Rejuvenating the Catholic Intellectual Tradition

Dr. James Turner, professor of history at the University of Notre Dame, is also director of its fledgling Erasmus Institute, a research-oriented entity which aims to aid secular academic studies by making resources from the Catholic tradition available. “Augustine, Aquinas, even Lonergan ought to be available as sources for anyone doing scholarship in the humanities, the arts, and the social sciences,” said Turner, whose field is intellectual history. The Erasmus Institute is designed to bridge the gap between theological speculation and purely academic research.

“The profound faith of modernity,” Turner noted, “was to ground itself in a non-religious perspective.” Yet many now realize that such a view is “severely strained.” Turner believes this means the way is open for secular thinkers to consult the vast body of Catholic intellectual scholarship unencumbered by the modern prejudice against religion.

“We do not make any credal demands on the part of academics who might consult our Catholic sources,” said Turner. “The Erasmus Institute doesn't depend on personal faith conviction.” He adds: “As a matter of fact, the Catholic tradition says that natural reason gets you a very long way.”

Such a vindication of the Catholic intellectual tradition by Professor Turner seemed to complement the sentiments of Archbishop Francis George, who, in an October address at Georgetown University, had challenged Catholic institutions to recover the tradition of philosophic and theological inquiry. “Reason has become too narrowly focused,” the archbishop noted in his Georgetown lecture.

“I'm not terribly comfortable with a hard dichotomy between faith and reason,” said Professor Turner, adding that it was precisely the Catholic tradition's vindication of human reason that would make the interchange between religious and secular thought a possibility. Giving a concrete historical example, Dr. Turner noted that there was a continuity between “late medieval speculation about creation and the accomplishments of 17th century science.”

Professor James Hitchcock of the history department at St. Louis University called the formation of the Institute “an exciting possibility.” “The notion that our post-modern age may be receptive to a colloquium between religious thinkers and secular academicians is a hopeful one.”

Nevertheless, Hitchcock argued, there still remains in the secular academic mainstream a suspicion of if not hostility to religion. “On the legal front,” said Hitchcock, “writers and intellectuals like Ronald Dworkin and Richard Rorty have effectively excluded religion, in principle; while Harvard's Richard Lewontin feels that religious believers should not bring their dogmatic concerns to the table to discuss the cloning issue.”

Whatever the extent of anti-religious opinion on secular campuses, others are alarmed at the condition of Catholic university departments of theology. They are concerned that a thorough-going pluralism in theology has threatened the unity of belief. However, Turner thinks of the work of the Institute as independent of theology departments, saying its aim “is neither the reform nor the enhancement of Catholic theology.”

Although the Erasmus Institute was not founded as a direct response to the call for clearer Catholic identity—set forth, for example, in the Vatican document Ex Corde Ecclesiae—Turner feels that the Institute will nonetheless contribute to that goal. “Anytime that the university can bring forward the riches of the Catholic intellectual tradition for the benefit of scholars, the university has provided a unique service that confirms its own Catholic identity.”

Concerning the outreach of Catholic scholars to the secular world, Peter Casarella, a professor at The Catholic University in Washington, D.C., underscored the desire of Pope John Paul II, expressed in Ex Corde Ecclesiae, “that the Catholic university become more attentive to the cultures of the world of today.” “Even in the preconciliar period we can mark a fruitful interchange between Catholic intellectuals and their secular counterparts,” Casarella said. “We've just been reading in class [Catholic philosopher Jacques] Maritain's Art and Scholasticism, a wonderful effort to bring the riches of medieval thought to bear on issues like artistic creativity.”

Although the Erasmus Institute's Turner seemed to eschew any preoccupation with hot-button issues such as theological dissent or residual anti-Catholicism, he did note a convergence of sorts between the work of the Institute and certain politically charged topics, for example the just-war theory. “There is much work being done in ecumenical circles on a theological approach to war and peace. We would like to facilitate this research, although we are not committed to any specifically political response to the public debate.”

On the practical level, Turner said, “the Institute plans to establish residential fellowships at Notre Dame, but also to conduct conferences and smaller workshops at other institutions, eventually involving itself in publishing efforts.” The Erasmus Institute was founded with an initial grant of $1.5 million from an anonymous benefactor.

While sympathetic with the aims of the Institute—“It will be great if they can pull it off”—James Hitchcock also reflected about another way in which secular academicians have encountered the Catholic intellectual tradition. “Individual scholars such as Alasdair MacIntyre [chairman of the philosophy department at Duke], who operate from within a religious context, often have more influence by the sheer weight of their intellectual contributions than an institute might have. They simply have to be taken seriously by the probative force of their work,” said Hitchcock.

“Eugene Genovese [professor of history at Rutgers] is an interesting case of an individual with bona fide secular credentials who is returning to his Catholic faith and seeing how that faith now affects his work as an historian,” said Hitchcock. In Hitchcock's opinion, the presence of such Catholic intellectual giants who impact secular thinkers has something wholly unpredictable about it. “We can't exactly order them up, they just happen.”

The Institute takes its name from Desiderius Erasmus (1466-1536) perhaps the foremost humanist and intellectual arbiter of the early sixteenth century. Although he became a priest and doctor of theology, it was as a lover of books, a tireless writer, and companion to his fellow humanists (including St. Thomas More) that he is remembered. The late Carlton Hayes, historian, noted that “more than Petrarch, Erasmus might be called the scholar of Europe.”

Although Erasmus directed much satire toward theologians and churchmen generally, he never questioned the ultimate authority of the Church or the Pope. And while his half-skeptical bent never appealed, for example, to Ignatius Loyola, his last literary sorties were directed against Luther and the breakup of Christendom. The role of intellectual broker between the world of religion and the new classical studies which were focusing on the ancient world makes of Erasmus an apt emblem for the work of the Institute which now bears his name.

James Sullivan is based in Fairfield, Conn. He is Director of Development for Thomas More College.

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