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General News    H5'ed 3/1/21

An Open Letter to Pope Francis: Upgrade Your Thinking!

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Duluth, Minnesota (OpEdNews) March 1, 2021: My favorite scholar is the late American Jesuit Renaissance specialist and cultural historian Walter J. Ong (1912-2003; Ph.D. in English, Harvard University, 1955), who taught English at Saint Louis University, the Jesuit university in St. Louis, Missouri - where, over the years, I took five courses from him. Father Ong has been described, accurately in my estimate, as a scholar's scholar.

In any event, in my estimate, Pope Francis, you and all other college-educated Roman Catholics around the world today, including President Joseph R. Biden, Jr., need to upgrade your thinking by carefully studying Ong's mature thought from the early 1950s onward. Let me explain why you and your college-educated co-religionists should carefully study Ong's phenomenological and personalist thought.

Now, in Harvard Protestant divinity professor Harvey Cox's 1969 book The Feast of Fools: A Theological Essay on Festivity and Fantasy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press), he pays Ong a handsome compliment. Cox says, "With the death of Paul Tillich, the most brilliant practitioner of the theology of culture departed the scene. No single figure has appeared to claim his place as the principal theological interpreter of such cultural forms as painting, music, architecture, and dance. Still, the work of the theology of culture has continued. . . . [But] Only Walter Ong makes much of an attempt to pull the whole range of cultural artifacts into a single inclusive theological interpretation" (page 166).

For a published briefly annotated bibliography of Ong's 400 or so publications (not counting reprintings or translations as separate publications), see the late Thomas M. Walsh's "Walter J. Ong, S.J.: A Bibliography 1929-2006" in the book Language, Culture, and Identity: The Legacy of Walter J. Ong, S.J., edited by Sara van den Berg and Thomas M. Walsh (New York: Hampton Press, 2011, pages 185-240).

But for an introductory survey of Ong's life and thought, see my book Walter Ong's Contributions to Cultural Studies: The Phenomenology of the Word and I-Thou Communication, 2nd ed. (New York: Hampton Press, 2015; 1st ed., 2000).

Now, I have devoted much of my adult life to calling people's attention to Ong's thought, and I am writing this letter to call your attention to the fundamentally relationist spirit of catholicity (lower-case "c" here) in Ong's mature thought from the early 1950s onward - which may be compatible with the expansive spirit of the capitalized Catholicity that certain orthodox Roman Catholic authors refer to in the titles of certain books published in the Catholicity in an Evolving Universe book series, under the general editorship of the American Franciscan Sister Ilia Delio of Villanova University, published by Orbis Books. See, for example, Prof. Dr. Massimo Faggioli's 2020 book The Liminal Papacy of Pope Francis: Moving Toward Global Catholicity.

But to call your attention to the possible potential of Ong's thought for expanding the theological horizons of your thought, Pope Francis I will take as my point of departure the title of the American Protestant convert to Roman Catholicism the Reverend Richard John Neuhaus' 1987 book titled The Catholic Moment.

Taking a hint from Neuhaus' book title, I would argue that the Catholic moment started to emerge with force in the 1950s with the posthumous publication of the French Jesuit paleontologist and evolutionary thinker Pierre Teilhard de Chardin's writings starting in 1955 (in French), the publications of Ong's mature thought in his publications from the early 1950s onward, the election of Pope John XXIII in 1958, the election of President John F. Kennedy in 1960, and the publication of the 1962 and 1964 books of the Canadian Renaissance specialist and Protestant convert to Roman Catholicism Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980; Ph.D. in English, Cambridge University, 1943), and the pivotal Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) in the Roman Catholic Church. As you know, the official documents of Vatican II were formally promulgated by Pope Paul VI, who also issued the infamous encyclical Humanae Vitae in 1968 - which we can take as marking the effective end of the brief shining moment of the Catholic moment in American culture.

Concerning the long-standing general anti-Catholic background over against which the Catholic moment in American culture emerged briefly (for a brief shining moment, as the song about Camelot says), see the American journalist Robert C. Christopher's book Crashing the Gates: The De-WASPing of America's Power Elite (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1989).

However, in the title essay in Ong's 1962 book The Barbarian Within: And Other Fugitive Essays and Studies (New York: Macmillan, 1962), "The Barbarian Within: Outsiders Inside Society Today" (pages 260-286), Ong does not happen to advert explicitly to white Anglo-Saxon Protestants (WASPs). Instead, Ong perceptively works in it with two seemingly idealized conceptual constructs borrowed from the ancient Greeks: (1) Greeks and (2) barbarians. Just as Ong does not happen to advert explicitly to American Protestants in his title essay, so too he does not happen to advert explicitly to American Catholics (or to American blacks or certain other Americans) who were excluded by American Protestants, and ex-Protestants, from the dominant prestige culture in American culture. In the conceptual framework with which Ong works in his 1962 title essay, American Catholics were undoubtedly in the barbarian position in American culture. In effect, Ong is here characterizing himself and President Kennedy and other American Catholics as being in the barbarian position in the prestige culture in American culture - over against the dominant white American Protestants, and ex-Protestants, still then in the Greek position as Ong articulates it in his 1962 title essay.

Ong's 1962 title essay "The Barbarian Within: Outsiders Inside Society Today" is reprinted in the 600-page anthology An Ong Reader: Challenges for Further Inquiry, edited by Thomas J. Farrell and Paul A. Soukup (Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press, 2002, pages 277-300).

However, as you know, Pope Francis, the intellectual and social ferment of the times, of which the Catholic moment that I am here describing was a part, shortly became over-heated, figuratively speaking, or perhaps I should say yeasty, which contributed to the counter-movement of the times. If we take the American Catholic counter-movement provoked by Pope Paul VI's 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae as marking the end of the brief shining moment of the Catholic moment in American culture, then we should also take the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Roe v. Wade as marking the emergence of zealous American Catholic culture warriors. Even though the priest-sex-abuse scandal and the complementary bishop-cover-up scandal have somewhat dissipated the religious zeal of many American Catholic culture warriors, they nevertheless remain prominent in American culture to this day.

By way of digression, perhaps I should say here that before Vatican II, American Catholics tended to be part of the American Catholic juggernaut that the American Catholic historian Philip Gleason aptly captures in the main title of his book Contending with Modernity: [American] Catholic Higher Education in the Twentieth Century (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995).

However, shortly before Gleason's aptly titled book was published in 1995, Ong's published his own decidedly modest proposal for American Catholic higher education titled "Yeast: A Parable for Catholic Higher Education" in the Jesuit-sponsored magazine America, volume 162, number 13 (April 7, 1990): pages 347-349 and 362-363. It is reprinted in volume four of Ong's Faith and Contexts, edited by Thomas J. Farrell and Paul A. Soukup (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1999, pages 169-176).

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Thomas James Farrell is professor emeritus of writing studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD). He started teaching at UMD in Fall 1987, and he retired from UMD at the end of May 2009. He was born in 1944. He holds three degrees from Saint Louis University (SLU): B.A. in English, 1966; M.A.(T) in English 1968; Ph.D.in higher education, 1974. On May 16, 1969, the editors of the SLU student newspaper named him Man of the Year, an honor customarily conferred on an administrator or a faculty member, not on a graduate student -- nor on a woman up to that time. He is the proud author of the book (more...)

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