FUS distance ed: a gift to the Church: A current student’s perspective

by Richard W. May

As a student in the FUS Distance Education program, which I began with the purpose of completing an MA in theology, I would like to give my perspective on the discussion begun by professors Miletic and Crosby in the last issue of the Concourse. Dr. Crosby argues that all FUS degrees ought to require some residency in Steubenville. Such a requirement would probably prevent me from completing my degree. It would also significantly reduce the number of potential DE applicants at a time when the Church urgently needs better teachers.

Let me begin by explaining my own situation, which I think is typical of DE students. My class time is limited by a full-time engineering position which consumes 10 hours of my time a day, besides time for study, prayer, daily Mass, family life and Church activities at my parish. I began my graduate studies at the only local Catholic university offering MA degrees in theology, but found the curriculum there to be horribly deficient and imbalanced, steeped in transcendental Thomism, moral revisionism, and dogmatic relativism. It had no required Mariology; Biblical studies were solely from the perspective of the historical critical method. And some of the required classes were not offered in the evening sessions, making it difficult for me to work them into my schedule.

The DE program at FUS offers me—and many other like me—an opportunity to obtain good theology without having to drop other responsibilities. A residency requirement would make it impossible. Even a minimal requirement of one three-week summer course would be too much for many prospective students whose jobs allow only two weeks vacation time per year.

The advantages of residency were outlined in detail by Dr. Crosby: It establishes a higher quality learning environment which includes the intellectual and spiritual formation of the students, beyond a mere transmission of information, through a personalistic, “face to face” approach to learning. But do the advantages outweigh the disadvantages of insisting on it for everyone? And are the benefits of “face to face” contact totally absent in DE?

How many people in England met Winston Churchill face to face during the war years? Few. Yet how many absorbed something of his resolve and courage conveyed through his radio broadcasts? The whole nation. What motivated them? Was it his statistical data on casualties or downed aircraft? Not at all! As Dr. Crosby noted, force of character, personality and witness of one’s life do teach more convincingly, but this witness, as well as a balanced judgment in teaching, writing, and practice, can still be conveyed without face to face contact.

St. Thomas would say that teaching is accomplished as the teacher actualizes the potential of the student in such a way that the student, as the one that does the knowing, comes to an active knowledge. Can this “actualization” be accomplished through audio tapes of the same class setting and a directed set of published materials and handouts? In my experience, Yes! Besides the high quality of Franciscan University’s DE courses themselves, one cannot discount the demonstrated personal commitment of the FUS faculty in supplementing those courses. I can attest to it. My instructors have always been ready to assist and respond to my needs—not just through e-mail notes, but also hand-written letters and phone calls. I have gotten more personal attention in the FUS DE program than I got in other college courses I have taken. The quality of FUS DE is extraordinary; the learning process is not compromised.

Furthermore, I think there is more practical value to taped courses than Dr. Crosby’s article makes it seem. MA students with contact experience know the “sights and sounds” of a classroom; we can sense what the instructor wishes to convey beyond raw data; inflections and emphasis are heard; something of his or her person does comes through. You can still read the heart. If I took Dr. Crosby’s DE class, I could hear his “probing questions” to other students, and my mind could form a response as it would in the classroom, even if I could not respond verbally. The dialogue could take place later, by mail or phone, which is sometimes an advantage, since one has time to think things out, to do some research, formulate an opinion. The feedback I’ve gotten from FUS professors has been challenging.

In my “home classroom” textbooks, Church documents and other reference materials are within easy reach. I can stop the tape and review a point I missed or ponder an insight. My notes after a class are neat and legible the first time through because I can vary the tape speed. I am not as fatigued, because I did not have to cross town during rush hour after a 10 hour day, attend class from 7-10 p.m., return at 11, retire at midnight, and then leave for work at 6:00 a.m. the next day. My class time is quality time. I can think clearly, be more receptive and productive!

I agree with Dr. Crosby’s point about the total formation of the person that takes place on campus, but I think the need for this sort of intense personal formation differs among students. Students right out of high school might need to attend classes on campus. Maybe DE degrees are for graduate students only. There is a spirituality at FUS that should be part of the normal academic process when at all possible. The question is, do you impose a residency requirement on, for example, a 45 year old man with 5 kids and a full time job in Milford Utah, who has experienced an authentic conversion, a deepening of his faith, and, through prayer, has discerned a calling to teach? We can always deepen our spiritual lives, but, personally, I have already been basically “formed”—that’s why I’m at FUS.

A residency requirement will prohibit many potential students from taking a full DE degree program at a time when the Church is in desperate need of teachers. Just as we need more holy priests, not just more priests, we also need more good teachers, not just more teachers. We need people who will teach what the Church teaches, not what is popular or what one’s personal agenda dictates. Franciscan University stands as a contradiction to the subjective, erroneous, experiential theology prevalent in Catholic education today. The FUS faculty is a great gift to the Church. What they have to offer needs to be disseminated—to those who have been called upon to serve the Church. There is a spiritual battle in progress; we need to regain the offensive and stock our CAD programs and parishes with good people who will teach the truth. Credentials alone don’t make good teachers, but unfortunately you usually have to have them to teach. You need the degree.

While they may not trump every other concern, pastoral concerns in this matter are still very important, because the need is so great. For example, many DREs in my area are trained at the local seminary—the same seminary from which one instructor just published an article proposing that it is acceptable for Catholics to believe that the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist is merely symbolic. No surprise that these teachings appear in our parishes. One local DRE recently proposed reincarnation as a viable doctrine. Our teachers need to be retrained! But by whom? Our seminary instructors? Today’s Catholics need to grow in understanding of the faith. But how? Through our parish-DRE run programs? We need a resource that teaches truth—a place to turn to grow in the faith for personal enrichment, while meeting the reality of everyday family and job commitments. But where? Our only immediate answer is in a DE program that offers no encumbrance to those who must also be true to one’s vocation and family.

The vast majority of DE students, particularly those with families and jobs, are not in it just to get by. There is a unique motivation and receptivity at work in a DE student that often exceeds that of a resident student. They have been called; they are on the battlefield! Lay people deserve an opportunity to serve the Church, to assist her in her hour of sorrow, to be there for her in her hour of crucifixion.

While Cardinal Newman stressed the value of residency, he also encouraged us to build our lives on God given dogmatic foundations, on some foundational truths. He stated: “Surely what the Catholic Church is crying out for is . . . a reinvigoration of dogmatic religion with its consequences in spiritual revival . . . in a world where so many people have lost their bearings and are hungering for religion.” Newman also spoke about the role of grace and took for granted that it is at work in all, leading us to faith, and that the personal argument that leads us to faith is justified in reason. We must not overlook the action of the Holy Spirit at FUS, an institution that is inhabited by the Spirit of Grace, obedient and in concert with the mission of the Church, and that this same Spirit has the capacity to spill over into a properly designed DE program that is not an orphan.

So strongly do I believe in FUS distance education, that I think it not only benefits the students, but FUS as a whole. For the reasons cited by Dr. Miletic, DE clearly seems in concert with the mission statement of the University. Furthermore, DE is likely to increase on-campus enrollment at FUS, because, through DE, word about the University will get out. The truth is attractive. I feel part of this exciting mission. I love this place!

In conclusion, it would be great to have the contact time—to mingle with other FUS students, to pray in the Chapel, to walk the campus. Most DE students like myself would definitely prefer full-time enrollment, but we have no choice. The state of the Catholic education today calls for a realistic and economical way for us to receive sound theology. Requiring residency, even for two classes, would defeat the purpose of DE; while a completely external degree program from FUS would make it possible for a substantial number of well-informed and qualified lay people to qualify themselves to assume positions of authority in diocesan programs across the country. This is a different need, and one which is served through the same FUS degree program. We have to look for every means we can to reach people who are in this situation. DE is a way, and we can work toward improving and enhancing the program in years to come. Therein lies the challenge.

Rich May lives with his family in Texas.