BY ALAN WOLFE
PHOTO BY GARY WAYNE GILBERT
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
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.
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 bÉte 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
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.
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).