Kenneth Westhues

Published in the UW Gazette on 24 March 2004, then on the web in August, 2004, in the Tributes section of the K. Westhues Homepage.

In the space of half a year, three long-serving members of faculty at St. Jerome’s University have died. None had yet grown old. Philosopher Floyd Centore, 64, died on August 24, 2003, a week before he was to retire. Historian Gerald Stortz, 56, died suddenly on November 23, 2003. Philosopher Gerard Campbell, 61, died on February 29, 2004.

I was not a close friend of any of these colleagues. I knew them mainly through their work. Yet for a small reason and a large one, I want to honor publicly their contributions to the cause of humane learning and to civic affairs.

The small reason is that Centore’s death during the summer break went unmentioned in the UW Daily Bulletin and UW Gazette. The oversight needs correction. Centore was a professor at St. Jerome’s and UW for 34 years. He and his wife Helen, who died on January 19, 2004, had moved from the United States to Waterloo in 1969, and spent the rest of their lives as active members of this community.

The large reason is to pay tribute to all three men as scholars who stood tall for classic Catholic intellectual traditions in a period when those traditions were devalued and ridiculed.

I mean especially Centore and Campbell. Stortz was in love with the history of Ontario and Canada, especially as lived by ordinary working people. So far as I knew him, he was Catholic in a matter-of-fact way. His Ph.D. was from Guelph, a public university. His background predisposed him to study the past of his church and people. He co-edited with Terence Murphy Creed and Culture: the Place of English-Speaking Catholics in Canadian Society 1750-1930 (McGill-Queen’s 1993). With Ken McLaughlin and Jim Wahl, he co-authored the history of his college, Enthusiasm for the Truth (St. Jerome’s 2002). Stortz was personally and professionally younger than Centore and Campbell. By the time he joined the St. Jerome’s faculty in 1985, Norm Choate was president and the college had in many respects adapted to cultural trends outside the church.

Espousing traditional Catholicism

The two philosophers were of an older Catholic generation, and they fought tooth and nail to preserve the idea of a Catholic university they had learned in their youth. Both Centore and Campbell had grown up on the far side of the 1960s watershed, when Thomism was understood to be the philosophia perennis and when moral and doctrinal absolutes were taken for granted. Both men had been formed by the Catholic Church before the Second Vatican Council of 1958-62. Centore earned his Ph.D. at St. John’s University in New York, a bastion of faith and basketball run by the Vincentian Fathers. Campbell’s Ph.D. was from Laval University, but before the Quiet Revolution had sunk in, at a time when the rector of the seminary and the rector of the university were still one and the same priest.

Because I did my high-school and undergraduate work in Catholic seminaries, I know the world-view Campbell and Centore brought with them to St. Jerome’s in the late 1960s, and maintained for the rest of their lives. The difference is that I abandoned it when I left for graduate school in a Protestant university in 1966, and began to live and work in public instead of Catholic institutional contexts. As a secular sociologist, I became in some ways an opponent of philosophers like these, in their eyes a compromiser and relativist.

Still, even as I eased myself out of the Catholic world, I continued to regard it with appreciation and respect. To this day I am deeply grateful to the traditional Catholic teachers, the nuns in elementary school and the priests later on, who cared enough about me to discipline my thinking, and who opened up for me worlds beyond my dreams. It was from them that I learned what education, liberal arts, and civilization mean. I have no doubt that these recently deceased colleagues at St. Jerome’s did that same work for thousands of students there, and they deserve respect for it.

Student comments on a website for rating professors confirm this view. Of Campbell, a 1980 winner of UW’s Distinguished Teacher Award: “It was worth coming to university for this professor and this course.” Of Centore: “Great teacher, just be prepared for a lot of writing.” Of Stortz: “One of the most fundamentally decent people I have ever met. Take as many of his classes as you possibly can.”

Catholicism under siege

When I distanced myself from Catholic philosophy and religion in the late sixties, I had no idea they would come in for such a drubbing at century’s end and in this new millennium, a drubbing beyond what they deserved.

Never did I imagine that a big write-up with photos of the tiny high-school seminary I attended in Missouri from 1958 to 1962, would one day be featured in the New York Times. Yet there it was on March 26, 2002, amidst revelations that the school’s rector in the 1970s had taken boys to bed with him in the guise of counselling, before rising to become bishop of Palm Beach, Florida. The news did the seminary in. It closed in June of 2002, a few weeks after my classmates and I travelled there to join two shattered elderly Monsignors, our great former teachers, for the fortieth anniversary of our graduation.

Nor did I imagine that the rural Missouri college run by Benedictine monks, where I did my philosophy degree from 1962 to 1966, would ever land on front pages across the continent. It did so on June 10, 2002, when an anti-Catholic madman invaded the monastery and gunned down four monks at random before taking his own life. The abbey’s school of theology has long been closed, and the college would probably also be defunct for lack of enrollment, were it not for immigration to America from countries where Catholicism still flourishes.

What I want to acknowledge is that life in North America’s Catholic institutions has been tough and torturous in recent decades — more so, I suspect, even than in other Christian institutions. Outside them, the forces of secularization have strode with ever more swagger. Within them, the battles between traditionalists and modernizers have taken a heavy toll.

From openness to squaring off

In retrospect, academic life in the first decades after the 1960s revolution was a piece of cake. In arts faculties of Catholic as of other colleges and universities, proponents of classic visions of truth made room for bearers of postmodern thought. They did this grudgingly sometimes, in the face of student uprisings, but often willingly. An open, ecumenical Geist was in the air, an ethic of live and let live.

The Geist changed and positions hardened through the 1980s. With Karol Wojtyla as pope and Joseph Ratzinger as his right-hand man, the Vatican bore down on its institutions of higher education, insisting on orthodox Catholicity. Professors squared off against one another. In some colleges, conservative priests battled liberal lay faculty. In others, it was the other way around. I have lately completed research on the conflict at St. Michael’s College, University of Toronto, where the lone Protestant theologian on staff got the worst of it. At St. Jerome’s, by contrast, traditionalists like Centore and Campbell tended to be among the underdogs.

During the 1990s, Centore deployed his agile pen in fierce defense of traditional certainties. The fourth of his eight books, Being and Becoming: a Critique of Post-Modernism, was released by Greenwood in 1991. He wrote also for local media. His op-eds in the Record lambasted the new state religion of politically correct relativism, held out for a transcendent as opposed to an immanent God, condemned Bob Rae’s socialist government, and above all insisted on disciplined thinking. Almost invariably, a piece by Centore would call forth angry letters to the editor. From Centore’s point of view, that was all to the good. In his last contribution to campus media, an essay in FAUW Forum entitled “Whatever Became of the Common Room?” (2001), Centore wrote: “In contrast to being a base for bashing people, a university is supposed to be an oasis of research and discovery, accompanied by never-ending rational discussion and debate....” He went on to suggest that “maybe some rousing fisticuffs on the floor of the senate is just what the university needs in order to convince students that there is more to the meaning of life than sitting fixated in front of a computer monitor for fourteen hours a day.”

At the time of his death, Centore was serving on the board of advisors of Our Lady Seat of Wisdom Academy, a new two-year college in Barry’s Bay, Ontario, that bills itself as “loyal to the Magisterium of the Catholic Church, dedicated to the spiritual, moral, and intellectual formation of Catholic leaders to build a culture of life and a new civilization of love.” Its website describes how faculty take an oath of fidelity not unlike those required at fundamentalist Protestant institutions, notably Trinity Western University in British Columbia. The academy is part of the continent-wide network of traditionalist Catholic schools, its credits being transferrable to Ave Maria University in Michigan and Florida, the brainchild of Domino’s Pizza magnate Tom Monaghan.

Campbell was good friends with Centore and held similar views, but wrote less. He devoted much time in later life to politics. Distressed by policy directions of the local separate school board, Campbell helped organize a slate of candidates for trustee in the 1991 election, determined to eliminate waste and secrecy and to restore traditional Catholic values in the region’s separate schools. The slate called itself Accountable Action. To the horror of liberal Catholics, Campbell and two other candidates on the reform slate were elected.

Sparks flew on the separate board. The Record ran a story in March, 1992, about Campbell’s rejection of the phrase, “gender equity,” which he said tries to erase male-female differences. “We are educating boys and girls,” he said, “we’re not educating neuters.” Campbell cautioned against assuming that the reason women were not engineers in the past is that a sexist society discouraged them. “Maybe women didn’t want to be engineers,” he said.

Predictably, all hell broke loose in letters to the Record editor. “Has this man been living on another planet?” one writer asked. “What century is this?” another wondered. Campbell’s views were called frightening, disgusting, worrisome, damaging, based on sketchy evidence and tinged with homophobia.

Conflict along similar lines continued during the six years Campbell was a separate school trustee. Yet despite how often he touched the hot buttons of the day, he was hardly the neanderthal his critics made him out to be. In 1993, he voted against a motion to require all students in separate schools to take a course in Catholic religion. “I don’t want to see that everybody has to go through this program with no variation whatsoever,” he explained.

Holding the course ‘courageously’

However far Centore’s and Campbell’s classic way of thinking diverged from today’s mainstream, they deserve much credit for having pursued it faithfully, reasonably, courageously, and cheerfully for all the years they had. More than that, both these philosophers and historian Stortz as well displayed in their academic lives a degree of intellectual humility, respect for learning, concern for students, and everyday good will from which we can all take a lesson.

Fact is, whatever the faults of scholastic philosophy, the postmodern university has turned out to be no great shakes either. There were plenty of problems with the world of canons and absolute truth that most professors lived in half a century ago — not just in Catholic colleges but in other institutions, too. The relativized world most professors live in now has problems of its own.

Our university and city are poorer without these conservative Catholic colleagues’ voices. Their surviving friend and fellow traveller, Donald Demarco, officially retired but still teaching the philosophia perennis at St. Jerome’s, will now have to speak three times as loud. Long life to him. Condolences to everyone at St. Jerome’s on the losses to its faculty. Warm and welcoming wishes to the younger philosophers there, Stephanie Gregoire and Bruno Tremblay, both of whom have come to Waterloo with doctorates from Laval.