An Open Letter to Pope Benedict

Holy Father, welcome to my country. Your presence cheers thousands of us Catholic professors and students who love the Church and want her to be more of a presence in our lives at school. You will find more enthusiasm than suspicion among the young, who are coming to see that the secularism they have been taught deadens mind and heart.But many of their teachers will accuse you of coming to curtail the free play of reason in academic discourse, shutting it into the iron cages of dogma. So thieves are the first to appeal to the hallowed right to own property.

For American professors, like their European counterparts, have more or less abandoned not only faith, but reason too. They deny that reason can determine any truths beyond the quantitative and empirical. Such residual reason as they acknowledge can tell what tensile strength a buttress would require to hold up the wall of a cathedral, but it cannot tell why one should build that cathedral. It can tell how to feed a child; it cannot tell, without appealing to bald selfishness, why one should want a child to feed. At its most honest, it reduces human life to the satisfaction of appetite. “Nothing but food and sex,” said a biology professor at my school, a college struggling, with some success, to remain Catholic and sane.

But man abhors an empty altar. Without faith, and with reason under house arrest, he turns to something else to serve. As you have written, the nearest and greatest idol is power. In my field of literary studies, “discourses of power” are de rigueur. Scholars of Shakespeare smile at the notion that the poet understood more about human nature than any artist who ever lived. Shakespeare thought he was writing about men and women, sin and redemption, justice and mercy, and, yes, legitimate political power and tyranny. But we see behind that screen to the Renaissance games of court power in which he was involved. Such studies, of some limited use, have conquered the rest and demand obeisance.

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

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Our academy is its own caricature. In this regard, Catholic colleges are no different from any other. Rare are the professors of political science who doubt the competence of the state to cure the ills attendant upon man’s avarice, pride, lust, and sloth. The god of power must be adored. Rare are the professors of sociology who will say that, without a common faith in things higher than gasoline, elections, and paychecks, no genuine community can exist, let alone stand against the ambitions of the state. Rare are the professors of Western literature, informed by the gospel of Christ, who dare to read A Christmas Carol and assert that a child, perhaps a child in a womb, is more important to the world than any king or queen — or a new car and a career.

But they who believe only in power are the last to be trusted with it. I will not delve into the shameful treatment of students and their parents as cash cows, or the passing of their instruction over to ill-paid assistants. The fascination with power has not just made our universities bad. It has perverted the very mission of a university, which is to engage the quest for truth.

When Diocletian sought to unify the fragmenting Roman Empire, he demanded that citizens submit to the cult of Rome and the emperor. They were to hail him as Dominus et Deus, Lord and God, prostrating themselves as they entered the royal presence. Now, Diocletian was a cultured and cynical man. He knew he was neither Lord nor God. But he also knew that apotheosized power can brook not the slightest breach. That is why, when the Christians refused to bow down before his idol, he persecuted them so mercilessly, and so publicly. The same dynamic, bloodless but culturally devastating, is at work now in the American university. If a college’s mission is not determined by its reverence for objective truth, goodness, and beauty, the permitted speech of its professors will be uniform, cowed, and predictable. There is far more variety and boldness of thought in an American tavern than in an American classroom.

So you come, Holy Father, to bring not only the freedom of truth but the preparatory freedom of the quest for truth. Let the professoriate be honest here. Suppose an untenured professor were to say, boldly and publicly, “I believe that the so-called ‘right to choose’ is nothing but the expression of chaotic voluntarism, and even if it did not involve the murder of an unborn child I would oppose it.” Or, “It is better to cherish virtue and humanity, by leaving much to free will, even with some loss to the object, than to attempt to make men mere machines and instruments of a political benevolence.” Or, “The ‘society’ of a man’s house — a society limited indeed in numbers, but no less a true ‘society’ — is anterior to every kind of State or nation.”

Depend upon it, it is not only those who publicly oppose abortion or same-sex marriage who could not be hired or would not be retained. Harvard would fire Edmund Burke. Georgetown would fire Leo XIII.

So do not be deceived, Holy Father. We have nothing like the University of Paris in the days of St. Thomas, when all questions might be put up for learned dispute. Stand up among ten or 20 professors for the competence of reason and the virtue of faith, and you will likely be the only one who actually believes in academic freedom.


But our loss of faith is the bad fruit of our loss of natural piety generally. It’s not universal, but you will find that many professors undermine not only the Catholic faith, but the very possibility that a student might seek out the faith. They undermine piety.

The virtue I am speaking of is not the same as Christian faith. My finest teachers at college were taught by a man who had revolutionized the study of medieval English literature. He had paid close attention to the art of manuscript illuminations, stained-glass windows, and sculpture. He had read both the summae of the great theologians and such devotional manuals as The Cloud of Unknowing. He was steeped in the romances of France, England, Germany, and Italy. And he concluded that modern critics had misunderstood the rambunctious pilgrims on Chaucer’s trip to Canterbury. He argued that you could not really read the Canterbury Tales without understanding the Christian symbolism and eschatology. {mospagebreak}

That naturally pious man was D. W. Robertson, an agnostic. But he loved Chaucer, and was convinced that Chaucer had something to teach us. Indirectly, his piety was responsible for leading others to Christ. I am one of those in his debt.

But piety now is in short supply. The presidents of Catholic colleges will assure you that there are plenty of Catholics among their faculties. I wish rather that there were even two or three pious agnostics like Professor Robertson. An impious Catholic, whether he or she attends Mass or not, does great and fundamental harm to the minds of the young. Youth naturally longs for the quest, and so also looks far away for a hint, a clue, a glimpse of a vision, a strain of a melody. The aged look to the past because that is where they lived, but youth look to the past as a land of adventure, and to their forebears as heroes to emulate. But when their teachers whisper, “You are as gods right now, and need no lessons from the fools who came before you,” they grow cynical, well-prepared for “advancement” not in wisdom and understanding, but in careerism and transient prestige.

We academics ply a hermeneutics of scorn. We are too feeble to endure the great and the lofty. So, in the fine arts and the humanities, we demote works of genuine greatness to examples of “hegemonic oppression,” and celebrate second-rate works not on the reverential grounds of genuine beauty, but for political utility. In the sciences, we sever research from any well-considered and morally demanding view of man. For man, now, is no more sacred than a lump of clay, to be fashioned as the rich and intelligent may please.

The scorn not only dictates the methods and the objects of a university’s intellectual endeavor; it determines its arrangement of life. No one with a rich sense of the holiness of man and woman would herd thousands of young people indiscriminately into large brick boxes, factories of fornication, confusion, and disillusionment. There used to be almost a hundred Catholic colleges for men, more than a hundred for women. A few dozen of the latter remain; none of the former.

Administrators will say, “Our Catholic tradition is deeply important to us.” Be wary. They may be using the word “tradition” as impious people use it. That is, tradition is the debris of what was once a culture. It preserves nothing cherished, nothing for which one might give one’s life. It is the “tradition” of an Independence Day celebration, when people have a picnic and explode fireworks, and think not one thought about their country, and shed not one tear for those who died to make her free. So Saint Louis University calls itself a school “in the Jesuit tradition,” which now means little more than that a few priests are still hanging around, and that educational excellence of a wholly worldly sort is demanded. It is the “tradition” of a begging letter sent to the alumni, to appeal to nostalgia and the wallet.

The War to End All Culture

Talk of tradition leads me to culture: the loving cultivation of a people’s deeply held beliefs about the world and man’s place in it; how they feast, and fast; how they raise their children, and bury their dead; how they sing of their love, and mourn their disappointment. You will hear, as Leo XIII heard, that you do not understand American culture. If only that were true! For there is no American culture to misunderstand, and what little there is, is surely not to be found at the typical university.

Why so? Culture embraces all the faculties of man: his passions, his unarticulated experiences, his folk wisdom, his songs, his reason broadly understood, and his faith. But the eviscerated, calculative reason that remains to us cannot address so vast a thing as culture. Nor can the hermeneutics of scorn begin to understand it. If, as Richard of Saint Victor says, love is an eye, scorn sews that eye shut. The university is at enmity with culture, tradition’s child. For the university has sold itself to homogenizing power. Why else would Catholic schools have sought not to be themselves, “counter, original, spare, strange,” but to mimic the well-funded and the worldly?

Even at those schools fighting to maintain a Catholic identity, the anticultural forces of skepticism and scorn have divided one department from another — since there is no common goodness or truth or beauty that both scientist and literary scholar can seek — and have shunted what is specifically Catholic into carefully sealed cells: in departments of theology and philosophy, or in the chaplain’s office. Now it is something to have such cells staffed by people who believe in Jesus Christ. I admire those people and the work they do under difficult circumstances. But they do not, and cannot, a culture make.

Consider Palestrina’s Credo, in his Mass for Pope Marcellus. It is a work of the highest craftsmanship, both musical and theological. The voices of the polyphonic choir weave into and around one another, coming into harmony and separating again, to merge suddenly in words of tremendous power and significance: consubstantialem, passus est, in remissionem. Or the voices will sing, together and not together, that the Holy Spirit is to be worshiped simul, simul, simul with the Father and the Son. Yet the greatest wonder of it all is that it was a setting for a prayer that any plowman or washerwoman would know, and its polyphony was but the development of the common chants of the village church, and the folk songs of the village green.

For a college to have a chance to be truly Catholic, then, there must be something to unite washerwoman and scientist, electrician and artist, student and priest. That something must be alive. One must know, at such a place, that what goes on in the biology department has to do with what goes on in a Shakespeare class; the methods may differ, the points of departure may be far apart, but the quest will be one. And ultimately, the quest must be undertaken for the love of Him who prayed that all might be one. Such a place would be, with all proper pride, itself. It would possess not uniformity but unity. It would help to heal the alienation of our world, forging friendships across the disciplines, as Christ united the Pharisee and the fisherman, the tax collector and the zealot, and made them brothers.

With God, All Things Are Possible

The reconstruction of genuinely Catholic communities of study is, humanly speaking, impossible. But so was the conversion of the German barbarians in the dark ages of old. So was the raising of Lazarus from the dead.

At the least, we must ensure that Catholic theology is taught at a Catholic college. Let the theologians sign the Vatican’s mandatum. By their obedience they may find intellectual riches, undiscovered gems. For light is the reward of obedience: “He that hath my commandments, and keepeth them, he it is that loveth me,” says Jesus, “and he that loveth me shall be loved of my Father, and I will love him, and will manifest myself to him” (Jn 14:21).

But a solid theology department won’t be enough, if students spend most of their time among scoffers. Such a division would reflect the society’s dismissal of faith as something private, allowed to live under quarantine. The Catholic college needs more. It needs many faithful Catholics for its administrators and its faculty, scattered throughout the departments. From them, not from the anticulture about them, the college must derive its vision, its direction, and its common life.

From those who are not Catholic — and I count many such among my friends at Providence College — we must expect a respect for the faith and a willingness to engage Catholics in rational debate. More than that, we should look for people of natural piety, who do not think that despising the past, whether of one’s nation or of the West generally, is any virtue; people who study works of intellectual and artistic genius with reverence, serving their students as models of scholarly integrity and humility.

You cannot depend for this upon the professors themselves. They will judge by secular standards of competence and prestige: who has published in the “best” journals, who has a degree from the most exclusive school. They can, sometimes, be trusted to judge whether candidates know the material they will be hired to teach. But they will not ask, “Who will best assist our students in the common quest?” The responsibility then falls to administrators. Let them seek out promising young Christian scholars, many of whom are the victims of the academy’s prejudice against the Faith.

But the wisest practical measures must fail without common prayer. Here I recall the comment of a young Christian lady who thought she might want to enroll at my school. She visited a few classes, spoke to me and a couple of other Catholic professors, had a generally favorable impression of it all, and then said, sadly, “But when I look around, I don’t see any evidence that this is a Christian school.” She was right. To judge from the posters, the playbills, the chatter, and the lists of upcoming events, there was little to mark the school as Christian. The faith was not central to the life of the college.

What might have been her impression if the bells of the chapel tolled the Angelus? Or if the cross were prominently displayed in every building? Or if the college had been in the midst of a Eucharistic procession? Or if Mass times were marked on the bulletin boards? Or if class began with prayer?

Never mind the prospective freshman. What would happen to the young people teetering between scorn and piety, between skepticism and those sisters Reason and Faith, if they should regularly see their fellows and their teachers in public and solemn prayer? What might they sometimes wander into, if a Catholic college were to affirm that the Faith is more important than convenience, and set aside one hour each week for no classes, no business, but the sacrifice of the Mass, for all to attend if they chose? How cramped and embarrassed might the scoffer feel, shut in his office, as he heard the unearthly sound of young voices raised in song? He might feel the pang of alienation. He might knock at the door.

May God bless your endeavor, Holy Father. It will be a wonder to see Catholic colleges emerge again from their self-built tomb. Not only for the Catholic Faith, but even for those natural goods without which a fully human life is impossible: the free use of reason; the love of excellence; the piety of genuine culture. For culture — not mass entertainment — is guttering out. But, as in the days of your ancient namesake, its last flames are to be found in Rome.


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