In a famous essay published in Thought in 1955, Msgr. John Tracy Ellis lamented the lack of intellectual achievement on the part of second- and third-generation American Catholics. Conditions have changed markedly since Ellis wrote. Today Catholics can be found on the faculties of the best American universities; they rank among our public intellectuals and our most respected journalists. Despite such advances, however, Catholic intellectual life in the United States is once again in trouble.
The magisterial contributions of émigré professors like Jacques Maritain, Dietrich von Hildebrand and étienne Gilson (in Canada) are long past. The ferment produced by the Second Vatican Council has been stilled. Perhaps the last great Catholic contribution to American culture came with the bishops’ pastoral letters of the 1980’s. The Challenge of Peace, in particular, had significant impact on the wider society, educating the public and politicians to debate issues of peace and war in a disciplined way.
In the intervening years, deep fissures have appeared in the U.S. church. On the public side of American Catholic intellectual life, charity has become hard to find. Intellectual exchange has fallen victim to petty name-calling, ad hominem arguments and a gotcha politics of denunciation. As Archbishop Harry Flynn of St. Paul-Minneapolis wrote last month, This uncharitable, biased and reckless substitute for what formerly was fair-minded commentary and fact-based dialogue has found its venemous way into our Catholic family. How did this happen?
Perhaps the decisive factor has been the culture wars. There were and are serious issues in dispute, but the climate of intellectual combat has degraded the role of the intellectual. The activist intellectuals of mid-20th century attempted to bring their research to bear on public problems. They combined scholarly detachment with civic engagement. The late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a Democrat who put his research at the service of a Republican president in the interest of the poor, epitomized the public intellectual.
By contrast, today’s culture wars are ideologically driven. They are sophistic wars of opinion, indifferent to research and learning. They put a premium on cleverness and emotion, especially righteous anger. Knowledge and judgment matter less than litmus-test correctness. Furthermore, the intertwining of ideological wars in American politics with internal differences within the church, a phenomenon that is reaching a new peak in this year’s presidential campaign, has hastened the disappearance of substantial, respectful intellectual exchange among Catholics.
Broader cultural trends have also had a deleterious effect on Catholic intellectual life. Popular culture has become increasingly sensate, so that there is less general interest in ideas than a generation ago. Another factor diminishing the audience for serious exchange of ideas is the decline of the liberal arts. Driven by demand, higher education has grown increasingly career-oriented. Cardinal Newman’s university is more and more Clark Kerr’s multiversity, housing a wide range of autonomous specialties.
Catholic intellectual life has been further impoverished by the alienation of two generations of Catholic academics. More and more they serve the academy and society, but not the church. Theologians, in particular, feel they are not respected, and they are suspicious of authority. They resent being treated as catechists charged with transmitting selected snippets of recent church teaching. They take offense at being monitored by the prejudiced and ill-informed.
Reviving American Catholic intellectual life will be an uphill struggle. Resisting trends in the wider culture, like materialism, sensuality and superficiality in the media, will be exceedingly difficult. Other tasks, like returning charity to intellectual life, ought to be achievable, with patient determination, within the Catholic community. Pastoral strategies by the hierarchy to encourage ideas more than to police them, and by Catholic institutions to nourish the life of the mind beyond a narrow school of thought, would certainly be welcome.
One cannot produce John Courtney Murrays, Flannery O’Connors, Raymond Browns, Dorothy Days and Godfrey Diekmanns at will. It took decades for the biblical and liturgical movements to yield their fruit. But Catholics can encourage a climate in which individual scholars, artists and cultural movements can flourish. We can defend an environment in which faith seeking understanding, not the spouting of ill-founded certainties, is the rule. The human spirit, as Vatican II declared, must be cultivated in such a way that there results a growth in the ability to wonder, to understand, to contemplate, to make personal judgments, and to develop a religious, moral, and social sense.