Monday, December 17, 2007

What happened to Catholic intellectual culture?

The irony is that history is rich in examples of Catholic intellectual culture, but it seems to be in singular eclipse on university campuses across the country -- even on Catholic university campuses. This is something that continues to disturb me. Robert Louis Wilken, the William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of History at the University of Virginia has an article in the latest issue of First Things that, at least in part, addresses this issue. The article is entitled "Catholic Scholars, Secular Schools" (FT, January 2008, pp. 40-43). Herewith I excerpt some paragraphs from the early part of the article:
At Fordham University, while I was teaching there in the late 1960s, it was said that most students were sons and daughters of firemen, policemen, or sanitation workers.

That was probably an exaggeration, but not by much. few parents were themselves college graduates, and the typical student was often the first in the family to attend college. Although the State University of New York had an extensive system of public education, Catholic parents preferred to pay a steeper tuition to have their child attend a Catholic university. What counted was not curriculum, programs of study, or academic excellence but that the school was Catholic.

Today it is estimated that 80 to 90 percent of Catholic students who go to college in the United States matriculate in non-Catholic institutions. Even the majority of college-bound students who graduate from Catholic high schools end up at non-Catholic colleges. Given the number of Catholics in the United States, that adds up to a lot of students. In many public colleges and universities, Catholics make up 20 to 30 percent of the student body and sometimes more.

The most visible sign of Catholicism on American college campuses is attendance at Mass. Catholics, like evangelicals, go to church, and on weekends, Sunday evening in particular, students can be seen making their way to the university parish, a Catholic center on or near the campus, or a local parish. On Ash Wednesday, Catholics are identified by the smudge of black ash on their foreheads.

But, when it comes to the intellectual life of the university, the lamp of Catholic thought is hidden under a bushel. An occasional faculty member, or a group of students, will join in a protest against abortion, but in the public discussion and debate it is rare to find a Catholic professor addressing the issues in a distinctively Catholic way. The Catholic presence runs the gamut from pizza at a Newman Center even to community service, but it seldom reaches into the library or lecture hall. Piety is evident. Catholic intellectual and learning are not.

On university campuses, Catholic faculty are largely invisible. They are seldom known to students, and, though many are accomplished scholars in their academic disciplines, few have the formation in Catholic culture or history to serve as mentors to students. More often than not, their Catholicism is a private and personal thing, an affair of piety and practice, divorced from the intellectual enterprise that is the business of the university.
Although there are differences, the situation is not altogether unlike that of American Evangelicalism following the Civil War. As chronicled by Mark Knoll in The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, Evangelicals found themselves in an increasingly secularized milieu following the Civil War as universities were taken over by proto-secular forms of liberal Protestantism. Instead of engaging the intellectual culture from their Evangelical Christian perspective, they sequestered their faith within the sanctuary of private piety and devotion, yielding the intellectual front to the ascendant secular idols of the pretended autonomy of 'scientific' reason. The minority of Evangelicals who remained involved in academic life dealt with the problem by means of a disingenuous and intellectually schizophrenic compartmentalization splitting off (a) private sectarian faith from (b) public secular reason. But the majority of Evangelicals yielded the field of intellectual and academic endeavor to their religiously liberal or non-religious peers and retreated into the spiritual insularism that was the spawning grounds of American Fundamentalism. One worries less in the case of Catholicism about the insular Fundamentalist impulse than about the schizophrenic campartmentalizing one or even the accomodationist secularizing one.

Wilken goes on to point out that in the decades leading up to Vatican II, Catholic culture was deeper and more encompassing than it currently is, and educated Catholics had much more of a sense of being part of a long, vibrant, and venerable intellectual tradition that was very much alive in mid-twentieth-century America. American Catholicism went through a literary revival between 1920 and 1960, he says, fueled chiefly by such European writers as G.K. Chesterton, George Bernanos, Charles Péguy, Sigrid Undset, Graham Greene, and Evelyn Waugh. American writers like Flannery O'Connor, Walker Percy (one of my favorites), J.F. Powers, Allen Tate, and many others were part of this revival. Together with such philosophers as Jacques Maritain and Etienne Gilson and historians like Christopher Dawson, they kept alive a brilliant Catholic intellectual tradition that gave educated Catholics an imaginative grasp of faith and an eagerness to engage the increasingly secular American culture.

There was also the renaissance of Thomism, beginning with Leo XIII's encyclical Aeterni Patris in the nineteenth century. Famously, Flannery O'Connor herself had the custom of reading from St. Thomas Aquinas' Summa Theologiae for twenty minutes every night before going to sleep, and, in one of her letters, writes that if her mother came into her room and said, "Turn off that light. It's late," she would life her finger with a "broad beatific expression" and reply: "On the contrary, the light, being eternal and limitless, cannot be turned off. Shut your eyes" (the adorable smart ass)! But this revival of Thomism utterly collapsed in the aftermath of Vatican II. Wilkin suggests several reasons -- (1) the difficulty of teaching a philosophical system to thousands of undergraduates; (2) the growing influence of Catholic biblical scholarship in the wake of the encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu introduced a strong anti-scholastic bias into Catholic thought; and (3) in the 1950s, la nouvelle théologie brought a critique of scholasticism from another quarter. In the end, Wilken suggests, the loss of cohesion in Catholic intellectual life had less to do with any particular challenge against it than with a loss of conviction that Catholicism had a unifying intellectual vision to offer. He writes:
This failure of nerve still afflicts Catholic intellectual life and has been weakened further by widespread ignorance of the Catholic tradition among educated Catholics. With the burgeoning number of Catholic students attending private and secular colleges, Catholics increasingly resemble other university graduates in their moral and intellectual outlook. Though they are well trained in other areas, unfamiliarity with the Catholic tradition puts them in a position of vulnerability and weakness in matters of faith. They often lack the capacity to defend or express their beliefs -- even to themselves -- and are ill equipped to give an account of their moral convictions in our relativistic culture.
The latter three-quarters of Wilken's article are devoted to a discussion of two major strategies that have emerged over the past two decades for dealing with this situation -- (1) the creation of independent Catholic institutes at major American universities (such as the Lumen Christi Institute at the University of Chicago, the Aquinas Educational Foundation at Purdue, the Institute for Catholic Thought at University of Illinois, or the St. Anselm Institute at the University of Virginia), and (2) the endowment of Catholic chairs at secular universities (such as the Stillman Chair at Harvard, the Riggs Chair of Roman Catholic Studies at Yale, the Arthur J. Schmitt Chair of Catholic Studies at the University of Illinois in Chicago, the William K. Warren Chair of Catholic Studies at the University of Tulsa, the Monsignor James A. Supple chair of Catholic Studies at the Iowa State University in Ames, or the Cottrill-Rolfes Chair in Catholic Studies at the University of Kentucky).

This discussion is interesting enough; however, I'm not sure it gets at the bottom of the issue. Before long we may have to create independent Catholic institutes at major American Catholic universities and endow specifically Catholic chairs at Catholic universities, if it comes to that.

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