Anthony J. Cernera and Oliver J. Morgan, Eds.: Examining the Catholic Intellectual Tradition

(Fairfield, CT: Sacred Heart University Press, 2000)

The sociology of knowledge is fraught with disagreement. Some would take this as bad news, particularly as this applies to "the Catholic intellectual tradition," a nebulous if persevering unity that has held its own since the patristic era. On the other hand, some take it as a blessing for the process of discovery or the healthy application of the Church's social teaching to problems in the political or economic order. What is this "tradition of wisdom" that courses through the veins of Catholic intellectual life? Is it proper to speak of a Catholic intellectual tradition, or must we speak instead of traditions? What counts as the core of the Catholic intellectual tradition? How has it been shaped?

Examining the Catholic Intellectual Tradition is one attempt to articulate some answers to these questions. The product of the first of a series of conferences on the campus of Sacred Heart University in Connecticut, where co-editor Anthony Cernera is president, the volume evokes several examples of the breadth and depth of the Church's commitment to the life of the mind. The ten collected essays are by leading thinkers on topics that range from educational administration, the history of ideas, comparative religions, literature, and sociological data. A second volume is planned in connection with more practical applications of the Catholic intellectual tradition to college campuses as they endeavor to fulfill their mission.

The two lead essays by Monika Hellwig and Louis Dupre give an overview of the tradition in and the task of the Catholic university. Jeremy Driscoll, O.S.B., offers a meditation on the contribution of monastic culture to human growth, particularly in his analysis of the Opus Dei (primarily through sung prayer and work) and the lectio divina (lived reflection on God's Word). Francis X. Clooney identifies the issues that emerge in the study of Hindu temples and what that does to Christian presuppositions. Ursula King of the University of Bristol supplies an autobiographical account of her intellectual trajectory. Andrew Greeley holds up empirical data on what kinds of behaviors and attitudes distinguish a Catholic intellectual. The editors supply a synthetic and adept summary on future directions of the Catholic intellectual tradition.

John Breslin, S.J., an English professor at LeMoyne College, gives readers a stunning portrait of the Catholic imagination as this has been developed by twentieth century writers (Dubus, Bernanos, O'Connor, Endo, among others). What makes this essay stand out is Breslin's attention to what is best described in German as Dinglichkeit, the "sheer stuff of the world," that the authors find so fruitful in their creative output. Breslin sees this as an "incarnational" principle in Catholic literature, one which takes the ordinary (what in Spanish might be called lo cotidiano) and makes of it something more significant, something more grace-filled. It seems to me that this carries some very positive implications for how our classrooms and campuses can function.

Perhaps most provocative -- and not a little tendentious! -- are the two essays contributed by Gerald McCool, S.J., now an emeritus professor at Fordham University. The first is a previously published chapter from McCool's own festschrift on the connection of spirituality to philosophy. For McCool, that connection has been seriously impaired and he sees their reunification as one of the major challenges to Catholic higher education. The second chapter elaborates on the uneasy relationship of the "Christian Wisdom Tradition and Enlightenment Reason." McCool tends to view the Enlightenment as a sustained attack on Catholic institutions, including its universities, which somehow characterize a once-pristine tradition. That Enlightenment reason has sunk its fangs into the Catholic mind and spirit is certain, but I am less sanguine about McCool's observation on the depth of the wound. While he admits "the ideal of the Catholic mind" has a future, this amounts to nothing more than an afterthought. There is no need to portray the Catholic intellectual life so bleakly. Indeed, one could very well argue that the tradition maintains its vibrancy thanks in part to McCool's own life's work.

It may be worth noting that institutional support for this volume comes at the highest level. As president of Sacred Heart, Cernera oversees its press and is influential in the development and financing of institutional programs to promote of Catholic intellectual life on his campus. Colleges whose missions require tangible efforts at living out intellectual pursuits within a Catholic framework may be interested in this kind of credentialing of their programs. Presidents and other members of the administration on our campuses may find that their communities become more energized and interested in the intellectual life when initiatives are backed by those at the top. Moreover, this particular volume may be used as a primer to begin conversations on the intellectual life at Catholic colleges or may add to discussions that are already underway. Whether as a model for engagement or as a text to facilitate consciousness-raising, Examining the Catholic Intellectual Tradition is a welcome tool for us all. -- Patrick J. Hayes