The Catholic Presence

Is there such a thing as “thinking Catholic”? Looking back, I see that my earliest awareness of something called intellectual life came from reading the fierce journalistic battles fought out among Belloc, Chesterton, Wells, and Shaw. They made me aware that the world of science and literature, economics, and politics was a place where ideas mattered deeply and were vigorously contested.

In college I began to appreciate that these polemicists stood within a much larger-often quieter and subtler-intellectual tradition that, while rarely ecclesiastical in character, was unmistakably Catholic. Like Chesterton, Dorothy Sayers wrote detective stories, but also translated Dante. Graham Greene and François Mauriac fashioned fictional universes marked by sin and grace, as did Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy. Teilhard de Chardin leaped from science to theology in his vision of creation evolving toward God. Jacques Maritain, Etienne Gilson, and Yves Simon addressed contemporary philosophical issues through their study of Thomas Aquinas, while Gabriel Marcel and Dietrich Von Hildebrand did the same through existentialism and phenomenology. Thomas Merton, and later Henri Nouwen, spoke to the spiritual conditions of their day from a distinctly Catholic perspective, in a manner accessible to a broad readership.

My list is partial and idiosyncratic, and could be extended almost indefinitely. The point is that all these remarkable writers and thinkers had something important to say even to those who did not necessarily know them as Catholic. By the end of the twentieth century, Catholics could boast an intellectual tradition that-far from being parochial or backward-looking-played an important part in the century’s critical conversation.

The same tradition thrives at the start of the twenty-first century. One thinks of pundits of the public square like Garry Wills, E. J. Dionne, and Andrew Sullivan; of Catholic publishing houses and journals such as Commonweal and America; and of all the scholarly endeavors in monasteries and religious houses, in Catholic colleges and universities across the country. But Catholic intellectual life also thrives in less obvious places, including private and state universities. I don’t know how typical Emory University is, but I am impressed by the extent to which my own work as a Catholic scholar here does not stand isolated, even in a school with a distinctly Methodist heritage. The Catholic presence at Emory is considerable. Indeed, more Roman Catholics than Methodists are undergraduates at Emory College, and a minor in Roman Catholic Studies has recently been approved. For some twenty years, the Aquinas Center has cultivated a Catholic presence by sponsoring lectures, visiting professors, and events, many of which draw considerable audiences from the university at large and the population of Atlanta.

Emory’s professors include many self-identifying Catholics who continue to engage the same important issues as their intellectual predecessors, like Thomas Flynn, a diocesan priest and past president of the American Catholic Philosophical Society, who writes about Sartre, Foucault, and other continental philosophers; or the recently retired Eugene Bianchi, for decades an acute commentator on the politics and culture of the church, more recently the author of books on the spirituality of aging. Brian Mahan’s courses in religious education link spirituality to social activism, while he and his wife Kim (author of a book on Zen Buddhism) also minister at an Atlanta retreat center. Lewis Ayres leads students into an appreciation for patristic theology, helping a generation that has little sense of history and less taste for creed to appreciate how the classic theological doctrines arise from a passionately scriptural imagination. Award-winning teacher Jack Zupko reveals to undergraduates the workings of medieval philosophy. Philip Reynolds studies Aquinas, but has also written a monograph on the subject of food and the body in the medieval period, as well as the best available account of marriage in the Christian tradition. Mark Jordan has moved from the study of medieval philosophy to the difficult arena of sexual politics, with a series of challenging books on the history of sodomy and the ethics of sexuality. Michael Perry, at the law school, writes on questions of church and state.

The list goes on and on, with more names and accomplishments than I can mention. I celebrate my colleagues not because they are unique, but because, like generations of scholars and writers before them, they are continuing a richly varied intellectual tradition-one that is Catholic precisely to the extent that it engages all of God’s creation. The exciting research and inspired teaching conducted at Emory and other universities reveals how, in subtle and notably broad-ranging ways, the Catholic tradition continues to shape our contemporary intellectual life.

Published in the 2006-10-20 issue: 

Luke Timothy Johnson is emeritus Woodruff Professor of New Testament and Christian Origins at the Candler School of Theology, Emory University, and a frequent Commonweal contributor. Among his many books are Among the Gentiles: Greco-Roman Religion and Christianity (Yale) and Prophetic Jesus, Prophetic Church (Eerdmans).

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