Background: A few years ago, a friend graciously asked me for permission to nominate me for a one-year visiting professorship at a Catholic College which was beginning a study of bias (as the focus for that professor’s teaching and research). I thanked my colleague but declined the nomination. I then wrote to the President of the college, offering the reason for my decision, and thinking that he would be interested in my logic, even if, predictably, he did not agree with it. This is the slightly redacted letter I sent, omitting his name and that of the college. Although I did not expect a full and thoughtful response, I did think I would receive the courtesy of at least a perfunctory acknowledgment. I still wait. —jht
“Agere sequitur esse” (“Behavior follows being”): Aristotelian-Thomistic axiom
A former colleague has sent a kind note to me, inquiring about nominating me, if I agree, for a visiting professorial position in interdisciplinary work at [an ostensibly Catholic college]. After some generous comments, he added that I could “bring a Catholic perspective to the job.” I shall cordially thank him but request that he not pursue the opportunity [at your college] on my behalf.
The position to which he referred is concerned with the study of the nature of bias, which means, ordinarily, bigotry, intolerance, or prejudice. Bias is invariably a negative noun; its use implies admonition or reproof. Bias, we think, is an ugly word for an ugly reality. Bias, we think, merits analysis; the more we study it, the more likely it is that we will reject it, preferring, instead, fairness and impartiality. Surely, this is a commendable interdisciplinary study!
So why, then, would anyone pass up the chance to be considered for a year-long college teaching and lecturing opportunity in the inaugural year of a program devoted to such study? I will try here to explain.
The study of pathology or disease is important to medicine. The study of heresies is important to theology. The study of tyranny is important to political science. There are times and places to study what is sickness, error, or defect that we might better understand what is healthy, correct, or fulfilled.
One urges caution, however. Can it be that the time and effort spent in the study of what is defective or deranged seriously subtracts from four precious and unrepeatable years given, in theory at least, to immersion, as Matthew Arnold put it, in “the best which has been thought and said”? Are we mistaken in studying the broken shards of what is wrong instead of the beautiful stained glass of what is right? If we are not superbly educated in the core of what is good, will we be able to recognize the circumference of what is evil? Can we discern disorder if we do not know order?
If we believe, with Pope Paul, that “human society is sorely ill” (Populorum Progressio, #66), then we understand, with another Pope [John Paul II], that “it is the honor and responsibility of a Catholic University to consecrate itself without reserve to the cause of truth” (Ex Corde Ecclesiae, #4). The Catholic college, supposedly, not only witnesses to the truth institutionally, it also inculcates the truth by means of its grounding in the Gospel which the college was founded to protect, preserve, and promulgate. That is its raison d’etre; that is what distinguishes it from government, public, or other, supposedly independent, colleges.
In an age when society and so many of its college campuses are marked by nihilism and moral relativism, the Catholic college unashamedly sustains the Truth of Christ (Rom 1:16, 2 Tm 1:8). When time and resources are finite (as they always are), the Catholic college devotes itself to the teaching of what is true, not false; to what is honorable, not corrupt; to what is pure, not pornographic; to what is gracious, not what is depraved (cf. Phil 4:8). As the Psalm has it: “I will not set before my eyes anything that is base” (101:3; cf. Is 33:15).
We are called to learn the permanent things, as Eliot suggested. The late Russell Kirk explained it this way: “By ‘the Permanent Things’ [T. S. Eliot] meant those elements in the human condition that give us our nature, without which we are as the beasts that perish. They work upon us all in the sense that both they and we are bound up in that continuity of belief and institution called the great mysterious incorporation of the human race.” Bias is shadow; truth is sun. We come out of the shadows, as both Plato and Cardinal Newman told us, when we learn the truth, which is permanent (Col 3:2, Heb 13:8). Bias is false and fleeting, for it is based upon lies. Let us study, rather, the source and summit of right reason, which is Eucharistic thinking (CCC #1327; cf. 1 Thess 5:21-22).
Now contrast how the appeal to think Eucharistically would be treated on the campus of a government college and how (one hopes) it would be received and revered on the campus of an authentically Catholic college. Those truly learning to think Eucharistically will be freed from bias (Gal 3:28). Teach them Whom to worship, and their beliefs will then govern their behavior, rather than their behavior governing their beliefs.
The liberal arts free us because they are rooted in what is good, true, and beautiful. They raise our souls, minds, and hearts to the thoughts and things that are right, noble, and immutable. In doing so, a Catholic college liberal arts education is not only consistent with the following catechetical passage but champions it: “The social duty of Christians is to respect and awaken in each man the love of the true and the good” (#2105). This, certainly, can neither be expected nor achieved unless it is first understood by and through wise and virtuous education.
Here we come to the gist of the problem of the new interdisciplinary proposition I referred to. To study bias instead of studying wisdom and virtue is to concentrate on the error rather than on the truth. The three theological virtues of faith, hope, and love (1 Cor 13:13) and the four cardinal virtues of prudence, fortitude, temperance, and justice are paramount. “Life can offer us nothing more valuable than these” (Wisdom 8:7). In these seven traditional virtues may be found the traditional sense and substance of Catholic liberal arts education. In these virtues, properly taught and “caught,” is the medicine which such an education offers to our morally beleaguered society, which is “sorely ill.”
Pope John XXIII prophesied this way in 1959: “All the evils which poison men and nations and trouble so many hearts have a single cause and a single source: ignorance of the truth—and at times even more than ignorance, a contempt for truth and a reckless rejection of it. Thus arise all manner of errors, which enter the recesses of men’s hearts and the bloodstream of human society as would a plague. These errors turn everything upside down: they menace individuals and society itself” (Ad Petri Cathedram, #6).
Here there is no appeal to study defect or disease; no call to analyze what is biased or base; no summons to examine fallacy or falsehood. Rather the “reckless rejection” of truth is best countered by intellect formed and informed by Truth: “God gave each of us an intellect capable of attaining natural truth. If we adhere to this truth, we adhere to God Himself, the author of truth, the lawgiver and ruler of our lives. But if we reject this truth, whether out of foolishness, neglect, or malice, we turn our backs on the highest good itself and on the very norm for right living” (APC, #7).
A Catholic college whose students have limited time and resources to study the best that has been thought and said will now be, evidently, directed, instead, to the defect and deficiency of “bias.” To be clear: one understands that this proposed interdisciplinary study is in no way, of course, an attempt by the college to justify bias of any kind; but such a study, I contend, is, at its best, diversionary from the premier purpose of a Catholic college, which is to help its students know evil as evil and good as good (cf. Evangelium Vitae, #24 and #48). We cannot know bias without knowing that which is unbiased (cf. Rom 2:11, Col 3:25); we cannot root out despotism without understanding good law; we cannot defeat vice without becoming virtuous.
That a Catholic liberal arts college must be steadfastly committed to inculcating virtue may strike one today as, at best, quaint, if not downright jejune or quixotic. Is it not silly–and anachronistic–to expect modern faculty and students to think, first and foremost, of virtue in what they say and do? Is it not entirely “too Catholic” to expect, with St. Paul, that “we take every thought captive and make it obey Christ” (2 Cor 10:5)? Is that not far too much to expect on the campus even of a Catholic college?
No. No, it is not too much to expect on the campus of a committed Catholic college; it is, in fact, essential. Its people, its places, and its programs are consecrated—at least in the sense that they are intended (or were intended at the founding of the college) to serve, not the rampant moral confusion of the day, but, rather, the supernatural standards which impart meaning and direction to those with eyes to see and ears to hear. “The development of true freedom is to let oneself be educated in the moral law. Those in charge of education can reasonably be expected to give young people instruction respectful of the truth, the qualities of the heart, and the moral and spiritual dignity of man” (CCC #2526; cf. #1783-1785, #2044). Accomplish that, and bias is identified and vanquished.
The opposite of prejudice is the cardinal virtue of justice. What is justice? We hear (erroneously): ask a dozen people; get a dozen answers. Everyone, we are told, has his or her own biased notion of what is virtuous or just or good, for, in the view of relativism, there is no actual truth; there is no actual justice. The post-modern world idolizes the love of power but forsakes the power of love.
Imagine, then, the counter-witness by and on the Catholic campus of an interdisciplinary study of . . . Truth, which leads, we know, to genuine freedom (John 8:32, 14:6; and see CCC #1733, Gal 5:13). Is it too much to hope for such an interdisciplinary study on the campus of a Catholic college intent upon cheerful and unswerving fidelity to its reason for being?
Deacon James H. Toner (M.A., William & Mary; Ph.D., Notre Dame) is Professor Emeritus of Leadership and Ethics at the U.S. Air War College, a former U.S. Army officer, and author of Morals Under the Gun and other books. He has also taught at Notre Dame, Norwich, Auburn, the U.S. Air Force Academy, and Holy Apostles College & Seminary. He has contributed numerous columns to The Catholic Thing, Crisis Magazine, One Peter Five, and the Wanderer. He and his wife Rebecca have three sons and eleven grandchildren.