People often ask me what they can do as Catholics in the modern world. What they usually mean is how can they help deal with major public issues like abortion and marriage, poverty and religious liberty. There are many organizations – in addition to The Catholic Thing and the Faith & Reason Institute – that can use a spare hand or a contribution. And there are operations closer to home, too, and no shortage of challenges there.
But I also say that to tackle such matters as Catholics, you have to pray first. When we founded TCT, I used to tell staff not to open the site in the morning before invoking divine aid – which many days we desperately needed. But we also are much in need of something else.
Now, you may think that this comes rather far down the list given the urgency of so many things, especially in an election year. Look, Royal: last week, a guy shot up the Family Research Council in Washington because he didn’t like their traditional values and you want us to study? Besides, many wise men – pagans and Christians alike – have pointed out that great learning is not wisdom, and often blocks the way to becoming wise.
Agreed, but I still believe that, among many other things, we need what only careful study provides. Once upon a time, Catholics didn’t so much need to know a lot as to feel confident that there were people, serious people, who did. Now we run the risk of being overwhelmed long before we get a chance to speak, which is why we need many more knowledgeable Catholics leavening the whole lump.
You don’t – necessarily – have to go back to school. How about, for example, studying with Hadley Arkes without having to go through all the inconveniences of attending a place like Amherst? Or take a look at the website of the Catholic Distance University, an orthodox institution where you can earn undergraduate and graduate degrees, or just take seminars on important topics.
It helps, though, to study along with other people because we gain their insights as well as our own. And let’s face it: committing ourselves to work with others helps keeps us at the task. Jews around the world have just finished a cycle of reading through the entire Talmud – one page a day for seven and a half years – according to a system worked out for anyone interested.
I was admiring this project and wishing Catholics had one like it when it struck me: we do. And I played a small part in spreading the idea several years back. I was reading into the great modern Thomist philosopher Jacques Maritain, who was an advocate of prayer and study (read his little book Prayer and Intelligence if you can find it).
One of the ways he advanced this twin goal, at the urging of his students, was creating Thomist study circles: initially, a small group of students who met at his home once a month. When I saw that, I wrote a note to our late and great friend Ralph McInerny, one of TCT’s founders, who headed the Maritain Center at Notre Dame, to ask about them and whether the circles still existed.
Jacques Maritain, teacher
The Internet was then in its infancy, so he sent me – by mail, if anyone still remembers that primitive practice – some pamphlets about the whole phenomenon, which was then still very much alive (I cannot find it on the web now, however.) People all over the world were reading together through the same sections of Aquinas, month by month.
I noodled on this with Fr. Bartholomew de la Torre, O.P., a friend who later became a much beloved chaplain at Thomas Aquinas College in his native California (ah, the web of grace). We hit on reading the Summa contra Gentiles, the Summa Theologiae being just too hard for most people.
Twelve of us set out together: Phil Lawler, the distinguished Catholic journalist who still does great work on the Catholic Culture site; an undersecretary of agriculture in a string tie who looked like a farm boy, but had astute metaphysical insights; a female doctor from the Johns Hopkins Hospital; a retired FBI agent – it’s Washington, and you get the picture.
The Contra Gentiles is five volumes in the translation published by the Notre Dame University Press. That sounds like a lot, but if you calculate over ten months, it means reading only about 170 pages per month. We went through the whole thing that year, and the Prima Pars of the Summa Theologiae the next.
But Fr. Bart was a pedagogical entrepreneur. While our little band moved on to the second year of readings, he gathered together a new group – thirty-five this time – for the Contra Gentiles. He did it again in the third year and he attracted 125 participants, including luminaries like Mary Ellen and Robert Bork (Bob later became a Catholic, though not because of the reading, which he quite energetically disputed).
I’ve never told this story in print before, but it reflects what I believe is a tremendous hunger for substantive Catholic thought that’s also accessible to a wide swath of ordinary people (It takes a trained guide to get you through some texts, but such persons are not as hard to find as you may think).
In the normal course of things, we would want Catholic schools and high schools, colleges and universities to be doing this job. But we are not in normal times. And while it’s tempting to curse the darkness, we can light a few fires without great investments in buildings and technology.
So if you want to know what you can do, think about it – and then act. There are probably great things you can organize wherever you’re reading this, or even over the Internet. Try it and watch what happens. What have you got to lose? And just think what we might gain.