In American Protestant culture it is generally assumed that Catholics are intellectually inferior and backward. This is often attributed to the stifling effects of the Middle Ages, from which the Roman Catholic Church has not escaped. It is also often attributed to the repressive authority of the Pope and the hierarchy. Somehow the “mother church” muddled along, but it was mostly ignorance and magic. It came as a great surprise to me to discover the depth of the philosophical and theological reflection developed throughout the history of the Church, especially of the great achievements of Augustinian and Thomistic theology as well as their interface with the major philosophical systems of their days, Neo-Platonic and Aristotelian thought. Furthermore, I had never considered that the Catholic Church was the true origin and protector of the Liberal Arts tradition in the Western World. This tradition had been hidden away in the Middle Ages, that Protestantism called the “dark ages.” Several incidents in Church history, like the condemnation of Galileo, overshadowed everything else.
27. Because of their moral honesty, Catholics can also be the most honest intellectuals. In his ground-breaking book, Degenerate Moderns, E. Michael Jones makes the case that much modern intellectual activity is really rationalized sexual misbehavior. The intellectual life is a function of the moral life of the thinker. In order to apprehend truth, which is the goal of the intellectual life, one must live a moral life (p. 16). On the one hand we have St. Augustine and St. Thomas who rigorously submit desire to the truth. On the other hand we have Freud or Paul Tillich who submitted truth to their desires. Jones makes the case by exposing biographically that intellectuals without the moral disciplines of the Church and without confession and absolution easily get caught up in the guilty tracks of their desires. Once this has happened, one’s intellectual achievements often become an exercise in rationalizing the guilt of lust. Catholic intellectuals, with the protection of God’s moral laws, and the resources of the Church for obtaining forgiveness, successfully resolving guilt, are the first among intellectuals in their freedom to be honest.[i]
28. The principle of catholicity (comprehensiveness). An essential intellectual principle that inspired me is that of comprehensiveness. It is essential to apply in all areas of thought, and especially in the study of the Bible. The danger in any field of study is to take a small part and generalize from that part rather than seeing the part in the context of the entire field of play. In scripture studies the danger is in selecting individual passages for their content and not seeing them in the context of the entire written revelation of God and in the development given them throughout the Tradition. In apologetic discussions with non-Catholics the most common phrase I have had to use was, “Would you please continue reading to the end of the passage.” The second was, “How can you harmonize that passage with these others?” This concern for comprehensiveness is crucial to avoiding some of the errors of fundamentalism and erroneous proof texting. A typical example of this kind of superficiality is the criticism of Catholics for calling their priests “father.” The apparent basis for this is Matthew 23:9, “And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven.” Yet those who make this criticism do not seem to take the context of that passage into account. Furthermore, many New Testament texts show the appropriateness for the designation “father” for spiritual leaders. First Corinthians 4:14-21 is but one example.[ii]
Comprehensiveness as including necessary balance. The principle of comprehensiveness demands that the Catholic take into account all legitimate differing positions, maintaining all necessary balances, not just taking the one side of a position that is consistent with his personality or situation. I remember being so impressed when I first came across Gregory the Great’s Pastoral Care (audio). In its third part he reflects on how to give pastoral care to forty sets of opposing traits or situations, finding a balance appropriate to each. The depth of this approach addressed me profoundly, and I returned often to meditate upon its truth. This illustrates the fact that truth and life are ordinarily found in avoiding extremes by recognizing a correct balance. I had found many Protestant churches and Protestant organizations based on one side of a principle or behavioral experience, raising it up as virtue, but not taking into account other legitimate positions. An example of this would be the attitude often found in the Assembly of God churches when they insist on speaking in tongues as the definitive sign of spiritual maturity, not taking St. Paul’s cautions in 1 Cor 13 and 14 into account. This is an attitude that inevitably leads sects and divisions, not to the responsible, creative unity sought in Catholic tradition. This principle is also true in practical areas, for example, in approaching ecology and the environment, in balancing justice and love, ion developing personal growth/ societal applications.
29. Intellectual freedom not confused with irresponsible license. I have come to realize that the cries of many intellectuals for freedom to peddle their wares are nothing more than the desire to be able to promote often questionable ideas free from responsibility for their consequences. Major changes in ideas and life practices, even refinements in doctrinal areas, have usually come at great expense and much suffering. Extreme and painful have been the price that many have paid to establish a new understanding of truth. The conflicts of the Arian controversy provoked exile and murder. Today some of the proponents of sexual liberation complain bitterly about their being disciplined in the Church. This discipline has been very light historically speaking. Freedom for intellectual investigation comes with its limits and responsibilities. New positions must be valid enough to be paid for with some price.
30. Responsible recognition of the development of doctrine. The study of the development of doctrine is a great strength in the Catholic tradition. The tendency within Protestant theology and Scripture study is to leap from the Apostolic Age to the Reformation, dismissing almost everything in between as irrelevant. One often dismisses or ignores the great intellectual developments from St. Anselm and St. Thomas, as well as the maturation centering around Abelard. This ignoring of a continuing development of thought seemed intellectually irresponsible to me.
In addition, to recognizing the continuity of the history of the Church, I realized that the Holy Spirit had been given to the Church to guide such development. Fundamentalists, especially, wish to remain excessively limited to the text of Scripture. They forget that Jesus told the disciples that the Holy Spirit would teach them everything and remind them of all that he had taught them. This gives the Holy Spirit a special role in guiding the progressive understanding of doctrine in the life of the Church. This is like the growth of an oak tree from an acorn. From the very beginning one has the same tree, but it grows and develops. John Henry Cardinal Newman’s Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine was very helpful to me. Once I had committed myself to Catholicism and was studying as Steubenville and with the Jesuits in Brussels, I found that references to St. John Chrysostom or Origin did not meet with blank stares. On the contrary, Protestants who get into the study of the Fathers of the Church are often held suspect as being closet Catholics.
31. Catholicism as the foundation and origin of the Liberal Arts Tradition. Another intellectual reason for becoming Catholic is the Catholic Liberal Arts tradition. It was once considered that the teaching of the Liberal Arts was one of the major evangelization tools the Church. In this tradition, theology resides as the culminating, integrating discipline rather than the rhetoric of the sophists or the mathematical secular rationalism of modernity. The authentic, ancient tradition of the liberal arts is one of the great corrections to modern schools of subjective thought.
I am deeply convinced that higher education again needs to come under the supervision of the Church. It is often the case today, that attempting to teach a student in a university such things as self-restraint and the moral conviction necessary for character is about equivalent to teaching chastity in a brothel. I am so happy and proud now to be a part of the great Catholic Tradition, for I believe that we can re-establish godly values and formation in the lives of modern students.
32. Concern for the dignity and freedom of the human person. This has been historically one of the great contributions of the Catholic Church to Western Culture. On the one hand, modern American culture tends to judge the worth of a person on what he can do, the money he can accumulate, the education he has obtained, the value of his contributions to society, his physical health and function of his body, in sum, on how useful he is on a daily basis. However, on the other hand, God tells us that our worth is derived from our relationship with Him, that he created us out of love and redeemed us by the price of the blood of His Son. Our sense of worth, our self-esteem is at the very root of our relationship with God. The Catechism provides an excellent overview of this, complete with references to the entire patrimony of the Church.[iii]
33. The study of philosophy and dialogue with other great systems of thought. The study of philosophy is a very great gift which seems to have been lost to most of Protestantism. This study is nothing more than the self-conscious study of the thought systems of man. Since these thought systems have influenced our contemplations concerning our faith, it is not really possible to think theologically with the clarity and depth needed without some rudimentary appreciation of the philosophies that have influenced Western European civilization. I sometimes felt in Protestant seminary that the faculty did not want us to look at our history nor our presuppositions very critically. At one point, a group of students had requested a course in the history of theological thought from the Reformation until the present. The request was refused. In comparison, every Catholic seminarian is expected to study the entire historical overview of philosophy, from the pre-Socrates to the present day, something that in my Jesuit-directed studies occupied two semesters of classes and occupied Copleston for nine volumes. The intellectual perspective that such study provides is essential and is today only consistently and comprehensively found within the Catholic tradition.
34. Clarity on erroneous and problematic manners of thinking. The great continuous tradition of theological and philosophical thought in the Catholic Church provides an excellent foundation for analyzing modern thought for errors and problems. Catholics can appreciate the dependence of much of Protestantism on nominalism, the dependence on false presuppositions (in German idealism and other forms of modern thought), the danger of subjective systems of self-actualization (Rogers and Maslow), and is a sure guide through the mine field of the many deceptions of the modern New Age movement.[iv]
35. The spiritual gift of celibacy and its relationship to intellectual excellence. Until I actually became Catholic and went to Belgium to study (by myself, with my wife remaining behind to look over our teenage boys, to earn a living to support us all, and to obtain medical insurance), celibacy was to me one of the least attractive elements of the Catholic tradition and especially of the Catholic clergy. My reaction to this practice delayed my becoming Catholic for a number of years. My experience in Brussels opened my eyes to see the great gift that celibacy can be for achieving intellectual excellence. The many years of education required for a Catholic to achieve training for priesthood and advanced degrees (Licentiate and Doctorate) are simply very difficult for lay persons (I calculate it takes about eleven years of study and formation to prepare for priesthood and these advanced degrees). Financially and emotionally it becomes almost impossible for married men or women to achieve this. Even if it is possible to obtain this education, the time and energy demanded by one’s family makes it impossible to dedicate oneself to this preparation to the same depth and thoroughness that a celibate person is free to do. One can project on from this observation to see how the same freedom is very helpful in the life of a priest in his parish and in his diocese.
36.The great treasure of St. Augustine and St. Thomas. Here we have two of the greatest minds of the Church. They provide some of the most profound analysis and presentation of Christian theology in the Church. They also represent the integration of the two greatest systems of philosophy from the ancient world into the Christian faith, Neo-Platonism and Aristotelianism. Any system of thought that did not take seriously these two great thinkers would be deficient. I am personally convinced that we have no concept today of how important and how valuable the thinking of St. Thomas has been to bring us to where we are today.
37. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (1992). No other Christian denomination has any summary of the faith that is as deeply rooted in Scripture and the entire Tradition of the Church as the Catholic Church. The Catechism provides the essential collection of the doctrine of the Church (the deposit of faith) as it is to be understood after the Second Vatican Council. As much in matters of belief as in matters of morality, as well as an affirmation of the sacramental reality of the Church, and in affirming the importance of prayer, the interior life, and the traditional spiritual devotions of the Catholic Church, the Catechism fives authoritative guidance for the faithful, setting limits on experimental religion and documenting through the footnotes the great continuity in the Tradition of the Church. The importance given to the believer’s personal relationship with Jesus Christ in the introduction to Part Four (2558) makes clear that our belief and doctrine (Part One), the liturgy and the sacraments (Part Two), and the living of a moral life (Part Three) are to contribute to believers living out their faith “in a vital and personal relationship with the living and true God” (See also ##35 & 299).
[i] This is a reason of first rank for being Catholic. I very highly recommend E. Michael Jones, Degenerate Moderns (San Francisco, Ignatius Press, 1993) and Paul Johnson, Intellectuals (New York: Harper & Row, 1988).
[ii] For a further explanation of this issue see Paul R. Key, “Apologetics Paper #1, ‘Why Christians should think of their spiritual leaders as fathers.’” Catholic Answers also has an excellent tract on this subject.
[iii] Catechism, “Part III, Section One, Chapter One, The Dignity of the Human Person” (1700-1876), which includes the following Articles: “Man: the Image of God, Our vocation to Beatitude, Man’s Freedom, The Morality of Human Acts, The Morality of the Passions, Moral Conscience, The Virtues, and Sin”.
[iv] Love of Wisdom: An Introduction to Christian Philosophy by Rhonda Chervin and Eugene Kevane, “Part III, Modern Philosophy: A Challenging Problem” sets forth the weaknesses of many modern philosophers and contrasts their positions to Christian philosophy. Catholics and the New Age by Mitch Pacwa, S.J., provides a well-researched overview of the many problems of the New Age movement. “Confession of a Catholic School Dismantler” (audio) by Dr. William Coulson documents the tragic consequences of the work of Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow, especially in the area of education. This audio demonstrates for me, more than any other source, the need for informed Catholic education. I cannot understate the importance of Dr. Coulson’s revelations for anyone concerned about education in the United States today.