I was honored to be asked to speak at the commencement of the Dominican House of Studies, also known as the Pontificial Faculty of the Immaculate Conception, in Washington, D.C. As readers of First Things know, I have a thing about the Dominicans and their charism. Here is what I said:
I don’t know what I’ve done to deserve the honor of addressing you on this auspicious occasion. Maybe it is because I have made no secret of my admiration for, and indebtedness to, the Order of Preachers. For fifteen years I have been involved with the Dominicans of Poland in Krakow, where, at the original suggestion of Pope John Paul II, we run a summer institute on Catholic social doctrine for American and European students. I hope to be there again this summer. For the last several years, I have also been privileged to work with the vibrant campus ministry under Dominican leadership at Columbia University.
Although I’m not sure your rule allows for such a category, I have been told that I am an honorary Dominican. Had I entered the Church thirty years earlier than I did, I might have been a real Dominican—if, that is, you would have had me. As it is, however, this simply diocesan priest offers his admiration and gratitude for the Order of Preachers, an order which is responsible for what is surely one of the permanent charisms of the Church, a charism without which the Church would not be as fully what she surely is.
Over the years, I have written a good deal about religion and democracy. Dating from St. Dominic’s convening of the first General Chapter in Bologna in the year 1220, it may plausibly be argued that your order is the world’s oldest experiment in democratic governance. There are those who claim that your experiment is a source, if not the source, of the Parliament of England and even of the U.S. Constitution. Admittedly, that is a stretch, but the claim is not without its charms.
Those of you trained under the Dominican charism are the beneficiaries of what is called—and today often derisively called—a classical education. Yours is a tradition embraced, and thus made your own. You have not only thought about history; you have thought with history. And thus I trust that your life and work will be formed by the aspiration to be worthy of the tradition to which you are heirs.
You are undoubtedly familiar with G.K. Chesterton’s observation that tradition is the democracy of the dead. And perhaps also with the late Jaroslav Pelikan’s claim that traditionalism is the dead faith of the living, while tradition is the living faith of the dead. To think within a living tradition of faith and thought is ever so much more interesting—and ever so much less prey to pride and pretension—than the production of putative novelties that in too much of today’s academy passes for intellectual creativity.
Of course, there is St. Thomas. In my experience, Thomists of the strict observance believe that Thomism is the hardware that will run any software. And increasingly I have come to suspect that they just may be right. That worthy Dominican, Father Benedict Ashley, somewhere writes that a distinctive contribution of Thomas to the Christian tradition was his insistence that study and the intellectual life are not merely means to an end but an almost sacramental means of the end itself, which is our sanctification. In this way, too, it is the case that to be an educated Catholic is to be in some important sense a Thomist.
At the same time, the Order of Preachers in the thirteenth century wisely accepted the advice of Pope Innocent III to adopt the Rule of St. Augustine. Among the many things he wrote, Augustine wrote this: “No one believes anything unless he first thinks it believable. Everything is believed after being preceded by thought. Not everyone who thinks believes, since many think in order not to believe; but everyone who believes thinks, he thinks in believing and believes in thinking.”
What the Church and the world need today, as in every day between Pentecost and the final consummation, is thinking faith and faithful thinking. Not all of you who are honored today are friars, but all of you participate, to a greater or less degree, in the charism of the Order of Preachers. Preaching is not just for preachers. The word preacher comes, of course, from praedicare —to proclaim publicly. Whether from a pulpit or a lectern or in the witness of our everyday life, all of us are, whether we know it or not, proclaiming publicly. The question is whether what we proclaim reflects thinking faith and faithful thinking.
There are, to be sure, many charisms in the one Church of Christ. You are possibly aware of the differences between the Dominicans and the Jesuits. The Dominicans set out to convert the Albigensians and the Jesuits set out to convert the Protestants. As to who was the more effective, one need only ask, “How many Albigensians have you met lately?”
Of course it is not quite so simple as that. We are surrounded by Albigensians, as is evident in the shelves upon shelves in the spirituality section of your local Barnes & Noble. The Albigensians, it will be remembered, were a form of the heresy of the Cathars, the so-called “pure ones” who denied the particularities of the incarnation, that God became man in Jesus Christ, and who rejected the authoritative tradition that issued from that astonishing truth. Today’s Cathars, mutatis mutandis, are the spiritual seekers shopping for what will ignite their spark of divinity and thereby actualize their amazing disincarnate selves. Harold Bloom calls this “American gnosticism” and claims that it is the religion to which most of our fellow citizens subscribe.
Of course, this gnosticism or contemporary Albigensianism is not heresy that rises to the intellectual dignity of, for instance, Arianism or Nestorianism, but it is heresy in the precise sense of the word, for, as you know, heresy means, quite simply, “choice.” Among many Catholics as well, choice is the new word for truth, including the putative truth of a mother’s right to destroy her unborn child. Our understanding of truth, including moral truth, has come upon hard times. Notoriously in the academy, but not only in the academy, it is deemed to be the mark of intellectual sophistication to ask with Pontius Pilate, “What is truth?”
The daunting task of the Order of Preachers in our time—and of those trained in the Dominican tradition—is to proclaim publicly the truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ, which is nothing less than the story of the world and of every life in the world, destined from eternity for eternity. Today—as in the thirteenth century, the first century, and every century until Our Lord’s return in glory—there is powerful resistance to the truth of the gospel.
People ask, “Who are you to impose your truth on me?” In his 1990 encyclical Redemptoris Missio , John Paul responded to that question by saying, “The Church imposes nothing; she only proposes.” But what she proposes is the truth and the truth imposes itself because, as Augustine and Thomas understood, human beings are hardwired for the truth.
For all of us here today, our most worthy aspiration is to live a life that proposes the truth. We propose lovingly, as a lover to the beloved; we propose persistently, persuasively, winsomely, tirelessly; we propose as the heirs of a tradition of thinking faith and faithful thinking.
So to do and so to live is, as I understand it, the Dominican charism. It is the prayer of this honorary Dominican that you will throughout your life keep faith with that charism. It is the prayer of one who, had he entered the Church thirty years sooner, might have been a real Dominican. If, that is, you would have had me.
In the 164th edition of the ever-popular section called “The Public Square,” Father Richard John Neuhaus offers lively comment on, inter alia , why non-Christian intellectuals are blind to the social force of Christianity in America, the significance of the passing of William Sloane Coffin, Jr., the pity of Karen Armstrong’s The Great Transformation , the surprising impromptu catechesis of Benedict XVI, Notre Dame’s problems with being Catholic, the dubious friends of Israel, how commentators are skewing the message of the encyclical Deus caritas est , flawed “scientific” measures of the effectiveness of prayer, what Catholic bishops got right and wrong on immigration policy, how to understand the hysteria of Kevin Phillips’ American Theocracy , Orthodox challenges to Catholic piety surrounding the Real Presence, the wrong arguments about capital punishment, the crackup of the Anglican communion, the mischief in the term “theocon,” and what Paul Hollander has taught us about “political pilgrims.” As Father Neuhaus is fond of saying, “when a magazine defines its scope as ‘religion, culture, and public life,’ there is almost nothing of interest that is not fair game.” Isn’t it time for you to subscribe to First Things ?