Yesterday I celebrated a funeral Mass for lady who was 95 years old. Her family shared with me a talk that she had prepared in 1974 as part of her involvement with the Cursillo movement. It was on the Church as the people of God. It was a very good talk: theologically sophisticated but direct and simple. It made me think well of the Cursillo movement of that time that provided such robust intellectual formation. The night before at her wake, we prayed the rosary together at the funeral home. I told one of her sons who is a friend of mine that I had not led a rosary at a funeral home with such strong participation since I was pastor in McEwen, an Irish enclave in rural Middle Tennessee. The recitation of the rosary at the funeral home embodied what her talk described: an experience of a culture of communion. It bonded all together in common prayer, even those who had been "trapped" in the room when we started and stood there mute throughout.
I have been reflecting on the experiences this semester with the Vanderbilt administration. What we have is a clash of cultures. That is why it really can't work out. The administration is beginning with a premise of radical individual autonomy. It holds that everyone should be able to be whatever he chooses to be. The protection of individual autonomy is the ultimate value. In this light the non-discrimination or all-comers or whatever policy makes perfect sense. And opposition to it is down right evil. At the funeral home, for example, the concern would have been on those who were uncomfortable praying the rosary. They would feel excluded and so that element of communion would have to be abandoned.
The culture of communion is being driven off the stage at Vanderbilt. The only groups that will be tolerated are those with a weak identity. But this is far from unique to Vanderbilt. It is true everywhere, even in the Church. The rosary is one of those powerfully bonding elements of Catholic culture, but I could tell that there was a lot of discomfort with Catholic faith and practice at the Mass, even in that overwhelmingly Catholic crowd. Here at Vanderbilt, one of the religious groups' leadership wrote that they are comfortable with the policy because their group seeks to promote open questioning. I think that is great, and the policy definitely allows for such groups. But just do not dare to offer answers! Because, you see, answers are exclusionary. Some are right and some are wrong.
I suggest that a culture of radical individual autonomy like that being promoted at Vanderbilt is really not a culture at all but a denial and rejection of culture. Culture makes demands on individuals, whether through cultivation or through cult. I had a wonderful experience of culture at Vanderbilt this spring at the performance of Hayden's Lord Nelson Mass. A common cult and the cultivation of common talents resulted in something so much greater than any individual act of a spontaneous genius. You know, academics know that radical individual autonomy is a cultural dead end. They would not tolerate it for a moment in their disciplines. The critical apparatus has to be there or the peer reviewed experiments. But when it comes to the far more important area of the art of living, they balk. What a loss of culture.