How do Academicians Become Holier? Renewing Hagiography for the Professional Ethicist

In New Wine, New Wineskins, Christopher Steck, SJ has an article entitled “Saintly Voyeurism: A Methodological Necessity for the Christian Ethicist?” In this essay, Steck notes the lack of attention to the personal qualities and character of the professional ethicist, and argues that contemporary Catholic moral theology should incorporate of his proposed method of “saintly voyeurism” into moral education. “Saintly voyeurism” according to Steck is a return to concrete models of Christian holiness as found in the stories of the saints in order to facilitate a neglected goal for the moral practitioner, namely, their own holiness.

Steck’s concern is that contemporary moral theologians are not sufficiently rooted in and transformed by the Christian story. On an institutional level, Steck complains that that there is insufficient support both from the church and the academy to support the development of catholic ethicists own development of Christian disciples as they practice their trade. He writes,

Achieving such a vision [of Christian discipleship for the professional ethicist] is complicated in the academic culture in which Catholic ethicists practice their trade. That culture is given shape by a constellation of values whose form does not align well with that of the field of Christian ethics, especially insofar as it is concerned with questions of what constitutes the holy life. This misalignment, I argue, is due in part to the dominance of rationalistic and acutely critical modes of contemporary research, along with a lack of concern for the personal moral character of the one engaging in research. . . More though needs to be given too how Catholic moral theologians can ‘form’ themselves into Christian ethicists and address issues of Christian discipleship and the holy life.

In essence, Steck’s concern is that not enough attention is being directed towards making ethicists more ethical, and within a Christian context, more holy. Instead, the virtues of the professional ethicists encouraged in the academy are the virtues which Steck identifies with scientific rationalism. They are

• Agorism: the virtue of argumentation and debate, or the “need to position one’s work in opposition to someone else’s and disprove others’ arguments in order to be original, [to] make a contribution and demonstrate intellectual ability” (28).

• Circumscription: the inclination against universalist or comprehensive claims

• Unmaking: a kind of hermeneutic of suspicion or “belief that truth claims conceal subtle and pernicious advancements of self-interest (whether personal, group, social, or institutional) and unconscious desires of power” (28-9).

Such critique-oriented rationalistic virtues have their advantages in the academy and particularly for scholarly research, but Steck worries that such virtues are not in themselves sufficient for the development of the scholar, and particularly the Catholic ethicist. That is, such virtues encourage intellectual competency but neglect other fundamental parts of the academician’s character. As Steck puts it, “Our ends [as scholars] are not just intellectual ones; they have to do with what brings us emotional well-being, psychological peach, and deep satisfaction about a life lived well” (30).

What we need in the academy, argues Steck, are spiritual practices that nurture a more comprehensive vision of the Christian life for the professional Catholic ethicist. That is, the Catholic academy needs institutionalized ways of encouraging Christian discipleship and Christian holiness among its professional ethicists.

What Steck recommends is a sort of “saintly voyeurism,” or as he describes it, “ethical reflection on the ordinary acts of a holy existence to better understand the demands of Christian discipleship” (36). Concretely, this takes the form of a kind of revised hagiography, a study of the lives and actions of the saints with an eye toward discerning which actions are most consonant with a saintly life. He quotes Richard McCormick who says “that the meaning of Christian discipleship is best gathered from the lives of the saints” (37):

Elizabeth of Hungary’s disobedience of her husband’s wishes in order to serve the poor, Elizabeth Ann Seton’s engagement with religious antagonism of her time, and Ignatius of Loyola’s apostolic choice to minister not only to the poor but to the powerful represent choices that raise interesting ethical issues for those wishing to better understand the saintly life.

Steck does not recommend an exact imitation of the saints, but rather a “casuistry at a distance,” that is, an observation of what sort of actions might be considered saintly in a given situation in order to train the ethicist’s own vision of holiness. This moral tutoring through hagiography can occur in five ways, according to Steck:

1. It can confirm for the ethicist the viability of the Christian vision, and strengthen the ethicist’s commitment to living as a Christian disciple even in the face of great adversity
2. Studying the lives of the saints can reemphasize the theological dimension of the Christian life by emphasizing such features as surrender, obedience, participation in the paschal mystery, and trust in the abiding power of love
3. The saints can offer new paradigms for how Christian discipleship can be lived out in changing historical situations
4. The lives of the saints can offer a context for examining how holiness can break through the trial and limitations of creaturely existence.
5. Finally, the saints challenge us always to respond to the situations we find ourselves in, rather than passively accepting the lot we are given. The saints give us options for our own lives for how to live out a life of holiness.

Steck concludes:

Christian moral theology is not simply a deductive or rationalistic science. It requires that its practitioner have a well-formed heart that is attuned to the Gospel and the values at its core. In an ideal world, Catholic moral theologians would be saints and scholars. However, Catholic ethicists now perform their trade in a context that often does not sustain the kind of Gospel vision associated with a saintly existence. The indifference of the academy toward traditional virtues and the loss of preconciliar spiritual practices within Catholicism leave Catholic moralists more susceptible than moralists of an earlier generation to an almost exclusively secular and narrowly rationalistic formation. . . . Scriptural mediation, prayer, devotional practices, and liturgical participation are just some of the practices that form the Christian into a disciple. But examining the lives of the saints, ordinary people achieving great moral character, is one practice that allows ethicists to practice their art—that is, scholarly reflection on human action—and thus represents a distinctive resource for moralists.

I think Steck is right on the money. I would recommend two developments to his argument. First, I think we need to accept the fact that much of the lives of the saints can be psychologized in today’s rationalistic environment, but that need not deter us from recognizing moments of great holiness or the fact that God has worked throughout history through very flawed individuals. My pet example is St. Catherine of Sienna who allegedly went seven years eating nothing but the Eucharist and occasionally some bitter herbs. Clearly, this part of her life seems psychologically unsound, and for good reason. However, the important point to be gleaned from a study of her life is that God inspired her to do great feats of holiness requiring great courage, like caring for victims of the plague and confronting the pope concerning matters of politics, despite the fact that she was a flawed, psychologically fragile and vulnerable individual. Clearly, a great lesson for us all.

Second, I would encourage Catholics to look beyond the boundaries of Catholicism to identify both historical and contemporary saints that were not necessarily a part of the Catholic faith. Due largely to my husband’s influence, I consider the Christian singer Rich Mullins a great saint. Mullins, inspired by the Christian message and anxious to live a life of Christian witness, gave his profits from his singing career to charity, and dedicated large portions of his life to charitable activities not associated at all with his career, like moving to a Native American reservation to teach the children there about music. When I listen to Rich Mullin’s music, I cannot help but be inspired by the vision of the Christian life he encourages both through his music and the story of his life. Clearly, Rich Mullins can be considered a contemporary saint for Catholics today.

I’m interested for all the professionals or soon-to-be professionals reading this post: (1) what role do the lives of the saints play in your own professional and personal life, and (2) what ways institutionally can you think of that you are encouraged to live a life of holiness within your profession, rather than a life of pure academic achievement?


3 comments so far

  1. Michael Rubin on


    I think you write in too much of an academic style for a blog, but let me try to still reply to this very well-written blog.

    Should professors try to focus on a holy life within their academic work or should they focus on academic achievement?

    When I took Biology, my professor would say things in class to “prove” that evolution does not exist. I think that people of faith should understand that you can still be strongly religious and still feel that maybe a few parts of the Bible and Torah were written by men.

    I believe strongly in God. At the same time, I believe in evolution. I don’t believe that Jonah lived in a whale for three days.

    I think that the real question is can academics, even scientists, question certain aspects of religion and still be men and women of faith. I say yes.

  2. julie on

    I would agree with the previous post that this is quite a formal academic writing style for a blog, however, the content is fascinating.

    My comment may seem VERY farfetched, but I am a person who knows my Gospel well, not expert, but well…have lived in a closed-culture muslim country for nearly 4 years where the Christain gospel was “allowed and tolerated” in a certain set of locations under high risk…the similarities to Islam being unmistakenly examined as well.

    Understanding what i know of these religions as well as Catholicism, it has been a growing opinion of mine that no matter what scholars we are discussing, not matter which religious tenets we are discussing, no matter which academic setting we are employing for relishious comparisons, no matter which expert theologians and religious experts we should quote or cite….it is all just ‘busy work’.

    Under the Christian Gospel itself, we are instructed not to question, not to doubt, not to worry ourselves with understanding motive and intent….so why do we?

    Everything that is written and scribed from even the earliest of days of our existence, EVERYTHING is man-made, man-inspired and Earthly. We, as a global human society, have NEVER been able to substantiate significant and undisputed proof otherwise.

    When this is the case, over the course of our entire existence – why can we not see that, even according to scripture, everything we do is ALL just busy-work.

    Humanistically speaking, the more academic questions we ask, the more questions we create with no substantiations…just busy work. Something to do until we expire for the next generation to take over.

  3. everydaythomist on

    Julie (and Michael),
    Please forgive the somewhat dense and formal style of this blog, and thank you for commenting nonetheless.

    Julie, I would have to disagree that questions on theology are just busy work. I am reading Harold McGee’s encyclopedia on cooking and food lore right now, which I got for Christmas twice (!) and his thesis is that a little knowledge of science significantly enhances one’s ability to cook and one’s pleasure in eating. I think a little knowledge of divine science greatly enhances our ability to worship and serve God on this earth and to flourish in the way that God means for human beings to flourish.

    Scripture is actually not all that clear about God’s will, who Jesus was, who Jesus is for us now, what the role of the Holy Spirit is, and how human beings are supposed to behave in light of our own contemporary circumstances. Scripture provides a foundation and boundaries, but when it comes to the details, we must use reason, inspired by the divine gift of faith. This is where theology comes in. Reason allows us to penetrate ever deeper the ultimately impenetrable mystery of the Word of God, not so that we can grasp or contain or possess God, but so that we may ever enter deeper and deeper into a relationship with Him.

    From a humanist perspective, divine science may seem superfluous, but I believe that the ultimate questions like why we exist and what we are supposed to do with our existence once we have it cannot be answered by philosophy or the natural sciences alone–we need our intellects to be inspired by faith, and our wills by hope and by charity. We aren’t spinning our wheels when we ask such questions, or creating jobs for obtuse thinkers like myself. I believe, I am convinced that when we ask such questions, we are doing what God wants us to do. Gut wants us to question God like Job does, to beseech the LORD with “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” in times of trial, to trace the works of His fingers like the psalmists do, and to praise and worship Him in heart, mind, and soul. This is a total endeavor–of our emotions, our bodies, and our reason. This is one reason this blog is named the way it is–this is what Thomas Aquinas believed.

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