Fr. George Rutler’s 1995 book Crisis of Saints has just been republished, which is a good thing. Missing from the new edition, however, seems to be the chapter “Newman and Land O’Lakes,” about the condition of Catholic education. As we contemplate the self-satisfied responses of Notre Dame to the objections about its commencement speaker, perhaps this passage from the chapter deserves remembering:
As early as the Tamworth Reading Room letters, Newman was certain that even a classical education based on other than Christianity as its element and principle would degenerate into either “a mawkish, frivolous and fastidious sentimentalism” or ” a dry, unamiable longheadedness” or “an uppish, supercilious temper, much inclined to skepticism.” The Land O’Lakes “Statement on the Nature of the Contemporary Catholic University” succumbed to all three, expressing itself incidentally in an English as bereft of the standards Newman enjoyed as it is of his logic. It already sounds dated as Newman’s “Idea” cannot be, trapped in a 1960s time warp, the abject proof that thought must surrender to the slavery of contemporaneity when it is not “formed” by the liberating disciplines of the arts.
Certainly with the best intentions, a prominent churchman, not unrepresentative of the Land O’ Lakes school of thought (Bishop James Malone), upset the economy of Newman’s intelligence of obedience when he said in a 1986 commencement address at Notre Dame: “Theology will also enrich the Church if it takes into account the teaching office of the bishops and the pope, not slavishly but with honorable fidelity.” Unlike Newman, he is not careful to define his terms, but he does imply that there are theologians who might enslave themselves to the Magisterium. A servile theologian would be a contradiction as Newman understands theological science. The teaching office of the Church precludes unthinking obedience precisely by the fact that it teaches essentially as the seat of authority only because it is integrally the seat of wisdom. The commencement speaker made the same dialectical faux pas that led Berengar of Tours astray in his exaggerated rejection of scholastic priorities in the eleventh century. No one in the audience, not even all those new bachelors of arts, seemed to have detected this, not even after four years in a midwestern Catholic university. Perhaps the day was too sultry. Or perhaps the microphone had failed, or the distractions of so an exciting an occasion did not encourage serious allusions. Or perhaps, even in a Catholic university, they had not been told about Berengar of Tours. . . .
Intellectualism so partisan may be the romance of the natural man and even the reverie of the pagan gentleman, but it is not the logic of the Catholic scholar. Liberal education untutored by ecclesial obedience has a tendency to turn into “pick and choose” intellectualism. Says Newman, “This Intellectualism first and chiefly comes into collision with precept, then with doctrine, then with the very principle of dogmatism;—a perception of the Beautiful becomes the substitute for faith . . . even within the pale of the Church, and with the most unqualified profession of her Creed, it acts, if left to itself, as an element of corruption and infidelity.” With grave prophecy, Newman warned that a university captive to such corruption would become a religion of its own, an institutional rival to the Church.