Fr John Bartunek Defends His Doctoral Thesis in Theology
Fr John Bartunek Defends His Doctoral Thesis in Theology

In an interview, Fr John explains how reading Christopher Dawson can help us to understand the Church’s social doctrine in a new light.

Rome, Italy. June 28, 2010. Last Monday, June 21st, Fr John Bartunek defended his doctoral thesis in theology from the Pontifical Regina Apostolorum College in Rome.  In a crowded room, Fr John presented his research and fielded questions from Fr Michael Ryan, LC, Fr Thomas Williams, LC, and Prof. Russell Hittinger, who asked about specific points of his doctoral thesis while also highlighting the achievements of his work. Prof. Hittinger even proposed sending a copy of Fr John’s work to the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences for its thorough research and novelty of topic.

Fr John’s thesis focused on Christopher Dawson’s contribution to our understanding of the Church’s social doctrine. Christopher Dawson (1889-1970) was an English scholar and convert to Catholicism whose writings underscored Christianity’s powerful impact on the shaping of Western culture. He is considered to be one of the most important Catholic historians of the 20th century.

In the following interview, Br Thomas Flynn, LC, asks Fr John to expand on how he came to choose his topic and how Christopher Dawson can enrich our understanding of the Church’s social doctrine.

Q: Fr John, what was the topic of your doctoral research?  Why you think it is important for society today?

The dissertation’s title is: “Banishing God: Culture, Globalization, and Secularization in the Thought of Christopher Dawson.”  Basically, my research consisted of trying to answer the question: “What light can Christopher Dawson’s understanding of culture shed on Catholic social teaching?”  I wanted to study in depth Dawson’s thought, and then reread   

papal social teaching in light of his insights, just to see what would happen.  I kind of created a Dawsonian lens through which I took a fresh look at what the popes of the last three hundred years have said about how we should order society in order to promote and protect justice and human dignity. The topic itself is not earth-shatteringly important, I don’t think. The goal of the dissertation was very humble – I wasn’t trying to solve all the problems of the world. But I do think that Dawson’s thought enriches the Church’s ongoing discussion about social justice, and that discussion is, clearly, of great importance.

Q: What moved you to choose Christopher Dawson for your doctorate in theology?

I had run into his writings tangentially for years.  The quality of his historical and culture analyses was far superior to any other culture historian I had run into.  So I had a desire to go deeper.  On the other hand, I was somewhat frustrated with the almost exclusively philosophical/theological language with which Catholic social teaching is usually communicated.  My hope was that Dawson could arm us with a broader vocabulary, so that we could better share our treasures with secular thinkers who are working on some of the same problems.

Q: In doing your research, you mentioned that you found articles written by Christopher Dawson that were unknown to the public.  Can you explain how you discovered them?

Dawson’s last intellectual endeavor consisted of being the first occupant of the Chauncey Stillman Chair of Roman Catholic Studies at Harvard University.  During his years there, he dedicated his lectures to Church History.  His hope was that a deeper look at the history of the Church would help foster reunion among the many Christian denominations.  Two series of these lectures have been published in book form: The Founding of Christendom, which covers Pentecost up to the Reformation, and The Dividing of Christendom, which covers the Reformation up to the French Revolution.  The third series of lectures covers the modern period, from the French Revolution up to the Second Vatican Council.  Dawson was waiting to see what the Council said before publishing the third volume.  Unfortunately, he had a series of strokes before the Council finished, and the project ground to a halt.  But the lectures are still filed away in the Harvard archives, along with one or two other pieces that have never been published.

Q: You wrote about the ideas of Christopher Dawson in view of theology, but wasn’t he a sociologist?  Is it fitting to judge his ideas as a theologian?

Catholic social teaching is a branch of moral theology.  The subject of social teaching is human society, and how to organize it in accordance with the authentic common good.  As a branch of theology, it reflects on social issues from the perspective of what God has revealed to us in Christ. Sociology has the same material subject – human society, but it takes a different perspective.  It tries to understand the structure, the DNA, so to speak, of human society.  Good sociology, therefore, helps us pursue good government just as good biology helps us pursue good medicine.  And since social teaching is interested in good government, there is an obvious overlap. 

Q: What advice would Christopher Dawson give us today, in a society where cultural borders are diminishing due to globalization?

It would depend on whom he were talking to.  If he were talking to Regnum Christi members, I have absolutely no doubt that he would say, energetically: “Keep going! Live you calling to the full! This is what the Church and the world needs most!”  Dawson identified secularization as the biggest threat to the common good.  He hoped for a renewal of Christian culture, which would occur, he thought, through revitalizing Christian education.  But he never understood education in the narrow sense of what happens in classrooms.  Rather, he understood education as inculturation, as the passing on of a vibrant way of life.  The new movements, from a Dawsonian perspective, are crucibles of cultural renewal precisely because they help individuals and families recover that vibrancy in their Christian living.

Thank you Fr John, and congratulations!

I recently discovered Christopher Dawson and have been reading his book Dynamics of World History for the last few weeks. So far I really enjoy what he has to say and look forward to reading more of his books. He seems to be one of the few historians that I have ever read or heard of that makes religion such an important part of his ideas and how he sees culture. This guy is right up my ally.

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