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Contending with Modernity:
Catholic Higher Education in the Twentieth Century

By Philip Gleason
Oxford University Press, 434 pages, $35

We Catholics are united in the faith, but infinitely disunited in almost everything else,” said John Lancaster Spalding, Bishop of Peoria, around the turn of the century, as Catholicism’s “cold war with modernity” was just beginning. Philip Gleason”writing now amidst the theological fragmentation left from that war”has undertaken a comprehensive study of Catholic higher education in the United States, seeking out the victors and the vanquished. When read in conjunction with George Marsden’s recent account of the progressive secularization of Protestant universities in The Soul of the American University: From Protestant Establishment to Established Nonbelief (1994), Gleason’s work suggests cautionary and even alarming conclusions for American culture.

Gleason begins with the late 1800s and concludes with the 1960s, in the confused aftermath of Vatican II. His narrative skillfully weaves both institutional and intellectual history together, although many readers are likely to find his account of early struggles over curricular standardization or the separation of colleges from high schools to be slow going. But even in the early chapters on organizational reforms before World War I, Gleason articulates a primary theme critical to his review of later developments. Above all, Catholic higher education emerged from the nineteenth century in a highly decentralized condition, and this institutional diversity was deep, systemic, and highly resistant to efforts at centralization. While Catholics were divided by ethnic origin and to a much lesser extent by ideological differences, the real cleavages in their educational system had other origins. Speaking of educational reformers early in the century, Gleason notes:

Their basic problem was structural, and its key element was the existence in Catholic education of two overlapping, but largely autonomous, chains of command: the episcopal, centered in the bishop of the diocese (known technically as the “ordinary”); and that of the religious community. Reinforcing the disjunctive tendency inherent in this parallel authority structure was an ecclesiastical localism that left each ordinary without effective supervision from higher authority, and made each religious community a kind of realm unto itself.

Two factors further compounded this complexity. Parochial grammar schools were largely in the control of local dioceses and so of bishops, while secondary and collegiate education was mainly under the control of religious orders. Moreover, these orders”both male and female”were not given to cooperation with one another on educational matters, opting to seek their own preferment. The result was a lack of coordination in academic standards among educational levels and an uncoordinated proliferation of colleges intent on competing in the same marketplace. Although occasionally obviated by efforts at centralization and reform, all of these conditions would continue to obtain throughout the century.

As Gleason moves into the post-World War I period, a central theme comes into view: the gradual emergence of Neoscholasticism on the American scene, its nesting in Catholic colleges during the difficult time when many were making the transition to being full-fledged universities, the tacit and often grudging respect accorded it in wider intellectual circles, and its sudden, puzzling collapse in the fifties and early sixties.

Above all, what Gleason shows is that Neoscholasticism”the revival of the Christian philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas and other medieval thinkers”was the fundamental intellectual force that helped generate the rich Catholic intellectual and artistic renaissance that lasted for half a century. That Catholic culture challenged modernity with vigor and confidence while constructing its own distinctive intellectual life around which wider social and cultural patterns formed. It also provided Catholic colleges and universities with a reason for existence and a clear curricular charter. The importance of this admission should not be missed, for post-Vatican II revisionism has come to assume a stark portrait of preconciliar intellectual sterility; indeed, the insurgent generation that overthrew Neoscholasticism and constructed that indictment is just now passing from the scene, often still anxious to deny the cultural success of Neoscholasticism amidst its own failures.

The accession of Neoscholasticism was due to its adoption in the late nineteenth century as the official philosophy of the Catholic Church; it was seen as an intellectual inoculation against secularism and liberalism by the conservative popes of the time who seemed set on anathematizing the modern world. But in America it was able to appeal as a progressive conservatism, rather than a reactionary one. On Gleason’s account, it seems to have won the field as much by persuasion as by ecclesiastical imposition. It promised conceptual order and meaning, and, in its synthesis of revelation with reason, it made Catholicism into a religion with an intellect: “Its message”that the disorder, incoherence, and fragmentation of the modern world could be healed only by a return to Christian truth as taught by the Catholic Church”recurred again and again in the writings of American Catholics.”

Thoroughly foundationalist, it maintained confidence in the human ability to achieve truth through the direct grasp of the intellect and the practice of discursive reason. Neoscholasticism was thus able to present itself in sharp contrast to the subjectivism, relativism, and pragmatism of modernism. Catholic institutions were offered a clear educational mission; they were the special purveyors of true wisdom, of a “philosophy of life” to the young. As a Jesuit document of the period put it: “Scholastic philosophy is a stable, universal, and certain system of thought, a real philosophy of life, something to which [students] can anchor all their views and thoughts and knowledge.”

Gleason is especially good at clarifying Neoscholasticism’s enormous cultural influence on both Catholics and non-Catholics; figures such as Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker Movement were grounded in it, while non-Catholics such as Robert M. Hutchins and Mortimer Adler of the University of Chicago were tacit allies. There was even a Catholic “arts and crafts” movement. Some readers will be surprised, perhaps horrified, to read that Commonweal , which has taught recent generations how to practice safe Catholicism, had its origins amidst the Catholic antimodernism of the twenties.

But even Neoscholasticism was not eternal. It collapsed for reasons that Gleason reviews but never quite explains. After reaching its zenith in the fifties, it disintegrated suddenly in what he terms a “puzzling reversal.” Several theories are advanced. The formulaic rigidity of its presentation suggested less a philosophy open to the critical intellect than an ideology demanding acceptance on its own terms. And then there were the internal divisions that afflict any ideology, schools whose differences intimated a less than certain access to the apodictic and the veridical. And at base there was also the underlying sense that the antimodernist program that had motivated the earlier Catholic renaissance was no longer attractive to Catholics after World War II. They sought greater assimilation into American life, not a separate but equal cultural tradition. None of these theories is conclusive; all bear further examination.

As Gleason points out quite clearly, the collapse of Neoscholasticism left Catholic higher education without a clear identity or a settled curricular foundation. While this situation first became obvious in the sixties, it prevails to this day, becoming more acute as the easy days of the past give way to increased competition among colleges. Gleason’s book concludes with a discussion of the acceptance by Catholic intellectuals of secular modernity after Vatican II. After a century of determined opposition to modernity, the Church in America seemed to recognize its inherent worth and put an abrupt end to the “cold war with modernity.” Gleason summarizes his case quite succinctly:

Translating the cold war metaphor into the terms used in this book, we can say that what happened in the 1960s climaxed the transition from an era in which Catholic educators challenged modernity to one in which they accepted modernity. This too oversimplifies because modernity means many different things, and Catholics’ new readiness to accept it was not altogether uncritical. But this formulation comes closer to capturing the fundamental shift that took place in Catholic higher education when the assimilative tendencies that had been gathering strength since World War II met and intermingled with the seismic forces unleashed by Vatican II and the social, political, and cultural crisis of the 1960s.

This situation requires another book, as Gleason himself recognizes. But there is no question that this embrace of modernity”while never complete”has been a regnant feature of Catholic intellectual life in the last three decades. Remaining in communion with the New York Times has been a special obligation and an ineffable grace for a whole generation of liberal Catholics. Yet the “signs of the times” are no longer what they were. As modernity has come under increasing attack from its postmodern detractors, perhaps Catholic intellectuals will restore their former critical role and reassert the independence of their tradition. There are indications that the adjectival age of American Catholic liberalism, the age of assimilation to modernity, is coming to a close. Yet, as Gleason’s analysis suggests, a whole cluster of social and cultural attitudes lurks beneath the discursive surface”views about social status, about political affiliation, about gender and the stained-glass ceiling of the Church. These will require years to resolve. American Catholicism’s approach to contemporary culture remains as yet undefined.

We should not, in any case, expect univocal answers to such immense questions within the diffuse American Catholic Church. Yet the distance of contemporary American culture from the values of classical Christianity has become increasingly apparent, as has the inability of the Protestant intellectual tradition to respond with pursuasive rigor, stripped as it is of most of its great universities and colleges by the lengthy process of secularization that Marsden has so thoroughly chronicled. These factors define the momentous challenge of contemporary Catholic higher education: to reassert an autonomous Christian intellectual culture on the American scene, as Neoscholasticism once did, and, in doing so, to restore a clear reason for continued institutional existence. Gleason makes the point well in his final paragraph: “The task facing Catholic academics today is to forge from the philosophical and theological resources uncovered in the past half century a vision that will provide what Neoscholasticism did for so many years”a theoretical rationale for the existence of Catholic colleges and universities as a distinctive element in American higher education.”

A new intellectual and curricular identity must be discovered to meet this exigency. In practice that means coming to terms with the rich but tainted history of Catholicism within Western culture, with its diverse philosophical schools, with its vast contemporary global presence, and, not least, with the actual teachings of the Church. But the institutional diversity of Catholic higher education, compounded by the theological fragmentation of recent years, militates against any centralized solution to this ideological crisis. The task may thus be best addressed only within smaller units.

Here the Catholic liberal arts colleges might have a special role, unencumbered as they are by professional and graduate schools. They are potential sources of curricular innovation, confronted with the daily task of providing undergraduates with some moral meaning and spiritual direction for their lives. Since this is central to their fundamental purpose, Catholic colleges bear a special burden to resolve the intellectual crisis caused by the implosion of Neoscholasticism. If they are to avoid the secularized fate of mainline Protestant institutions, Catholic colleges must face this challenge. Otherwise they will cease being academic centers of reflective Christianity and become at best “safe spaces” for Catholics. Even that status is not assured.

Gleason’s history presents forcefully this academic and intellectual challenge, one that will have substantial significance both to Catholics and to American society as a whole. For the clarity of that judgment as well as the quality of his scholarship, we should be grateful to Professor Gleason.

John Peter Kenney is Dean of the College and Professor of Religious Studies at St. Michael’s College, Colchester, Vermont.