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Presence of mind.  Once a "defiant subculture," U.S. Catholic colleges now find that they speak to a wider audience.  So why the angst? asks a non-Catholic member of the BC faculty


Non-catholics routinely find in Catholicism something that is missing in their own religious or intellectual traditions. For those unhappy with the direction the modern world has taken, especially in the years since the cultural revolutions of the 1960s, Catholicism stands as a mighty alternative. As the sociologist Peter Berger wrote in 1967, "Catholicism, for reasons intrinsic to its tradition, has tried hardest in maintaining a staunchly resistant stance in the face of secularization and pluralism, and indeed has tried down to our own century to engage in vigorous counterattacks designed to re-establish something like Christendom, at least within limited territories."

Or, as the theologian Stanley Hauerwas, a Methodist, put it more recently (and more succinctly), "Catholics, more than any other people, must resist the presumption of modernity." Reading comments like these, I am reminded of the work of a first-rate journalist named Alan Ehrenhalt. His book, The Lost City (1995), evokes Chicago-style Catholicism of the 1950s, with its emphasis on hierarchy and obedience, as a preferable moral system to the anarchy that followed in its wake.

For each of these writers, Catholicism plays the role of the road not taken, the secret history of the 20th century, which, if only we'd known better, we would have lived out.

That road is not my road. There were, to be sure, antimodernist tendencies in both the official teachers of the Catholic Church and in the way ordinary Catholics led their lives. I have no interest in revisiting them. Berger and Hauerwas may see in the Catholic intellectual tradition a principled opposition to contemporary relativism and hedonism; I am more likely to see a Church that was far too soft on anti-Semitism (especially, I have to add, when it counted), took a certain pride in banning great books, and produced a Syllabus of Errors and attacks on liberalism that bet on the wrong horses as far as the future was concerned. Had those aspects of Catholicism perpetuated themselves unchanged into the start of the 21st century, America's Catholic colleges and universities would continue to be on the defensive, for the burden of proof would be on them to demonstrate their proper place in a liberal and pluralistic democracy.

Fortunately, however, the Catholic tradition is better than that. It furnished John Courtney Murray, the most distinguished Catholic theologian of the 20th century. It kept alive an important strain of natural law teaching. It experienced Vatican II. And it produced a generation of highly educated middleclass suburban professionals anxious to give their children the best education a university can provide. Only the most intransigent of conservatives could hold that the Church, at least in the United States, is not better off because of their existence.

Let me, then, turn directly to aspects of the Catholic tradition that have a positive role to play, not only in higher education, but in American public life more generally. Certainly the most important of them is the natural law tradition. I will not address here--or, for that matter, anywhere--the question of whether God is the origin of our natural rights and duties, for I have little taste for philosophical and theological analysis. The important point to make is that a natural law tradition leaves one predisposed to believe that there are certain truths in the world that remain true irrespective of whether the laws and conventions of any particular society adhere to them. At its worst, belief in natural law can lead to ideological rigidity and inflexible inhumanity. But at its best, respect for natural law gives one the self-confidence that makes possible the passion and curiosity that fuels intellectual inquiry.

No one could have predicted, 30 or so years ago, that such self-confidence would ever be needed in American higher education. At the height of the Cold War, American universities produced "the best and the brightest," in historian David Halberstam's phrase, and humility was not exactly one of their personality traits. But in remarkably short time, the culture of American academe shifted--from the hubristic arrogance manifested by individuals who believed they could bend a foreign country to their will to doubts, among the scholars ensconced in the university today, of the possibility of will, truth, morality, beauty, or any other category that strikes them as ripe for deconstruction. At a time when the only thing we can know is that we cannot know anything, the claims of natural law suggest to us, not that the world is unknowable, but that we have simply stopped, for whatever reason, trying to know it.

Natural law, in short, inoculates against postmodernism. A year or two ago, I wrote an article recounting my visits to colleges and universities shaped by the tradition of American evangelical Protestantism. I recalled my surprise at discovering how strong, intellectually, many of these institutions had become. But I also expressed astonishment to learn that the iconoclastic literary critic Stanley Fish is something of a hero to those who teach in the English department at Wheaton College, and that postmodern philosophy is all the rage at the Fuller Theological Seminary. While there are, no doubt, exceptions of which I am unaware, I have yet to come across quite that much enthusiasm for postmodernism at the Catholic colleges and universities with which I am familiar. The postmodern evangelicals with whom I talk believe that one can be skeptical of all truths while maintaining the truth of God's existence. Catholics are more likely to hold that the truth of God's existence must mean the truth of man's reason, art's beauty, or universal morality.

Liberalism's challenge
Two other side effects of Catholicism's sym-pathy for natural law are also worth noting. The first of these is the sympathy that has emerged in America's Catholic colleges and universities for liberalism. By this I do not mean the everyday use of the word liberalism that refers to the Democratic Party and its support for social reform, although it remains true that most Catholics, and certainly most Catholic academics, remain liberal in that sense. The more important affinity is the one between Catholic respect for natural law and liberal conceptions of fundamental human rights. John Courtney Murray pointed out that the great Enlightenment thinkers who wrote the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights, Protestant and deist though they may have been, were nonetheless articulating natural law principles in asserting freedom of speech, press, and religion.

It is worth keeping his point in mind when we ponder why evangelical Protestant literary theorists love Stanley Fish. For if there is one theme that runs throughout all of Fish's writings (or, for that matter, those of his former colleague at Duke University, Stanley Hauerwas) it is a deep hatred of liberalism. How ironic, then, that of the three intellectual traditions I have been discussing--Catholicism, evangelical Protestantism, and postmodernism--the only one that finds something of value in liberalism is the one whose popes made such a determined 19th-century attack upon it.

Everything I have said about liberalism could also be said about postmodernism's other bte noire: science. The story of how America's colleges and universities dropped their formal ties to religious denominations is almost exactly the story of how scientific method came to dominate the methodologies they employed. And so when postmodernism came to be understood as questioning the possibility of scientific knowledge, it should not have been a surprise that it would flourish at evangelical institutions that never fully accepted Darwinism and its many offshoots.

Natural law may have played a role in helping Catholic colleges and universities avoid that fate. While scientists are unlikely to believe with St. Thomas that natural law exists because God commanded it to be there--although a surprising number of scientists are themselves religious--it is not a huge intellectual leap from the proposition that there exist universal laws of morality to one that there are universal laws of nature.

Besides the natural law tradition, non-Catholics who teach at Catholic colleges and universities cannot help but recognize concerns with social justice as central to the mission of those institutions. Indeed, from the perspective of the early 21st century, the Catholic Church's concern with social justice looks more and more distinctive. A century ago, the triumph of laissez-faire in Western society generated fantastic economic growth--and unacceptable levels of poverty and income inequality. Two social institutions moved to respond, in two different ways. One was the labor movement, whose ideology, especially in Europe, had been fashioned by one or another version of socialism or social democracy. The other were the churches, especially mainline Protestants articulating the social gospel, and the Catholic Church through the great encyclicals on work and human dignity.

Throughout much of the century that followed, it seemed obvious to just about everyone that, of these two traditions, the one rooted in the labor movement was more significant, since it offered the prospect of political majorities and seemed more in touch with the secular drift of the time. But social democracy eventually floundered; even the American version of the welfare state, as represented by programs such as Social Security and unemployment compensation, reached their limits or were cut back as fiscal constraints tightened. The result is that for today's generation of students, especially in America, concerns with social justice are not tied, as they were in the 1960s, explicitly to political movements so much as they have become associated with idealistic inclinations that often have religious roots.

What this means for Catholic colleges and universities is that they are extremely well positioned to offer to today's students special opportunities to respond to their idealistic proclivities. That is certainly an aspect of the Catholic tradition worth celebrating, for as the students who attend Catholic colleges and universities increasingly come from suburban middle-class backgrounds, which are often a bit too sheltered and comfortable for the students' own good, internship programs and volunteer work provide them with perspectives they may not have gotten at home. And that is surely part of what a liberal education should offer.

Nonetheless, I am not all that happy with the ways in which concerns for social justice have been implemented at many Catholic colleges and universities. In brief, there is sometimes a conflict between the urge to do the right thing and an understanding of the complexities of what the right thing to do actually is. As a social scientist, I have come to appreciate the ironies involved in human behavior, especially when it comes to politics and policy. Would the interests of America's poor have been better served had President Clinton's "welfare reform" never been passed? I wish I knew the answer.

Certainly, the evidence since then indicates that measures usually thought of as harsh and punitive have actually had positive results, encouraging people to find jobs and to better organize their priorities. And even if all such positive evidence ceases now that we face a recession, can we really say with confidence that welfare, as we once knew it, promoted human dignity? As with welfare reform, so with many other examples from public policy, ranging from affirmative action to discrimination against the disabled: If politics and policy were easy to understand, we would not need political scientists.

My experiences with Catholic colleges and universities--not just Boston College, where I teach, but many of those to which I am invited to lecture--is that commitments to social justice are treated as if they are not intellectually problematic. Of course welfare reform was bad, since it was a Republican idea. Of course the Americans with Disabilities Act is good, since it sides with the vulnerable. When I argue that matters may be more complicated than that, I am, or at least I think I am, judged to be hostile to social justice itself. Students at Catholic colleges and universities are so intent on being good that they confuse a means to an end with the end itself. Social justice is the right and proper end of human society. But there is no one correct way to achieve it.

Growing up in Philadelphia, surrounded by Catholic colleges and universities--LaSalle was the closest one to where I lived, and my public high school was right across the street--it never would have occurred to me that a certain kind of liberal intellectual smugness that I associate with Ivy League schools would come to characterize them as well. In those days, Catholicism constituted a distinct American intellectual subculture. Thomists at the University of Chicago (few of whom were Catholic), Buckleyites at the National Review, the anticommunism of Francis Cardinal Spellman, even Joe McCarthy's disgraceful crusade (urged on at the time by a dean at Georgetown University)--this was the intellectual side of Catholicism with the greatest visibility.

I am hardly calling for a return to those days. But I do think that a healthy liberalism requires a vibrant conservatism. As much as contemporary Catholic students know and appreciate aspects of the Catholic tradition that emphasize social justice, they often seem unaware that Catholic intellectuals once played a conservative role in our society, so much have they absorbed the idea that being Catholic today means sympathizing with the most vulnerable. But this is something they ought to know; if they did, they might have been better prepared for September 11. In the aftermath of that event, many of my students were surprised to discover that the war against Osama bin Laden could be considered a just war or that America, and Americans, could be considered innocent victims of an attack against them. Perhaps as the implications of that event reverberate, Catholic students will become more used to seeing the tragic side of life, and that, in turn, may complicate, for the better, their understandings of justice and its demands.

A scholarship of meaning
There is one final aspect of the Catholic tradition worthy of mention here. I am referring to the correspondence that seems to exist among Catholic writers between taking their Catholicism seriously and also taking seriously an appreciation of the symbolic, interpretative, and meaning-creating aspects of the human species. One can make too much of David Tracy's notion of an analogical imagination, as Fr. Andrew Greeley does when he finds distinctively Catholic ways of having sex--but only a little too much. For it is true that, as Greeley puts it, there is a sacramental dimension to human beings that gives us a Catholic imagination decidedly at odds with, say, the Quaker or Puritan imagination--if there is such a thing.

And so it should come as no surprise that just as ordinary Catholic believers find mystery and magic in the liturgy, there has emerged a distinctive form of Catholic social thought stressing the ways in which human life involves more than merely getting and spending. From the anthropologist E. E. Evans-Pritchard to the social scientist Mary Douglas to the political philosopher Charles Taylor, there would be very little of an interpretative tradition in social thought in the absence of writers influenced by Catholicism.

This Catholic imagination is very alive at Catholic colleges and universities. At Boston College, I constantly hear laments for the passing of Catholic identity, but I see that identity flourishing in the way we do social science. There are not, to be sure, a large number of Catholics teaching in my department of political science--although, contrary to popular impression, there are some--but we do political science in a Catholic way even if we may not all be Catholic. Long ago I became a social scientist because I wanted to understand how the institutions that shape human beings function. But at some point during the course of my career, academic political science developed instead a fascination with formal modeling, which in turn required adherence to the principle that human beings are rational actors seeking to maximize their gains and minimize their losses. Under the influence of rational choice theory, interest in the great classics of political thought was shunted aside, as were those social scientists who used historical and ethnographic methods to understand contemporary institutions. Before long, reading articles in the American Political Science Review required far more training in mathematics than it did familiarity with politics.

Like most Catholic colleges and universities, Boston College's political science department held out against the trend. In part this was due to the influence, beginning in the early 1970s, of Fr. Ernest Fortin and a faculty that included political philosophers trained by Leo Strauss, many of whom were Jewish but who found a home in institutions informed by Catholic neo-scholasticism. And in part it was due to the fact that most of the department found, and still finds (as I do) the conception of human purpose implicit in rational choice theory to be impoverished.

For one thing, rational choice theorists want to reduce all of human activity to one dimension, a reductionism that violates conceptions of our complex and often contradictory nature; if St. Augustine had been a rational choice theorist, he never would have compared the city of man to the city of God. Even more importantly, the dimension to which rational choice theorists take their reduction is to the most materialistically calculating features of human existence.

One need not be Catholic, nor even religious, to recognize that human beings lead richer lives than that. For most real-world humans, economic activities are a means to the end of leading a meaningful life. For many contemporary social scientists influenced by economics, economic activities are the ends that define what meaning is.

When Catholicism was more of a defiant subculture in American life, it created its own parallel institutions; there was even a Catholic sociological association, for example, and its purpose was not only to bring together sociologists who happened to be Catholic--there were actually a considerable number of them--but to define a particularly Catholic perspective on the social sciences. Organizations like that one went out of business, essentially, as Catholics found a secure place in the American academy, and that, I think, was a good thing. For as I try to keep track of the efforts by evangelical Protestant scholars and institutions to raise their intellectual profile, I am struck by the way they retreat into their own set of parallel institutions, as if they lack the confidence to participate fully in the exchanges around them. Catholics now have that confidence in the academic world, and, because they do, they are better off in their efforts to influence the non-Catholic world by bringing to it the benefits of their tradition.

The best defense
And so what some people lament as the "dying of the light"--Fr. James Tunstead Burtchaell's phrase for the diminishing Catholic identity at Catholic institutions of higher learning--ought properly to be viewed as the spreading of wisdom. Catholic colleges and universities do not hire people like me because they have failed to achieve their mission, but because they have succeeded. It is not because they have lost their roots in Catholic tradition and joined the mainstream that they recruit non-Catholic students, but because the mainstream would be worse off without them. And it is not in spite of their histories as Catholic institutions that they have risen in the U.S. News & World Report rankings or come to the attention of parents looking for the right education for their children; it is because of their distinctiveness that they have their appeal. Perhaps it takes a religion that has produced its share of tortured martyrs to look at the position of Catholic colleges and universities now compared with during the 1940s and 1950s and conclude that something has gone wrong. If such success constitutes failure, I would hate to know what failure must be.

Defenders of Catholic education as it used to be have no obligation, certainly, to consider the situation facing non-Catholics. But just as Catholic colleges and universities have become enriched through contact with the non-Catholic world, non-Catholics have benefited too. I know that I have. What upsets me most about the views of writers like Burtchaell and Fr. Richard John Neuhaus at the Institute on Religion and Public Life is their lack of recognition that a Catholic education can be as valuable for those outside the tradition as those inside. If you have something that you believe makes sense, you ought to want to share it. If you restrict it, you cheapen it.

Of course, it is true that shared things change by being shared. Catholics should not treat their educational institutions the way some evangelical Protestants treat their joy in Jesus: Here it is, take it whether you want it or not; question your own faith but don't ask me to question mine. If that is what a Catholic education is meant to be, Catholic educators would be better off staying in their own academic subculture. But neither should Catholic colleges and universities simply copy the institutions of mainstream America. As the sociologists David Riesman and Christopher Jencks wisely wrote in 1968, "The important question. . . is not whether a few Catholic universities prove capable of competing with Harvard or Berkeley on the latter's terms, but whether Catholicism can provide an ideology and/or personnel for developing alternatives to the Harvard-Berkeley model of excellence." I believe that the passage of time since they wrote those words has answered their question. Catholic colleges and universities that emphasize the Western tradition, pay serious attention to the needs of undergraduates, have the confidence not to make enemies of liberalism and science, and appreciate the human side of human beings have developed precisely such an alternative. That is why I teach at one of them.

To be sure, Boston College, like other Catholic institutions, is not what it was when it was all male, nearly all Irish, and overwhelmingly Catholic in the composition of its faculty. There are, I admit, too few priests on campus even for my comfort. But it remains recognizably Catholic, perhaps more recognizably Catholic for those who are not Catholic than for those who are. If that sounds like a paradox, perhaps my appreciation for the Catholic intellectual tradition has taught me the importance of paradoxical things.

Alan Wolfe is a professor of political science and the director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College. His essay is drawn from his keynote address at the February 2002 meeting of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities. His most recent book is Moral Freedom: The Impossible Idea That Defines the Way We Live Now (2001).

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