2024 Convocation of the College of Fellows: A Student Reflection

The DSPT College of Fellows convened for the first time in four years on February 2-4, 2024, after a pandemic that began in 2020 was followed by torrential rain that damaged parts of campus last year.

The title of this year’s much-awaited return was "The Church in the Modern World... And in these times” and consisted of a sustained reflection on the Second Vatican Council’s 1965 Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et spes. The title of the event might seem redundant... aren’t these times—our times—modern? But the title actually points to a very meaningful distinction.

Scholars of various disciplines have long noted a shift from what they call modernism to postmodernism. Such a distinction, although put in different terms, was a prominent feature in the day’s discussions.

Modernism, as the term is used here, was a society-wide mindset (or “narrative”) of optimism and progress. Humanity could be endlessly assisted by the advancement of science and technology. The burdens of poverty, disease, and war were expected to soon be lifted. While it would be unfair to characterize Gaudium et spes as so naive, there is an unmistakable streak of optimism in the document—the world, in fraternal cooperation with the Church, was headed towards a brighter future.

Postmodernism, on the other hand, is essentially a mindset which calls other such “narratives” into question. It has become obvious today that technological advancement isn’t always for our own good; the sorrows of poverty, disease, and war are still very much with us; and, frankly, the future doesn't always look brighter. And so the Fellows and other members of the DSPT community asked, “What do we make of the document today?”

I think it is a sign of healthy intellectual life when such discussions feature both continuity and critique. Authoritative doctrine forms the basis, and not an obstruction, of intelligent and fruitful discussion. Yet at the same time, and by the document’s own clear admission, not all of its contents are dogmatic in nature—instead, some of them consist of changeable applications of unchangeable doctrine.

And so a particular question featured prominently, “Was the document overly optimistic in its practical judgements about the future of humanity and the relationship between the world and the Church?” Answers in both directions were heard. Some shared an earlier critic’s opinion that the document would have benefitted from a greater acknowledgement of fallen humanity’s moral weakness. Others proposed that we read the document’s aspirations as a call to envision what is possible if we trustingly cooperate with Christ.

Fortunately, and in contrast to so many interactions in the world today, the conversation along these lines proceeded in a friendly and intelligible manner. We heard from multiple perspectives, most notably from those who remember the document’s promulgation, as well as those who inherited the world and Church as partly shaped by it. It was a reminder to me that, regardless of what the future holds for the Church and for the world, at present there is still a wonderful community of Catholic thought. It also reminds me of the persisting vitality of the Second Vatican Council, to whose documents we all should keep returning with a prayerful and thoughtful eye. 

Dr. Scott Roniger (center) addresses attendees of the Convocation after being inducted into the College of Fellows by Sr. Marianne Farina, CSC (left) and Fr. Michael Sweeney, OP (right). 
Photo credit (including cover photo): Sean Santos

Clay Bahl is a student at the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology and an employee of the Western Dominican Province's Advancement Office. He came to DSPT in 2019 as a part-time student, and is currently finishing the Concurrent MA (Philosophy and Theology) program.