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Professor prepares last UT lecture

Gaillardetz reflects on traditions, time at University of Toledo


Richard Gaillardetz, an author of seven books who has been the Murray/Bacik professor of Catholic Studies at the University of Toledo since 2001, will start teaching at Boston College in the fall.

The Blade/Andy Morrison
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Richard Gaillardetz, who has been the Murray/Bacik professor of Catholic Studies at the University of Toledo since 2001, will give his final lecture in Toledo at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday at Corpus Christi University Parish on Dorr Street. He will be teaching at Boston College starting in the fall.

The author of seven books, Mr. Gaillardetz has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Texas, a master’s in biblical theology from St. Mary’s University in San Antonio, and master’s and doctorate degrees in systematic theology from the University of Notre Dame. In an interview via e-mail, Mr. Gaillardetz reflected on his 10 years in Toledo as a professor and theologian.

Q. In your “State of the Church 2011” lecture given in January, you pointed to many positive signs in the American Catholic Church, and also some negatives. What are the biggest positives and the biggest negatives for the U.S. church at this time?

A. As a Catholic Christian I believe that the Holy Spirit will never abandon the church, so I am always confident that there will be positive signs of the Spirit at work in today’s church. One of the most encouraging is a more educated laity that are able to go deeper in their personal and communal appropriation of the Christian gospel. The second is the enhanced possibilities for shared ministry and leadership by so many in the church, ordained and lay. As a Catholic Christian I also believe that the church is, in some sense, broken and sinful, and so I am never surprised to find signs of that brokenness. The most obvious sign of brokenness would be the enduring sexual abuse scandal, but underlying that and other scandals is a disturbing clerical culture that leads some but not all of our leaders to cramped and often rigid responses to the real challenges facing our church today.

Q. In the same lecture, you gave a historical review of the factors leading to the church’s situation in the 21st century, then posed the question: “Where do we go from here?” What are the main points the U.S. Catholic Church should address in 2011 and beyond?

A. We live in a postmodern world in which personal identity in all its forms is more fragile and tenuous than ever. Where there once was a time when belief in God was simply assumed, now we live in a world, as the philosopher Charles Taylor has reminded us, in which many live quite comfortably without any religious framework for making sense of their lives.

One of the principal challenges facing our church today concerns how to cultivate a healthy religious framework which is both faithful to the life and message of Jesus of Nazareth and yet open to the new horizons of our world today. I think that starts with renouncing a paternalistic attitude toward Christian life, including a notion of religious formation that treats educated adults as if they were children. Our leaders rightly recognize the fragility of religious identity but, at least some of them, wrongly assume that the solution lies in more draconian disciplinary practices (e.g. withholding communion) and unthinking obedience to church decrees. I fear that both approaches are doomed to fail.

Q. Regarding the exercise of authority in the church today, you voiced some concerns for the “spiritual father” model that is popular among newly ordained priests and bishops. What are the drawbacks of this model of the priesthood?

A. “Spiritual fatherhood” (or “motherhood” for that matter) is a function of Christian wisdom. We have an ancient tradition of recognizing voices of wisdom (e.g., St. Teresa of Avila, St. Francis of Assisi, Dorothy Day, and Thomas Merton) and encouraging believers of every age to learn at their feet. Wisdom is a gift that is usually appropriated gradually over the course of a lifetime. I believe that our Catholic faith requires an apostolic office (ordained ministries), but I do not believe that ordination automatically confers wisdom. Before coming to Toledo I taught in a seminary for 10 years and not once did an immature seminarian become a mature priest and “spiritual father” on the day after his ordination! It is a dangerous thing for a young or not so young priest to think that their ordination conferred a supernatural wisdom on them that justifies their automatically becoming a “spiritual father.” On the contrary, some of the wisest priests I have known acquired their wisdom with a humility which allowed them to be taught by others — even, and perhaps especially, by those they served!

Q. For the role of bishops as teachers, you drew a distinction between tradition and traditionalism. Would you explain the difference?

A. Jaroslav Pelikan once wrote that “tradition is the living faith of the dead; traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.” The tendency is for us to think of “tradition” in static terms as a set of inviolate rules, decrees, and practices, but in fact authentic tradition is always alive and changing. To believe in tradition is to believe in the power of communal memory, to believe that those who have gone before us, under the guidance of the Spirit, have much to teach us. But it also means believing that believers today are, through their discernment and courageous living of the gospel, contributing to the tradition of tomorrow.

Q. What is the best way for church leaders to address the issue of “cafeteria Catholicism,” in which lay persons tend to pick and choose the parts of Catholic tradition that they find most appealing, while ignoring those that they dislike?

A. At the heart of “cafeteria Catholicism” is a cultural malaise that influences all religious traditions in the modern world and not just Catholicism. The challenge lies in the fact that our modern consumer culture teaches us to turn goods into commodities, attractively packaged products that are easily consumed and forgotten.

Indeed there is a strong cultural tendency for us to treat religious faith and practice as a set of commodities. We do this when we treat worship as entertainment and the demanding practice of Christian discipleship as something that can be reduced to a bumper sticker slogan. The only antidote is to recover a “thick” sense of religious belonging, a sense of the need to participate in a religious community with a distinctive set of stories and practices that shape us as we submit to them. It is easy for us to forget that Christianity, like most other religions, was a distinctive way of life before it was a cognitive belief system.

Q. During your 10 years at the University of Toledo, you have worked to expand the philosophy department’s program in religious studies. How much were you able to accomplish in this effort, and what is your long-range vision for the program?

A. Through the contributions of many faculty, successive department chairs, deans, and even a couple university presidents, we have done a great deal to develop the religious studies program in the last 10 years. We now have almost 30 religious studies majors. We also have a vibrant Initiative for Religious Understanding that through its many programs has done much to encourage greater religious literacy and respectful dialogue on campus and in the local Toledo community.

Q. You have said that it is important for people to talk about religion. Yet some people say that politics and religion are off-limits in daily conversation. Why do you feel that religion should be an important part of the public discussion?

A. People often confuse the constitutional separation of church and state with the separation of politics and religion. The first distinction is vital to American society and a good argument can be made that this constitutional separation has in fact allowed religion to flourish in America. However, every religion is, in some sense, a tradition of meaning, an attempt to offer a coherent understanding of what constitutes authentic human flourishing. Since human flourishing is not simply an interior matter but also pertains to our relationships with others, religion has to speak as well to what constitutes authentic human relationships. Religion inevitably will concern itself with how we come together as a society and how we conduct ourselves. In that regard, religions are inherently and most appropriately, political in character.

Of course, in a pluralistic culture, no religion can act as if it were the only viable tradition of meaning. What we should encourage is a public square in which many different voices, religious and secular, have their time and opportunity to influence the construction of a common life.

Q. You have participated in numerous community events in Toledo, including many interfaith and ecumenical programs. What is your view of the relationships among Toledo’s diverse religious communities?

A. It’s funny because Toledo has a national reputation, largely undeserved, as a sleepy little town where not much goes on. Over my 10 years here what I have encountered is quite different. The cultural and religious diversity of the larger Toledo community makes it a natural laboratory for how humankind can function in a pluralistic context. This community should take pride in its many efforts to overcome bigotry and intolerance.

I count it as one of my greatest privileges that I have met here in Toledo so many inspiring leaders from not just my own Catholic tradition but leaders in the Protestant, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, and Buddhist communities as well. Toledo has a chance to give witness to our nation that peoples of faith can practice their religion with fervor and conviction and still exercise attitudes of tolerance and mutual respect toward the adherents of other religious traditions.

Q. As you prepare to move to Boston, what are your thoughts on Toledo — the community in general as well as the students and faculty at the University of Toledo? What will you miss the most about Toledo?

A. I have to say that my greatest treasure has been the close and often unexpected friendships I have been able to develop over my time here. Those friendships have often called for a crossing of boundaries if you will, as I have come to value special relationships with such unexpected figures as an atheistic philosopher, an Honors English professor, and a Muslim lawyer. I hold a special place in my heart for Fr. James Bacik, whose vision gave rise to the Murray/Bacik Chair. He has been an intellectual conversation partner, fellow golfer and sports enthusiast, mentor, and dear friend over the past decade.

And as would be the case with any honest teacher, I value in a special way the relationships I have been able to cultivate with students from many places who have followed or will follow diverse career paths but all of whom have had the courage to explore life’s ultimate questions in my classroom.

Q. Can you give us a sneak peek of your lecture Tuesday?

A. The title is “The Prophetic Vocation of the Theologian,” and it is the last in a series at Corpus Christi of lectures on Catholic understandings of vocation.

… In my final lecture I will consider the variety of tasks proper to theology, considering the theologian as explorer, interpreter, listener, and critic. I will also reflect on the increasingly contested relationship between the work of theology and the official teaching office of the church [the distinctive authority of the pope and bishops].

Contact David Yonke at: or 419-724-6154.

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