The Professional Below

Some years ago, when I was a brash young professor,
I remarked in a meeting of my English department that, in my capacity as a teacher, I could not care about the lives of my students. If they were reading Nietzsche while drinking Jack Daniels in a ditch, that was all right by me, so long as they were reading. After all, I considered myself to be a “professional.”
What that meant is hard to say. I didn’t exactly profess anything, save a devotion to literary study and, more to the point, a devotion to my own progress in literary study, climbing the ladder of the professorial career. My students liked me well enough, I earned my promotions, I did not savage the poetry of the past, and, take it all in all, I taught a good many things. I could have done much worse. Whether I also taught a good many young human beings, made in the image of God, is another matter.

Hans Urs von Balthasar has remarked that one of the most worrisome developments since the Renaissance has been the severance of the saint and the theologian. We have had plenty of mystics, like John of the Cross, and profound theologians, like Von Balthasar himself, and those popular paragons of holiness like St. John Vianney, but never an Anselm or a Thomas Aquinas or a Bonaventure. Nor are we likely to see holiness and theological acuity united in one person, I believe, so long as theology is conceived as a profession, rather than as a way of following Christ in obedience to His Church, and leading other souls to Him. For the “profession,” as such things are now construed, has its own laws and its own reasons for existence. One must publish in prestigious journals, digest the work of the important players, say something original to oneself — one must pursue, in short, a career in theology, bound only by such “laws” as that which requires correct citation and forbids plagiarism.
I don’t mean to pick on theologians here. Nor is the idea my own that modern life, increasingly lived under the aegis of the twin deities of technology and bureaucracy, has replaced a sense of good and evil, which is ineluctably personal, with abstract codes of ethics, which are intangible and impersonal. The cop on the beat knew his neighbors; the “safety officer” remains largely unseen, behind the metal and glass of a car, and all the farther removed from the people by regulations that replace initiative and personal responsibility with the self-protective measures of a bureaucracy.
The born teacher, the Socrates or Plato, conversed with his friends, and feared that even the technology of writing would hinder that meeting of soul and soul; the modern educator — awash in lesson plans, outcome assessments, portfolios, learning objectives, and impossible grammar — has long forgotten that such a thing as a soul was ever supposed to have existed.
The mother once brought her child the universe; now the daycare professional teaches the alphabet to restive toddlers whose names she will have forgotten a few weeks after they have graduated to the next institution.
The priest was once the personal mediator of the sacraments, bringing the grace of God to the needy and the penitent, and leading the people in prayer; now he is a professional overseer of lay ministries, themselves professionally conceived, a giver of pleasantly vague homilies, and a performer of a few atavistic rites of the sacerdotal sort.
What is thus lost to human life? Suppose you are standing in the twilight glory of Chartres Cathedral. You look up at the vast vaults, the colored stone ribs, the rose windows, those kaleidoscopes of salvation. You feel small, yet you are not oppressed by the smallness, because you know that human hands like your own dressed that stone and leaded that glass, and that the hands of a Man who worked the plane and the lathe were pierced for your salvation. The interior of a place like Chartres humbles the heart, and exalts it; everywhere you turn, you find the rich symbols of the human and the divine, of God’s deep love for man, and man’s poor yearning for God. Chartres was built by men, for God and for men. The eyes of Christ in judgment look upon you.
Now stand in the lobby of the headquarters of a modern corporation, or the Internal Revenue Service, or a vast high school complex. You see the difference? The sheer size of the building is meant to dwarf your humanity, to humble it into submission, but not to any Ruler. There is indeed no Ruler, properly speaking. Human interchanges there may be, but they are more or less accidental, and not intrinsic to the meaning or the function of the place. The officials point you to the proper forms to fill out; the teacher passes around the machine-graded test he has taught to; the receptionist finds a time for your appointment two months hence.
It is all vague, smooth, efficiently inefficient. No one need notice that the bank has made bad loans to people who put too much trust in the bank’s judgment and in their own erratic diligence. No one notices that the D student carries around a copy of Crime and Punishment. No one cares that the timing belts of the cars manufactured by the corporation have a nasty habit of wearing out after only four years, leaving people stranded on the highway. No one in particular is responsible for anything or anybody; one might as well try to appeal to the blueprint of a machine.
Is a lawyer an officer of a court of justice, or a professional arguer, trawling for business? Does the accountant have a fiduciary responsibility not only to his employer, but to his employer’s clients and stockholders? Is the doctor a tinkerer with a biological machine, or a healer of persons? Is the teacher an imparter of information — or, perhaps worse, a professional recruiting young people for the ranks — or is he a mentor of a young mind on the path to wisdom? Is the priest the Chief Executive Officer of a parish, or is he the father to whom we turn to lead us to Christ?
A few years after I made that terrible comment, it occurred to me that I should pray for my students. I have done so, with some lapses, ever since. And ever since, I have found that my students were more interesting than I had ever supposed. I found, after all, that they were human. Committees, reports, assessments, factotums be damned. If we Christians are to be professional, let it be in the old sense, as we profess our faith in that three-personed God, who is the source and end of our personhood.

Anthony Esolen


Professor Esolen is a teaching fellow and writer in residence at Thomas More College of the Liberal Arts, in Merrimack, New Hampshire. Dr. Esolen is a regular contributor to Crisis Magazine and the author of many books, including The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization (Regnery Press, 2008); Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child (ISI Books, 2010) and Reflections on the Christian Life (Sophia Institute Press, 2013). His most recent books are Reclaiming Catholic Social Teaching (Sophia Institute Press, 2014); Defending Marriage (Tan Books, 2014); Life Under Compulsion (ISI Books, 2015); and Out of the Ashes (Regnery, 2017).

  • Jeff

    I am going to have to disagree.

    I think it’s quite clear that Joseph Ratzinger is a saint and most of us will live to see him canonized.

  • Kyle

    In fact, I think the two most recent popes both call the thesis into question here. (I know John Paul II was more philosopher than theologian, but his Theology of the Body is certainly a major work of theology.)

  • Jane

    I enjoyed reading this, and thought the comments above made good points. In the article I particularly liked the comparison between the Cathedral and the corporation, and the ability of the writer to share a part of his past where he needed growth.

    But regarding what the writer said about priests, though of course some are better than others, let’s not forget we have many dedicated, good men. I do hear a lot of complaints about poor homilies, but my life has been changed by some, hopefully in a way tbat is pleasing to God. My priest is most definitely “the personal mediator of the sacraments, bringing the grace of God to the needy and the penitent, and leading the people in prayer”. He is also a man who passionately wants to bring others to God and dedicates his life to it. And he’s not alone in this; we have many great priests.

  • SJG

    I wholeheartedly agree with Jeff and Kyle that Ratzinger is going to be remembered as saintly AND scholarly, which sadly very rarely happens anymore.

    In some ways, it’s almost too bad he follows on the heels of JPII… while the last Holy Father was obviously a man of great sanctity and made serious contributions to the theology of the Church, he was something more of a celebrity Pope. Benedict generally inspires fewer “good feelings” in people, but I think even in his short tenure as Pope he has already done more to move the Church forward than any Pope since Leo XIII.

    And it’s probably worth mentioning that Anselms and Aquinases and Bonaventures were always comparatively rare.

  • Stephen Wise


    Your use of: I, Me, My and Myself, 9 times in the first and last paragraphs, undermines what you have to say about “personalism.”

    As Christ and John Paul II remind us — to be truly personal, we need to give up ourselves.

    Remember John the Baptist saying: “He must increase, I must decrease.”

  • Deacon Ed

    A few years after I made that terrible comment, it occurred to me that I should pray for my students. I have done so, with some lapses, ever since.

    This is good but better yet (and this is a lesson for all of us, no matter what profession we’re in) to pray with our students, patients, clients, fellow laborers in the field. Could you imagine what saints would come of a world where, in secular society, we invited all those with whom we work and live to come together and pray? How novel!

  • Francis Wippel

    Thanks for a well written and thought provoking article. Your writing always gives me a great deal to ponder.

    As for the disconnect between saint and theologian, perhaps it is not as easy for us to see saints when they live and move among us. As other have mentioned, I could certainly see John Paul II or Benedict XVI being canonized, but perhaps their theological work will not be nearly as appreciated now as in generations to come. Nonetheless, you make an excellent point which underscores the need to put our faith into action.

  • I am not Spartacus

    When writing a confession and a personal metanoia, how does one not personalise that?

    I think this is an absolutely smashing article and Mr. Esolen has modeled for all of us an example of true humility and identified/reminded us of the dehumanised and deracinated existence most of us live.

    Kudos, Mr. Esolen

  • John

    I was thinking much along the same lines as Spartacus. Does Mr. Wise have a count of the number of times St. Augustine uses personal pronouns?

  • Augustine

    Speaking of Chartres, here’s one of the greatest scenes in cinema history: