The current issue of the Weekly Standard carries an essay about the curious role Catholicism is playing in American public discourse these days. I thought I was relatively downbeat about the overall condition of Catholicismthe nomination of Samuel Alito to be the fifth Catholic on the Supreme Court means something, but it doesn't mean everything. In particular, it needs to be matched with the public problems of the Catholic Church, and that's a difficult match to make. Still, I argued, Catholicism seems to be providing at the moment a seriousperhaps the only seriousmoral vocabulary in fields of American intellectual life.
The Catholic philosopher (and FIRST THINGS board member) Russell Hittinger emailed me this morning, however, and he is considerably less impressed with the current state of Catholic intellectuals. "I suspect that the early 1960s was the high tide for Catholic influence in (on, through) the secular schools; this was the generation of Catholics who were hired at the best schools, who were near the top of their fields, and who were regarded as 'Catholic,'" he writes. "I am very dubious that we compare favorably today. Remember, I am not speaking absolutely of objective merit; rather, objective merit combined with what you have picked out in terms of notoriety, influence, etc."
Indeed, Russ suggests, the condition of Catholic academics is at a low point: "You are right about the function of Catholic 'thought' in the off-campus world in which you work. Catholics and fellow travelers abound. It could even look like a Catholic plot. In numbers proportionate to the industry, you can field an A- and B-team much more quickly and confidently. Unfortunately, academic institutions are an important part of the real world. You can't reckon with 'thought' just on an off-campus basis. We are dealing with a multi-billion dollar temple at the center of our culture. If Catholics are not faring very well in the temple (or, as I suspect, faring less well than a generation ago), then this cannot be a minor theme in your story."
"The proof has to be empirically based," he writesand then asks whether we can name ten people who are at least sometimes mentioned as being at the top of their field and to whom the predicate "Catholic" can be reasonably and significantly attached
Once upon a time, in a field like philosophy, the Catholic B-team was immense. Every major Jesuit university had three or four just among the clerics, not to mention the lay faculty. I myself would not have qualified for the Catholic B-team of 1965. Today, for purposes of the A-team in the field of philosophy, it would be merely Charles Taylor and Alasdair MacIntyre, with the possible additions of Robert Sokolowski and Jean-Luc Marion. Interestingly, only one is an American by birth, none are Americans by training, and all but Marion are close to retirement. I don't suspect that we will fare much better in Theology or Religious Studies, though there will be a decent-enough B-team.
I wouldn't prattle on in this vein, except for the fact that your estimation of the "thought" part of the equation doesn't square with my experience. Haven't you noticed that whenever we go to public events where academics are supposed to lend some weight to the occasion, it is always the same people? When I lecture overseas, European Catholics will always say how lucky we are to have so many serious thinkers. They are right at one level. But, then, when you look around, you can't help but notice that it is always the same six or so people. And, if the truth be known, what they really have in mind are not academics, but non-academics who have done so well in influencing the great cultural and moral debates in the public square. That's what they lack in Europe.
Leaving aside Russ's self-deprecation, is this right? Is the academic situation as dire as he thinks? Are American Catholic academics generally weaker than they were in the previous generation? I don't really know the condition of on-campus Catholic thought outside the law-school faculties, but if Russ is right, that would be a strong indicator that I overestimated things in "Alito and the Catholics." Surely among FIRST THINGS' readers there are professors and students who can answer this question.