The Mind’s Ascent

It’s easy to be agitated over what’s happening these days in the Church and the world. Much harder to see what might be promising, especially when secular leaders and bishops not only appear incapable of addressing looming challenges, but actually contribute to our sense of an age spinning out of control.

In such circumstances, there are two possible reactions. The first is to cry Woe. And again Woe. And to wring your hands in despair that no one is doing anything. The second is to find motivation in the very challenges we face and put your efforts into the multiple tasks at hand. The potential harvest is great, and the workers too few.

I wrote here recently about some initiatives we’ve undertaken internationally that have had palpable success. But at the risk of appearing naïvely optimistic – believe me, I often wake up perplexed myself – there are things going on in this country as well that offer real hope.

I was involved with one of them this weekend: the Thomistic Institutes (TI) that have been created by the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C.  The Dominicans have set up student chapters on college campuses all over the country and help them to run programs with distinguished speakers – real Catholics – who lecture on philosophy, theology, literature, and more.

There are about forty-five such chapters now and at a dinner in Washington Saturday night I met student leaders of chapters at Harvard, Johns Hopkins, Yale, the University of Texas, Brown, Trinity College, Columbia, the University of Utah, Toronto, Oxford, to name just a few. The Dominicans have been drawing numerous vocations from such institutions for some time now and, as befits the Order of Preachers, are quite able to operate at as high an intellectual level as any institution you can name.

Universities may look like quite infertile soil for Catholic renewal and distant from many of the sharp threats to faith – or mere sanity – that we encounter daily. But various kinds of radical madness now flow quite seamlessly from campuses to the broader society.

Notions that “genders” are not “binary” but exist across “a spectrum,” for example, weren’t conceived in legislatures or courtrooms. Not even in Hollywood or the mainstream media. They first saw the light in lecture halls and seminar rooms in some of our elite colleges and universities. Indoctrinate enough members of the future cultural elite, send them out into the world, and, over time, you will have the society that we now do, where things once thought utter lunacy are taken to be sacred cows.

To reverse that process, you have to start producing future members of the cultural elite with the credentials and capabilities of doing battle, and in the numbers needed for such a difficult campaign.


I’m a great believer in the Ratzinger Doctrine: that it’s “creative minorities” that move history. The problem is that we’ve had the wrong minorities controlling the levers of power for some time now, and too small a contingent of our own elite forces to turn things in different directions.

Creating those cadres will take new and innovative forms of spiritual and intellectual entrepreneurship. And that’s where the TI come in.

In an after-dinner talk to the students, I said  – only half-joking – that Frs. Thomas Joseph White O.P. and Dominic Legge O.P., the TI creators, are the Catholic answers to the Jeff (Amazon) Bezoses and Mark (Facebook) Zuckerbergs. Unless the Children of Light think as big as the children of this world, we’ve already set ourselves up to play second fiddle, at best.

So I also challenged students themselves to be the next Catholic Steve (Apple) Jobs or Bill (Microsoft) Gates. These big tech companies have repugnant sides, to be sure. And no one should think that all we need today is more innovative marketing in the Church.

But we – mostly lay people and dynamic orders like the Dominicans – do need to “think big,” or at least bigger. Or better. One thing I most appreciated about this week’s conference was that the student leaders of the campus chapters met under the rubric, “The Mind’s Ascent to God,” an allusion to St. Bonaventure’s famous Itinerarium Mentis in Deum.

And what else should be the focus of young, intelligent, energetic Catholic leaders? We cultivate the mind, yes, to be of greater service to others, but ultimately for what’s truly ultimate: eternal life.

But there was more. High-flying lectures on philosophy and theology, of course, but also practical nuts-and-bolts sessions on how to actually run campus institutes in this day and age.

All this is quintessentially Dominican, but also a model for many of us in other situations as well. Dominic Guzman founded the Order of Preachers largely to combat the Albigensian heresy, basically a resurgent Gnosticism in the early thirteenth century in the South of France. Gnostics believe that they possess special spiritual knowledge (Gk., gnosis), which sets them above others.

In fact, this often led to strange aberrations, since they thought of their true selves as separate from the body, leading either to extreme asceticism or to sexual self-indulgence because, either way, the body was considered unimportant. (The transgender movement bears some similarities to that heresy.)

Dominic’s genius was to create an order of preachers who directly evangelized the people, an activity previously reserved to bishops. Since the bishops were either incapable or unwilling to take up the task, Dominic invented a new approach and, to that end, began sending his preachers for the best training then available: the University of Paris.

So just maybe one good consequence of the current crisis is that we are starting to see a similar resurgence of new/old charisms, the ones that the Dominicans, and Franciscans, and even Jesuits of another age developed in response to crises in their own day. It’s worked in the past and no doubt, Deo volente, can again. Because the potential harvest is great, if we can only find the workers.


*Image: Saint Dominic in Prayer by El Greco, c. 1605 [Museum of Fine Arts Boston]

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent books are Columbus and the Crisis of the West and A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.