The Catholic Greatness Void

Who Will Replace Dulles, Neuhaus and McInerny?

The Church has suffered great losses in the past few years — enormous losses: Father Richard John Neuhaus, Cardinal Avery Dulles, Msgr. William Smith. Now, we’ve lost Ralph McInerny. My question—which I’m asking only, not answering, by the way — is who do we have to take their place? Or do we only have a giant void?

I asked several friends here at Benedictine College. Their responses made me realize I’m not prepared to answer the question, only to ask it.

1. Does America still have the academic capacity to produce minds of their caliber? These men are not only different in degree from smart folks, but almost different in kind. We’re talking about men who could grasp the nuances of difficult questions, and creatively offer new directions at those higher levels. They are renaissance men for whom terms like “interdisciplinary” and “wide-ranging interests” seems inadequate. You need a vigorous, rigorous higher education to produce these people.

These are men (women have gotten there too; just not on this list) of the academy, produced by the academy, created when a system is chock full of mentors, incentives for rigor, peers who are the Salieris who try to be Mozart too, but just can’t.

The Land o’ Lakes abdication, in which Catholic universities unilaterally disarmed themselves, can only get part of the blame. After all two of the names I mentioned converted after college. Catholic academia’s rejection of the magisterium was the Catholic version of the secular academy’s abdication to concepts of radical autonomy. This wasn’t just wrong, and didn’t just usher in cheesiness — though it sure did that — it robbed the future Church (ours) of a commodity the Church needs: academic greatness.

2. My next question: Who are the great baby boomer greats?  This is a version of the first question: Do we have the cultural capacity for greatness?

It’s not just a rhetorical question — I’m looking for names (and have several ... but I want to see what you say).

The “Greatest Generation” grew up in an era that still clung to official forms of the faith. The Baby Boomers grew up in a world that was letting them go. To be a Catholic Baby Boomer intellectual you had to be a contradiction all your life.  You had to go for greatness not just in a subculture, but in a culture being sloughed off by the greats.

The reason this question isn’t rhetorical is that there are several top-notch baby boomer intellectuals out there. Do they prove what one friend answered: God never leaves us orphans?

3. Isn’t there hope in today’s Catholic university boom — seven new schools in the past 10 years that actually have the gall to follow canon law on the mandatum, and other universities renewing themselves? Will they produce the greats of tomorrow? Or, as one friend framed it in his response: “Can Ave Maria produce a Dulles?”

On the negative side, you don’t have the academic culture ... on the positive side, God’s good at this very thing: producing people we badly need, when we need them.

4. Last hopeful question: Might today’s Catholic communities help? Here in Atchison we have a little community of Catholics committed to the magisterium in which the adults are badly outnumbered by their kids. We left behind such a community in New Haven. Suburbia has them. Rural communities have them. And these Catholics are networked together with the larger world, too, through technology, such that they aren’t island nations but mission villages in touch with headquarters.

Can these communities give youngsters a proxy experience of a Catholic culture like those oldsters had? If Baby Boomer culture shed the faith, and we who followed them shrugged at it, our mini-culture’s kids are growing up friends with lots of families who are energetically embracing their faith.

I personally believe this will dynamic will produce results that will surpass our highest hopes.