Tribute to a Mentor: Paul Hanly Furfey (1896-1992)
September 1992By Gordon C. Zahn
Gordon C. Zahn is Emeritus Professor of Sociology at the University of Massachusetts at Boston. His books include In Solitary Witness: The Life and Death of Franz Jaegerstaetter and German Catholics and Hitlers Wars. He received his Ph.D. from the Catholic University of America, where he studied under Paul Handy Furfey.
On June 8, barely two weeks before his 96th birthday, Msgr. Paul Hanly Furfey died in a Washington, D.C., hospital. In almost a half-century of teaching at Catholic University (32 of those years as chairman of its sociology department) he earned recognition and respect for his scholarship, but even more for a host of books and articles that established him as one of Catholicisms greatest champions of peace and social justice. Over the years many priests involved in organized efforts to eliminate racial injustice and the multitude of other social problems which still shame American society have traced their awakening to what Furfey called social sin to reading his Fire on the Earth in their seminary days.
His earliest works The Gang Age (1926), The Growing Boy (1930), You and Your Children (1929), and Social Problems of Childhood (1929) were more strictly research-oriented in nature, as were treatises on techniques such as product-moment correlation co-efficient and tests for the measurement of nonintellectual traits and developmental age. He never lost his commitment to methodological rigor, but Fire on the Earth (1936) shifted the emphasis to value-oriented and sometimes controversial analyses of social thought and the duty of Christians to engage in efforts for constructive social reform.
The controversies arose from two sharply contrasting quarters. On the one hand were Catholics who objected to his insistence that failure to apply religious principles and teaching to ones daily life and social behavior were responsible for the patterns of injustice he identified as evil, even sinful. The very titles of certain of his books give a clue to the challenges posed to those who were only too willing to go along with things as they were: The Mystery of Iniquity (1944), The Respectable Murderers (1966), and The Morality Gap (1968). To the conservative minded, the very term, sociology, sounded suspect enough without linking the discipline to conclusions that praised and even promoted Christian radicalism and Christian revolutionism.
Furfeys academic peers raised essentially the same objection, but in reverse, giving rise to a lively intra-disciplinary debate concerning scholarly standards. In the 1940s and 1950s sociologists, burdened with something akin to a professional inferiority complex, were intent upon establishing themselves and their discipline as scientific, with the hard physical sciences serving as the model. Research into human behavior had to be empirical in the positivist sense and strictly value-free in approach and interpretation. Catholic sociologists in particular were engaged in a continuing debate within the (then, but no longer) American Catholic Sociological Society as to whether there should be, or even could be, a Catholic sociology. Furfey, for his part, went so far as to speak of supernatural sociology!
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