What Is the Catholic Intellectual Tradition?

Catholic schools exist to teach the truth that sets us free, to spread this truth far and wide, to deepen our grasp and expression of it, and to link it with other areas of human research and endeavor. The Catholic school is defined by its unconditional and publicly manifest adherence, at every level—vision, policy, management, operations, instruction—to the full truth about God and man taught by the Catholic Church. In short, it is supposed to embody, hand on, and develop the Catholic Intellectual Tradition.

Many formerly confessional grammar schools, high schools, colleges, and universities have abandoned that tradition partially or completely, claiming that curricula and policies should reflect the pluralism of the modern world. However, when there is no substantive perennial content to a curriculum, or when the content is murky, contradictory, or false, the school becomes an incoherent parody of itself, a poison mixed into the cup of the common good.

We must, then, go back to basics and ask: What is the Catholic Intellectual Tradition, of which schools are supposed to be the custodians and promoters?

Roots and branches 

The Person of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, and the event of His Incarnation, is the root from which this great tradition grows; knowledge of and love for this Person inaugurates, sustains, and perfects it. Care for creation, and care for man himself—what Pope Benedict XVI called “human ecology”—ultimately rests on faith in the Creator and acknowledgment of the order and wisdom He has placed into his works. In the face of the universe or cosmos as a whole and in every intricate part, we are stirred to wonder, humility, and responsibility. Man has the noble calling to participate in the government of this world, above all the priestly service of offering it back to God in prayer and praise. There can be no solution to the many moral and physical crises of our time without a contemplative awakening to the full breadth and depth of the glory of the Lord in the work of His hands, especially the human soul and body, in every single person.

The Catholic Intellectual Tradition possesses a number of stable, recognizable characteristics:

    1. The profound harmony of faith and reason, inasmuch as each is a power for knowing the truth that comes to us from the Father of Lights, from whom are all good and perfect gifts. Faith and reason are not only compatible, but mutually purifying and assisting . (See Pope Benedict XVI’s Regensburg Address and Address in Westminster Hall.)
    1. A natural law ethic based on the inherent dignity of the human person as created in the image and likeness of God, offering the only objective foundation for a coherent doctrine of human rights and duties; and following from this, an emphasis on moral liberty (“freedom for”) as more important than physical liberty (“freedom from”)—crowned by the freedom to find and adhere to God.
    1. The recognition that man is an integral being made up of body and soul: he is his body and his soul in their dynamic unity, and therefore his body is not mere property (much less anyone else’s property) but part of himself, endowed with dignity, and the subject of rights and duties. Catholics are the greatest and last champions of matter, nature, sexuality, and the value of life.
    1. Respect for the Christian Tradition as such and for its great voices: the Fathers of the Church, the Councils, the Popes, doctors, mystics, and saints of all ages. We revere and follow what has been handed down because it is a treasure and an inheritance, as befits children of one family.
    1. A “Benedictine” or monastic flavor in our corporate identity and communal life, especially in our devotion to the sacred liturgy and to personal prayer. Catholics understand that sanctity is the root of sanity, that the individual’s being rightly ordered to God is the root of society’s ability to pursue and achieve the common good, and that without an interior life, we shrivel up and vanish into nonentities. The Catholic Intellectual Tradition has bequeathed to us works of introspective wisdom such as Saint Augustine’s Confessions and Pascal’s Pensées, which help us to fight against our fallen tendency to a lazy superficiality, whereby we skate on the surface of life and never awaken to the grandeur and misery of the human condition, and so never win through to our divine destiny.

Skepticism toward tradition

In our times, the very concept of “the Catholic Intellectual Tradition” has come under fire. Many question the value of any tradition, of anything handed down from the past. Modern men need modern things, so the opinion goes; our world is too different from that of earlier ages, and the answers that satisfied them cannot satisfy us. Such a view overlooks and underestimates the naturalness and importance of tradition, and why Catholics should be especially grateful for their own tradition.

The intellect of man, like man himself, is social. We are not born autonomous, on our own two legs and ready to face the world; we are born into the “social womb” of the family, from which we learn our language, our habits, our loves, our way of interacting with others and the world. Just as it is not good for man to be alone, it is not good to think alone, and in fact, we cannot do so. All of our thinking is a thinking-with or a thinking-against.

Both because of our inherent poverty as individuals and because of the riches of our race accumulated over time, we are, and need to be, multigenerational beings. What we know is, and ought to be, either things we have received or things we can bequeath to the next generation. Another way of saying this is that our thoughts, when they are truest and best, are not merely our own, but the common property of mankind, and in this form they are passed along to others. Man is a timebound, discursive animal who can accomplish only so much in the short span of a single lifetime. But with many lifetimes placed end to end (as it were), the later building on the earlier, we build up civilization and culture. To have an intellectual tradition is natural and good for us, like living in a family, whereby the solitude and limitations of the individual are in many ways overcome.

As a family can be broken and abusive, so too can merely human traditions go wrong. Sometimes one has to break free from false human traditions, just as sometimes one has to break free from a damaging relationship. This is no less the case with religious and intellectual traditions. In the bosom of the Church, however, since she is a perfect society in her essence, one need never abandon the Tradition (with a capital ‘T’); what is authentically Catholic is always and everywhere trustworthy, liberating, and befitting human dignity—indeed, capable of restoring human dignity. In this sense, the Tradition of the Church is a supernatural perfection of something already natural to man.

Even the angels teach one another, say the theologians, although they do not have tradition properly so-called. Higher angels illuminate lower angels. God could treat them all as independent beings, but he prefers to unite them in hierarchies of generosity and dependence.

Man and angel are “dependent rational beings” because they are made in the image and likeness of the Triune God. When we read in Scripture that the Son is “handed over” by the Father, this has a deeper meaning than is usually grasped. The primordial traditio or handing over is Jesus being given to us, to the world, by the Father—the Word of God proceeding from the Father, God from God, Light from Light. Even in the utterly simple God, there is a proceeding forth of Truth and Love from one Person to the other, which is then reflected in the angelic hierarchies, and in human beings by their relationships of generation and education.

Postmodern power plays

The importance of the intellectual life—of thought aimed at truth—is nevertheless viewed with suspicion by postmoderns. Isn’t “truth” whatever the powerful have decided to impose on the rest of us? Some people are not so sanguine about the possibility of the search for and discovery of timeless truth. The response we can make is to point to the inseparable relationship between truth, human identity, and personal dignity.

As Saint Augustine, Saint Thomas Aquinas, and countless other lights of the Church teach us in their lives and in their writings, and as the pagan philosophers Plato and Aristotle and many others had seen before them, truth is the proper object of the human mind—it is the good of the intellect. It is precisely when we do not adhere to this good that we are flung into a roiling ocean of selfish claims and manipulative desires. If we do not constantly seek this good, we are abdicating what is most distinctive in our humanity. If we do not strive to share this good with our fellow human beings, we are not loving them.

In this sense, the opposite of an intellectual tradition is not sentimentalism or aestheticism, but anti-intellectualism, or what Socrates called “misology”: an impatience of or contempt for sound reasoning, the denial of conscience, the abandonment of self-consistency, reckless self-promotion regardless of the cost to others, a utilitarian outlook on life, the denial that there is anything special or unique about man. Downstream from these views, and collecting their pollution, lies nihilism, characterized by an oppressive will to power. In the absence of truth, there is only the assertion of force and passivity to it.

What makes the human person different from all other beings in the material world is that he can know universal truth and can love that which is good because he knows it is good. Our dignity consists in our orientation to the truth and our capacity for loving and being loved. Perfecting this dignity through education is not unique to Catholicism, but it has unquestionably been carried by the Church to a height unequaled by any other religion or civilization.

The Catholic Intellectual Tradition is extensive and expansive, profound and subtle, ethical and spiritual, powerful at leading individuals and societies to such perfection as we can expect to reach in this vale of tears, short of our eternal fatherland. We have every reason to be proud of centuries of Catholic education at every level and in every corner of the known world. Today we should shake the dust of secular and secularized schools off our feet and give our support instead (in whatever form it takes) to schools that are striving to be faithful to their lofty mission.

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