POSTED ON FEBRUARY 10, 2010:
Up From "The Zone"
Tulsa has been very, very good to professor Russell Hittinger
The Godfather, Part III. Russell Hittinger, the Warren Professor of Catholic Studies in the Department of Philosophy and Religion at TU, makes numerous trips to the Vatican throughout the year to fulfill his papal appointment duties.
It's not as if University of Tulsa professor Russell Hittinger doesn't appreciate the significance of the Papal appointments he holds in two of the three major Pontifical Academies. In fact, he understands exactly how important they are.
"The first thing is, I didn't have anything immediately to do with it," Hittinger said of his Papal appointments. "You can't put yourself in competition for it. It's not like applying for a job."
Hittinger, the Warren Professor of Catholic Studies in the Department of Philosophy and Religion at TU, has a different perspective on his dual appointments, making him one of only two men in the world to hold that distinction. He declines to compare them to the other achievements he's piled up during an academic career that has spanned more than two decades and resulted in dozens of awards, appointments and published works.
"I'm going to be very honest," he said. "They're something more important than an achievement, to me, because no one deserves to get one of these things. So I feel as though it's more like a grace. It's something that's given to you, and then you do the best you can."
In 2005, Hittinger became a member of the Pontifical Academy of St. Thomas Aquinas, created in 1870 by Pope Leo XIII, which addresses philosophy and theology. In September 2009, Pope Benedict XVI appointed him to membership in the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, which was created by Pope John Paul II in 1994 to examine economic, political and social issues.
The third major Pontifical Academy is the Academy of Science, founded in 1603 "after the Galileo affair," Hittinger said.
Each academy is limited to 50 members, typically academicians, who meet, discuss and write on topics within their purview that are considered to be of pressing importance to the Holy See.
"The chancellor of an academy or the Holy Father himself will say, 'We need you to work on the condition of families in the global economic crisis,' and one of those academies will set to work on it," Hittinger said. "I would describe them as advisory bodies with a considerable amount of dignity."
Hittinger's road to membership in both academies was the same, he said. His name was forwarded through the church's hierarchy and included on a "list of three"--essentially a list of qualified candidates for an academy opening that is submitted to the pope for consideration. The pope is not restricted to the names on that list when choosing a replacement, but in most cases, that is how the process plays out, Hittinger said. Appointments last a lifetime.
In 2006, a year after joining the Pontifical Academy of St. Thomas Aquinas, Hittinger was elected to a five-year term on the consilium of the academy, essentially its governing body.
"We consider topics for discussion, decide who should give papers and write up our findings," Hittinger said of that body's role.
Those duties lead the Virginia native to visit Rome four times a year. Hittinger, 60, didn't make his first trip to the Vatican until the late 1990s, when he was invited to present a paper at a Pontifical Council. It was the first of many trips he would make throughout the ensuing years--one of which Hittinger would remember with a laugh.
He recalled a later visit he made to deliver the keynote address to the Academy of Social Sciences, of which he is now a member. Hittinger found himself part of a group that included the U.S. ambassador to the Holy See and the chancellor to the Pontifical Academies. The group was scheduled to meet with Pope Benedict.
Hittinger recounted the sense of wonder he felt as he moved through the inner sanctum of the Vatican, past Swiss Guard stations and into a Renaissance palace-like room where the group would be received by the pope. After the Holy Father read a lecture to the group, his accompanying group of young German priests signaled to the members of Hittinger's party that they should all take a seat for a photograph with the pope.
"Everyone was scrambling for a chair," Hittinger said, laughing. "It was like a version of musical chairs, and I'm standing there without a chair. I have this German monsignor telling me, 'You have to be seated,' and I'm saying, 'I'm sorry, there isn't one.' They took the picture anyway, and I'm standing right behind the pope like I'm his bodyguard or something."
His many trips to the Vatican throughout the years haven't dulled his appreciation for the surroundings, Hittinger said.
"That's a great question. All of Rome is somewhat like that, too," he said, noting the proliferation of sites in the city that carry great historic, cultural and artistic significance. "But my view is when you get to the point where you don't have a little bump in your imagination from being around that kind of thing, it's time to go home."
Even so, Hittinger said his duties as an academy member come first.
"That being said, I'm there to work," he said. "You can't be gaping at artwork all the time. You have to work. It just requires a little bit of a different mentality."
Hittinger described the academy meetings themselves as fascinating. English is the default language for the Academy of Social Sciences, he said, but at the Pontifical Academy of St. Thomas Aquinas, things are somewhat different.
"You could say it's Latin, but people don't really argue in Latin," he noted drily.
The meetings are conducted with members addressing each other in a variety of languages--Italian, English, Spanish, French and German.
"But to be honest, when things get heavy and you really need to be clear, people revert to English, although nothing is official," he said.
The meetings are a great exercise in flexibility, he said.
"It's 40 to 50 people adapting to one another," Hittinger said. "It's amazing that it works. Of course, you have simultaneous translations going on in three languages, but they can't really keep up."
Hittinger will make his next trip to the Vatican in late April for a meeting of the Academy of Social Sciences, where he will present a paper. That meeting will be highlighted by a presentation by Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz of Columbia University, he said.
During his visits to Rome, Hittinger periodically encounters the only other man in the world to also hold Papal appointments to two of the three major academies--Italian Vittorio Passenti, a philosopher and social scientist at the University of Venice.
Interestingly enough, his numerous trips to the Vatican also allow him to cross paths with "the Tulsa Connection" there. Hittinger said at least three other Tulsans now hold or have held positions at the Vatican, including Francis Rooney, the former U.S. ambassador to the Holy See who is best known locally as the majority owner of Manhattan Construction; Monsignor Daniel Mueggenborg, former local pastor and now the vice rector for administration and director of admissions at the Pontifical North American College; and Monsignor Peter Wells, former assistant pastor of Holy Family Cathedral and now the assessor of general affairs in the Vatican Office of Secretary of State.
The group often is referred to jokingly as the Tulsa Mafia by Vatican insiders, Hittinger said.
And, in an increasingly conservative Vatican, Hittinger's appointment and the appointments of the aforementioned layman and local clerics are all the more remarkable considering the former "outsider" reputation of the Roman Catholic presence in Tulsa. At one time, during the 1960s and early '70s, the Diocese of Oklahoma (before it was split into two bishoprics) was known as "The Zone" for its liberal, social conscientious, cantankerous, anti-establishmentarian ways.
But times have changed.
"They laugh about it, and say, 'Geez, where is this place?' " he said.
His duties at the Vatican are but one part of Hittinger's responsibilities. He describes his position with TU as "I have an endowed chair in Catholic studies at a Presbyterian University teaching students who are mostly Baptist and Pentecostal."
Hittinger is also a prolific writer, having penned three books and numerous articles, even though he acknowledges it doesn't come easy for him. His next book, to be published by the Yale University Press, is called "Paper Wars: Catholic Social Doctrine and the Modern State."
"I've found it to be like pulling teeth," Hittinger said of writing. "But I do it. I do it. You bet."
He takes exception to the popular notion of the "lazy" college professor, explaining that he puts in between 50 and 60 hours a week. But he dismisses the notion that he'll ever consider doing something else.
"I'm never going to leave," he said. "It's a vocation. You just don't leave it until you're physically unable to do it."
Hittinger acknowledged that many academicians are tempted to leave for positions in government, something he tried himself in the 1990s when he served as an associate professor in the Philosophy Department at the Catholic University of America outside Washington, D.C.
"To be honest, I didn't like it that much," he said. "Government work or policy work is not about teaching and learning. Government work and policy work is like combat. It's winning positions. That's what the whole thing is about. Some people like that taste of blood in their mouth. I never did."
His position at TU suits him well, though Hittinger admitted to giving some consideration to returning to a Catholic university or college some day.
"The idea has crossed my mind, but it hasn't done much more than cross my mind because the University of Tulsa has been very good to me," he said. "I count myself lucky to be at the University of Tulsa."
URL for this story: http://www.urbantulsa.comhttp://www.urbantulsa.com/gyrobase/Content?oid=oid%3A29210