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.