The Catholic Thing
Fides et Ratio: The Aeterni Patris of This Generation? Print E-mail
By Randall Smith   
Thursday, 19 August 2010

As students are beginning to arrive at our more than 250 Catholic colleges and universities in America for a new academic year, it’s a good thing for those who care about the Catholic tradition to recall a little recent history.

In 1879, Pope Leo XIII published the encyclical letter Aeterni Patris, in which he called for an intellectual revival based on the “perennial philosophy” of Thomas Aquinas. In the years following, there was a remarkable flourishing of the Catholic intellectual life as institutes were founded and university curricula were redesigned in fidelity to Leo’s call for reform.

In 1998, Pope John Paul II published the encyclical letter Fides et Ratio, in which he too called for a Catholic intellectual revival, one based on a renewed appreciation for the necessary dialogue between faith and reason. That would involve re-discovering the metaphysical and sapiential dimensions of philosophy, as well as the formulation of an integrative vision of human knowledge to counteract the fragmentation of knowledge that characterize the various disciplines in the modern university. 

In the years since, there has been a remarkable silence about Pope John Paul’s call for renewal as Catholic colleges and universities continue on as usual, as though the encyclical were never written, or else they pretend that by doing nothing different and merely re-describing their usual practices in more “integrative” language, they can fool people into thinking they’ve been faithful to John Paul II’s vision.

How tragic. One of the greatest popes in history writes a remarkably nuanced and intellectually profound encyclical — one basically exhorting Western civilization not to lose its faith in reason — and a dozen years later the response from the halls of the academy is still a collective yawn: “We can’t be bothered with this. We’re much too busy doing cutting-edge scholarship.” Cutting-edge scholarship that very few people read, much less care about, and that is largely subservient to the categories of modern thought, rather than a challenge to them.

Like the modern corporate executive who is too busy doing whatever it is he does to ask why he is doing it, or to think more broadly about how what he does contributes to the larger goals of the corporation (let alone society) as a whole, so too the modern corporate Catholic university is much too busy doing whatever it does (raising money, seeking greater levels of prestige, sucking up to secular counterparts) to engage the kind of fundamental issues that Pope John Paul II is asking be considered in Fides et Ratio.

Why, for example, hasn’t every major Catholic college and university in the country held a series of annual conferences on the topic: “What would a Catholic college or university look like if it took Fides et Ratio seriously?” Why hasn’t every Catholic college and university in the country re-examined its curriculum in light of John Paul II’s call for reform?

I have no answer, other than this: We aren’t the kind of people our forebears were, who heard the call and answered it. They swam against the tide of modernist philosophy characteristic of their day, contrary to their own training, which usually involved a combination of Newtonian physics fitted into Cartesian metaphysics, and the whole ensemble adjusted to the schema of Christian Wolff's concept of philosophy. 

The late Fr. James Weisheipl once suggested in a wonderful article on “The Revival of Thomism” (available on-line here ): “Historically speaking, it must be admitted that Catholic textbooks in philosophy produced during the eighteenth and early nineteenth century were very much ‘up to date’ in the sense of being modern. The latest findings of modern science were incorporated; the Bible and post Cartesian philosophers were generously quoted, while Aristotle and scholastic philosophers were rarely mentioned, except in an historical survey.” 

Breaking with all this “being-up-to-date-ness” and returning to the roots of their own Catholic tradition made possible a new flowering of Catholic intellectual life. Karl Rahner, Bernard Lonergan, Edith Stein, Henri de Lubac, Josef Pieper, Jacques Maritain, Yves Simon, Flannery O’Connor, Pope John Paul II — the list goes on and on — all of whom owe much of their intellectual formation to that Thomistic revival. In nearly every case, such scholars went beyond their Thomistic training and developed their thought in differing directions – a good teacher could ask for nothing more – but the formation they received studying the thought of Thomas Aquinas gave them a solid foundation on which to build. It also gave them a common language and set of categories with which they could enter into dialogue both with their Catholic peers and their secular counterparts. Such are the benefits of being formed in the “perennial philosophy” of the “Common Doctor.”

As T. S. Eliot has written of this generation, most of us know “only a heap of broken images.” And our lack of fidelity to the call of a great pope to reform Catholic education will be much to the detriment of the generations to follow. We owe them the fruits of the reform entrusted to us, as we have been beneficiaries of the reforms passed down to us.

Randall Smith is associate professor of theology at the University of St. Thomas, Houston.

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Comments (6)Add Comment
written by Sandra Jones, August 20, 2010
Can you spell Ex Corde Ecclesiae? Most "Catholic" colleges and universities cannot. With practice ignoring Vatican documents becomes very easy because there is no repercussion, in this life anyway. Starting with academe's public rejection of Humanae Vitae the Popes can be safely ignored and only used when their teaching coincides with liberal agendas such as immigration.
written by Howard Kainz, August 20, 2010
In American Catholic university systems, a number of things stand in the way of implementing the directives of Leo XIII and John Paul II. The extraordinary synthesis of Thomas Aquinas is handicapped in some areas of discussion by an Aristotelian cosmology and apparently pre-modern notions of biology and human nature. New professors of philosophy and theology often have been trained in centers emphasizing anti-metaphysical or relativistic theories, and the American Association of University Professors keeps an ever-watchful eye on hirings and firings, especially of tenured faculty. So there are some very formidable challenges facing even administrators who wish to apply the papal directives.
written by Magister Christianus, August 20, 2010
I would add that there is a fair amount of lazy narcissism involved. Far too many instructors try to pass themselves off as scholars by indulging, and being indulged, in pet projects. No one wants to change what he or she is doing, in part because we all have the tendency to do only what pleases us, but in part also because we have grown lazy. To change the way we think, teach, write, discuss, research, and publish requires work. It is difficult. Oh, and there is also the sad fact that too many who pass for scholars really do not know how to think critically and robustly, let alone faithfully. To follow the lead of Fides et Ratio would be to expose one's inabilities, and no one wants to do that.
written by Pete brown, August 20, 2010
Nice article but I respectfully differ from your analysis on a few points. Mainly I don't think Fides et Ratio was intended to cause a Thomistic revival in anything like the way Aeterni Patris was. JPII specifically stated that it was not the purpose of the Church to adopt an official philosophical system much less to impose it on anyone. Philosophy after all isn't philosophy anymore if the Church were to do this. The encyclical however was about emphasizing the importance of philosophy in the life of the Church. And I do see something a renewed emphasis on this in many Catholic universities--though more than Thomas and Thomism there is a renewed Augustinianism and sometimes more modern phenomenological approaches a la Edith Stein and the von Hilldrebrands. So the Thomistic hegemony is gone (and probably for good) but that doesn't mean that Catholic philosophy is dead. By no means!!
written by Emina Melonic, August 20, 2010
What a wonderful column, prof. Smith. And I love your list of Thomists--seeing those names for me can only mean one thing: Joy.

I know that you speak of colleges and universities but let me offer a very small insight into Catholic high schools as well. I taught both English and Religion at two Catholic high schools for boys. When it comes to teaching Religion, it was quite difficult. I started and I was handed textbooks, which in my view dealt more with psychology than with Catholic theology. Textbooks were filled with emotionalism and self-esteem. They were also filled with the importance of social justice issues: this is fine, but if a 16 year old boy (or a girl) does not know WHY he should participate in social justice, then he will find no reason. In any case, I actually had to see some texts which were used in high schools pre-Vatican II in order to make sure that children received theology which was free of emotionalism or worse, doctrinal error. And of course, in very small steps, I introduced boys to Augustine, Aquinas, and I have used Fides et ratio as well. They were amazed that those two beautiful realities can be in harmony. My point in all of this is that this sort of teaching does have to start early, and unfortunately, high schools are suffering as well. Thanks for a great essay.
written by Michael, August 23, 2010
I had the great good fortuen to have one of the greatest Catholic philosophers of the last century, Elizabeth Anscombe, as my tutor,
An Analytical philosopher, a student,friend and translator of Wittgenstein, she was his successor as Professor of Philosophy at Cambridge. She was a model of intellectual rigour and Catholic orthodoxy, who would have snorted with derision, if anyone had suggested that there could be a cconflict between faith and reason, but who never confused theology with philosophy.
John Haldane and Alasdair MacIntyre are in the same tradition.

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