From Fellowship of Catholic Scholars Newsletter, 18 (September, 1995), 2-9.
-- James V. Schall, S. J.

TO KNOW THE THINGS THAT ARE
On What Is Not Given in the American Catholic Academy

"I am sure that the Bible is being secularized, being treated as literature, in many of the academies. I remember that as long ago as the 1930's an edition of the Bible was offered to the general public under the title, The Bible Designed to Be Read as Living Literature, something like that. Well, I know that it is happening, that many people read the Bible without any notion that it is in some sense the Word of God."

- Richard Wilber
Jewel Spears Brooker, "A Conversation with Richard Wilber," Christianity and Literature, 42 (Summer, 1993), 526

"Philosophy is not the reading of books; philosophy is not the contemplation of nature; philosophy is not the phenomenology of personal experience; philosophy is not its history. These are indispensable tools aiding a man to come to know the things that are. But that knowing is precisely knowing and nothing else. We were once given this, not too long ago, in the American Catholic academy. With few honorable exceptions, we are given it no longer."

- Frederick D. Wilhelmsen, "The Great Books: Enemies of Wisdom," Modern Age, 31 (Spring/Fall, 1987), 329. Italics added.

 

I.

Modernity was originally argued in the name of reason, of generally autonomous or pure reason. This argument claimed, contrary to Plato and Aquinas, but in conformity with Epicurus, that we could know that the gods did not exist, that they had communicated nothing to us, that we can receive no rewards or punishments from them by our pleadings. In short, we are alone. We create our own morals and our own polities, even our own natures. Our glory is to defy the gods and their commands. The Kingdom of God thus became not a transcendent gift but a political project claiming to absorb all our attention and energy.

 

What was said to be from the gods was in fact considered to be an impediment to the achievement of wealth and abundance for all. The justification most commonly employed for rejecting the gods was that they were incompetent in the sphere of human compassion and need. But reason as merely an instrument to achieve goals, whatever they were made to be in our own minds, still seemed to justify ends that were not just or right, a distinction that persisted in spite of its being absorbed into a theory of human autonomy. The commandments of the gods were broken in the name of a kind of counter-justice, one that originated not in the gods or nature but in ourselves. In order to achieve these ends that were not just but still were highly desirable, it was not possible to re-fashion reason which stubbornly found contradictions in the very name of autonomous justice. But it was possible to deny that reason could know anything other than its own wants, a proposition itself something of a contradiction to reason. A spiritual power that claimed that it did not know evidently seemed to know something.

 

For the success of this modern project of complete human autonomy, the first thing that needed to be cut off was any avenue to the gods, the next was any avenue to reason. We are to be left with what we choose, presupposed to nothing but our own power of choosing. We maintain that the ultimate power to decide what is good and what is evil is now in our hands. Natural laws and unnatural sins are overruled by the autonomous political power bent on refashioning the man given by nature. If we do find evil things, they arise in modernity mainly from those who claim that God has spoken to us or from that reason tells us something for certain about ourselves, that there are absolute truths and standards. Behind the great contemporary outcry against "fundamentalism" lies the fear of autonomous reason that something other than itself exists. Socrates' rule that it is better to suffer evil than to do it likewise is specifically overthrown. Given a choice between suffering evil and doing it, we do it, because we are the ones who decide by our actions what is good. Suffering as such has no transcendent meaning, no capacity to witness to a standard higher than human will.

 

We are told that there is no destiny, no immortality, no providence or at least none that could contradict what we choose. Our nobility does not consist in defying the gods since there are no gods, though we do defy what we are told that the gods have revealed to us. We positively reject them in rejecting their so-called commands. We act out our own wills to prove that the gods are not gods. We have no king but Caesar. Our political history consists in controverting one another after we have deified ourselves, since will is crossed by will. No absolute truth exists to arbitrate between will and will. If the Bible, the word from outside of ourselves, is, as Richard Wilber says it has become, merely "literature", not standard or authority, then it is not the Word of God. We study the Bible for reasons for which the Bible was neither composed nor preserved. If the Bible is literature, it will do us no damage, nor will it give us any authoritative guidance.

 

II.

It is widely accepted though rarely acknowledged that, in terms of content analysis, little study of orthodox Roman Catholicism as such is found in Catholic universities, with the exception of what we find in the newer and smaller schools. If we compare the required credits of today with those of fifty years ago, it is clear that we demand practically nothing, two to four courses, usually. Sometimes one has the impression that the content of Roman Catholic studies programs in state or Protestant colleges is more accurate in presenting the essence of Catholicism than in the Catholic colleges. The fact is, in any case, that, numbers-wise, most Catholic university students in the United States and Europe are in state schools. Largely because their tax monies went only to state institutions, the vast majority of middle-class Catholic students have been mostly priced out of the private school market. Few of the student-aid programs in Catholic universities are aimed at Catholic students as such; paradoxically in this area, the "poor" or diversity students have replaced the "Catholic" as the primary beneficiaries of such schools' private aid package. It seems a further fact, again with a few exceptions, that most Newman Clubs in public universities are, in content, parallel to the situation in the Catholic colleges. The orderly, careful presentation of what exactly the Church holds as an appeal to mind, such as that found in the Summa or in the Catechism, would come as simply startling to the average student who has never heard it so presented. It is not that that such a student is necessarily hostile to this content, but simply that he has never heard it explained or been asked to consider its content and coherence.

 

Were there, for instance, an objective national examination to ascertain whether students in existing theology and philosophy classes knew the bare minimum contents of what Catholicism teaches about itself -- one could use the Catechism as a guide -- it would no doubt be discovered that the situation was worse than dismal. Increasingly, students themselves know this situation and lament it. Recently, I asked a very bright young senior at a college that still calls itself Catholic if he thought the students at his college received even the barest minimum of accurate knowledge about Catholicism. He laughed and said, "No, of course not. There is only one course in our school that even professes to be about Roman Catholicism and that is taught by someone who I am sure is a heretic." Certain colleges, in what appears to many to be a lack of courage, have taken to describing themselves as schools in or from the Roman Catholic tradition. This wording constitutes a not so subtle way of maintaining a minimum amount of honesty about what is actually taught in the classes while at the same time not admitting any objective evaluation of the content of this tradition as actually taught in the school..

 

Theology, even when it is still called theology, has been replaced in practice and often in name by "religious studies", which means that one is as likely to have a course in Buddhism as in the Trinity. The object of study is not Catholicism, but all religions. Indeed, multiculturalism, not the universal culture, has become the criterion of theological education. Roman Catholic theology and philosophy, something that can by no means be adequately presented in the one or two required courses in philosophy or "religious studies", exist within a curriculum in which Islam and Catholicism have more or less equal billing with Marxism and deconstructionism. No one, presumably, would think of studying, say, Saudi Arabia, without studying the Koran, but we often find those who would quite innocently follow a study abroad program in Europe to admire Chartres in its 800th year of existence without an accurate clue about the meaning of the Blessed Mother.

 

At the academic level, furthermore, little agreement is found about what Catholicism is. No authority other than internal is allowed to decide what it is and what it is not. Catholicism is what is taught to be Catholicism. In academic institutions, hostility is manifested to Catholicism's ability authoritatively to define itself and objectively present this teaching as true and intellectually defensible. That articulating this authority and its grounding was the purpose for which religious institution were established is not recognized in any positive or constitutional sense. In a moment of madness, one almost longs for a return of interdicts and excommunications if only accurately to identify what is in fact Catholic and to be maintained as Catholic. It does not take an overly bright student to be aware that contradictory and incompatible positions are being proposed as Catholic in different classes and in comparison with what he might know coming from the Church itself.

 

Thus, one does not have to be too perceptive to know that Catholicism cannot really be everything it is taught to be and still maintain its own coherent and consistent authority. With more than a little irony, we can now see in retrospect how and why these instruments of interdict and excommunication arose in the first place -- namely, because certain professors and writers denied or obscured what was true. Such formal canonical instruments were established, as was in part episcopal authority itself, to protect the faithful from deviant intellectuals. There may be another way to accomplish this same purpose -- John Paul II has in fact managed to go over the heads of the universities with his careful and brilliant analysis of the truths of the faith and the philosophy that supports it. But at the actual university level, nothing seems evident. Ralph McInerny's proposal to establish a university through television is clearly a step in the direction of bypassing or at least counteracting the confusing diversity of what passes as Catholicism in the academies. Perhaps the way to go for the American episcopacy is to encourage the establishment of more smaller and coherent colleges and let the present schools go their own ways, which the massive decline in religious vocations seems to portent in any case.

 

As it is, since little or nothing is done by official Catholic sources to establish whether what is being taught in the area doctrine and morals in the schools follows official Church teachings, it is assumed at the public level that every thing that is said to be Catholic is in fact Catholic. Anyone who hints otherwise seems to usurp episcopal prerogative. If the bishop is silent, there can be no problem. It is considered divisive even to intimate that what is being taught is in any way erroneous, no matter what it is. Tenure and academic freedom have come to guarantee in practice that what is taught as Catholic is, by that very fact, what is Catholic in the universities, whatever it is. Those in ecclesial authority who make no inquiries or who do nothing to suggest there is any problem are understood to accept the status quo. Officially silence rules.

 

Church law, in any case, is so unwieldy and so easily misunderstood in this area that it is practically useless anyhow. No one can blame a bishop for wanting to avoid unpleasant publicity. The practical structure of Catholic organization implies, however, that when bishops or superiors do nothing, this inactivity means, in practice, that any non-officially-sanctioned opinion in the schools or media is by that very fact assumed to be compatible with Catholicism; otherwise it would have been sanctioned. Since it is the bishop's job to care for the faith and nothing is forthcoming, things must be fine. Anyone who suggests otherwise is the one at fault. Criteria of loyalty to the institution or uncharitableness to individuals take the place of objective accounts of the truth or falsity of what is being taught or practiced.

 

True "Catholicism" as it appears in the schools, thus, comes to have little consistent public content and takes the shape of what is taught or proposed. It mirrors the liberalism of the schools themselves. Indeed, Catholicism is not taught but is "proposed" as if it were a hypothetical problematic searching for some future form. Another graduate of a Catholic college now working overseas told me that the local missionaries there held that the Catechism was "trash". One wonders about the content of their counter-sources, about what it is they are doing or teaching. What would anyone who thought the Catechism was "trash" be teaching in its place? We find many indications that Catholicism is taught as if it is something other than what it says of itself -- this at a time when what it says of itself at the papal level is extraordinarily persuasive, brilliant, and philosophically grounded.

 

Individual teachers, no doubt, are still found who will account for the central Catholic tradition, though any new teachers who hold these things are difficult to be hired or, if hired, to acquire tenure. A young professor recently, after reading Avery Dulles' critical remarks to the Catholic Theological Society, observed that he would like to say many of the same things but if he did, he would never get tenure at his school. Students, on the other hand, are increasingly unhappy with the kind of exclusive radical and politically correct gospel to which they are subjected in many departments, not just theology and philosophy. English and history are often among the worst. That is, students are not buying what is being taught. Just as there is a newer and younger group in the secular order rejecting the liberal enthusiasms of the now aging and out-of-date 60's and 70's generations, so younger clergy and seminarians worry the established clerical version of the same outmoded movements in their religious forms.

 

Still, there is almost no place where the intellectual revolution that is John Paul II is either known or confronted in any systematic fashion. What is striking in fact is the lack of any serious study of this reality. One hears rumors that at least some bishops, reminded again and again by the Holy Father of their responsibility to teach the truth of the faith at every level, are bothered by the condition of the universities, but nothing serious has thus far appeared other than a few quiet meetings. The Holy Father himself, however, still retains his remarkable charisma of being able to reach over the heads of media and universities into the heart of many young people in our time. The Holy Father has produced one of the most amazing and coherent corpus of teachings in the history of the Church and of human thought. We will, no doubt, be remembered by posterity as an academic generation who were alive when the greatest intellectual experience in Church history took place and many of us did not even notice it, except perhaps to oppose it.

 

III.

One might say, I suppose, that local bishops really do not want to know what is being taught in the name of Roman Catholicism in the local colleges. They know it is a can of worms and have too many other problems. Unlike European bishops, our bishops are a distinctly unacademic lot. One can wonder, however, if many of their other problems do not arise because of a long neglect in this area, one that affects even their own ability to understand the faith and their faithful's ability to practice it. Bishops must know in some degree the extent in which even their most educated laity are intellectually unevangelized in the past quarter century. The rapid rise of evangelism in our country seems to make the same graphic point that the rise of the Pentecostals in Latin America makes.

 

When a question of orthodoxy comes up in some unavoidable fashion, moreover, what seems to happen, if anything, is that the local ordinary, after being prodded by irate laymen or parents or students, calls up the local university or college president who, in turn, assures him that all is well and that the rumors are exaggerated, usually by some hapless conservative. The ordinary makes no further objective analysis of his own but goes back to his busy schedule. The school goes on its way under protection of academic freedom comforted that the local ordinary has no official problems with what it is doing. However, one would think, reading the documents of the Church and knowing its stormy history, that the very first person interested in what passes for Roman Catholicism as presented in the colleges, Protestant, Catholic, and state, would be the local bishop. He has a vested interest in seeing that what is described as Catholicism is in fact what is presented as such. The very idea of such organizations called "Catholics For Choice", for instance, seems like nothing so much as a violation of copyright or patent laws. But the name is allowed to stand and its members are not excommunicated, so it appears in the press as a viable Catholic "option".

 

We know there is some attention to Ex Corde Ecclesiae by a few bishops, but almost invariably the solution of any problem is left in the hands of those who have the problem. There is evidently discord among the bishops themselves about the extent of the problem and what might be done. Students and parents have, in the Code of Canon Law, a right and an obligation to know whether what is taught in the name of or as a description of Catholicism is accurate or not. There is nothing necessarily wrong or unhealthy, of course, about being exposed to descriptions of Catholicism that are in fact widely off the mark, except when there is nothing else presented by way of contrast or correction. St. Thomas' Summa, in fact, insisted on dealing directly with errant positions precisely as a method to teach the true position.

 

Catholic students who went to public schools at one time regularly had to study the Baltimore Catechism. Bishops required this study, in fact. That is, when what is presented as Catholicism is seriously deficient or erroneous, the local bishop has some responsibility to provide an alternate program and suggest that Catholic students have an opportunity, indeed an obligation, to know what is the Church's understanding of itself on basic issues. No doubt the most interesting and healthy thing that could happen would be for some brave bishop who has actually learned what is taught in a college in his diocese to insist that Catholic university students, even those who get credit for religion or philosophy courses in the local Catholic college, for the good of their souls, also take a course under his direction, one based on what the Church teaches. With today's media facilities, this is probably feasible. For all the talk about Vatican II restoring the episcopacy, one would have to conclude that in this area of what colleges actually teach in courses about Roman Catholicism, the episcopacy is little in evidence. Implicitly, it seems to accept what is being presented in the colleges as Catholic, no matter whether it agree with the teaching authority of the Church or not.

 

At the same time, perhaps because of an unacknowledged awareness that students in fact know very little of the rich Catholic intellectual tradition, or know that they cannot find it in the university, we are beginning to hear from various sources proposals to institute, of all things, Catholic academic programs within Catholic colleges, something that at first sight sounds like squaring the circle. Even Catholic schools are beginning indirectly to acknowledge that they have not been teaching Catholic things in any adequate fashion. This proposal is designed in part to appeal to wealthy Catholics who have been turned off by the acknowledged poor record of Catholic colleges to identify and foster that for which they were founded. But unfortunately, the proposal generally looks to the same administrators and faculty, who were responsible for the present condition of Catholic studies in the first place, to implement the mew programs. Generally speaking, as I have mentioned, Roman Catholic theology is no longer taught, but in its stead appears something called "Religious Studies" in which a gentleman's acquaintance with everything from Buddhism to Animism, from Luther to the Koran, is taught in a kind of liberal free market of religious ideas, not that there is anything wrong with accurate knowledge of Animism or the Koran. Roman Catholic theology is rarely if ever taught as demonstrably true within the intellectual tradition we inherit from Augustine or Aquinas. It does not appear as something that does deal, by comparison, with whatever truth is found in other religions and philosophies.

 

IV.

In a too little known essay in Modern Age, Frederick Wilhelmsen reflected on what he considered the greatest faults of Catholic schools in the last half-century, namely their voluntarily giving up their own most effective scholastic intellectual tradition in favor of "great books". In the meantime, the great books themselves have been undermined by multiculturalism and no longer bear the burden they were supposed to have carried as a replacement for scholastic thought. The current ideologies are nothing so orderly and rationalistic as Marxism or enlightenment liberalism, but rather they doubt the very powers of the intellect itself -- the establishment of which, incidently, was almost the very first issue to which the old scholastic method in the colleges, as Wilhelmsen remarked, addressed itself.

 

At first sight, it is puzzling for many to figure out just why Catholic colleges went the way they did, downplaying rather than emphasizing their Catholic uniqueness. There are many opinions on this score. In once sense, I think, a major step was Msgr. John Tracy Ellis' famous article on "American Catholics and the Intellectual Life", back in the early 1960's. That article, paradoxically, was an attack on what was considered to be the mediocrity of the then just rising Catholic colleges, a mediocrity hotly disputed by Wilhelmsen in his essay. The method to decide this presumed mediocrity was something that has since become the main instrument for the secularizing of Catholic colleges, namely, the desire for prestige, defined as the universities define prestige -- that is, by articles in prestigious journals, professors from prestigious colleges, books by prestigious presses, membership in prestigious organizations.

 

One can excuse a certain amount of vanity in academics, I suppose. But it eventually becomes clear that this prestige criterion eventually ends up by changing the structure and purpose of the Catholic university without changing its name or initially its conception of itself. By giving up the scholastic tradition or, better, by not developing it within its own genius, Catholic institutions in practice accepted the terms of the modern project, only to find out too late that this project was somehow opposed to the academic teaching of Catholicism. The cynic might say that we now have great universities but no Catholic university, the latter being something that the modern liberal thought was impossible in any case. Government money, hiring policies, and evaluation criteria have made such universities prefer to be "universities" rather than Catholic universities.

 

No doubt there is nothing wrong with a desire for excellence. The problem is in the day to day understanding of how this excellence is defined in a Catholic world and in the culture of modernity. One cannot simply imitate the style and sources of modernity at every level and expect to retain one's own tradition. What we need is a new center of intellectual witness that really does say something else but what can be found in a rather uniform modern university system. That unique tradition has to have its own voice and its own content. A Catholic university will not be ashamed to teach its own tradition as true, will not hesitate to hire and publish those who can articulate this position. For this effort we need the courage of our own convictions; we need in fact something of the intellectual depth and enterprise that John Paul II has demonstrated to us again and again in all of his work. Though this approach will not accord with the prestige of the secular universities, still it will be recognized as itself, as standing for what it professes about its own intellectual tradition.

 

Today, young Catholic professors who know and love the tradition -- they come from surprising places -- are often in the diaspora; they cannot be hired or promoted in their natural homes in the Catholic universities. This is not all bad, of course, since, as I mentioned, most Catholic university students are not in Catholic universities. A Catholic student with a spark of inquisitiveness often only needs to find one person, even in some out of the way place, to make a difference. A chance reading of Cicero, after all, changed Augustine's life in some out of the way reach of Empire. The fact is, as I have often suggested, that intellectually Catholicism itself has never been stronger or culturally weaker. Whether existing universities "in the Catholic tradition" will make much difference in restoring the Catholic intellect remains to be seen. The fact is today that other institutions and media make universities less important particularly when they have nothing unique to present.

 

Let me close by returning to Wilhelmsen's reflections on his own early education before World War II:

The seal of a Jesuit education was eighteen hours of philosophy, the study of which was constituted by a rigorous and systematic education in the scholastic tradition, beginning with logic and usually ending with ethics.... In the still ghetto-dominated Catholicism of the times, the post-immigrant inferiority complex that plagued the Church in America disappeared within the walls of Jesuit schools. We were the best educated men in the nation and we knew it. ... There was little, if any, of that hankering after the Ivy League that often troubled many of our WASP brothers in academia. Not only was our Church right, but we had the reasons to prove it.

In retrospect, such reflections cannot be any longer written off as triumphalism or as some outmoded understanding of an historic culture. Rather they recall what was given up and not developed, tools and methods and principles that we no longer know or teach but which remain valid. Under the inspiration of the work of John Paul II, they are there to be recalled or, more likely, to build anew, beginning in small, unprestigious places the careful intellectual work that our culture so greatly needs.