To What End?

In Plato’s Apology, Socrates’s claim to be wiser than anyone else in Athens rests on a paradoxical assertion-that he, at least, knows he is ignorant. If institutions spoke as forthrightly, some Catholic colleges and universities today might make a similar claim. More than other colleges and universities in the United States, they know that they do not know, or at least are questioning what the mission of a college or university should now be.

The questions are fundamental. In terms John Henry Newman used in The Idea of a University some one-hundred and fifty years ago: Is the proper “object” of university teaching moral or intellectual-the cultivation of the virtues, or “the culture of the intellect”? Further, should the focus be instruction in “fine and useful arts, in trades, and in ways of business”-in a word, in skills? Or should it be on an education (etymologically, a “leading out”) which ensures that its recipient “does not stand where he did, he has a new centre, and a range of thoughts to which he was before a stranger”? How such questions are answered will determine whether “service learning,” for example, belongs in an institution’s core curriculum-or whether there even should be a core curriculum.

Catholic colleges and universities find themselves at the forefront in thinking about mission for several reasons. As they have become more ambitious academically, their steadily decreasing numbers of religious faculty make the institutions’ Catholic character no longer a matter of course. And then there is the quiet but persistent question of just what it means to be distinctively Catholic in the post-Vatican II era, when American Catholics no longer stand apart from the rest of American society. Our colleges and universities can no longer be merely “custodial institutions” to safeguard students’ faith and morals. There is too little to guard. In obvious ways, Catholic institutions of higher learning are far more impressive today than they were a half century ago, when George Shuster memorably complained that too many were “little more than aggregations of machine shops and schools of commerce into which a drop or two of religious teachings is sometimes able to intrude.” But whether they will be meaningfully Catholic in the future is a real question.

The very big book under review here prompts reflection about the purposes of Catholic higher education. Intended by the editors for undergraduate and graduate courses, and more generally “as a resource for anyone interested in learning more about the tradition of Catholic philosophy,” it presents more than eighty readings, from biblical times to 2005. There are ample selections from patristic and medieval texts. The editors have included the predictable writings from Augustine, Anselm, and Aquinas, but have also unearthed lesser-known gems such as the Roman Minucius Felix’s “A Pagan-Christian Debate.” The dyspeptic Tertullian is on hand to make his ritual denunciation of philosophy-“What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem?...We want no curious disputation after possessing Christ Jesus, no inquisition after enjoying the Gospel!”-tempered somewhat by Clement of Alexandria’s apologia for philosophy as “a schoolmaster to bring the Greek mind to Christ.”

Readings from the twentieth and twenty-first centuries make up more than half the book. There are very worthwhile texts by Bernard Lonergan on subjectivity, Peter Geach on God’s power, Elizabeth Anscombe on contraception, Herbert McCabe on mysticism, and Alan Donagan on action-texts which, with any luck, will inspire readers to search out more by these authors. The transcript of Frederick Copleston’s 1948 BBC radio debate with Bertrand Russell is both thought-provoking and entertaining; and editor Harry Gensler’s dialogue on the golden rule provides insight in just a handful of pages. Readers interested in the origins of Pope John Paul II’s controversial views of women should read Edith Stein on “the singularity of woman,” and then compare and contrast an article by Commonweal’s own Sidney Callahan on abortion and feminism.

What might be the aims of a course in which this book would be used? One imagines such a course could introduce students to Catholicism as an intellectual tradition: a tradition whose members can, have, and (even in good conscience) must argue for its basic presuppositions about the nature of reality, human nature, and morality, even as they argue among themselves. (For example, Anscombe’s defense of Humanae vitae is by no means incontrovertible-despite its having been published in Great Britain by the Catholic Truth Society.) But such a course could also aim at giving students an “appreciation” of the Catholic tradition, focused on answers rather than on the discovery and exploration of problems. The book lends itself to both uses.

It also raises another fundamental question: To what extent does a Catholic education require specifically Catholic content? In The Catholic University as Promise and Project, the Jesuit theologian Michael J. Buckley asks what it is “in our universities...which will first free students to be intelligent, reflective, and compassionate human beings.” He proposes as one answer philosophy, understood as “the disclosure or revelation of what is at depth in all human enterprises”-and then goes on to outline a formidable introductory course that has nothing particularly “Catholic” about it, not even canonical philosophical texts. (Not even Aquinas!)

Buckley appears to agree with Newman that the church may expect “a momentous benefit” from philosophy. For Newman, this benefit was “rescue from that fearful subjection to sense [the ‘evil of sensuality’] which is [man’s] ordinary state.” Philosophy thus offered “the first step...in the conversion of man and the renovation of his nature.” For Buckley, the benefit lies in awakening students from their dogmatic slumber to the possibility of loving and even living for truth. It is worth remarking that this is how philosophy figured in Augustine’s life: his reading of Cicero fired him for truth and led eventually to his conversion. If Buckley is right, Catholic colleges or universities that care about being Catholic ought to search high and low for ways not only to teach students Augustine, but more important to be like him. It is, to say the least, no small project. It can be hoped that this big book will help.

Published in the 2006-11-17 issue: 

Bernard G. Prusak is associate professor of philosophy and director of the McGowan Center for Ethics and Social Responsibility at King's College in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. He is the author of Catholic Moral Philosophy in Practice and Theory: An Introduction (Paulist Press, 2016). 

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