The Catholic Intellectual Tradition

The intellectual tradition of Catholicism takes at its foundation, certain assumptions about what it means to be human and how the intellectual journey leads to God. This means that, here at LMU, we understand and affirm the value of rational inquiry and the human search for meaning. The following statements seek to unpack elements of the cultural and intellectual worldview of Catholicism.
1. The intellectual as spiritual: no intellectual endeavor can ever take us away from God. Because God is absolute truth, we hold that any attempt to discover the truth leads the person closer to God. Catholicism sees itself engaged wherever there is a genuine search for truth. Thus, no academic discipline lies, in principle, outside the intellectual tradition of Catholicism.

2. The existence of truth: despite the weakness and limitations of human understanding, the tradition maintains strongly that the human mind is capable of attaining truth. Reality does not lie beyond the human ability to understand it, at least in part. The Catholic Intellectual tradition has always embraced scholarship and academic life. The great monastic orders of medieval Europe sought to conserve and pass on the wealth of ancient scholarship.

3. The affirmation of human dignity: Human dignity, not sin, stands at the center of this intellectual tradition. The dignity of each person is founded upon the fact that each one is created in the image of God. This tradition holds firmly to the truth that each person mirrors God’s presence. The journey of human introspection and self-awareness is a spiritual journey that reveals the presence of God within.

4. Reality is a sign to be deciphered: God has written two books: nature and the Bible. This means that all that exists carries the sign of the Creator. Created reality is an expression and sign of its Author. By looking carefully at everything, the human mind can see beyond the fragmentary to grasp (even in an obscure manner) the totality of all that exists and the way in which it all has meaning. Thus, the Catholic tradition is neither fundamentalist nor literalist. Catholic universities are not Bible colleges. Symbols and allegory play a major role in the Catholic understanding of reality. Everything points beyond itself.

5. Rationality is not meant to be frustrated: The intellectual tradition Catholicism affirms that human existence is not absurd and meaning can be found. The meaning of life is the goal of all human reasoning; the tradition holds that such meaning does exist at an ultimate level (God) and that the journey toward discovery of that meaning is deeply satisfying.

6. Grace perfects, it does not suppress or destroy nature: the natural order holds the key for the journey of understanding. It is where everything begins. It lies in a continuous relationship to the realm of the divine. The mystery of the divine is revealed in and through the human person which it transforms. The journey toward truth, understanding and thus, God, is an optimistic journey despite the recognition of the human capacity for sin. The tradition identifies itself as Christian Humanism.

7. All cultures hold the seeds for this fuller understanding: In the Catholic tradition, truth is assumed to be everywhere and can be found in every culture. Even in early Christian times, pagan philosophy was seen to hold meaningful truths and helpful ways of understanding human nature (cf. Justin Martyr’s Dialogue with Trypho). These truths helped clarify the Catholic understanding of what it means to be human and how, in our nature, we are capax Dei (open to God).

8. Reason and faith exist in mutual support: for this tradition, faith and reason are not opposed to one another. Rather, they exist in a creative tension that enlivens both. Reason challenges faith to explain itself and faith challenges reason to go beyond itself. This is why philosophy has always held a prominent place in the Catholic intellectual tradition.

9. Celebrating the great mysteries of life and God’s goodness is part of our tradition. The sacramental dimension of the Catholic tradition is expressed both in the tendency to celebrate (especially with meals) and in the enormous importance the arts and music have. This is why Liturgy plays such a central role in the Catholic tradition’s self-understanding and why Catholic liturgy is so rich.

10. The conversation can always include more voices. Because of all of the above, the intellectual tradition of Catholicism likes to understand itself as a banquet, where more and more guests arrive and the conversation gets better and better. It’s a vibrant intellectual exchange that brings the past in communication with the present.

In short, the Catholic intellectual tradition is:

Optimistic and joyous about what it means to be human.
Transcendent and challenging about how we understand ourselves as spiritual beings.
Sacramental and celebratory in its affirmation of our dignity.
Integrative and Inclusive in its desire to spread the Good News.
Creative and Multi-cultural in its vision of how God is present to human experience.

                                                                                  Mary Beth Ingham, C.S.J.