Friday, December 02, 2005

The "Intellectual" and the Church

The following reflection is prompted by a comment by Fr. Joseph O'Leary during the recent Synod on the Eucharist held in Rome. He expressed displeasure at the way things were going in the Synod, particularly because, as a liberal dissident, he found the bishops' repeated reaffirmations of traditional Catholic positions on priestly celibacy, etc., intolerably entrenched and reactionary, etc., etc. Deriding the college of bishops as little more than "yes men," he declared that today's bishops were not "intellectuals," that they were far from the high caliber of "intellectual" and "scholarly" bishops the Church had under Pope Paul VI.

This got me thinking about the role of the "intellectual" in the Church. Of course, Pope Benedict, as Cardinal Ratzinger, has addressed this issue somewhat in such venues as his Instruction on the Ecclesial Vocation of the Theolgian (May 24, 1990). But my thoughts ran back to an essay I had read by Josef Pieper entitled "The 'Intellectual' and the Church."

"The 'Intellectual' and the Church" is the title of Chapter 46 of Josef Pieper's An Anthology. It is found in a section of the book subtitled, "The Freedom of Philosophy and Its Adversaries." I can't find my copy of the book at the moment, and I am reading the Table of Contents online at Amazon, so I can't tell you what the original source is from which this chapter of Pieper's anthology is excerpted. However, I have used the anthology in my classes and have found it an excellent work for use among brighter undergraduates. Pieper selected the chapters for the anthology himself, and they are knit together tightly in a logical order, each building on the former in a brilliant fashion, forming a magnificent tapestry depicting the breadth of his work.

Pieper understands the term "intellectual" in the way it is used in the German and European milieu, where it signifies a distinctively "detached," "critical," "unaffiliated" stance. The moment an "intellectual" in Europe become a bishop, he would have compromised himself, in effect, because he could no longer speak with the same critical detachment he would otherwise have had. The "intellectual," therefore, is someone who speaks in the voice of a prophetic outsider, who stands over against the established powers and authorities.

When one thinks of certain particularly outspoken and defiant bishops of the Church, however, such as the notorious "gang of 40" -- those American bishops who openly and and actively support and agenda contrary to the mandates of Vatican II, encouraging dissenting theologians, university professors, and catechists engaged in an ongoing process of ecclesial deconstruction -- one cannot help think that Pieper's definition could also apply also to bishops. Perhaps it is precisely because those bishops under Paul VI were dissenting bishops that O'Leary admired them as "intellectuals." In any case, those "intellectuals" O'Leary repeadly mentions with admiration all fit the Pieper profile of being dissenters.

But Pieper makes a further and profounder point. The most effective critics of the Church, those most effective in effecting constructive and positive reform, have never been those who defiantly stood over against her, either as external critics with no sympathy or understanding of the Church's mission, or as internal dissenters in open rebellion against the her discipline and moral teaching. The most effective critics of the the Church have been Saints: men and women like St. Francis of Assisi, St. Catherine of Sienna, and others who were obedient servants of the Church, but who persevered faithfully in the face of obstacles and adversity often caused by Church officials, who failed for one reason or other to fathom or sympathize with the Saints. But the saints persevered because they were fired with a divine vision to assist the Church, despite her sometimes flawed administrators, in accomplishing her divine mission.

Does the Church need intellectuals? It depends what one means by "intellectuals." If by "intellectuals," one means what Pieper suggests -- which seems to mean something consonant with O'Leary's use of the term -- then my answer would be no. Now follow this closely and don't misquote or misunderstand. We would be better off without "intellectuals," for they are precisely the saboteurs intent on thwarting the Church's mission. We would be better served by those O'Leary disparages as "yes men." Here I think of a slogan I once saw on a Knights of Columbus brochure which showed a picture of Pope John Paul II: "We believe what he believes," it said. Not a bad sentiment, that. We need bishops and priests who preach and teach what the Church believes and teaches, not self-indulgent narcissists intent on peddling their own pet theories and agendas.

If, on the other hand, one means by "intellectual" what Cardinal Newman meant by a well-educated Catholic layman, then, by all means, yes: we need intellectuals: servants of the Church who know The Faith and intend to serve it by means of their intellects in whatever way they can. Here the model would that defined by the French Catholic author, A.G. Sertillanges, in his book, The Intellectual Life: Its Spirit, Conditions, Methods, which we reviewd in a post on July 23, 2004, entitled "The Intellectual Life: a book recommendation for the serious student."

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