"search for truth wherever analysis and evidence leads"

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


The Catholic Intellectual Tradition is essentially a product of the interaction of Christianity and the culture of which it is a part: learning from the culture, shaping the culture, borrowing some things, rejecting some things and modifying many others. Christianity has been involved in this dance with the world from its very beginning, laying in its first centuries the cornerstones of what would become the Catholic Intellectual Tradition.


We need to be open to those who are not like us. We need to think about the culture in which we live. We need to use new ideas to understand and communicate the Gospel as we move to new times and places. We need to listen to those outside the church to hear what God might be speaking through them. And through it all the exercise of reason. Not a bad start.


So what is the Catholic Intellectual Tradition? One way to answer that is to say that it is this 2,000-year conversation about the world, our place in it, God's work in it and our relation to God. This tradition is broader and older by centuries than the university. But for a large part of that history, this tradition, this conversation, has been institutionalized at schools such as ours.


There is much in this Tradition that is shared with other Christians and other religions.


The contention is that while none of these factors are unique to Catholicism, they come together in the Catholic Tradition in a way that is distinctive; that characterizes Catholicism and its intellectual tradition. In the end, however, the point is not to identify what makes it different, but what makes it Catholic. If that turns out to be similar to others or different, so be it.


The first and perhaps most significant of the six principles Monica Hellwig identifies is the Continuity of Faith and Reason. The theological foundation for this conviction is the belief that God as creator is the source of all Truth (as well as Goodness and Beauty). Since reason seeks the truth it will ultimately bring us closer to God.


As a result, we need not distrust our knowledge of nature. On the contrary, we must, in the words of Ex Corde Ecclesiae, John Paul II's reflection on the Catholic University, "search for truth wherever analysis and evidence leads."

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