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Issue 05 – Saint Anselm 2021


Why The Catholic Intellectual Tradition Failed

On the reform of Catholic university education.


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.

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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.