Church Tradition and the Catholic University: A Response

[from The Nature of Catholic Higher Education: Proceedings from the Eighteenth 
Convention of the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars, 1995 (Minneapolis, 1996): 75-84.]

Alfred J. Freddoso
University of Notre Dame

Father Sokolowski advances two theses. The first is that "faculty members who teach theology . . . have a particularly strategic role to play in working out a successful harmony between the university and the Church and between faith and reason." The second is that "in the current controversies about the university and the magisterium, the Church has put itself and its own authority at a disadvantage because of the comprehensive revision of the liturgy that was carried out after the Second Vatican Council . . . [That is], the way the academic world looks at Church authority has been influenced by changes in the Church's liturgy." 

I will begin by commenting on the second thesis. Father Sokolowski has presented us with a penetrating and persuasive analysis of the effect that the restructuring of the liturgy has had on perceptions of the Church's authority; I believe that his remarks do indeed help us understand, at least in part, the train of thought by which many Catholics, as well as many outsiders, might have come to conflate (i) the authority to integrate our doctrinal and liturgical traditions in different ways with diverse /76/ historical and cultural situations with (ii) the authority to alter those traditions in their essentials. 

Still, I doubt that his analysis goes very far toward explaining "why many academic scholars think that their work is parallel to rather than subordinated to the pastoral and teaching authority of the Church" (my emphasis). To be plausible at all--or so it seems to me--this claim must be narrowly restricted to a relatively small group of Catholic academics, viz., theologians, liturgical historians, and biblical scholars. For my own experience suggests that Catholic academics outside of the theological disciplines do not normally think of their professional work as being related in any interesting way at all to the pastoral and teaching authority of the Church; indeed, Father Sokolowski himself intimates as much in the first part of his paper. However, even when his thesis is thus restricted to practitioners of the theological disciplines, it is still, I believe, rather dubious. To be sure, it was only after the liturgical renewal and, more significantly, after the appearance of Humanae Vitae that prominent Catholic theologians, liturgical historians, and biblical scholars began representing themselves openly as equals, and even rivals, of the bishops, rather than their skilled subordinates. However, tendencies in this direction were already firmly in place before the Second Vatican Council. And let's be honest. Intellectual arrogance and fascination with novelty are, and always have been, occupational hazards for intellectuals in general and not least of all for those of us who hold faculty positions at Catholic universities; what we have in the case of academic dissent from the Church's doctrinal and pastoral authority is a spiritual problem rather than an inability to grasp or to apply the distinction between being authorized to adapt a tradition and being authorized to deconstruct a tradition. Put simply, all of us Catholic intellectuals--theologians, liturgists, and biblical scholars included--must strive persistently and self-consciously to resist our strong built-in tendency to disdain those whom we perceive as non-experts (read: the /77/ bishops) and, in so doing, to jeopardize the unity of the Church. 

As for the future, I doubt very much that the course of liturgical change will by itself do much to affect already entrenched attitudes of condescension toward and disparagement of ecclesiastical authority. Our principal hope for the future, as the Holy Father clearly senses, lies with young and budding Catholic intellectuals, whose appreciation of the tradition has been hindered mainly by inadequate catechetical training and perhaps by deviant liturgical practices rather than by liturgical revision as such.1 

Ironically, if there is any group of Catholic scholars to whom Father Sokolowski's claim might apply, at least by indirection, it is we ourselves. For in the face of oftentimes breathtaking doctrinal distortions and liturgical abuses, we (I speak at least for myself) have not always done enough to discourage those who look to us for leadership (or at least for sympathy) from engaging in a brand of "orthodox dissent" that violates the norms of fraternal correction and slowly but surely diminishes our respect for our bishops and their authority. In this terrain there are plenty of spiritual landmines on all sides of the battlefield. 

Following Father Sokolowski, I have been speaking only of Catholic intellectuals and their perception of ecclesiastical authority. Nothing I have said should be taken to imply that I deem liturgical change a matter of little consequence for the Church as a whole. Far from it. To cite just one topical example, all of us have a profound spiritual stake in how liturgical texts are translated from the Latin, and for this reason the present debate over proposed revisions of the current translations is especially significant.2 (Father Sokolowski himself has played a significant role in this debate, as has my pastor, Bishop John Sheets.) I have questioned only the thesis that liturgical change has played and will play a crucial role in determining how Catholic scholars perceive the authority of the Church. 

I turn now to Father Sokolowski's first thesis, which is /78/ indisputable, as is his perceptive analysis of the pivotal political and cultural role theologians play within Catholic institutions of higher learning. Outside of a coup d'état at the very top, one of the surest and quickest ways to alter the trajectory of a Catholic college or university is to alter the character of its theology department.3 This can go in either direction. Over the last thirty years theology departments have led the way as prominent Catholic colleges and universities have become havens of dissent from ecclesiastical authority. On the other hand, in those colleges and universities where younger and generally more orthodox theologians are slowly but surely replacing the aging generation of high-profile dissenters, one finds within the theology departments a higher level of respect for ecclesiastical authority, with salutary results for the institutions as wholes. (One such transformation is occurring not far from where we meet.) In fact, even where the younger theologians still give off the bad odor of dissent, they tend to be far less politicized than their elders and to have a far less personal stake in dissent. I will return to this point in a moment. 

Of course, theology departments do not become either havens of dissent or bastions of orthodoxy without the tacit approval, or even encouragement, of high-level administrators. So the character of the theology department is itself more likely a symptom, rather than a cause, of attitudes that prevail in the higher bureaucratic echelons of the relevant college or university. Nonetheless, Father Sokolowski correctly points out that the theologians themselves interact with the rest of the faculty in ways that no higher administrator could hope to. And it is here, oftentimes in informal or semi-formal contexts, that they exert their influence, either positively or by omission. (I say "by omission" because at my own university, the most serious and fruitful forum for the discussion of the university's Catholic character has been initiated by a foursome composed of a Protestant philosopher, a historian, a political scientist, and an electrical engineer. Even though a few theologians have /79/ addressed this forum, they have certainly not taken the lead; and in their presentations they have inevitably made every effort to distance themselves--sometimes subtly, sometimes not so subtly--from the Pope and bishops.) 

Given my basic agreement with Father Sokolowski's first thesis, I would like to make two points, one of which is meant to supplement what he has said and the other of which is meant in part to fill out and in part to correct his analysis of the ideological underpinnings of current debates about the nature of the Catholic university. 

The first, and supplemental, point was adumbrated above. As I see it, the current tension between Catholic universities and the magisterium is at root a moral and spiritual problem more than a philosophical or political problem. This is a contingent fact that reflects the recent past of the Church in the United States. Historically, there have been strained relations between Catholic universities and members of the hierarchy even in the best of times, when Catholic scholars for their part have been concerned not only to appear orthodox but to be orthodox and when bishops for their part have been concerned to preserve the rightful autonomy of scholarship in theology and the other disciplines. Even under such relatively ideal conditions, there have been--and legitimately so--differences of emphasis and perspective issuing in conflicting prudential judgments. Still, as long as there has been humility, unity of purpose, and good will on all sides, there has always been a decent chance of working out mutually satisfactory canonical resolutions of these conflicts. 

I need hardly point out that, in this respect at least, we are not in the best of times. Our colleges and universities harbor many administrators and scholars, including but by no means limited to theologians, who have a deep personal stake in fostering the culture of dissent. Oftentimes their own lives--both their personal lives and their professional lives--have been at least partially defined by and built upon fundamental choices that have put them at odds with the teachings of the Church. I'm alluding here to everything from broken vows, immoral sexual practices, and outright apostasy to pet theories about the Church, the sacraments, Christian morality, and even the nature of sanctity. What's more, many who are otherwise beyond reproach have contributed to the culture of dissent by protecting their friends out of a sincere, if misguided, sense of compassion. In short, the roots of the present conflict between Catholic academia and Church authorities are deep and deeply personal. Hence the strong and sometimes quite savage reaction to dissenters from the culture of dissent. 

I make this observation not in order to berate the people in question or to induce pessimism in those of us who often find ourselves contending with them, but rather in order to help us assess accurately the prospects for a canonical solution to our present predicament. Ex corde ecclesiae propounds a deep and inspiring vision of what a Catholic university can and should be; its promulgation was timely and, indeed, absolutely essential. Likewise, in the current negotiations aimed at formulating national norms based on Ex corde ecclesiae, it is imperative that our bishops not cave in to the haughty and self-serving demands of certain prominent college and university presidents. These norms will, if meaty enough, provide a sound framework for the establishment of new Catholic colleges and universities (which will surely come, whether or not in our lifetime) and even perhaps, God willing, for the return of a few lost sheep among currently existing Catholic colleges and universities. However, if the roots of the present problem are as I have portrayed them, the norms, regardless of their exact content, will have little impact in the short-term future on most major Catholic institutions of higher learning. I say this not in order to counsel despair, but in order to help us formulate a prudent strategy; to put it bluntly, for those of us outside the power structures it's going to be guerilla warfare for the time being. Our main role, unspectacular though it is, will be to inspire our /81/ students with our own love for truth, to gain professional prestige through our scholarly work and associations, to promote firmly but with charity the vision of Ex corde ecclesiae, and, with the help of divine grace, to change the hearts of our faculty colleagues one by one--especially the younger generation of theologians and other Catholic scholars who are just now coming into our colleges and universities and who generally have a much less personal stake than their elders in perpetuating the culture of dissent. 

Second, and finally, I want to make a brief remark about what we might call the ideological landscape of the contemporary Catholic university in the United States. I believe that the situation is a bit more complicated than Father Sokolowski suggests. In my own university, as far as I can tell, it is only among the engineers and "hard" scientists that one finds the sort of pure Enlightenment rationalism that he portrays as the villain (though I hasten to add that surprisingly few faculty members in any discipline, including theology, seem to have thought very deeply about the relation between faith and reason or, more generally, about the rightful role of epistemic authority in rational inquiry). Faculty members in the humanities and social sciences are much more likely to hold either a pure form of anti-rationalism, inspired by the likes of Derrida, Foucault, and Rorty, or some (perhaps not fully coherent) combination of rationalism and anti-rationalism. 

Now you might suspect that, relative to our present topic, this is a distinction without a difference. In the first place, both rationalism and anti-rationalism abhor appeals to epistemic authority, especially religious authority, when it comes to what Simon calls transcendent statements--rationalism because it sees such appeals to authority as superstitious attempts to preempt the inviolable autonomy of pure reason, and anti-rationalism because it views such appeals to authority, even to the authority of reason, as a smokescreen for political and cultural oppression. Second, today's rationalists and /82/ anti-rationalists share in common a deep pessimism about our ability to find absolute truth, with anti-rationalists contemptuously dismissing the notion of absolute truth altogether, and rationalists, apparently more chastened than their seventeenth-, eighteenth-, and nineteenth-century predecessors, believing that even though pure reason is all we have to go on, it cannot take us very far once we leave the relatively safe arena of mathematics and the natural sciences. 

But notice that the two sides reach these common conclusions in diverse ways and from within divergent conceptual schemes. I suggest that, within the framework of the typical contemporary Catholic university, we can make some headway with our many secularized colleagues by being sensitive to these differences and by making clear to each side separately where we as Catholic scholars agree with it and where we disagree with it. For instance, as a Catholic intellectual, I find myself torn in both directions by current disputes between rationalists and anti-rationalists over matters such as political correctness, curricular pluralism, and multiculturalism. On the one hand, the morally corrupting and nihilistic tendencies of anti-rationalism in some of its current manifestations are readily apparent and rather scary, just as Chesterton noted long ago in the chapter of Orthodoxy that he aptly entitled "The Suicide of Thought". On this score, I am sympathetic with the liberal critics of anti-rationalism. On the other hand, when rationalists--say, Arthur Schlesinger or the editors of The New Republic--trot out their contemporary versions of Mill's classical defense of freedom of speech and academic freedom, I find their exaltation of reason unfettered by tradition as unpersuasive as ever and their rank individualism as repulsive as ever. On this score, I am sympathetic with at least the more communitarian strains of contemporary feminism and tribalism. In cases like this, then, we are in a position as Catholic scholars to mediate disputes between rationalists and anti-rationalists and in so doing to exhibit the distinctiveness of our own intellectual tradition. /83/ 

At an early juncture in Hume's Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion Philo complains of the "priestcraft" that has put religious thinkers on the side of the skeptics in ages when reason is exalted and on the side of the rationalists in ages when reason is under attack: "Thus skeptics in one age, dogmatists in another--whichever system best suits the purpose of these reverend gentlemen in giving them an ascendant over mankind, they are sure to make it their favorite principle and established tenet." Our age is propitious in that we confront rationalists and anti-rationalists together at the same time. In these circumstances, we have a marvelous opportunity to promote the Catholic intellectual tradition as an effective antidote to both rationalism and anti-rationalism, and to present in high relief the distinctive nature of the Catholic university as a carrier of that tradition. Too bad Philo isn't here to see it. 


1. In this connection, I am happy to report that in the last few years I have met a significant number of Catholic students who are deeply aware of their ignorance of the tradition and eagerly striving to overcome that ignorance. As Chesterton put it, the children are fanatical for the faith where the parents have been slack about it. 

2. At Mass I normally follow the preface and Eucharistic prayer in a book that has the Latin and English on facing pages. And I must confess that having published a number of translations of Latin philosophical works, I sometimes find myself thinking that a particular liturgical text could have been translated more accurately, more elegantly, and more reverently. Yet some of the recently proposed emendations would be even less accurate, less elegant, and less reverent. /84/ 

(I cannot resist the temptation to divulge my own favorite example of a questionable translation in the present English texts, since I have not seen this one referred to in print. The protagonist of Walker Percy's novel Love in the Ruins, upon finding himself in an air-conditioned church on a hot and humid Louisiana summer morning, is reminded of the invocation near the end of the Roman canon in which we implore God to grant those who sleep in Christ a locum refrigerii, lucis et pacis. "Refrigeration must be one of the attributes of heaven," he later muses. However, in the present translation of the Roman canon, the three attributes are rendered not as `coolness, light, and peace' but instead as `light, happiness, and peace'. So much for temperature control in patria.) 

3. Here I speak mainly of changes over which administrators have more or less direct control. There are many other factors, some academic and some extra-academic, which fall outside the direct control of administrators and yet which have a profound effect on how, or whether, individual students experience their college or university as Catholic. I have in mind, for instance, the degree to which students are encouraged by their teachers to enter into serious intellectual engagement with the Catholic tradition; the degree to which liturgical practices on campus induce students to appreciate and develop reverential attitudes toward the sacraments as instruments of divine grace; the quality of the preaching students hear and of the spiritual direction they receive, etc. Wholesale changes in these factors can sometimes have a very quick effect, one way or the other, on the trajectory of the institution as Catholic, even though administrators often have little influence over such changes.