Catholic Intellectual Tradition

stained glass

In religious language, a charism refers to a particular gift of God given for the good of humanity.  More particularly, religious communities of men and women are often said to bear a unique charism.  As such, St. Thomas More College has been shaped by the charism of its founders, the Congregation of St. Basil.  Put succinctly, the Basilian charism is three-pronged, demonstrating a commitment to the Catholic Intellectual Tradition, social justice, and the pastoral care of students. 

The challenges facing Catholic higher education today are significant.  The media often presents faith and reason as polarized and irreconcilable perspectives.  Likewise, within academic culture itself, the perception exists that it is intellectually irresponsible to hold religious convictions.  Thus, one of the tasks of Catholic education is to show that the relationship between faith-reason cannot be reduced to a mere dichotomy.  Rather, the active interplay between faith and reason can lead to greater understanding in the ongoing pursuit of knowledge.  The university itself emerged from the desire of the medieval Church to foster a creative dialogue between intellectual inquiry and faith convictions. Thus, Pope John Paul II’s apostolic constitution on Catholic colleges and universities, Ex Corde Ecclesiae,1 identifies that the university was born from the heart of the Church. This 1990 document has become foundational for Catholic colleges and universities around the world.

Catholic education resists the tendency to compartmentalize knowledge, encouraging instead intellectual explorations that not only recognize the interdisciplinary and ethical dimensions of knowledge, but also cultivate within the seeker a capacity for wisdom and discernment.  The Catholic Intellectual Tradition holds that the search for truth is enriched by one’s sensitivity to the ethical and spiritual dimensions of life.  So too, it recognizes that faith itself must be informed by intelligence: “if faith does not think, it is nothing.”2   Most importantly, Catholic education has the task of enabling students to hope and “to articulate why being a people of hope is not foolishly naïve, but an intelligent, responsible and faith-filled way of living this human life.”3    

Catholic education fosters a climate of intellectual freedom, encouraging students and faculty to explore new ideas and to question assumptions.   Since different worldviews intermingle on a university campus, this space naturally lends itself to dialogue and mutual enrichment.  Catholic education recognizes that different perspectives need to be articulated, listened to and respected.  At the same time, our tradition calls us to explore in depth the burning questions that we encounter through our human experience.  We do so, unafraid, knowing that the search for truth can never be antithetical to the search for God.

The Catholic Intellectual Tradition encourages one to engage questions of conscience, to reflect upon ethical implications and to put one’s knowledge in service of the well-being of others and our world. The responses to such reflections require wisdom, careful discernment and often a certain measure of humility; that is, a capacity to overlook self-interest and to recognize a horizon of human need around us.

At St. Thomas More College, we wish to foster in our students a desire to seek truth, recognizing that the path of knowledge is multifaceted and ongoing. Through the Catholic Studies Minor, for example, students can learn about Catholicism in an interdisciplinary context that explores the Church’s history and culture, as well as its conversation with contemporary society.   Many other opportunities allow the STM community to engage in the dynamic interplay between faith and reason.  Public lectures, panels and conferences are often geared toward deepening the Catholic intellectual tradition.4

It is our belief that our living out of the Catholic Intellectual Tradition as a Catholic liberal arts college is a gift to the wider Church.  Our search for truth and knowledge is a gift of the Spirit which allows us to shed new light on contemporary questions.  It challenges us, at times, to speak prophetically as we read the “signs of the times” and reach into our rich heritage of faith.

Questions for Reflection
What are the ethical implications of my search for truth/knowledge? How will this affect individuals, families, institutions?
What does this knowledge teach me about the human condition? Having learned this information, do I have more empathy or understanding for those whose experiences differ from my own?
When I encounter views that challenge my own, how can I meet that challenge with openness and respect?  What common ground can I find with this other perspective?

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1  The Holy See, “Ex Corde Ecclesiae: Apostolic Constitution of the Supreme Pontiff John Paul II on Catholic Universities,” accessed Oct 2011 http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_paul_ii/apost_constitutions/documents/hf_jp-ii_apc_1515081990_ex-corde-ecclesiae_en.html
2  Saint Augustine, De Praedestinatione Sanctorum, 2.5 (Migne, PL 44.963).
3  Bishop Donald Bolen, Giving an Account of Hope: An Easter Pastoral Letter (Diocese of Saskatoon, 2011), 2.
4  Examples, to name but a few, include Basilian Fr. James McConica’s Keenan lecture, Is there a Catholic Humanism; the panel discussion, Christianity and Socialism: The Legacy of Fr. Eugene Cullinane; and the Catholic Studies conference, In Search of the Good in the World.