On Cultivating the Catholic Mind

Blogging is not typically a sphere of life that I prefer to tread into. More often than not, it seems that blogs have become merely an outlet for those who neither want nor seek genuine and fruitful intellectual discussion. This is, of course, not a denial that no good blogs exist, nor that good ones ought not to exist, but a simple observation that blogs have enabled anyone to practically say anything with little or no requirement for having to provide a reasonable and coherent defense for their positions. While recently reading an article that analyzed St. Thomas Aquinas’ conception of the relationship between science and faith, I stumbled across the following comment from one anonymous blogger:

Religion deals with fiction, or at the very best supernatural stuff that cannot be disproved but is still implausible. Science is about making statements that can be made with certainty. There is no overlap between religion and science. Religious   public relations people try to say that there is, but in reality, religion has no relation to science at all. Religion is about believing in stuff without evidence.

In reading these sentences, I couldn’t help but recall the Catholic novelist, Walker Percy, who once provided the following astute insight regarding this philosophic view of reality: “This life is much too much trouble, far too strange, to arrive at the end of it and then be asked what you make of it and have to answer, ‘Scientific humanism.’ That won’t do. A poor show” (Conversations with Walker Percy, “Questions They Didn’t Ask Me,” 417).

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Dr. Michael Tkacz, philosophy professor at Gonzaga University, has often drawn attention to the fact that our contemporary culture understands religion to be merely “private, nonrational, and unverifiable,” whereas science is “public, rational, and verifiable.” Science deals with objective, empirical facts about reality and religion provides the ethical tools and resources of how to live with this reality. However, from this perspective, it is important to remember that these two spheres of life cannot and do not overlap since they pertain to two distinct and separate orders of reality. Tkacz has also highlighted that this intellectual dualism is not only fostered in secular culture and universities, but in our Catholic universities and institutions of learning and formation as well. Pope John Paul II’s Apostolic Exhortation Ex Cordae Ecclesiae has provided an in depth elucidation of what a university ought to be, most especially a Catholic university. Anyone familiar with this document, and the status of Catholic higher education in this country, cannot deny how far off course we have gone, by desperately striving to become homogenous with the Ivy League schools, those so-called “peer institutions.”

Catholic culture has unjustly inherited from her institutions of higher learning a dismantling of the integral relationship between faith, science, reason, and the necessity of cultivating a genuine intellectual life, what Fr. Schall has rightly labeled “the Catholic mind.” One must ponder whether in fact we could provide an adequate and intellectually rigorous response to the ‘scientific humanism’ that the anonymous blogger from above, as well as modernity itself, has put forth. Catholicism not only demonstrates the integral relationship between faith and reason, but also places tremendous faith in reason. Chesterton wrote in Orthodoxy that it is an act of faith to proclaim that we can know something outside of our own minds. Reason can discover truths about God that are affirmed in revelation, but knowable apart from it, which is why Vatican I declared that, as a dogma of the faith, truths about God can be known by the limited and finite capacity of the human intellect.

This question of taking care of our own wisdom presupposes that we have, in fact, sought to cultivate an intellectual life and that we have fed our deepest desires to know, conforming ourselves to what is. An authentic life of the mind is one of continual discovery, whereby we are open to the realization that there is a world outside of the mind that is knowable, and that it has not been created by us, but is already “there.” Furthermore, it entails that what constitutes our being, what in fact makes us what we are and which leads to our happiness, is not intellectually construed or made by the human mind, even though our politicians have sought to do otherwise. Politics has become metaphysics, straining to determine and legislate what it means to be fully human through the help of those that are called “intellectuals.”

The practical question of how to cultivate an intellectual life will differ according to each person’s state in life, whether one be a priest, laymen, religious, housewife, tradesman, scholar or otherwise. The essential point is that we recognize that a genuine intellectual life is what is fully in accord with the kind of being that we are. Aristotle tells us at the beginning of the Metaphysics that “all men desire to know.” We are the beings whom the ancients called capax omnium, those creatures with the capacity “to know all things.” In his commentary on Aristotle’s Ethics, Aquinas points out that not only are we capable of knowing all things but, more importantly, we can delight in our knowing. When knowledge becomes evaporated into a means for something else, then much of our learning becomes drudgery and cut off from the very purpose of possessing an intellect in the first place. Moreover, since learning has been severed from any need for the moral virtues, we have been unable to see what is, losing much of our ability to have an interior awe before reality, and therefore, we will turn to pleasures other than those that align with our nature.

In his classic work, The Intellectual Life, A.G. Sertillanges, O.P. points out that there is an intimate relationship between knowing the truth and doing the good. This is why he tells us that if we want to have an intellectual life, we must first “create within us a zone of silence.” Silence is often hard to bring about in a culture laced with noise and the newest technological innovations. Yet, Sertillanges is quite certain that we can do this, if we would only set aside the time each day to do so. We seem to have more time for those things that are unnecessary and less for those things that are the most. We often lament that it must be easier to cultivate a life of the mind when one is pursuing a vocation that more readily aligns with it, such as the life of a professor. While there is a degree of truth in this, nevertheless, Sertillanges is clear that we need only organize our lives such that 1-2 hours a day can prepare the intellect to grasp and enjoy what completes and satiates it: truth.

The intellectual life, thankfully, does not mean that all of us must become professional academics or scholars. In fact, Sertillanges is avid that this in fact is often a hindrance, since we know that the brightest of the angels had given into that most fatal sin of pride. A friend of mine recently told me that he heard a wonderful lecture recently by the noted Notre Dame philosophy professor Alisdair MacIntyre. During the Q & A session, a graduate student asked MacIntyre what were some professions that are best suited for a virtuous life. Being a mechanic, carpenter, or a tradesmen were some of his ideas. The student then asked which profession would be most incompatible with virtue. With no hesitation, MacIntyre quipped: “academics.” Chesterton remarks that “there are no uneducated men. They may escape the trivial examinations, but not the tremendous examination of existence.” This “examination of existence” will not be dependent upon whether or not we have received a university education, but on our confronting the highest things. The virtue of wisdom perfects the mind through the recognition of the prima causa, the first cause of all things, the Divine Mind that has given us mind so that we may know the things He has made, and that finally, we may come to know Him (cf. Rom. 1: 20).

Here I will conclude with two insights that contain within them what I have briefly called to mind in these reflections, namely, the very goodness, necessity and purpose of the intellectual life. The first point comes from Fr. Schall, wherein which he says that in the end:

The Catholic mind holds the truth because it knows that it is itself mind, open to what is, to what is true from whatever source its evidence might arise, even from common sense, even from reason, yes, even from the revelation handed down to us (The Mind That is Catholic, 18).

The second point is from Aquinas’ commentary on Boethius’ De Trinitate:

Man’s happiness is twofold. One is the imperfect happiness found in this life, of which the Philosopher speaks, and this consists in contemplating the separate substances through the habit of wisdom. But this contemplation is imperfect and such as is possible in our present life, not such that we can know their quiddity. The other is the perfect happiness of heaven, where we will see God himself through his essence and the other separate substances. But this happiness will not come through a speculative science; it will come through the light of glory (Q. 6, A. 4).

In Fides et Ratio, Pope John Paul II gave the human person the appropriate title of “truth seeker,” for he is that creature which yearns to pursue the truth, since this is what is most in accord with what we are, and to delight in it no matter what source it comes from, be it reason or revelation. The “Catholic mind” affirms our deepest desire to contemplate what is not itself, those things of the created order and most especially the separate substances (i.e., God). This is the delight of the mind, the true meaning of an intellectual life, our imperfect beatitude that opens our soul to receive and be led towards our ultimate happiness, which comes only through the light of glory.

This essay first appeared September 24, 2012 in the Catholic World Report and is reprinted with permission.


  • Brian Jones

    Brian Jones is pursuing a graduate degree in philosophy at the University of St. Thomas in Houston. His writing has appeared in the New Blackfriars Journal, The Fellowship of Catholic Scholars Quarterly, Catholic World Report and Homiletic and Pastoral Review. He and his wife Michelle have three daughters.

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