.

Catholic power

So the Catholic tradition offers a perspective that guides our participation in and study of international politics. But does the Catholic Church or individuals acting on the basis of Catholic principles actually make a difference in politics? Or was Stalin right that the Church has no divisions?

In the traditional sense of divisions, he surely was correct. Since the Church lost most of its lands in the Papal States by 1870, it has wielded little military might or political power of the sort that Realists respect. In the early 20th century the Vatican owned a submarine, a fact whose absurdity only underlines the Church’s temporary frailty. But as was his wont, Churchill did not leave Stalin’s quip at Potsdam unanswered: The pope might have divisions of a nontraditional sort, he retorted.

In the final section of my essay to my students, I present some examples of the Church’s influence in world politics and peace, nontraditional though it may be. First, I teach them how Pope John Paul II helped to destroy the very empire that Stalin helped to create. In the decade after becoming pope in 1978, he returned to his native Poland at least three times to lead pilgrimages — with an agenda. Before open-air crowds of hundreds of thousands, he spoke unambiguous words of opposition against the Communist regime, galvanizing the Church and its ally, the Solidarity union, to undertake a campaign of nonviolent resistance that led to the regime’s downfall.

Poland’s drama then touched off a chain reaction of similar collapses of Communism throughout the rest of Eastern Europe, culminating in the collapse of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989. Pope John Paul II’s actions were thus a major factor in ending the Cold War and transforming the international system.

I also mention: the Church’s contribution to “the Third Wave of democratization,” movements to end dictatorships in eastern Europe, Africa, Latin America and East Asia between 1974 and the early 2000s; its role in mediating peace settlements to end civil war and in supporting “truth commissions” that have confronted past political injustices all over the world; its provision of one-fourth of AIDS treatment services around the world; the centrality of Catholic thought and Catholic politicians in founding the movement for European integration that began in 1950 and ultimately culminated in the European Union; the role of the Community of Sant’Egidio, a Catholic lay community, in ending Mozambique’s long civil war in 1992.

Other examples might be given. I end the essay with an honor roll of Catholics who have made a prophetic difference for peace and international justice over the centuries, including, among many others, Thomas More, Oscar Romero, the 20th century philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe and Pope John XXIII.

This honor roll reinforces one of the essay’s central purposes: to urge students to become people who would “redeem the time,” in the phrase of the Letter to the Ephesians and later of T.S. Eliot. This is, in the end, how Notre Dame’s mission matters in my fields: through raising up cadres for justice, divisions for redemption.

Dan Philpott is an associate professor in the Department of Political Science and the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at Notre Dame. This article is a shorter version of his letter to students: One Professor’s Guide To Studying International Relations and Peace Studies From a Catholic Perspective, which you can read here.

Photograph of Professor Philpott by Matt Cashore.