A key insight and the chance to practice it again and again: on becoming more katholikos

Bill McDonough, Professor of Theology, St. Catherine University, St. Paul, MN (F, 2009; M, 2013, 2016, Board: 2014-present)

I have received much from an almost decade-long involvement with Collegium that began when I was a faculty fellow at the 2009 summer colloquy at St. John’s University.

But ultimately it comes down to an insight about the word katholikos in the brilliant 1990 essay by Jesuit language teacher and philosopher Walter Ong, an essay I had not come across until I sat down to do my reading for the 2009 colloquy in Collegeville: “Yeast: A Parable for Higher Catholic Education,” America Magazine (April 1990).

I’ll quote it at some length, because the essay, along with the intense engagement my 2009 small group (wonderfully led by John Neary) had with it, is at the center of what Collegium is for me. Ong writes:

‘Catholic’ is commonly said to mean ‘universal,’ a term from the Latin universalis. The equation is not quite exact. If ‘universal’ is the adequate meaning of ‘catholic,’ why did the Latin church, which in its vernacular language had the word universalis, not use this word but rather borrowed from Greek the term katholikos instead, speaking of the ‘one, holy, catholic and apostolic church’ (to put it in English) rather than ‘one, holy, universal and apostolic church’? The etymological history of universalis involves the concepts of unum (one) and vertere (turn). It suggests using a compass to make a circle around a central point. It is an inclusive concept in the sense that the circle includes everything within it. But by the same token it also excludes everything outside it. Universalis holds a subtle note of negativity. Katholikos does not. It is more unequivocally positive. It means simply ‘through-the-whole’ or ‘throughout the whole’: kata, through or throughout; holos, whole …. The Catholic intellectual life that lies ahead is one we can welcome.” Walter Ong, “Yeast,” America Magazine (1990).

Ong and Collegium have taught me that my task is to seek an ever-more katholikos identity by opening to an unending search for larger “wholes” in engaging with all disciplines of learning, with all traditions of faith, and with all human beings whom I have the privilege to encounter. I become more human, more “catholic” by opening to what I have to learn from all I encounter.

Interestingly, the Latin word collegium itself has this as its second meaning: “persons united by a calling.” The calling for me has been to a less defended, less siloed academic life. Old enough that I am a “digital immigrant” and by inclination a Luddite, I am now doing almost half of my teaching online as I engage with nurses who have worked for ten, twenty, thirty and more years before coming back to school to finish a baccalaureate degree. Trained in Catholic moral theology at a Roman pontifical university, I am now teaching theology to Somali Muslims, to Hmong animists, and to a broad range of religious “nones”—and am having the time of my life doing it. My teaching has become interdisciplinary and inter-professional, so much so that I now receive .1 FTE of my contract from our nursing program.

“Oh, I’m too Catholic to take those other religions seriously,” I have heard it said more than once. My response is increasingly that perhaps we, our Catholic schools, and the church itself are not yet Catholic enough.

Beyond my academic life, Ong and Collegium have helped me understand my whole life of faith in a broader way than I ever expected I would. Ong has been dead for fifteen years, but I like to imagine myself listening in on a conversation between him and contemporary Czechoslovakian Catholic theologian Tomáš Halík about what it is to be a human being. Halik has recently written the following about “God” and us:
I am convinced that ‘I don’t know,’ spoken with humility, leaves more room for God than the shallow sentimentality or excessively logical and certain forms of faith that have taken root in modern Christianity….
The profound experience of the mystics needs to be reintroduced to our theological thinking about God. Rather than being an object, God is a point of reference from which to perceive and understand the world and ourselves…. The idea of God conceived in this way and the acknowledgement of God’s existence are fundamental conditions for the exercise of human consciousness itself (Halik, I Want You to Be: On the God of Love [2016], 30, 46-47).

Halik uses the word “God” both to point to why we may never finish opening to ever-larger “wholes” this side of death, and to name what the ultimate reason for all our openings is. Collegium, Ong and Halik have given me marching orders for the rest of my life, both as academic and as human being.

That’s what a decade’s involvement with Collegium has opened up for me—oh, that and the chance to engage with some of the most katholikos people I have ever met.