Inside USD

Scholar Leads Dialogue on Catholic Thought, Culture

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

At a recent orientation for the University of San Diego’s newest faculty members, Professor Gerard Mannion reflected on what it means to be a Catholic university.

As a tongue-in-cheek explanation of “what not to expect” at USD, one of his PowerPoint slides showed the British comedy troupe Monty Python in the red clerical attire of the Spanish Inquisition in a scene from a series of popular sketches that included the phrase “Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!”

Switching gears, Mannion posed a serious question: “Who is responsible for the Catholic mission and identity of the university?” The next slide, a photo of the new faculty members themselves, provided the answer.

As the new director of USD’s Center for Catholic Thought and Culture, Mannion is responsible for facilitating an ongoing dialogue about Catholicism, not only with faculty but also staff, students and the greater San Diego community. In September he took over from Professor Maria Pascuzzi who is credited with establishing the center and leading it for the last two years.

The center’s self-declared purpose is to root the university’s academic mission firmly within the Catholic tradition.

“I think what we’re trying to do is make connections with people, to bring people into conversation with one another, into cooperation with one another,” said Mannion, an internationally known scholar who earned a master’s and his doctorate at New College, Oxford University in the United Kingdom.

As its name implies, the center’s offerings include weighty examinations of Catholic thought on complex issues of the day, as well as programs that highlight Catholic cultural contributions and the Church’s engagement with contemporary culture.

The center sponsors lectures, workshops and conferences that are presented by visiting experts and USD faculty members. Recent examples included programs about the need for a collective response to climate change and the ethical dilemmas posed  by new genetic therapies.

In terms of cultural programming, Mannion pointed to the university’s annual “Lessons and Carols” service as a prime example. The meditative service, which combines Scripture and song, is held on two separate nights each Advent season in a packed Founders Chapel. The 2010 services will take place on Dec. 3 at 7:30 p.m. and Dec. 5 at 2 p.m.

Noting that “the canvas is fairly broad and wide-ranging” in terms of potential programs, Mannion said he welcomes input on what issues the center should address. Raising awareness of Catholic social teaching will certainly be one of the center’s focuses.

Irish by nationality, Mannion was born and raised in the United Kingdom. A scholar with a long list of published works, he has taught at such prestigious institutions as the University of Leeds, the Catholic University of Leuven and the University of Tubingen. He accepted the “unusual and fairly unique position” at USD because it offered opportunities for both administrative duties and, beginning next semester, classroom instruction.

Mannion stresses that the center does not seek “to inflict Catholicism on people” or “browbeat” them into accepting Catholic doctrine. In fact, he said, it reaches out to non-Catholic and non-religious segments of the USD community, assuring them that they, too, can “sign up to the ethos and values of the institution,” without forsaking their own identity.

“Catholicity is with a big ‘c’ and a small ‘c’ at one and the same time,” he said, referring to the fact that the word “catholic” means universal. ”We want to be reaching out to everyone that we can.”

— Denis Grasska ‘03

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