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Why The Catholic Intellectual Tradition Failed

On the shortcomings of modern Catholic education.

About the author

Matthew C. Briel

Matthew C. Briel is assistant professor of theology at Assumption University. This essay was originally published in the Saint Anselm 2021 issue of The Lamp.

How are we to ensure not only the Catholic character of our universities, but even their identity as universities? In their search to mimic their aspirational peers most Catholic universities have shed the more embarrassing aspects of Catholicism (doctrine, moral issues, the role of and relation to ecclesial authority) and emphasized the features more palatable to the secular academy (the common good as understood by the broader society, social justice, mercy). More fundamentally, as they ape their betters by encouraging professors to confine their thinking to their specific sub-disciplines, American Catholic universities have also ceased being universities. Can the so-called “Catholic intellectual tradition” save Catholic universities? Not alone.

Before thinking about the current state of things, it is worth our while to consider how we got here. After the study of classics was displaced in higher education by the elective system at the end of the nineteenth century, Catholic universities in America began to organize their curriculum around a neo-Scholastic synthesis. In this synthesis philosophy became the cornerstone, the organizing discipline that gave order to the student’s education. The great strength of this program was that it provided a coherent account of reality, something that the elective system instituted by Charles Eliot at Harvard militated against. This synthesis had its weaknesses. It rarely engaged with the contemporary ideas which students were bound to encounter after their graduation, and its vision was excessively narrow. The readings were not the rich, nuanced texts of Saint Thomas but simplifications of his thought. Instead of the meat offered by the Angelic Doctor, students were fed the thin gruel of his popularizers. This synthesis and its cohesive worldview were left behind in the reforms of the Sixties. Students had no sense of the relationship between the disciplines and no meaningfully Catholic account of the world. A second problem arose at the same time: the precipitous decline of the consecrated religious who approached the world and the various disciplines with a Catholic vision and who witnessed to the Gospel. A third problem was the shift from classes in religion, which had attended to the formation of students, to the academic study of theology that all but explicitly disclaimed Christian formation as one of its goals.

Many faculty members saw that these three simultaneous changes led to a weakening of the Catholic character of their universities. One response to this crisis was the promotion of a more nebulous Catholic intellectual tradition as a way of preserving or renewing their universities’ Catholic identity. Here I mean the “Catholic intellectual tradition” at its best: the study of the various manifestations of the Church in culture, including art, literature, history, philosophy, and theology. This does not mean the study of religious subjects, but rather the study of reality with a Catholic worldview. It is in this way that Saint John Henry Newman describes Catholic Literature:

By “Catholic Literature” is not to be understood a literature which treats exclusively or primarily of Catholic matters, of Catholic doctrine, controversy, history, persons or politics; but it includes all subjects of literature whatever treated as a Catholic would treat them and as only he can treat them.

In some ways the Catholic intellectual tradition was welcome. But it was also excessively defensive. The university could have its Catholic institute on the periphery in an attempt to mollify wealthy alumni donors. But most institutes were ghettoized and have had little effect on the life of the university. Instead the Catholic intellectual tradition must be complemented by other tasks and habits of being in order for a university not only to be Catholic, but even simply to be a university.

The purpose of a university, according to Newman, is the perfection of the intellect. This occurs by growth in philosophical knowledge, or the ability to think through the relation of various fields of knowledge. Note here the difference from and relation to the modern goal of critical thinking, the purpose of which, for most faculty, is to deconstruct truth claims rather than attain truth. For Newman, the perfection of the intellect lies in a deeper understanding of reality. For most universities today, what one knows, and its relationship with reality (if anything), does not matter. The two accounts are related, however, in their commitments to a critical engagement with various perspectives. For Newman the end of this engagement is knowledge of the truth, whereas modern universities have mission statements devoting them to “critical thinking”; this can be and often is understood as the deconstruction of certain viewpoints, which are in turn reduced to mere systems of power whose imposed “discourses” must be critiqued. This understanding of critical thinking is wholly negative because it cuts off the life of the mind from the search for the truth. This is attractive to many faculty members in the humanities who are convinced that deeper truths are either unattainable or nonexistent.

Alasdair MacIntyre, drawing on Thomas, adds that knowing the truth requires the practice of certain virtues, both intellectual and moral. For instance, one must become accustomed to giving focused attention to questions and practice intellectual charity in order to understand the various perspectives that must be accounted for if one is to understand reality to a greater degree. MacIntyre proceeds to set a second goal for a university, and this is reflected in modern mission statements. This goal is to form students who will contribute to the common good. For MacIntyre formation is, in large part, a direct outcome of the practice of the virtues necessary for universal knowledge. In Catholic universities today this formation may occur in service-learning courses, in which students are introduced to secular humanist conceptions of social justice, as opposed to the Christian accounts of the common good that they might learn in, for instance, a course on early modern philosophy. Even for the minority of professors in the academy who accept character formation as a goal of university education, coming to know reality and possessing, however falteringly, the truth about any aspect of reality has little to do with character formation.

Two further goals, it seems to me, apply to a Catholic university, although they are conspicuously absent from contemporary mission statements. The first is the transmission of culture, understood not as a self-contained, closed horizon that cannot be judged, but rather as a particular spiritual and material embodiment of the encounter with God (or, in a secular culture, that society’s highest love). This should occur both for the particular culture in which a university exists and for the many cultures that do and have incarnated the Catholic Church. This is important both for the transmission of those cultures and for the formation of the student in those cultures that foster the ecclesial life. The second and final goal of a university is, as magisterial documents emphasize, the formation of Christian disciples with a goal of their union with God in heaven. This Christian formation gives further impetus and direction to the goal of serving the common good and that subset of concern within the common good, social justice.

Now, what can the Catholic intellectual tradition contribute towards these goals? It can foster the religious ethos of a university, a prerequisite for forming adult Christians. When combined with pervasive iconography and a flourishing sacramental life, this culture fosters Christian formation by allowing students to integrate the various aspects of their lives into one Catholic whole. The Church, while not simply a culture, is embodied in them and a Catholic culture encourages students to integrate the various aspects of their lives that otherwise might be sealed off from one other.

This, as MacIntyre pointed out, is not the case at secular universities and is in danger of becoming true at Catholic universities that attempt, uncritically, to emulate them. The result is alumni who tend to become

narrowly focused professionals, immensely and even obsessively hard working, disturbingly competitive and intent on success as it is measured within their own specialized professional sphere, often genuinely excellent at what they do; who read little worthwhile that is not relevant to their work; who, as the idiom insightfully puts it, ‘make time,’ sometimes with difficulty, for their family lives; and whose relaxation tends to consist of short strenuous bouts of competitive athletic activity and sometimes of therapeutic indulgence in the kind of religion that is well designed not to disrupt their working lives.

The Catholic intellectual tradition can overcome this tendency towards compartmentalization by exposing students to a variety of expressions of the Church in their various courses and the connection between those manifestations.

The second contribution that the Catholic intellectual tradition can make is to call upon and develop the imagination through the study of art, literature, and history. The imagination is central to the Christian life and world-view because, as Newman wrote in his Grammar of Assent, “the heart is commonly reached not through reason but through the imagination.” But what is the Catholic imagination? It is not a human faculty externally constrained by doctrines, but rather a vision informed by the belief that the created world reveals a sacramental meaning.

When this imagination is exercised upon works informed by the sacramental vision, there is an opportunity for the student to develop a coherent Catholic worldview that can lead to an understanding of the whole of reality. Once the imagination is engaged in this sacramental vision and the heart transformed by it, there is an opportunity for a student to be drawn to the truth contemplated and rigorously debated in philosophy and theology. The beginning of this education is that “astonishment” at beauty, necessarily tied to the other transcendentals: the true and the good, which Dante speaks of as essential to the pursuit of an education. Driven by this need to know, which has itself been initiated by the vision of the beauty of Catholic culture, the student can become motivated to pursue the truth further. This partial grasping of the truth can lead to an integration of life and mind. Finally, this development of the imagination forms students to work for the common good, for it is in entering into others’ experiences by the imagination that we are both drawn to act and can creatively develop ways to contribute to the common good.

While important and laudable, these contributions alone do not ensure catholicity. However, a temptation has arisen in the past thirty years to suggest that the Catholic intellectual tradition can secure the Catholic character of a university. This solution has been grasped at for two reasons. First, the idea is so elastic as to encompass nearly anything. Thus we encounter endless variations of the following vapid reflections: “The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in my work means inquiry”; “I now think that the Catholic Intellectual Tradition calls us to value knowledge, respect other cultures and religions, to be responsible for the well-being of others, and to bring knowledge to the world around us”; “One of the deep-seated values of the Catholic Intellectual Tradition is the acceptance of, or, at least, attempt to understand individuals different from ourselves”; “The Catholic Intellectual Tradition supports my own personal beliefs of respect for all people, fairness toward others, and education of relevant academics and ethics.” Is there a single employed academic in America who would disagree with these vague, amorphous, empty humanitarian statements? In what meaningful way is this conception of the Catholic intellectual tradition Catholic?

The second reason the Catholic intellectual tradition has been promoted is that it is easy; it does not make personal, ecclesial, and disciplinary demands. The Catholic intellectual tradition can be paired with uncontroversial non-academic contributions of a better-supported campus ministry and the promotion of social justice. These are good things, but neither can assure Catholic identity.

So, what else is needed? The first point that I made about the Catholic intellectual tradition’s contribution is that it helps create an ethos at the university that fosters Christian formation. However, it cannot accomplish this alone or in a disembodied way. Faculty must also care deeply for students. This is of course something that is encouraged at nearly all Catholic universities. But it must be paired with a deep commitment to the Church. As Saint Paul VI wrote: “Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses.” To what must teachers witness? Certainly to the life-changing encounter with Christ in his Church. But this friendship with the Lord will be unconvincing if it is not also reflected in the professor’s own friendships which must be nurtured. Indeed, if a professor cannot practice the virtue of friendship, he is unlikely to understand and therefore to form his students, for whom it is so important. When professors from various disciplines gather in friendship to discuss a question, undergraduates not only develop that key virtue of seeing the relation of ideas to reality, but also learn that growth in wisdom is a communal endeavor.

Just as the Catholic intellectual tradition’s contribution to the ethos of a university must be supplemented by the faculty’s witness to friendship among themselves and with the Lord, so does the contribution to the imagination require stronger moorings if a Catholic university is to thrive. First, a university’s focus on universal knowledge requires that the whole of reality be studied. This has been lost in the compartmentalization and hyper-specialization that has replaced the neo-Scholastic synthesis in Catholic universities since the 1960s. Faculty specialization and publications in a narrow scope are rewarded while the ability to see how various disciplines relate to disclose the whole truth is not. As a result, not only have most universities lost their Catholic identity, but they have even ceased to be universities, places for the teaching of and search for universal knowledge. The Catholic intellectual tradition, conceived merely as a multidisciplinary enterprise, cannot replace that. Instead, there must be a commitment in the faculty to speak across disciplines, to see how other disciplines correct, limit, continue, or carry forward inquiries in their own discipline while at the same time respecting the domains of each. The failure of universities to do so has affected not only our grasp of universal knowledge, but even the individual disciplines. In the absence of dialogue with other disciplines, one’s own discipline can be distorted in the life of the university.

Why? Because, for a professor, the danger of losing cognizance of other disciplines is that one’s own discipline has a tendency to expand or even encroach upon other disciplines. Psychology and counseling departments that are not in dialogue with theology and philosophy departments may mistake the goal of their discipline—wellness—as the end of human activity instead of—according to some philosophers—the good life, which includes justice or—per theology—union with God, which in turn presupposes concern for the poor and the neighbor. But the threat is not merely intellectual. Such confusion can have devastating practical consequences. Serious dangers arise when policy is decided merely on the basis of economic theory or medical research. Thus in our own time attention and resources have been given to those populations more likely to recover from the coronavirus and, upon recovery, contribute to society than the elderly in nursing homes, who have accounted for a third of COVID-19 deaths in the United States. The encroaching of science upon ethics has had disastrous effects.

In addition to the Catholic intellectual tradition, then, there must be a commitment to interdisciplinary conversation that allows us to understand better the whole of reality. Of course, this knowledge must, in the end, move beyond the limitations of each discipline to Newman’s philosophical knowledge which is greater than the sum of the various disciplines and aims at nothing less than the whole of truth. But even this is not all. In order to attain this comprehensive vision we must admit that there is an order to the created world and certain disciplines must order and integrate the others. Disciplines as such are not capable of seeing outside the confines of their fields and thus depend upon philosophy to explain how each contributes to a vision of the whole. Theology, too, has a central role because it incorporates revealed truth into the knowledge of reality. Theology, however, is not an individual pursuit or even the pursuit of a community of scholars. It is, instead, an ecclesial work and must be carried out in communion with the hierarchical Church. Theology works in dialogue with the Magisterium and is ultimately accountable to it, for the Magisterium is responsible for the Deposit of Faith. At the same time, good theology is creative and is bound, according to Newman, to be in tension with the hierarchy. This tension is the healthy and creative middle way between mere subservience to authority (hardly a problem today) and untethered, free-floating critical inquiry into religious matters that is guided by private judgment.

Philosophy, too, must have a living relationship with the Catholic Church. The philosophy faculty must carry out (but certainly not only) the integrative function outlined for it in Fides et ratio. Here, the ecclesial bond does not curtail the freedom of philosophy but rather calls it back to its sapiential roots, a more comprehensive search for wisdom. All perspectives within philosophy must be engaged, entered into honestly, and some sort of resolution, if tentative, must be given. It is only in this way that philosophy can play its role as the central, integrating discipline within a university. Note that this account of a university and academic freedom differs significantly from how the Land O’Lakes statement (issued in 1967 by the leaders of many prestigious Catholic universities in America) understood the university, in its call for “true autonomy and academic freedom in the face of authority of any kind, lay or clerical, external to the academic community itself.” How different this is from a Catholic approach to the truth which occurs in a tradition and is accountable to, yet sometimes in tension with, the Magisterium.

Attaining the goal of a truly Catholic university requires awareness of the changes that our universities have undergone and knowing what has and has not worked in our attempts to sustain their Catholic identity. The loss of the neo-Scholastic synthesis and the sharp decline in the numbers of of consecrated religious in the 1960s atrophied the Catholic character of universities. An amorphous Catholic intellectual tradition cannot preserve or invigorate the university. Indeed, one of the gravest dangers is, as John Cavadini wrote in 2006, is that a non-ecclesial Catholic intellectual tradition can devolve into a kind of gnosticism “which floats free of any norming connection and so free of any concrete claim to Catholic identity.” Cavadini was here concerned with Notre Dame’s justification for permitting The Vagina Monologues to be performed on campus. While not taking a position on the question, Cavadini criticized the president’s justification which made repeated appeals to Catholic intellectual tradition. Cavadini pointed out that nowhere did Father Jenkins refer to or engage the writings of the local ordinary on the subject, implicitly denying the ecclesial bonds necessary for a Catholic university.

Pundits in the Chronicle of Higher Education and elsewhere have forecasted the devastating effect that the coronavirus will have on private universities. If these universities are to survive they must be re-imagined. At the same time, our second semester of remote education has made clear to students and parents the importance of community and classroom engagement. Perhaps rather than pouring money into enhanced recreation centers and offices of student activities, some Catholic universities will consider deeper reforms that involve the whole of the collegiate experience. Such reforms will almost certainly require administrations to establish institutes or programs that integrate personal and social formation, the sacramental life, the study of Catholic culture, and a commitment to an ordered approach to the truth. But these institutes must be at the center of the university.

I have not proposed here a return to the inadequate neo-Scholastic synthesis of the mid-twentieth century. Instead I see an opportunity in its disappearance. While an ordering of knowledge has been lost, a new order that incorporates more viewpoints and engages the contemporary world can be developed. In such an experience the truth is both known and sought after. The Catholic intellectual tradition has a role to play here in organically binding the various disciplines which are no longer tied up by the brittle, indeed artificial security of the neo-Scholastic synthesis. This seeking can be both an adventure and a home in which to rest.

Lay faculty, too, play a more prominent role in and have greater responsibility for their students in that they must witness to the truth of the Gospel in their lives, friendships, and in their conversations, with the aim of revealing an integrated sacramental vision. This is a hard task and is made more demanding by the absence of the years of formation in the seminary or religious houses. It also underlines the importance of ongoing faculty formation. But this, too, seems an exciting opportunity rather than an insurmountable barrier.

There are exceptions to this general trend of imitating secular polytechnical institutes that claim to be universities. Some (but not all) Catholic Studies programs bring together formation and interdisciplinary courses that focus on Catholic culture. One program, for instance, gives attention to “the rich and multifaceted ways Catholicism can be integrated into academic, professional, cultural, personal, and social life.” Universities can also support and establish forums for bringing together professors and students together outside of the classroom for dinners, talks, films, visits to museums and pilgrimages. These experiences teach students to elevate their leisure time. This is essential to the examined life. Many universities will refuse to develop such opportunities and this has allowed independent programs such as New Orleans’s Ikon Institute to offer interdisciplinary classes in Catholic culture that can be transferred to various universities for credit. These efforts on the edge of or outside the universities have proven necessary for the liberal education at universities that have, frankly, failed them. In many cases this failure has already happened, and we have alumni of de-facto polytechnics who have joined the managerial class and whose lives mirror what MacIntyre described: successful in the careers that provide their identity, tenuously defined by their family, uninterested in deep thinking or reading, finding their fulfillment in physical exercise, and engaging in the essentially therapeutic vision of the Catholic life offered in far too many parishes.

Of course, this vision of a Catholic university will not be realized without thought and effort on the part of administration, faculty, and hiring committees. Without this sustained effort, Catholic universities will become either more expensive versions of state schools or less prestigious versions of Ivy League universities: the worst of both worlds. Eventually a higher price tag for the second rate will mean that they are likely to close. A bolder vision might secure not only their survival, but their flourishing and the Church’s.