Renewing the Intellectual Optics of Catholicism

The liberal arts curriculum as we know it today formally grew out of the theological education of the early Middle Ages; however, this heritage seems to have been largely forgotten. Over the years, I’ve found that professors at English and Composition conferences often tilt their heads at me when I mention theology. Sometimes they deflect the conversation toward more comfortable topics like spirituality, ecumenicalism, or religion-as-culture. At first I thought that they did not want to sort out theological minutia—or that they considered theology too arcane, too conservative, or not progressive enough. But after many more interactions, I gleaned a sobering motive behind their deflections. Professors, often from nondenominational schools, do not engage with theology because they do not seem to know what theology is.

As many of us know, theological thinking overlaps faith with reason and reason with faith. In his The Shape of Catholic Theology, Aiden Nichols defines theology as “the disciplined exploration of what is contained in revelation.” Theology, as a discipline, formally requires philosophical operations in cooperation with the divine Word. It ultimately involves a rigorously intellectual undertaking. Consequently, if this undertaking became more visible to the wider public, theology could contribute an advantageous optic that would proclaim the serious intellectual quality of the Catholic faith.

Theology does not backpedal from logical argumentation, but rather invites rational debate with outstretched arms. When the works of Aquinas, Augustine, or Bonaventure are made more visible to the public, this image of the open fearless scholastic becomes the optic. A more visible Catholic intellectual tradition establishes a stronger projected ethos. As a result, the Church can exert more intellectual influence. This powerful optic can fortify the Catholic Church against those who attempt to damage her reputation. In other words, the Catholic intellectual tradition affords us spiritual, but also intellectual, armor—however, much of its defensive power relies on showcasing such a tradition rather then keeping it hidden away as a secret advantage.

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The Catholic intellectual tradition provides evidence that Catholic thinking embraces high philosophical standards. Yet, without the public seeing this evidence, in this era of “fake news” and Internet trolling, it can fabricate its own false narrative about how Catholics think. We, as Catholics, need to be vigilant about these assaults. We, as Catholics, need to be wary of our optics. If the public no longer sees theology as a serious academic discipline, then the Catholic intellectual reputation will necessarily diminish. People will disbelieve the Catholic principle of fides et ratio. They will begin to drink out of a poisoned well. They assume—as some of the public already does—that reason does not serve a role within Catholicism.

This diagnosis became clear to me when talking with miscellaneous faculty from nondenominational colleges and universities over the years. Simply put, I found that some academics from liberal arts disciplines did not understand general differences between the various Christian denominations, particularly differences between Catholicism and Protestantism. Specifically, they were shocked to hear that Catholicism does not revolve around sola fides or sola scriptura. After speaking with them, I soon realized that they did not engage with Catholic arguments because they assumed from the start that Catholics did not have logical arguments. These skeptics imagined Catholicism as being dogmatically anti-intellectual, an assessment that ignores the entire history of Western civilization, and not just its philosophical tradition.

In short, if liberal arts academics who have spent 4 to 8 years in graduate school are misinformed about Catholicism, then how does the wider American culture view the ways in which Catholics think? A 2017 Pew Research Institute survey found some startling results. First, 28 percent of Americans are not familiar with the term “Protestant”; therefore, the nuances of Christian denominations appear to be lost on over a quarter of the American population. Moreover, 73 percent of American Protestants did not recognize sola fides as the chief means of Protestant salvation. Therefore, Protestants seem confused about the fundamental differences between their own beliefs and Catholics’ beliefs. Finally, when looking at atheists’ knowledge of Christianity, 18 percent of atheists believe that Thomas Aquinas, not Martin Luther, inspired the Protestant Reformation. These survey results reveal an American public that is both ignorant of historical knowledge about Christian denominations and unable to recognize theological differences between Catholicism and other denominations.

Rather than complain, we can take a deep breath and admit what is going on: Americans—of whom almost 50 percent are Protestant and 23 percent are “nones”— misunderstand not only what Catholics think, but also how Catholics think. And some Americans believe that Catholics do not think at all. The times have changed. For centuries, the Catholic Church has justifiably taken its intellectual legacy for granted. Unfortunately, Americans are becoming less and less familiar with that legacy. With the onslaught of secular influence, the rich Catholic intellectual history is being slowly erased from the collective memory. Therefore, it is our evangelical task to remind others about the Catholic intellectual tradition, specifically the logic of the faith. In doing so, we can remind the culture that Catholicism is an intellectual enterprise as well as a spiritual enterprise.

How can we execute these reminders? When interacting with someone who resists or does not know about the Catholic tradition, a deliberate step back may be an effective strategic move. Although it may bruise our egos, we need to acknowledge that some people think that Catholics are not logical thinkers. Therefore, before we engage in logical discourse, we may want to first establish that Catholicism actually has logical arguments. The Catholic Intellectual Tradition can act as the supporting evidence here. Since Americans—“nones” especially—often champion material evidence, presenting them with material theological texts from the Catholic intellectual tradition can provide persuasive evidence to demonstrate our claims—if they are fair-minded enough to examine them. By supplying this material proof of Catholic reasoning, individuals are forced to make a decision: (1.) read, engage with, and/or respond to works from the Catholic intellectual tradition; (2.) voluntarily ignore centuries of rational arguments; or (3.) attempt to disprove the entire corpus via fallacious generalizations. (Success depends on goodwill, if the problem is primarily ignorance and not narrow-minded maliciousness.)

Consequently, the burden of proof moves away from us and onto them. The choice is theirs to make—but an act of persuasion has already begun through the mere fact of requiring them to make such a choice. Regardless of the next steps in the process, the initial goal has already been reached: communicating Catholicism as a serious intellectual force. Ultimately, the visibility of Catholic theological rigor affords us—by association—a privileged position: an ethos reinforced by an interwoven historical fabric of theological argumentation. In highlighting our most prolific theologians, such as Augustine, Aquinas, von Balthasar, Newman, and Pope Benedict XVI, we separate ourselves from sola fides denominations—and in doing so, we purchase a more rhetorical means to engage others toward faithful ends.

Reminding others of Catholicism’s intellectual credibility may seem pedantic; however, such a renewed ethos can serve our persuasive aims in today’s post-Christian climate. In a cacophonous world of information overload, we cannot afford to sit back and ignore attacks that—intentionally or unintentionally—damage the intellectual reputation of the Church. It is always a joy to educate others about the Catholic tradition. Still, if a strong optic of Catholic intellectual life were directed toward a wider public, the result would be liberating. Rather than constantly disproving barrages of misinformed character attacks, we would be freer to forward more rational, faithful, and fruitful discussions.

Editor’s note: Pictured above is “Meeting of St. Augustine and the Donatists” painted by Charles-Andre van Loo (1705-1765).


  • Gavin F. Hurley

    Gavin F. Hurley, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of English at University of Providence in Great Falls, Montana (USA) where he teaches writing and rhetoric courses. He is the author of The Playbook of Persuasive Reasoning (2018) and his essays have appeared in the Journal of Communication and Religion, Journal of Religion and Popular Culture, Journal of Catholic Higher Education, Listening: Journal of Communication, Ethics, Religion, and Culture, Catholic Educator Magazine, America Magazine, and On Religion Magazine.

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