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The Unity and Diversity of the Catholic Intellectual Tradition

My earlier essay at OnePeterFive, “What Is the Catholic Intellectual Tradition?,” attempted to answer this ambitious question by pointing to stable, recognizable characteristics. In presenting an answer, I also grappled with skepticism toward the value of any tradition and the postmodern attack on truth claims. Here, I would like to offer two more objections with my replies, and then conclude with thoughts on the role that every member of the Church—especially of the clergy—has with regard to this Tradition.

First, the word “Catholic” seems totally up for grabs nowadays. Who gets to define what it means? Besides, doesn’t “Catholic” mean “universal,” in the sense of “all-inclusive”?

Second, talk of “the Catholic Intellectual Tradition” implies that there is only one. But are there not many diverse and even incompatible traditions?

In response to the first, consider the notion of what is “Catholic” and the reason why we can speak of one tradition without being guilty of falsifying history. We can speak of the Catholic Intellectual Tradition not because everyone necessarily agrees about everything, but because we are looking at something like a solar system where planets are orbiting a single sun. If there is one tradition, it is because there is a unity of origin in salvation history and especially in the person and mission of Jesus Christ; a unity of motivation and purpose, namely, the love of God and of neighbor; a unity of object, since there is only one real world, and sanity consists in knowing it and loving it. To the extent that believers (and, at times, unbelievers) have orbited this sun at closer or further distances, they are parts of this one complex solar system. It is also possible, of course, that some people actually abandon their orbits and fly into outer space. Not everyone and everything is automatically a part of this tradition, since it has definite parameters—broad, yes, but not arbitrary or ever-changing.

To the second objection, we can say this: it is because of the power and fertility of the root of the Catholic Intellectual Tradition—namely, the infinite mystery of the truth of God revealed in Jesus Christ—that it spontaneously shoots forth into many different branches or traditions (with small t’s). The Tradition inevitably gives rise to many spiritual and cultural movements in the Church, be they monasticism, the mendicants and the universities, the Benedictines, Dominicans, Franciscans, or Jesuits, each with its own intellectual profile. We could say something similar about the legitimate variety of Eastern and Western rites, with their entire patrimony. They are the broad extended family of one and the same Tradition, apart from which they could not survive, any more than a plant severed from its roots could continue to live.

We can see this relationship when we reflect on how the canon of Scripture produces, over many centuries and in many cultural permutations, literary canons that in some sense emerge from the inspired Canon and illuminate it as examples illuminate a principle. Dante’s Divine Comedy and Shakespeare’s plays are unintelligible apart from the canon of Scripture. Examples are innumerable, from ancient Patristic poetry to T. S. Eliot and Flannery O’Connor. Divine inspiration lies at the root of human “inspiration,” even as divine cultus or worship lies at the root of human culture.

The clergy have always played an enormous role in developing the Catholic Intellectual Tradition, and it is well that they should remind themselves of it and strive to be worthy transmitters and enhancers of it. The man dedicated to the divine service is, above all, a witness to the truth—a witness to the fact that man is made for the truth and that only in the truth will he be set free, as Jesus, “the faithful and true witness” (Rev 3:14), testifies (cf. Jn 8:32).

The deacon, priest, bishop, cardinal, or pope knows—or has no excuse not knowing—that the food and drink for which man most of all hungers and thirsts is the knowledge of God’s love and of the gift of eternal life, and that without this nourishment he will surely perish in the way, regardless of how wealthy he may be in worldly goods (or, conversely, how poor and destitute). In fact, man’s happiness consists in nothing else and nothing less than a face-to-face union with God, which the Catholic tradition calls the beatific vision, the everlasting fruition of our friendship with God begun in this life.

In proclaiming that friendship with God is the first priority of our lives, that we are destined for eternal glory in his presence, and that to reach this end we must purify ourselves of everything that is unworthy of it, the ordained minister—at his best, a man of poverty, chastity, and obedience—cannot but be a potent sign of contradiction in a world that is hell-bent on identifying happiness with riches, pleasure, and power. Inasmuch as the devotees of riches, pleasure, and power are aware of his contrarian preaching of the Gospel, the cleric will become, more and more, the target of their ill-will, hatred, persecution, and violence. And in this way he will be blessed, for he will become the living image of the supreme Shepherd, Jesus Christ.

The clergy also represent, in virtue of their hierarchical offices, the objectivity, stability, and unity of the Catholic intellectual tradition, as it ever flows from and returns to the unique and unchanging mystery of Jesus Christ, revealed in and through the Church. A bishop, in particular, exercises a teaching authority or magisterium that is precisely the guardian and guarantee of the Catholicity of the intellectual tradition itself; he is charged with discriminating between genuine and counterfeit elements, and with purifying the flock of all that is inconsistent with “the faith once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3).

To love, internalize, defend, and propagate the Catholic Intellectual Tradition is, however, the work of all baptized Christians in keeping with their callings, circumstances, and capacities. We all need to imbibe these riches for the benefit of our minds and hearts, and in order that we may have something far better than silver and gold to give to our neighbors (cf. Acts 3:6). As Pope Leo XIII told the bishops in his encyclical letter Sapientiae Christianae, written back in 1890:

In order to safeguard this virtue of faith in its integrity, We declare it to be very profitable and consistent with the requirements of the time, that each one, according to the measure of his capacity and intelligence, should make a deep study of Christian doctrine, and imbue his mind with as perfect a knowledge as may be of those matters that are interwoven with religion and lie within the range of reason. . . . No one, however, must entertain the notion that private individuals [i.e., the laity] are prevented from taking some active part in this duty of teaching, especially those on whom God has bestowed gifts of mind with the strong wish of rendering themselves useful. These, so often as circumstances demand, may take upon themselves, not, indeed, the office of the pastor, but the task of communicating to others what they have themselves received, becoming, as it were, living echoes of their masters in the faith.

May our God and Lord Jesus Christ come to our aid in this most intense and urgent battle against the juggernaut of nihilistic secularism, the spirit of the Antichrist that is ranged in opposition to the Catholic Intellectual Tradition, as it is opposed to everything Catholic and Christian, and may His most Blessed Mother, Our Lady, Seat of Wisdom, and all the angels and saints, intercede for us as we strive to fight the good fight, ad majorem Dei gloriam.

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