God and Grunge at Franciscan University

by Nicholas J. Healy

Franciscan University is rightly known as a center of spiritual renewal. In recent years it has gained significantly in academic stature as well. This integration of the spiritual and intellectual is a formidable achievement—one notably lacking in most other institutions of higher learning. Yet, there is a curiously missing dimension to the University as a Christian community: the lack of a corresponding culture, as expressed in dress, manners and leisure activities.

The Victorian age is disparaged for its excessive concern for the outward appearance of virtue, which was often insincere and even deceitful. As the Christian faith was dying in the hearts and minds of the elites of that era, they seemed to insist all the more on protecting the external norms of behavior that the Faith had formed and nourished, however hypocritical such behavior might be. Perhaps at some level they understood that a Christian moral code was vital to an ordered society. As said by de la Rochefoucauld, “Hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue.” Only when the hypocrisy reached the level of the absurd did the norms crumble, and with them the whole edifice of Christian culture in much of the West. Today’s culture may be less hypocritical and more “honest,” but it is terribly degraded. Even secularists now seem to profess dismay at the social costs of the sexual revolution, and we have doubtless not yet paid the full price of “liberation” from the dominant Christian culture of past centuries.

How ironic that at Franciscan University we have a kind of inverse of the Victorian culture: a conspicuous discordance between the deeply held truths of the Catholic faith and outward conduct; students who yearn to please God, yet in behavior or dress act more like philistines.

I do not speak of those few students who have rejected Christianity, or at least its application to their personal lives. However deplorable their behavior, it is at least consistent with their inner convictions (or lack thereof.) Nor do I refer to those whose faith has already influenced every aspect of their lives; so much so that their graciousness, attractiveness and manifest integrity become an occasion of conversion and blessing for others.

The difficulty and the opportunity is with those who genuinely believe in the truths of our Faith, but who through ignorance or indifference fail to recognize the practical implications those truths have at every level of their being. It is not an inconsiderable number, and it is this group that has the power to influence the whole tone and direction of our campus life.

These students can sometimes be seen at Mass approaching the Real Presence (in which they fervently believe) in attire they would not dare wear to a job interview. Some take meals in the dining hall without the slightest regard for manners or the effect their loud and crude behavior may be having on others; these very others whom they believe to be their brothers and sisters in Christ, to whom sincere respect and consideration is always due. Some men students, while accepting the Church’s teaching that a woman, far from being an instrument of their pleasure, is rather a gift from God before whom they ought to display reverent gratitude, nevertheless engage in vulgar and sarcastic speech. Some women students, knowing the high and sublime calling of Christian purity, will nevertheless dress provocatively, in a manner almost guaranteed to be an occasion of sin to their brothers in Christ.

Culture, in the broad sense of a way of life, is a critically important aspect of any society. For Christians, it reinforces (or inhibits) proper attitudes of the heart and mind; it affects others, either commanding respect or inciting scorn; and it is often the only witness of our Faith to much of the world. Christian culture itself teaches much about the Faith, and encourages its adherence and practice.

The military is an example of how culture is used to instill needed attitudes and norms of behavior. The salute, the snapping to attention in front of superior officers, the strict dress code, all reinforce the essentials of the command structure, the discipline and the order, without which an effective fighting force could not be achieved. Of course, for those who do not believe in a military—those, for example, whose world view is a radical egalitarianism—the military culture is as much of an anachronism as Victorian manners. Yet for those who understand the Catholic vision, with its recognition of hierarchies, a culture which reinforces obedience and discipline is hardly foreign. Indeed, it has been a mainstay of religious orders for centuries.

The point is not to suggest that Franciscan University implement a dress code, or any other form of mandated behavior. It is to encourage those who have accepted discipleship in Christ, often deeply, to learn how to adjust their general behavior to fit to their convictions. It is to propose that being a Christian is not just a matter of private profession or personal rectitude, but of taking responsibility to influence the wider culture.

St. Louis, King of France, inwardly wore a hair shirt for self mortification. Outwardly he wore splendid clothing, not for his own gratification, but because it was fitting for his office; because his subjects deserved to see grandeur in their king. Do not our friends appreciate seeing us dress neatly and fittingly for the occasion? Is it not a mark of respect for them?

Up until the 1960’s, students at Princeton University stood up when their professors entered the class. It is no doubt appropriate that they no longer do so. Most contemporary students do not believe that their teachers have a sacred duty to instruct them in knowledge of what is objectively real and good. Indeed, the teachers themselves no longer believe this. Yet what of the professors here who students know have deep wisdom to impart to them; professors whom students know to have sacrificed much in order to fulfill a calling? What is the fitting response to them in class? If not to stand as a sign of respect and gratitude, surely it is not to slouch, wear a hat (often backward), chew gum and generally evince a kind of indifference to the whole experience of education.

The film “Sense and Sensibility” is surprisingly popular. Perhaps in part it is nostalgia for a culture that nourished a way of life and values long lost in 1990’s America. Certainly that culture more closely meshed with the truths taught at Franciscan University than does our own. Men and women bowed to one another. Was it not fitting to do so? If we believe that each person we meet is immortal, individually and lovingly crafted by God Almighty, bearing within themselves a spark of the Divine, surely some outward sign of this belief is called for; if not a bow then perhaps a combing of the hair, a washing of the face, a removal of the hat.

Similarly, we know that masculinity and femininity are not mere evolutionary accidents or “gender choices,” but rather have been established from the very heart of God, signifying the complementarity even of the Trinity. Should this not be expressed in dress and manners? It need not mean women wearing full length dresses or men dressing in white tie for dinner; there is room to adapt elements of modern American culture, much as the Christian holidays were often adaptations of Pagan festivals.

What ought to be rejected is, for instance, attire or jewelry traditionally worn by the opposite sex, which is inspired by the modern age’s drift toward androgyny.

What is to be done? I should hope that mere awareness of the incongruity between personal piety and a “grunge” culture on campus would effect some change. Perhaps it is for some a matter of overcoming a fear of being a “prude” or “old-fashioned.” Surely it is part of our responsibility as Christians not only to act virtuously, but even to radiate virtue; to proclaim it as good even if we often fail at it.

When the University of Kansas had its famed Integrated Humanities Program, its great books academic program was augmented by such extras as a formal waltz, calligraphy lessons, poetry recitation and a country fair. On our Austrian campus, the staff organize a folk-dance at the end of each semester, in which the ladies dress in dirndls and the men in traditional Austrian dress. How much more compatible with the depth and beauty of the Christian vision than the “Chill on the Hill”!

These are but tokens, yet they are a beginning. Who knows what joys there are in store for those who learn to dress, speak and play in a manner fully consonant with their inner Christian convictions. The Holy Father charges us to form a “civilization of love.” Let us deepen our response to his prophetic call with a way of life that will express that love in all that we say and do.

Mr. Healy is a former maritime lawyer, who served several years on the board of trustees and is now Vice President for University Relations at FUS. He is also a member of both the orders of the Teutonic Knights and the Knights of Malta. And, not least among his many notable accomplishments, he is the father of four remarkable children, including Concourse Editor-in-chief, Kathleen van Schaijik.