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 http://www.domcentral.org/study/revival.htm  ): “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.