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UC establishing chair of Catholic studies

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Thursday, August 20, 2009

By David Eck

CATHEDRAL DEANERY — The University of Cincinnati could be offering elective courses in Catholicism by next fall under a newly established chair of Catholic studies.

The university recently received a $2 million gift from the Ruth J. and Robert A. Conway Foundation to endow the chair.

Franciscan Father Al Hirt, pastor of St. Monica-St. George Newman Center, said the chair will provide opportunities for students to take an elective in Catholic studies and will bring the Catholic perspective into the ecumenical dialogue within the university.

“My primary interest was that so many Catholic students come here to the university that don’t necessarily have a very strong foundation in their faith,” said Father Hirt. “In the course of their four or five years here they will be able to take an elective in [such areas as] Catholic history [or] Catholic world art.”

Students pass the Tangeman University Center on the University of Cincinnati campus. (Courtesy photo)

Father Hirt, whose parish serves as campus ministry for UC, said Catholic studies chairs have been established at other state schools, and he worked to get one at UC. He received an endorsement from Cincinnati Archbishop Daniel E. Pilarczyk and went to university officials.

“I figured there’s no sense in approaching the university if I don’t have support from the archbishop,” Father Hirt said. “You’ve got to have that broader Catholic support for an endeavor like this.”

With the Conway Foundation gift, university officials are able to move forward on the project.

“The Conways’ gift gives the opportunity to provide students with academic courses that will promote cultural understanding among various religious backgrounds,” said UC Arts and Sciences Dean Valerie Hardcastle. “In our ever shrinking world, our students will need to understand and respect people from different cultures and religious backgrounds if they are to work collaboratively in moving our world forward.”

At the University of Toledo, the Thomas and Margaret Murray and James J. Bacik Chair in Catholic Studies began as a visiting professorship in the mid-1990s, said Richard R. Gaillardetz, Murray/Bacik professor of Catholic studies, and was permanently endowed in 2001.

“We currently have approximately 25 students majoring in religious studies,” Gaillardetz wrote in an email. “Our religious studies major requires that students take introductory courses in religious studies and the philosophy of religion.”

“They then must take four courses that explore the diverse world religions, east and west,” he wrote. “Then, if students wish, they can develop a concentration in one of two religious traditions, Christianity or Islam (we also have an endowed chair in Islam), or in the history of religion in America.”

The Conways anticipate their gift to UC will initiate local and global discussion on a range of disciplines such as history, art, literature, political science and others.

“These topics are all very much a part of the church,” Robert Conway said. “All of these things make for a fascinating curriculum, both for those who stay abreast of it and those who haven’t been educated in the faith.” Students have shown interest in a Catholic studies chair at UC, Father Hirt said.

“What we find in campus ministry [that is] sometimes difficult to do is to provide the intellectual piece.  At least now we know we can advertise this strongly and encourage our students to take some of these classes while they’re here at UC,” Father Hirt said. “It just makes our ministry here potentially more complete than we’ve been able to do in the past.”

David Eck can be reached at [email protected].

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