Paul van Geest

Theologian Paul van Geest on the interconnectedness of church and society

Passion 4 min. Tineke Bennema

Tilburg University was established as a Catholic Business School, founded by priests like Cobbenhagen and Goossens. This historical relationship with the church developed over time. On the intertwining of the church with university and society, a conversation with theologian Paul van Geest. He is Professor of Church History and History of Theology at Tilburg University, as well as a member of the Pontifical Academy of Theology in Rome.

How does one become an advisor to the Vatican?

'A few years ago I received a letter from Archbishop Sanna asking if I wanted to join the Pontifical Academy of Theology. I immediately said yes. First, it is an advisory body to the Pope, the leader of the largest soft power in the world: the Catholic Church. How the Catholic Church operates and matters globally is something we in the Netherlands no longer have a clue about and that's a shame. Because if somewhere you can get a good idea of universality and what it means to be part of a world community, it's in the Catholic Church.'

Paul van Geest

Like human consciousness, God cannot be captured in words or thought

Professor of Church History and History of Theology Paul van Geest

And what exactly does your position entail?

'It is certainly not the case that every member of this academy just walks into the Pope's office to provide him with unsolicited advice. What an idea! But there are cardinals who are members of this Academy who see the Pope quite regularly. And the line of communication between "mere mortal” members like me and those cardinals is very short.

And we can bring up topics for discussion. Some younger members have recently organized a symposium on the following issue. Religion has a great influence on many things in the world. But it is strange that people speak about God in the way they speak about observable subjects or objects. This is because you cannot speak about God the way you talk about a car, a human being, or a verifiable object because you cannot empirically prove that God exists. But how should you speak about things that transcend time and space in the secularized West? Like human consciousness, God cannot be captured in words or thought. So when we speak about God, we know in advance that we are developing images and theories that are inadequate because God is bigger than words and thoughts. And that in turn is an assumption - that there is an incomprehensible God - which is also debated. This seems like an irrelevant discussion in the Netherlands, where God plays less and less of a role among the white native population.

Make no mistake: globally, religion is more important for the world and for trade than you think. But if you talk about God as if you heard from God himself only yesterday about his plans with the world, you can also become less intolerant towards others. That is why we emphasized at this symposium that, in orthodox speaking about God, there should be no dogmatic assertion. At least, that's what the discussion was about.’

Fewer and fewer people go to church in the Netherlands. How important is the role of Rome in our society and at our university in particular?

'That is a complicated question. Like I said, the Catholic Church plays less and less of a role in the Dutch public domain, although one shouldn’t underestimate the Church as a volunteer organization. That role used to be very prominent. In 1950, the director of Grolsch brewery sent his Catholic sons to the Catholic Business School in Tilburg. The man ran a big company and really wasn't a bigot, but he did ask the parish priest in Groenlo if he could serve his guests veal croquettes on his birthday, which was in Lent. This only goes to show that, at the time, the church permeated every aspect of public life. The social cohesion it created was also experienced as oppressive, not least because the clergy often spoke in pompous and overly moralistic tones. If you read back some of the sermons from those days, rather dismaying really: full of certitudes. Whereas dogmas invite one to search further.’

The church is a paradox

‘But now I sometimes think that, for instance, at the time when Tilburg University was called Karl Marx University, society threw the baby out with the bathwater. The church brought social cohesion; the Christian view of man assumes that a human being is not realized primarily in economic transactions, but in respectful, loving relationships. That suggests collective and individual empathy. Well, those values and virtues are hard to find in debates, conversations, meetings, in the contacts of citizens with the government and vice versa. The more individualistic a society is, the more distrustful each citizen becomes. In Catholic social teaching one can observe impulses to turn these tendencies around.’

How has the intertwining of the Church and our university developed?

'The university was founded at the time as a Catholic Business School to allow sons (hardly any daughters) from Catholic families to study economics in a way that was inspired by the Catholic tradition. Because priests like Cobbenhagen and Goossens played an important role in founding the School, the church had quite a say in the university. Make no mistake: the first generations of students in Tilburg came from the Episcopal College in Roermond, a rather elite Catholic educational institution. The students there went to church every day so they were schooled in the Catholic lifestyle.

That is all gone now. In the sixties and seventies many people made a clean break with this lifestyle. As mentioned before, the Tilburg Catholic Academy was renamed Karl Marx University. Ruud de Moor, Rector at the time and a Catholic, was somewhat derisively asked: "Well, what can we still notice about Catholicism at the university now? He seems to have replied: 'You can hopefully notice that in the way we treat each other.' I think that is such a brilliant and effective answer.

Jesus of Nazareth did not come primarily to bring a set of rituals or dogmas to be complied with and fulfilled. Based on the ancient Jewish codes of conduct and in timeless and brilliant parables, he tried to get people to interact with each other in an honest and confrontational but ultimately above all respectful, inclusive and compassionate way. He didn't quite succeed in achieving this in his lifetime. Neither do we yet, by any means. But the Catholic Church, worldwide, is a training ground where you can practice his way of life. That it doesn't always work out is an understatement. We know that and they know it even better in the Vatican.

But a good friend of mine in America, a physicist, said to me the other day: "That church is a mess. What unworldly bishops we have here in the States. They don't even listen to our good Pope sometimes. But the church is a paradox. Because when you have good intentions and want to give hands and feet to your good will, that sentiment will gain momentum in the very community of people that is the church." I thought that was a wonderful statement.’

Date of publication: 21 November 2022