Unity versus Diversity

My colleague Alasdair MacIntyre has just published a book entitled God, Philosophy, Universities. It could scarcely be more timely. Most striking, perhaps, is the contrast between the vision of the university – its past, present, and future – that MacIntyre gives us and the assumptions actually guiding our own university.

If any single phrase can sum up the abandonment of the true mission of a university it is “research university.” There is nothing wrong with research, of course, but the way it is presently pursued and funded furthers the fragmentation and balkanization of higher education, first begun with departments that pursued their goals with little or no interest in or knowledge of what was going on elsewhere. We have become the multiversity Clark Kerr described, celebrating diversity from no recognizable point of view.

MacIntyre has been called “a philosopher’s philosopher,” and this was meant as praise, but he is anything but typical of the breed. He has come back by a long serpentine path to the Church and Thomism.

His attitude toward Thomism is somewhat like Groucho’s toward the club that admitted him. It has been said of the Irish that they are an honest race: they never speak well of one another. In that sense, perhaps all philosophers are Irish. MacIntrye certainly is, and Ireland receives what many will find a surprisingly large role in his historical account, but this is chiefly because of Cardinal Newman’s efforts as first rector of the Catholic university that the Irish bishops founded and which occasioned The Idea of a University. Like Newman, MacIntyre emphasizes the unifying role that only theology can play in a true university. Men are made for God; philosophers are men; ergo, etc.

After an incisive sketch of what the university has become, MacIntyre develops a portrait of the nature of a Catholic university by drawing on Ex corde ecclesiae and Fides et Ratio, documents in which he finds an updated version of the Thomism that should be our guide. He faults Aeterni Patris for failing to see the dialectical method that Thomas employed, and there is the familiar dismissal of the manuals produced during the first period of the Thomistic Revival. (I do wish someone would thoroughly explore that topic. There were, after all, manuals and manuals.)

MacIntyre calls his history of the Catholic philosophical tradition selective, and so it is, but brilliantly so. Do not look for an account of a past golden age, though in this age of brass, the medieval university with its lively disputations and dialectical approach, all done under the recognized primacy of theology, certainly glitters.

The book brings us to a paradoxical realization. The Catholic philosopher, as MacIntyre understands him, can find no comfortable place in the present day university, Catholic or secular. MacIntyre himself is proof of this. His understanding of what we ought to be doing is at odds with the assumptions guiding the University of Notre Dame, where the author plies his trade.

Notre Dame is now in the news for all the wrong reasons. The current scandal draws attention to the fact that the university has adopted all the assumptions of the secular research university (see the university web site, for example); whatever lip service is paid to the special nature of a Catholic university, the agenda actually being pursued by Notre Dame is intentionally like those in places wistfully referred to as our “peer institutions.” We are emphatically part of the problem and totally unaware of the corrective role a truly Catholic university could play on the current moonscape of higher education.

When the tumult and the shouting of the current scandal fade away, I would like to see our fellows and trustees trucked off to Land O’Lakes and made to read God, Philosophy, Universities. Twice. They would do well to take the author with them. The current fiasco, which has pitted Notre Dame against the Catholic hierarchy of the United States (and earned them plaudits from the AAUP and the Jesuits at America!) provides a precious opportunity to reflect on what we are doing. We have been on the path to secularization for a long time and in the process forgotten what a university should be, let alone a Catholic university. I do not expect to live long enough to see a serious reform begin.

In the meantime, the Catholic philosopher is as MacIntyre describes him: One who pleads for unity on a campus that celebrates “diversity.” One who, against the grain, recalls fundamental truths about higher education rightly considered.

And in the case of Alasdair MacIntyre himself, a world-class philosopher whose edgy writings have engaged the attention of philosophers all over the globe but who, in the manner of other prophets, goes unheeded on his own campus. In this book, he has performed an enormous service to philosophy and to the Church. Thank you, Alasdair.

Ralph McInerny (1929-2010) was a writer of philosophy, fiction, and cultural criticism, who taught at Notre Dame from 1955 until his death in 2010. He was among the founding contributors to The Catholic Thing.