places of vital intellectual inquiry

The Catholic Intellectual Tradition: What is it? Why should I care?

Fall Forum College of Saint Benedict / Saint John’s University (August 20, 2003) by William J. Cahoy, Ph.D., Dean: Saint John's School of Theology Seminary


First, a general orientation and a warning. Briefly stated, the Catholic Intellectual Tradition is the 2000-year conversation resulting from the belief that thinking, serious sustained intellectual reflection, is a good thing and that it needs to be applied to our lives as disciples of Jesus of Nazareth as well as to everything else. There are things in the Christian faith that are worth thinking about and that benefit from serious thinking. Conversely, our intellectual lives, our understanding of human existence in all its vicissitudes, are enriched by including God and the spiritual dimension of life in the things we think about.


The warning is that this tradition is big and sprawling and resists definition or characterization-certainly by me and certainly in the time we have. There are exceptions and counter examples to just about every claim I will make. There are dramatic failures to live up to its principles-the treatment of Galileo comes to mind. There are less dramatic daily failures that we have all experienced - and made. But in the end, there are patterns, characteristics and rationales that persist over time and across cultures that allow us to give a broad and generally accurate account of the Catholic Intellectual Tradition.


As Peggy Steinfels, editor of Commonweal, has observed, "Catholic intellectual life is central to Catholic identity." And "Colleges and Universities cannot claim to be Catholic if this tradition is not part of their core understanding and the tradition cannot survive if Catholic colleges and universities do not renew it, maintain it, nourish it, support it and pass it on."[4]


The church founds colleges and universities to cultivate this intellectual aspect of its identity. It founds other institutions for other aspects, such as worship, social justice or basic religious instruction. Consequently, we do not fulfill our religious mission, we are not living up to our Catholic identity, if our schools fail to be places of vital intellectual inquiry. That is an extremely important point so let me repeat it: We do not fulfill our mission as Catholic if our schools fail to be places of vital intellectual inquiry.


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