A Catholic institution with an open mind

Aaron Spacone

To observers not familiar with Catholic theology, it may seem surprising that Villanova University would teach evolution. They might think that Villanova would scoff at the idea that the universe is 14 billion years old. They might assume that Villanova would teach a literal interpretation of the Bible.

Villanova University, however, is a place where all kinds of ideas, values and subjects are taught and discussed.

The Web site describes the University this way: “Founded in 1842 by the Friars of the Order of St. Augustine, Villanova University is a co-educational Roman Catholic institution that welcomes students of all faiths.”

This fact indicates that the University makes a serious effort to open its doors to anyone.

The fact that Villanova is a Catholic institution, however, has an influence on the curriculum.

Dr. John R. Johannes, vice president for Academic Affairs and a professor of political science, supports open discussion in the classroom.

“In the classroom, any topic is legitimate,” Johannes said. However, he notes that those topics should be relevant to the curriculum, “We wouldn’t want a biology professor teaching the Old Testament.”

As long as professors comply with those guidelines, Johannes expects that each class will go in depth on every issue that arises, no matter how controversial.

As a professor, you “couldn’t teach nursing without getting into end-of-life issues,” Johannes said. “You couldn’t teach biology without evolution. You expect to deal with those issues.”

“I’ve never been given guidelines on what to teach or not teach,” said Dr. Edward Fitzpatrick, an astronomy professor.

Cardinal Paul Poupard, head of the Pontifical Council for Culture in Vatican City, in 2005 officially advocated a mutual relationship between Catholicism and natural science. Like Villanova, Poupard supports the dialogue between scientists and the Catholic Church.

In school districts across America, however, the question is whether to teach evolution as fact or theory. Louis P. DeAngelo, who is in charge of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia’s curriculum, says he favors teaching topics such as evolution as theory rather than as fact.

Teaching a controversial issue like astronomy doesn’t bother Fitzpatrick. “Science and religion aren’t competitive,” he said. “God made a great universe.”

Fitzpatrick acknowledges that it is not his job, however, to talk about what came before the universe.

“We don’t discuss what happened before the universe,” he said. “Our brief is to talk about the science. Theologians teach theology.”

Although there are no true limits on what can be discussed in class, Academic Affairs does consider the University’s mission in determining what courses will be taught and required.

“The fact that we’re a Catholic University shapes the curriculum,” Johannes said. “We generally emphasize liberal arts: philosophy, theology and ethics.”

The core curriculum at Villanova for liberal arts students consists of two Augustine and Culture Seminars; one course each in ethics and fine arts; two courses each in foreign language, history, literature, mathematics, natural science, philosophy and theology; and three courses in social science.

With ethics, philosophy, theology, and ACS all closely intertwined, many historical figures are studied more than once. Johannes notes that philosophers such as Aristotle, Augustine and Plato, among others, are frequently taught.

“Those philosophers contribute to the subject matter in a particular way,” he said. “The faculty concluded that Augustine has something to say.”

Johannes did, however, say that the board of the College of Arts and Sciences is currently holding meetings on whether or not the curriculum should be changed because of the repetition in introductory classes.

Basic Catholicism has some influence over who speaks at lectures, what films Connelly Center shows on weekends and what plays are put on around campus.

Entertainment on campus “is out of the area of academic freedom and into the area of University discretion,” Johannes said.

He added that while Villanova has the right to control selection of campus events if they conflict with the University’s mission, the University “virtually never refuses a speaker.”

Villanova recently underwent a minor crisis when a comedian scheduled to perform at New Student Orientation overstepped his boundaries on stage.

Steve Trevino reportedly met with officials who approved of everything he outlined in his act. However, according to Villanova officials, Trevino was pulled off stage 15 minutes after his act got out of hand.

Trevino holds that he was not pulled off the stage after 15 minutes. Rather, Trevino states that he was given a note card asking him to wrap up after more than a half hour.

Trevino also contends that he never crossed the line that the Orientation staff laid out for him.

Johannes says that Villanova’s Catholic tradition forms the foundation of how things work here.

“[It] doesn’t dictate or control [the curriculum],” he said. “It gives flavor to it.”