Feb 8, 2012
In 1937, Robert M. Hutchins, then the president of the University of Chicago praised the Catholic Church as having “the longest intellectual tradition in any institution in the contemporary world.” In the same presentation however, he criticized Catholic institutions for “failing to emphasize that tradition in a way that would make it come alive in American intellectual circles.” He concluded on an encouraging note: “The best service Catholic education can perform for the nation and all education is to show that the intellectual tradition can again be made the heart of higher education.”
The Catholic Intellectual Tradition
In the Catholic Tradition, reason and faith are friends. The intellect seeks truth; faith seeks understanding. “Reason ambitions the world; faith gives it infinity,” writes A.D. Sertillanges, O.P. Prior to the years leading up to the Protestant Reformation, Christian scholars, many from the Christian East, were philosophers and theologians. The writings of Irenaeus, the Cappadocians, John Chrysostom, Augustine, the two “Greats,” Leo and Gregory for example, remain a thesaurus of wisdom.
Preserving the Greco-Roman heritage, the Catholic Church built western civilization. During the so-called Dark Middle Ages, European monasteries and universities, including those in Ireland and Britain, led the way and fostered education, broadly understood. The musical and visual arts, organ building and church architecture, literature, the sciences, farming and agriculture, and foundations of law and economics were part of this pursuit. Young men and women of noble families were educated by monks and nuns. This Tradition has given us luminaries such as Anselm, Bernard of Clairvaux, Aquinas and Bonaventure, Hildegard and Julian of Norwich, Dante, Ignatius, Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross, Matteo Ricci, Pascal, Soloviev, Hopkins, Peguy, LeMaître—to name a few. And what of Catholic artists? In some sectors of Catholic education, this vast treasury has been given short-shrift, only to be taken up and cultivated in secular academies. There is cause for encouragement however.