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From April 15-20, Pope Benedict XVI will make his first and, in view of his age, most likely his last trip to the United States. This pastor of the universal Church of over a billion souls also happens to be an outstanding theologian, teacher and preacher. As such, he is not only successor of St. Peter and, most recently, John Paul II, by virtue of his office, but also a worthy successor of St. Paul, St. Augustine, and Cardinal Newman by virtue of his intellectual gifts and communicative skills.
No wonder, then, that he has declared a Year of St. Paul beginning in June of this year, since the Apostle of the Gentiles was the Church’s first and perhaps greatest theologian, trying to evangelize a largely apathetic if not hostile pagan culture not unlike our own, with its penchant for sex and violence over reason and faith. It will be most interesting to hear what Pope Benedict has to say to us Americans in his visits to Washington, the nation’s capital, and New York, which, as the site of the United Nations, has some claim to being the capital of the world. Unfortunately, he is not coming to Massachusetts, home of Red Sox Nation, Boston cream pie, a bunch of colleges and universities, gay marriage, and Ground Zero in the clerical sex-abuse scandal.
Over 50 years ago, in 1955, Church historian Msgr. John Tracy Ellis delivered an address on “American Catholics and the Intellectual Life,” which lamented the fact that, in spite of our then-powerful national presence as measured in terms of wealth, numbers and strength of organization, “the weakest aspect of the Church in this country lies in its failure to produce national leaders and to exercise commanding influence in intellectual circles.” He attempted to explain this as a function of the Catholic Church’s being largely composed of poor immigrants, with a “lack of serious reading habits.”
Then, too, the culture’s emphasis was on material success, and Catholics tended to concentrate on practical achievements in business and politics. Many were of Irish extraction, and centuries of religious persecution at the hands of the English had closed the doors of higher education to the Irish. Anti-intellectualism among Catholics was a kind of defense mechanism.
Catholic colleges and universities, to this day, are chiefly known for their athletic prowess. Of course, having good sports teams is a lot better than actively undermining the faith through staging trashy productions like Vagina Monologues. The percentage of Catholics at schools like Harvard seems to drop from roughly 25 percent at the undergraduate level to roughly 10 percent at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. The reason? Grad schools do not field sports teams.
Academically, Catholic colleges in this country seem to mimic the standards and values of their older and more prestigious secular counterparts. With few exceptions, to my way of thinking, they do not pride themselves on being true to, and developing intellectually, their distinctive Catholic identity. Relatively few Catholics have read, and are conversant with, the great literary and spiritual patrimony that is ours as English-speaking Catholics: St. Thomas More, St. John Fisher, Cardinal Newman, G.K. Chesterton, Ronald Knox, Christopher Dawson, Thomas Merton, Flannery O’Connor, Dorothy Day, Bishop Sheen, Frank Sheed, Maisie Ward, Walker Percy, Peter Kreeft.
The challenges and problems we are facing as a country are enormous. Our faith should be a beacon of light in helping us navigate these difficult times. We need to develop American Catholic intellectuals. Pope Benedict seems to be one of the greatest minds to occupy the Chair of St. Peter, and he is a notably bookish person. We can learn from what he says, but perhaps even more from what he is: an honest intellectual of deep faith. Among other things, it’ll be fascinating to hear what he says to representatives of Catholic universities in Washington, D.C., on April 17.
In his book “After Virtue,” the moral philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre famously concludes: “A crucial turning point in that earlier history occurred when men and women of good will turned aside from the task of shoring up the Roman imperium and ceased to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of that imperium. What they set themselves to achieve instead . . . was the construction of new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained so that both morality and civility might survive the coming ages of barbarism and darkness. If my account of our moral condition is correct, we ought also to conclude that for some time now we too have reached that turning point. . . . This time, however, the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time. And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of our predicament. We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another -- doubtless quite different -- St. Benedict.” We are waiting for Pope Benedict.
Dwight Duncan is a professor at Southern New England School of Law. He holds degrees in both civil and canon law.