What is the Catholic Intellectual Tradition?

By Dr. Patrick Carey

Some, perhaps many in the United States, look upon tradition as a static concept. Tradition for them is some fixed inheritance that prohibits change and development and makes the present always subservient to what has been given in the past. That notion of tradition is not the one that informs this brief essay. As understood here, tradition is a dynamic and dialectical concept that allows for continuity, change, and development. There is in the Catholic intellectual tradition a permanent content, change evident in the various historical conceptualizations and applications of that content to diverse historical periods and cultures, and a development of new insights that come from the dialectical interactions of that tradition with emerging human achievements in philosophy, the sciences, the arts, politics, and in popular culture. As John Courtney Murray, S.J., remarked the Catholic intellectual tradition has a “growing edge.”

It is something of a misnomer, nonetheless, to speak of the Catholic intellectual “tradition” because, as good historians know, there are a variety of Catholic intellectual traditions stretching from Origen in the third century to Charles Taylor in the twentieth first. Beneath these various intellectual traditions, though, is a Tradition that asserts that the universe can be fully intelligible only in reference to God as its ultimate origin and end. Catholic universities and colleges were established to continue and to develop an intellectual tradition that possessed a theistic premise about the universe. That premise, which motivated the establishment and maintenance and development of Catholic institutions of higher education, presupposed an underlying unity to the universe because it perceived God as the origin and end of all things. At the heart of that theistic tradition is the mystery of the Incarnate Word, Jesus Christ, who is, as the Bible proclaims, “the way, the truth, and the life” (Jn. 14:6). This ultimate truth gives meaning and purpose to all the truths that have been discovered and continue to be discovered in the course of history.

The Catholic intellectual view of the universe, then, presupposed an underlying unity to the inquiries of each discipline into the various aspects of the material, natural, and social world. Because the Catholic intellectual tradition presupposes an underlying unity of the universe, it presupposes (in principle, if not always in fact) an underlying unity of the various disciplines, each of which contributes to an overall understanding of the nature of things.

Over the centuries belief in God and in Jesus Christ has stimulated and sustained debate, discussion, and the construction of various intellectual positions on God and God’s relation to the universe, and continuous inquiry into the meaning of human life. The disciplines in the modern Catholic university, in all their variety of sources, principles, and methods, are not, at least in principle, unrelated to one another because they all deal with a reality that has its foundation and destiny in God.

The Catholic intellectual tradition at the heart of a Catholic university presupposes a dialectical harmony between faith and reason. The relationship between faith and reason is dynamic (not static) because both faith and reason are involved in a mutual search for and reception of meaning and truth. The inherited intellectual tradition grows at its edges by incorporating new questions and devising new answers. In this process, the tradition develops its understanding of itself without rejecting what previous generations have discovered to be true, just, beautiful, and holy. By saying that the relationship between faith and reason is dynamic and dialectical I am not describing, as an historian might, what actually takes place currently in Catholic higher education. I am saying that this is what motivates the creation and maintenance of these schools and what they take to be their specific or distinctive mission in higher education. Catholic universities do not always live up to this dialectical harmony of faith and reason, and the relationship is not always evident in their mission statements or in the universities’ daily operations, but the ideal is real in the intentions of Catholic higher education and should be a guide to all intellectual activities and a goal to be achieved.

A Catholic university is a locus for the dialogue between faith and reason. In principle, faith and reason are harmonious because they both have their origin and destiny in God. Both are oriented to the discovery and reception of truth, although using different sources, principles, and methods. For the religious believer, faith, arising from divine revelation, spurs reason on to search for the intelligibility of what is believed. Reason, in its many forms, has its own intrinsic drive toward intelligibility, toward an understanding of the universe and the meaning of human life, and toward an investigation and understanding of what faith holds as true. This dynamic of the reception and discovery of truth and meaning has motivated Catholics to establish universities where the mysteries of the world and human life can be revealed and made intelligible for students and faculty alike.

In the historical or empirical order, the harmony between faith and reason is not always evident; in fact, conflicts arise periodically between the two. This is the nature of the life of the mind and the life of religious faith on this side of the eschatological divide. The conflicts, though, need to be worked out, dialectically and dynamically, and where better to do that than in a Catholic university, where there should be a basic confidence that a reconciliation can be achieved. Through dialogue and thorough rigorous examinations the inadequacies of the expressions of faith and/or reason can be discovered in the search for the truth. The articulations of faith and reason on this side of death will inevitably be imperfect and incomplete. Along with St. Paul, it is helpful in the university to acknowledge, “For now we see through a glass, darkly” (1 Cor. 13:12).

Faith and reason are fellow pilgrims in the search for the fullness of truth, with the confident acknowledgment that there is an ultimate truth toward which the restless mind and heart tends. To receive the truth and to search for the truth are complementary (not contradictory) aspects of faith’s journey with reason in the Catholic intellectual tradition.