Thinking about a local experience last week, some thoughts about the decline of civility in our contemporary human environment.
It was early morning. I was driving to pick up a couple things from our neighborhood grocery store. Two cars ahead of me I saw a young woman with a baby carriage suddenly start crossing the street. The car in front of me stopped quickly as did I. The fellow behind me started honking and honking and blinking his lights. Then he aggressively drove around me, gave me the finger, and called me an old SOB. Speeding ahead he drove around the young woman and almost collided with her baby carriage. He gave her the finger and called her a “stupid bitch.”
The loss of civility, of course, goes far beyond irritating road rage and giving someone the finger. But it is based on a personal attitude that says: “I can do what I want and you can just shut up.” Already back in 2013, the Powell Tate bipartisan public affairs firm, in Washington DC, warned that “civility in America continues to disintegrate and rude behavior is becoming the ‘new normal.’”
Today in 2022 we have abundant examples of ever declining civility. Airline passengers, as I saw on my recent flight from Chicago to Brussels, are assaulting flight attendants, who simply ask passengers to observe airplane regulations. Parents are threatening teachers, who teach important history like the Holocaust and want their students to read The Diary of Anne Frank. Customers are haranguing store clerks or fellow shoppers. And of course we see a lack of civility in political discourse and campaign rallies. Yes Donald Trump flamboyantly transgressed norms of civility, but declining civility is a bigger issue than the behavior of a former president.
On Facebook, You Tube, Twitter, and cellphone messages one finds rudeness, denigrating remarks, and a lack of civility from “conservatives” as well as “liberals.” Being negative is often much more infectious than being positive. And, and in social media, anger travels faster than joy.
I often think a lack of civility contaminates the entire highly-polarized political spectrum. But it happens in religious and ethical situations as well. A good example is the reaction to the recent overturning of Roe v. Wade by the U.S. Supreme Court. Many U.S. Americans, it seems, have retreated to their respective corners of “pro-life” or “pro-choice” and are bludgeoning the other side with outrageous and often uncivil accusations. I wrote a Catholic bishop acquaintance after the Supreme Court decision and suggested that instead of another episcopal condemnation of abortion we really need an intelligent discussion about all biological and ethical aspects of abortion. He sent back a quick note: “You really are an old leftist heretic. Good Catholics don’t question. They shut up and obey!” Well this is not going to get us to a place where we can work together on an issue as sensitive as abortion. I find it not just unfortunate but irresponsible that church leadership is unwilling to examine the abortion issue in all if it’s biological and ethical complexity. And being “pro-life” has very broad implications.
What were once episodes of ugly verbal abuse are now evolving into a nasty plague. Civility is being replaced by adolescent-type bullying and public denigration of anyone who challenges and questions the other. Incivility takes form in rude and discourteous actions, in gossiping, in spreading rumors, or simply in refusing to assist another person.
Civility means much more than simple politeness. Civility is about interpersonal respect and seeking common ground as a starting point for dialogue about differences. It is about moving beyond preconceptions and listening to the other and encouraging others to do the same.
Civility is hard work because it means staying present to people with whom one can have deep-rooted and fierce disagreements. I have a number friends on the far- right religiously and politically. I don’t shun them and I ask them not to shun me. Civility means collaborating for the common good. It is about negotiating interpersonal conversations in such a way that everyone’s voice is heard, and nobody’s voice is ignored. Not always easy. Civility means that despite different personal perspectives we still have a larger shared vision and we must collaborate to make it a reality.
When civility is replaced by mockery, dishonest accusations, and abusive slogans, people become monsters. History demonstrates amply that monsters create more monsters. History also reminds us that such a scenario never has a happy ending.
The reflection this week is brief. But the task awaiting us is a long process. Civility begins with you and me, with family and friends, with neighbors and colleagues. We gradually construct what I like to call coalitions of transformation: communities of faith, hope, and support.
In her 1964 book, Continuities in Cultural Evolution, the famous cultural anthropologist, Margaret Meade (1901 – 1978), said: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
In a long email “conversation” with a friend last week, he expressed his enthusiasm for Pope Francis and his recent trip to Canada. “The spirit of Peter the first pope is alive and working in Pope Francis” he said.
We correspond just about every week and I replied that I appreciated the pope’s going to Canada but that his apology to Indigenous peoples didn’t go far enough. Reconciliation, I said, is still very much a work in progress. Francis apologized for the “evil” of church personnel who worked in the schools. He did not acknowledge the Catholic Church’s papal and institutional support for the human denigration and misery created by the 15th century “Doctrine of Discovery.” In fact, just before a papal Mass at the Basilica of St. Anne de Beaupré on July 28 in Quebec, a large banner with the words “Rescind the Doctrine”was unrolled in front of the altar.
The Doctrine of Discovery was launched by Pope Alexander VI (1431 – 1503) in 1493. This new papal teaching stressed that lands not inhabited by Christians were available to be “discovered” and exploited and that “the Catholic faith and the Christian religion be exalted and be everywhere increased and spread, so that the health of souls be cared for and barbarous nations be overthrown and brought to the faith itself.” It played a central role in the Spanish conquest of the New World and supported Spain’s exclusive right to the lands discovered by Christopher Columbus (1451 – 1506) the previous year.
The Doctrine of Discovery soon became the basis for all European claims in the Americas. Called “the principle of discovery,” it became as well as the foundation for the United States’ western expansion. As U.S. Chief Justice John Marshall (1755 – 1835) declared in the 1823 Supreme Court case Johnson v. McIntosh,“the principle of discovery” had given the “discovering” nations an absolute right to their New World lands. In essence, John Marshall was saying that U.S. American “Indians” had only a right of occupancy, which if need be could be abolished.
Pope Alexander’s Doctrine of Discovery made headlines again throughout the 1990s and in 2000, when many Catholics petitioned Pope John Paul II (1920 – 2005) to formally revoke it and recognize the human rights of indigenous “non-Christian peoples.”
Alexander VI, of course, was quite a character. Born Rodrigo de Borja, in the prominent Borgia family, Alexander was one of the most controversial of the Renaissance popes. He had manny mistresses and fathered several children with them. One of his sons, Cesare Borgia (1475 – 1507), when only seventeen, was made Archbishop of Valencia. The Florentine Dominican friar Girolamo Savonarola (1452 – 1498) strongly and regularly criticized Pope Alexander. In 1498 the annoyed and angry Alexander had Savonarola arrested, tortured, hanged, and burned.
I wrote to my friend that Pope Francis really needs to renounce, repudiate, and revoke the Doctrine of Discovery. For centuries, this doctrine has justified the seizure and dispossession of Indigenous territories and nations all over the world. And I added, “And an important clarification: the Apostle Peter was not the first pope and he was never a bishop of Rome.”
My friend replied with a smiley and said “You really have become anti-pope as well as anti-Catholic.” I replied with my own smiley that I am neither anti-Catholic nor anti-pope. I stressed that Roman Catholic institutional leaders have to be knowledgeable and must be truthful about the church’s history. Some archaic papal teachings should simply be abandoned.
For my friend’s summer reading, I recommended the 2020 edition of Saints & Sinners: A History of the Popes by Eamon Duffy, Irish historian and professor of the history of Christianity at the University of Cambridge and a former president of Magdalene College. It is an excellent papal history.
Along with most contemporary historical theologians, Eamon Duffy stresses that, although a number of pious legends about Peter were accepted and passed on by people like Ambrose of Milan (c. 339 – c. 397) and Augustine of Hippo (354 – 430), many early stories about Peter are simply religious fantasies. They are not historic facts. They are pious legends. Peter’s being crucified upside down, for example, and his being the “first pope.”
Neither Peter nor Paul founded the Christian community at Rome. There were Christians in the city long before either Peter or Paul arrived there. And, as Eamon Duffy and many other well respected Catholic scholars like John P. Meier (b. 1942) and Raymond Brown (1928 – 1998) stress, there was no single bishop in Rome until many decades after the deaths of Peter (c. 68) and Paul (c. 65)..
To be clear, the papacy was not established by the historical Jesus. Bishops weren’t either. The papacy was a later Christian development. In Rome, when Peter was alive, there was no pope, no bishop as such, because the Christian community in Rome was slow to develop the office of a chief presbyter, or bishop. The early treatise The Shepherd of Hernias, written in Rome in the second century, speaks always collectively about the leaders of the community, or about the elders who presided over the community. The author makes no attempt to distinguish between bishops and elders.
In the fourth century, however, many believed that Peter’s tomb was located on the Vatican hill where he had been executed and where Constantine (c. 272 – 337) ordered the construction of a basilica (Old St. Peter’s Basilica) on the site of today’s St. Peter’s Basilica. Supposedly, Peter’s bone fragments and remnants of a burial shrine were discovered under the current St. Peter’s Basilica in excavations started in 1939. In 1965, Pope Paul VI declared that they were indeed the relics of Peter. Unfortunately, controversy still surrounds the methods and some of the findings of the excavations. Historically it is not clear that the shrine in fact marked the grave of Peter and the fragments of bone discovered were not in the central niche of the shrine. Also, one cannot really be certain that they belonged to Peter, since in first century Rome the remains of executed criminals were usually thrown into unmarked mass graves.
A bit more about Christianity and early Roman bishops: The Roman empire in the third century was divided by civil war and swept by plague and disease. It was ruled by a bewildering succession of emperors, and for a while by the “tetrarchy” of four emperors. Constantine was declared the only emperor in 306. In 313, he proclaimed that every person was free “to follow whichever religion one chooses.” Under Constantine, Christianity rapidly became the dominant religion. Christianity alone seemed to offer a single overarching intellectual and moral frame of reference. This greatly appealed to Constantine. Like his father, he had originally worshipped Sol Invictus, the Unconquered Sun, but his mother Helena was a Christian. His conversion to Christianity was gradual. He wasn’t baptized until right before his death in 337. Constantine, however, saw Christianity as the needed cement for his empire. He appointed Christian bishops as civil judges. Bishops tried and judged people and corporal punishments were regularly administered at the command of the bishops.
In 325 Constantine summoned a council of bishops to meet at Nicaea to reinforce the Christian church as the great unifier of his empire. Constantine needed a church that would demand strong adherence to discipline and dogma. In the ancient city of Nicaea, which today is located within the modern Turkish city of Iznik, Emperor Constantine called the Council of Nicaea to resolve the Arian dispute in the church which threatened to destabilize the entire empire. The Creed of Nicaea clearly expressed the dogmatic teachings that all believes had to uphold. I have always found it interesting that the famous creed says nothing about being a Good Samaritan and loving one’s neighbor. The bishops at Nicaea reinforced the view of God as a God of strict rules and vengeful punishments. Constantine, of course, was a savvy and ruthless emperor when he declared himself a Christian.
During the early years of Christianity, the bishops of Rome enjoyed no civic temporal power until the time of Constantine. Most of the bishops of Rome, in the first three centuries of the Christian era, were rather obscure figures. The conversion of Constantine, however, propelled the bishops of Rome into the heart of the Roman establishment. After the fall of the Western Roman Empire, c.476, the bishops of Rome became powerful rulers.
When Pope Leo III (750 – 816) crowned Charlemagne (743 – 813) as Holy Roman Emperor in 800, he established the precedent that, in Western Europe, no one could be emperor without being crowned by a pope. After a conflict, known as the Investiture Controversy, the papacy increased its power in relation to the secular rulers of Europe. In 1095 Pope Urban II (1035 – 1099) launched the First Crusade which united Western Europe under papal power. The objective of the First Crusade (1095 – 1099) was the recovery of the Holy Land from Islamic rule.
The word “pope” derives from the Greek pappas meaning “father.” In the early centuries of Christianity, the title was applied to all bishops as well as to senior clergy. Later it became reserved in the West for only the bishop of Rome, during the reign of Pope Leo I (400 – 461). He was pope from 440 until his death. Leo was a Roman aristocrat and was the first pope to have been called “the Great.” He is probably best known for having met “Attila the Hun” in 452 and persuading him to turn back from his invasion of Italy. Attila (c. 406–453) was the ruler of the Huns from 434 until his death. He is also considered one of the most powerful rulers in world history.
Pope Leo I, a powerful man, greatly contributed to developing ideas of papal authority. He was greatly esteemed by Pope Pius IX (1792 – 1878) the pope who strongly condemned liberalism, modernism, separation of church and state, and other Enlightenment ideas. In 1869 he proclaimed that he as pope was infallible, enhancing the role of the papacy and decreasing the role of the bishops. Pio Nono, as he is often called, had this Catholic doctrine dogmatically defined at the First Vatican Council of 1869–1870.
Well enough papal reflections for now. I like the synodality movement in today’s Catholic Church: a process of mutual collaboration and discernment engaging the whole People of God in the life and mission of the Church. Synodality speaks a different voice. As Phyllis Zagano reported in Religion News Service on August 17th: “The synod is a worldwide event, and early reports from bishops’ conferences outside the U.S. repeat the same story: Clericalism is a scourge on the church, and women are not respected or included in leadership.”
Polarization is certainly not limited just to the United States. Political and religious leaders in India, in Poland, and in Turkey, by way of examples, have relentlessly inflamed national divisions by demonizing their opponents and curtailing democratic processes. But the United States is polarizing much faster than other democracies.
The contemporary USA is a deeply divided country. The extreme U.S. religious and political polarization leads us to ask very basic questions. What long-term effects will polarized politics and religion have on U.S. society and democracy? Is there a tipping point beyond which polarization passes a point of no return? Journalist, Tom McTague, pointedly observed in the August 8thAtlantic “Yet everywhere you turn, there is a sense that the U.S. is in some form of terminal decline; too divided, incoherent, violent, and dysfunctional to sustain its Pax Americana.” The November 2022 midterm elections will be a very significant indicator of where we are going. Some of my European friends asked me recently if the U.S. is headed for another civil war. The country is certainly much more polarized than at the time of the nineteenth century Civil War (April 12, 1861 – April 9, 1865).
There is no need for me today to repeat accounts of religious and political polarization. It is in the news everyday. Reactions to the August 8th FBI investigative raid on the former US president’s Mar-a-Lago residence is a good example. As an older Catholic, I am still thinking about the Jesuit middle school in Worcester, Massachusetts, that had its Catholic status revoked by the local bishop who was angry that the school defied his order to stop flying flags supporting LGBTQ pride and Black Lives Matter. Stop flying flags that support discriminated people?
What is missing in so much of today’s polarized religious and political rhetoric is a focus on basic moral values: Treating each other with civility and respect. Listening to the other side. Telling the truth. Being honest. Loving neighbors as ourselves. Welcoming the worn out, the lonely, and the downtrodden. And recognizing that all people, regardless of race, gender, or sexual orientation, have innate dignity and deserve to be treated with kindness, affirmation, and respect.
A big problem is what social scientists call “affective polarization.” We see it when people have strong FEELINGS about people based on political, ideological, racial, religious, or gender issues. They don’t just disagree but detest, distrust, and strive to eliminate them. Often with hatred and violence. They find support in contemporary mass media which is better at stimulating feelings than passing-on objective facts. The emotional language used to galvanize one side directly antagonizes the other.
In far-right political propaganda today, what really matters is spin. Not facts or history or justice. Interestingly Ezra Klein, the young U.S. journalist and political analyst, observed that the introduction of Fox News appears roughly consistent with the acceleration of the growth in affective polarization during the 1990s. (Klein’s book, Why We’re Polarized, was published by Simon & Schuster in January 2020. His perspective is that over the past fifty years in the United States, partisan identities have merged with racial, religious, geographic, ideological, and cultural identities. These merged identities are tearing apart the bonds that hold the country together.)
History shows that highly charged affective polarization not only divides societies but leads to social chaos. Today the “I’m right, you’re wrong and evil” thinking is pervasive. When partisanship becomes equated with patriotism, and destroying the other side becomes the ultimate goal, democracies fall apart.
Authoritarian “leaders” take advantage of social chaos and respond to it by taking control to re-establish “good order.” But the authoritarian institution or government maintains good order by demanding strict discipline and unquestioned submission and obedience. Authoritarian regimes require, as well, a beguiling leader who has absolute authority. This is the concept of the Führerprinzip, “the leadership principle” in German. There are ample contemporary examples of such beguiling leaders in religions and civil society. The leaders insist of course that it is disloyal to criticize the leader. People who refuse to submit to authoritarian leaders are ostracized or simply eliminated. Usually some form of physical violence is necessary to suppress anyone who stands outside the approved and obedient group.
So what do we do?
Here are my brief suggestions for combating polarization. You may have your own suggestions.
Being good listeners.
Most people do not listen well. They only passively listen while thinking about something unrelated. Or they listen only long enough to plan what they want to say. But we need to truly listen to understand a person’s reasons for thinking other than we do. We need to ask non-judgmental and open-ended questions. Understanding breeds empathy and even respect. It may not always be easy. But we have to work at building bridges.
Not using denigrating language.
This becomes especially important, for example, when telling jokes. Many jokes use violent or dehumanizing rhetoric by suggesting that certain people are stupid or inferior. Denigrating people is not funny. The dumb blond jokes? The Jewish jokes? The Polish Jokes? Or the Stupid Republican jokes? Or the Subversive Democrat jokes?
Examine and question feelings of superiority over other people.
This can happen in parish or neighborhood discussion groups. A U.S. Catholic priest friend, by way of example, set up a Lenten discussion program for his parish titled “Listening to the Other.” He had a different presenter each week. Among those whom he invited were: a Lutheran minister, a Catholic woman priest, a Jewish rabbi, a Muslim imam, and a representative from DignityUSA the Catholic organization that works for respect and justice for LGBTQ people. The final “Listening to the Other” event was a prayer service in which all of the presenters had key roles.
Decide to be part of the solution.
We really do have to decide to be part of the solution. When questioned, we can explain why we think the way we do and respectfully ask others why they think the way they do. We need to be open-minded and admit that we too can be wrong or mistaken. Sometimes we may have to agree to disagree. But one can disagree respectfully without bashing the other. We do have an obligation to collaborate and build bridges for the common good. The destructive consequences of polarization are too great.
Using social media wisely.
Considering the contemporary revolution in communication technology, social media may have done more to promote taking sides than seeing the world through the eyes of another. If we use social media, we can work to promote a kinder and more honest social media. We can encourage Facebook friends, for example, to remove inaccurate information or denigrating or hateful images. Just “unfollowing” or “unfriending” someone is no solution. We need to discuss our objections and then decide how to deal with them in a constructive way.
Focus on facts not feelings.
Polarization is often more emotional than factual. Feelings are a poor source for factual information. For example, the ramifications of the historic megadrought happening in the U.S. right now are getting increasingly serious. Research published in the February 14, 2022 issue of the journal Nature Climate Change suggests that the past two decades in the U.S. Southwest have been the driest period in 1,200 years. And France today is experiencing its most severe drought in its recorded history. Nevertheless, too many people still FEEL that climate change is just a temporary phenomenon and that global warming is a leftist hoax. Polarized people tend to have distorted feelings as well about who makes up the other party or the other religious group. They support and believe untruthful stereotypes about “the other.” Are all Republicans stupid? All Democrats dangerous leftists? All Mexicans drug dealers? All Catholic priests pedophiles?
Check perspectives and judgmental thinking about others.
Helping people to look at a disliked person or group in an empathetic way can reduce malicious beliefs about them. Perspective is important. Jesus of Nazareth, for example, was not a white European but a brown-skinned, Middle Eastern Hebrew. His disciples were young men AND women most probably under the age of eighteen. Jesus said nothing about someone being gay. I remember a fellow, who was strongly anti-gay and said at a parish council meeting that gays who “came out” should not receive communion and should not be welcomed in the parish. He said “Gays are immoral and unclean. We don’t want them!” Well, a couple weeks after he had said that, his eighteen-year-old son told him that he was gay. The father came to me, teary-eyed and said “He used to be such a fine young man.” I said “Your son still is a fine young man. Don’t you love your son?” He said “Of course!” Then I said “Tell him you love him. Be supportive. Gay people are not defective. Some people are gay. Some people are straight. They all deserve love and respect. Human sexuality is complex.”
Be truth seekers.
It is absolutely essential to remember that no one has all the truth. No political party. No church. No theological group. No particular religion. Not even the Catholic Church. No particular country or nation. We are all truth seekers. We need to listen to the other. We need to be collaborative learners. We have to search along with “the other” as we build bridges across religious, ideological, and political divisions.
The famous anthropologist Margaret Mead (1901 – 1978) was asked by a student what she considered to be the first sign of civilization in a culture. Mead said that the first sign of civilization in an ancient culture was a femur (thighbone) that had been broken and then healed. She explained that in the animal kingdom, if you break your leg, you die. A broken femur that has healed, Mead said, is evidence that someone has taken time to stay with the one who fell, has bound up the wound, has carried the person to safety and has tended the person through recovery. Helping someone else through difficulty is where civilization starts.
May we be civilized in our polarized world. We don’t tear-down the house. We renovate. We renew. If necessary we rebuild. Together we make constructive change happen.
At the end of June, on my way back to Belgium, I had a six hours layover in Chicago’s O’Hare airport. Fortunately, they put me in a very comfortable waiting room, designed primarily for older people. I had just begun to read the Chicago Tribune when a lady, about my age, arrived and sat down directly across from me. I said “good morning.” She smiled and said “yes, it is a lovely day.” I continued reading.
After about half an hour, I put down my newspaper. She immediately said “where are you going?” I said “Brussels, Belgium.” “0h!” she said “I know Brussels very well. I can tell you all about it because I have visited it at least seven times in the past forty years.” “That’s great,” I said and added, with a chuckle, “I know a lot about it as well. I have lived a few miles from Brussels for the past forty years.” “My, my” she said “you must speak French very well, because French is the national language of Belgium.” “I do” I said and added “but Belgium has three national languages: Dutch, French, and German. The primary language in Belgium is not French but Dutch, spoken by approximately 60% of the population. And my Dutch is very good.” “Well, well” she said “I hate to say this but you are a very ignorant man when it comes to languages in Belgium.”
I was in no mood for a linguistic debate. I just politely smiled and ignored the lady. I grabbed my iPad to review an article and send a couple emails.
After almost an hour, she interrupted me again. This time she said “Well…” she stared at me with raised eyelids and said “Well…if you think you know so much about languages in BELGIQUE– the French name for Belgium by the way — what do you do over there?” I smiled and said “I am a retired professor of theology from the Catholic University of Leuven.” “Oh my God!” she said, “I am a VERY good CATHOLIC! I know all about Louvain, what you call LEUVEN. It is a hotbed of leftist so-called-Catholics who are really heretics! Heretics!” I started to laugh and said “well at least then I am a happy and contented old heretic.” But, before she could could react, an attendant came to get her and take her for her flight to Atlanta. I wished her a pleasant flight. She went “humpf!” and disappeared.
A couple minutes later, a fellow from across the room started laughing. He then stood up and walked over to me and tapped my shoulder. “I like heretics” he said and he laughed some more. Then he told me, in Dutch, that he was Belgian, a retired professor, and had lived close to Leuven for sixty years. We both had a good laugh. Then a young attendant came to get both of us, because it was time for us to board our plane for Brussels.
About nine hours later, I was back home in Leuven – hardly anyone says “Louvain” these days — with its “KU Leuven” university. The “KU” stands for “Catholic University” in Dutch. The university’s legal name is Katholieke Universiteit te Leuven, which translates in English as “Catholic University of Leuven.”
The KU Leuven will celebrate its 600th anniversary in 2025, making it one of Europe’s oldest universities.
Our institution is the oldest university in the Low Countries and the oldest extant Catholic university in the world. The University was founded by Pope Martin V (1369 – 1431) on December 9, 1425, after the city of Leuven had requested permission for the foundation of the University.
The University of Leuven initially comprised four faculties (divisions): humanities, church law, civil law, and medicine. In 1432, Pope Eugene IV (1383 – 1447) gave permission to add the faculty of theology.
A little over a century after it was founded, the University already had about 2,000 students and more than than 200 of them came from abroad. The presence of great thinkers, like the humanist Desiderius Erasmus (1466 – 1536), was certainly part of the Leuven appeal. Erasmus spent several years in Leuven and though not a professor he actively contributed to the development of the University. In Leuven he promoted research in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin in his College of Three Languages, the Collegium Trilingue, foundedthanks to a bequest from his friend Hieronymus Busleyden (c. 1470-1517).
Erasmus advocated the printing and publishing of Thomas More’s Utopia. That could not be done in England. It was printed in Leuven in 1516 in the workshop of the printer and publisher Dirk Martens (1447 – 1534). His print shop (now a restaurant) was close to the University Hall, which is still the main administrative building for the KU Leuven.
Towards the end of 1534, the twenty-two-year-old Gerardus Mercator (1512 – 1594) returned to Leuven – he had been a teenager in Leuven for a couple years — and threw himself into the study of geography, mathematics, and astronomy. He would later become the world-famous cartographer, most renowned for creating his 1569 world map, one of the most significant advances in the history of cartography.
Over the centuries, the Leuven University has continued, grounded in the humanities while exploring other scientific domains. I am thinking right now, for example, about the ground-breaking research of Leuven’s Georges Lemaître (1894 – 1966), professor and priest. In 1927 Professor Lemaître’s explanation of the expanding universe greatly contributed to the theory of general relativity. Lemaître is now considered the founding father of the “Big Bang theory,” which in 1931 he called the universe’s expansion from the “Primeval Atom.”
Today’s KU Leuven ranks among the top 10 universities in Europe and consistently ranks among the top 100 universities in the world. It has close to sixty thousand students and has 24 libraries and learning centers across its 12 campuses, containing millions of books and other media. Its theology library alone holds 1.3 million volumes, including 1200 manuscripts and 702 works printed before before 1501.
Leuven’s Faculty of Theology and Religions Studies is anchored in the historical-critical approach to theology: trying to understand the world behind the biblical and theological texts. Leuven theologians played a key role in the deliberations at Vatican II, the Second Vatican Council which met from October 11, 1962 to December 8, 1965. (I arrived in Leuven for the first time in September 1965. But returned a few years later to complete my doctorate.)
Leuven theologians – who were my professors in the 1960s — exerted a decisive influence on a number of Second Vatican Council documents, including the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, the Declaration on the Relation of the Church with Non-Christian Religions, and particularly the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church.
True to the spirit of the Council, in the years following Vatican II the university’s theologians have maintained active dialogue with philosophers, sociologists, scientists, and others who study our contemporary human condition. They ask questions. They are open to change and to new understandings. But, really, they are not heretics. They strive to develop a theological language faithful to tradition and realistically in touch with the mentality and situation of contemporary people and times.
Today the women and men, who are today’s Leuven theologians, work energetically to make room for broad approaches to Christian understanding and to other religious traditions. In their research and teaching, they stress getting to know other religious traditions through ecumenical and inter-religious dialogue and research. I consider them energetic explorers on the theological landscape.
In the last few years, the number of KU Leuven international students has increased significantly. Today’s Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies enjoys a broad range of contacts with international theological researchers and institutions. (I am currently on a committee working to set up scholarships for foreign theology students.)
And so… this week just a bit of the “heretic’s” personal journey “Chicago to Brussels” and his being back home in Leuven.