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Recovering Faith & Reason Print E-mail
By Robert Royal   
Monday, 28 May 2012

A half century ago, the Catholic historian Christopher Dawson warned that, “if Christians cannot assert their right to exist in the sphere of higher education, they will eventually be pushed not only out of modern culture, but out of physical existence.” Strong stuff from a mild man, especially in a culture that claims to be “open” to all points of view – yet regards such warnings as evidence of Catholicism’s extremism and narrowness of spirit.

But the intervening years have proved Dawson right. He predicted that even an extensive Catholic elementary system wouldn’t resist secularizing trends and would be essentially swallowed whole by the “modern Leviathan.” Most Catholic colleges and universities followed suit, with the result that it’s rare to come across a Catholic deeply educated in Catholic culture and the humanistic disciplines that the Church has both learned from and fostered.

This dual absence is the single most important crisis in our culture, and it impacts both Catholic and non-Catholics. You don’t have to dig very deep to see that the most burning questions in morals and in public life stem, at bottom, from the lack of adequate rational and religious tools. But some of us have decided that we will not take this situation lying down.

Last week, about two dozen Catholic faculty from various institutions spent seven days together at Thomas More College in New Hampshire, studying “The Catholic Intellectual Tradition: The Church Fathers, Doctors, Popes, and Sacred Art & Music.” This involves reading and discussing texts by figures such as Athanasius, Gregory of Nyssa, Basil the Great, Augustine, Anselm, Bernard of Clairvaux, Albertus Magnus, Bonaventure, Theresa of Avila, Francis de Sales, Leo XIII, John Paul II, Benedict XVI – to say nothing of quite illuminating lectures on the development of sacred music in Gregorian chant, polyphony, and renaissance forms, and the understanding of sacred art through study of the ancient basilicas.

            This is just one of the many Fides et Ratio Seminars organized since 2006 by Dr. Patrick Powers, under the auspices of the Faith & Reason Institute, the parent institution of The Catholic Thing, through the generous support of Michele and Donald D’Amour. Patrick and Donald honed their own academic skills at Assumption College, under the legendary Fr. Ernest Fortin, and later at Notre Dame with luminaries such as the late Ralph McInerny, one of TCT’s founding contributors.
Fredrick Crosson, another ND standout of the Liberal Studies Program, also had early influence on the seminars as has TCT’s own James V. Schall, S.J. We’ve met at places as diverse as Benedictine College (Kansas), Providence College, Wyoming Catholic, Belmont Abbey, Notre Dame Seminary (New Orleans), the University of Notre Dame, and others.

Over the years, we’ve come to formulate the mission as: “Nurturing the souls of young men and women by strengthening Catholic liberal education.” Note: the emphasis is on forming young people, though the path to that goal lies in first forming – or reforming – the teachers and administrators they will encounter as they move through higher education. Some of the participating institutions have already been pursuing that same goal. But since 2006, more than 350 participants have attended the seminars from seventy-five colleges, universities, seminaries, institutes, high schools, and dioceses in thirty-five states, as well as from Italy, Argentina, Peru, Chile, and Canada. There’s nothing as broad-based and comprehensive, anywhere.


    St. John’s Seminary, Camarillo, California

Some assume that professors at America’s Catholic institutions must be constantly talking among themselves about the Catholic tradition and how to teach it rigorously. Sadly, that is not the case. In addition to the well-known ideological and professional obstacles, many Catholic professors feel isolated or are consumed by teaching duties and administrative tasks.

The seminars give them time and space to reconnect with the tradition and with one another. Several of our alumni have gone back to their own institutions and founded ongoing discussion groups with colleagues wanting to familiarize themselves more deeply with different facets of the tradition. One of the most active is at the University of Dallas, where a dedicated group seeks to make an already strong institution even better.  

Among the many valuable dimensions of these discussions is the way they move smoothly between strict attention to texts created at very different periods in Christian history and the ways they may still speak to someone living in modern-day America, both to challenge and affirm.  

In June, for instance, a “total immersion” seminar for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles on “The Catholic Intellectual Tradition and America,” will be hosted by St. John’s Seminary in Camarillo, CA – and co-hosted by Thomas Aquinas College. We did a similar seminar last year in Denver. Participants, including seminary professors and people working for the archdiocese, read texts from Bunyan and Hawthorne, Aquinas and Dante, Newman and Tocqueville, Allan Bloom and Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, as well as novels like Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop, Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory, and Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer. After all that, you get a wide appreciation of the challenges to Catholicism in modern America.            

In a typical year there are six events, and this year is no different: an advance sequence – in two sessions – on the Fathers, etc. at Thomas More College; one at Wyoming Catholic College on the Catholic tradition in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries; and the fourth at St. John’s Seminary in Camarillo CA. In addition, for the first time, there are two “retreats” for headmasters and deans, also at Thomas More, in which participants read Cardinal Newman together to get a clearer idea of their responsibilities.

So the next time you hear about yet another Catholic professor or university caving in to pressures that threaten both Catholicity and the long tradition of the liberal arts, don’t despair. Yes, the big picture is troubling, and shouldn’t be taken lightly. But there are serious energies of renewal afoot, at several levels, and they will come to fruition, in the next generation – and many more generations to come.

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing, and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent book is The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West, now available in paperback from Encounter Books.

The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.
  

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Comments (11)Add Comment
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written by harrison, May 28, 2012
I'm disappointed that the Humanities and Catholic Culture program at Franciscan University of Steubenville is not included in this list. James Gaston, the founder of the program, has been at the forefront of this conversation for the past 20 years. It's inspiration lies in the brilliant thought of Christopher Dawson. It's a shame this program is not well known. Mr. Royal please check out the HCC major on Franciscan's website. And I encourage everyone to read Dawson's book: The Crisis of Western Education.
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written by Robert Royal, May 28, 2012
Harrison, you're misreading the intent here. This isn't a list of every good Catholic liberal arts program, but a description of our Fides et Ratio program, which has drawn people from seventy-five places here and abroad. Steubenville has been among the strongest participants.
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written by MichaelP71, May 28, 2012
I am an old guy (40...hahaha) who is trying to remake his mind as scripture says. Can someone help me with a list of books or websites that would help me to do this? I do not have the finances or time to go to a school. However and this is what is huge for me; I have two kids and I feel the responsibility to make sure that they can think on thier own and if they hear me speaking intelligently about life and the faith maybe it will help them to embrace Christ on their own some day.
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written by Frank, May 28, 2012
Perhaps it is time to provide a gentle but firm reminder to the Church's contribution to the American Experience establishing colleges and universities throughout the country to educate immigrants of the 19th and 20th Centuries. America reaped the rewards of this education to become both an economic and world power.
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written by Robert Royal, May 28, 2012
MichaelP71: Why don't you pick up Fr. Schall's "Another Sort of Learning", which has just such lists and provides them precisely so many people won't have to waste time at a limp college or university.
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written by Frank, May 28, 2012
MichaelP71 - I'm a big Cardinal Newman fan. His writing is both eloquent and elegant and a large part (if not all) is on the Internet.
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written by Martinkus, May 28, 2012
A high school version of the Fides et Ratio Seminar needs to be organized for us high school theology teachers who are faithful to the Magisterium and to Dawson's vision, and who often offer students their last academic study of the Catholic Faith since many of them go to state or private secular colleges, and who receive no such support from our administrators or diocese. Help!
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written by Dave, May 28, 2012
When the first Roman Empire fell, the monasteries -- the educational institutions of their days -- kept the Faith alive and culture alive. The same thing is happening now: the second Roman Empire is falling apart from rot from within and the darkness is rising: "and the Light shines in darkness, and the darkness has not overtaken it." Thanks to these and other symposia, the Light of Faith will not be extinguished even if we traverse very troubled times.
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written by stanley, May 29, 2012
For all his flaws, Glenn Beck was a pretty good evangelist for many things Christian and Catholic. We need the tools soon I think. We need laser-like answers to the idealogy of diversity, etc.
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written by Rick DeLano, May 30, 2012
The dogma of our Faith has been inverted in practice:

Faith is inferior to Reason, though never in conflict with right Reason.

This inversion is the precise cause of the disaster which has befallen us.
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written by Fr SB, May 30, 2012
There needs to be a Fides et Ratio conference for those involved in ministry to higher education at secular universities - Catholic professors and Catholic Centers that seek to be a part of the intellectual discussions going on at these universities. Ninety percent of Catholic college students attend secular colleges and universities.

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