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At Fordham University, while I was teaching there in the late 1960s, it was said that most students were sons and daughters of firemen, policemen, or sanitation workers.

That was probably an exaggeration, but not by much. Few parents were themselves college graduates, and the typical student was often the first in the family to attend college. Although the State University of New York had an extensive system of public education, Catholic parents preferred to pay a steeper tuition to have their child attend a Catholic university. What counted was not curriculum, programs of study, or academic excellence but that the school was Catholic.

Today it is estimated that 80 to 90 percent of Catholic students who go to college in the United States matriculate in non-Catholic institutions. Even the majority of college-bound students who graduate from Catholic high schools end up at non-Catholic colleges. Given the number of Catholics in the United States, that adds up to a lot of students. In many public colleges and universities, Catholics make up 20 to 30 percent of the student body and sometimes more.

The most visible sign of Catholicism on American college campuses is attendance at Mass. Catholics, like evangelicals, go to church, and on weekends, Sunday evening in particular, students can be seen making their way to the university parish, a Catholic center on or near the campus, or a local parish. On Ash Wednesday, Catholics are identified by the smudge of black ash on their foreheads.

But, when it comes to the intellectual life of the university, the lamp of Catholic thought is hidden under a bushel. An occasional faculty member, or a group of students, will join in a protest against abortion, but in public discussion and debate it is rare to find a Catholic professor addressing the issues in a distinctively Catholic way. The Catholic presence runs the gamut from pizza at a Newman Center event to community service, but it seldom reaches into the library or lecture hall. Piety is evident. Catholic intellect and learning are not.

On university campuses, Catholic faculty are largely invisible. They are seldom known to students, and, though many are accomplished scholars in their academic disciplines, few have the formation in Catholic culture or history to serve as mentors to students. More often than not, their Catholicism is a private and personal thing, an affair of piety and practice, divorced from the intellectual enterprise that is the business of the university.

The absence of intellectual leadership on the part of Catholic faculty deprives students of models of well-educated Catholic laymen and laywomen who by their life and conversation display a mature and seasoned faith. Seldom will students find guides among the faculty who can deepen their understanding of Catholicism—suggesting a book here, an article there—as their studies present challenges to what they learned at home. Sadly, many Catholic students will go through four years of college to become reasonably well informed in some area of study—European history, American literature, international politics, biology—yet leave the university children spiritually.

In the decades leading up to the Second Vatican Council, Catholic culture was deeper and more encompassing than it is today, and educated Catholics had a sense of being part of a long and venerable intellectual tradition that was very much alive in mid-twentieth-century America. Between 1920 and 1960, American Catholicism went through a literary revival, fueled in the main by such European writers as G.K. Chesterton, George Bernanos, Charles Péguy, Sigrid Undset, Graham Greene, and Evelyn Waugh. But there were also major American figures: Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, J.F. Powers, Allen Tate, and many others. Joined by such philosophers as Jacques Maritain and Etienne Gilson, and the historian Christopher Dawson, these writers kept alive a vibrant intellectual tradition that gave educated Catholics an imaginative grasp of the faith and an eagerness to ­interpret Catholicism within the increasingly secular culture of the United States.

Much of the cohesion of Catholic thinking came from the renascence of Thomism. In the nineteenth century, neoscholasticism became a self-conscious philosophical outlook, and it was given its intellectual charter by Leo XIII in his encyclical Aeterni Patris. The pope urged Catholics to “restore the golden wisdom of St. Thomas, and to spread it far and wide for the defense and beauty of the Catholic faith, for the good of society, and for the advantage of all the sciences.” In the early decades of the twentieth century, the appropriation of the philosophy of St. Thomas sparked an intellectual revival among American Catholics. Thomism was versatile and accessible to different kinds of thinkers, and it offered Catholics a ­unified intellectual vision that embraced all areas of life, including the arts.

The novelist Flannery O’Connor, for example, had the custom of reading from Thomas’ Summa for twenty minutes each night before going to sleep. In one of her letters, she writes that if her mother came into the room and said, “Turn off that light. It’s late,” she would lift her finger with a “broad beatific expression” and reply: “The light, being eternal and limitless, cannot be turned off. Shut your eyes.” O’Connor was guided in her reading of Thomas by Jacques Maritain, in particular his Art and Scholasticism, from which she had learned that “art is wholly concerned with the good of that which is made.”

The Thomistic revival reached its zenith in the 1950s. But, as Philip Gleason, historian of American Catholicism, shows in Contending with Modernity, “hardly had this climax been reached when a decline set in that was so sudden and so steep as to justify calling it a collapse.”

The reasons were several—but not least was the difficulty of teaching a philosophical system to thousands of undergraduates. The growing influence of Catholic biblical scholarship in the wake of the encyclical ­ Divino Afflante Spiritu introduced a strong bias against scholasticism into Catholic thought. And in the 1950s, as la nouvelle théologie made its way across the Atlantic, it brought a critique of scholasticism from another quarter. In the end, however, Gleason observes, the loss of cohesion in Catholic intellectual life had less to do with any particular challenge than a loss of conviction that Catholicism had a unifying intellectual vision to offer.

This failure of nerve still afflicts Catholic intellectual life and has been weakened further by widespread ignorance of the Catholic tradition among educated Catholics. With the burgeoning number of Catholic students attending private and secular colleges, Catholics increasingly resemble other university graduates in their moral and intellectual outlook. Though they are well trained in other areas, unfamiliarity with the Catholic tradition puts them in a position of vulnerability and weakness in matters of faith. They often lack the capacity to defend or express their beliefs—even to themselves—and are ill equipped to give an account of their moral convictions in our relativistic culture.

Over the past two decades, two major strategies have emerged to deal with this situation. The first involves creating independent Catholic institutes at major American universities. The most prominent of these is the Lumen Christi Institute at the University of Chicago, but there are similar centers at other universities: the Aquinas Educational Foundation at Purdue, the Institute for Catholic Thought at the University of Illinois, the St. Anselm Institute at the University of Virginia, etc.

I sensed the unique role such an institute could play in the university when I was invited to give a lecture at the Lumen Christi Institute at the University of Chicago. The topic was Catholicism and Western culture, and the lecture was held in a classroom in Swift Hall on the main quadrangle of the university. When I was a student in the divinity school there, I often had classes in that room, and it was a new experience to see it filled with students and faculty who had come to hear a lecture sponsored by a Catholic institute.

In that setting, I sensed a freedom about what could be said. It was possible to deal with the topic in an explicitly Catholic way and from a Catholic perspective. Yet it was still a university lecture, and the audience certainly expected it to be as scholarly as other lectures given in that same room under different auspices. In fact, I knew that there would be persons in the audience who were experts on the topic and would most surely have different views than my own. A Catholic institute is no less a forum for debate and argument than is the rest of the university. Catholic tradition is a living thing to be contested as well as upheld, not a genteel legacy to be perfumed and powdered.

The second major strategy has been the endowment of Catholic chairs at secular universities. Catholic chairs have been around for almost fifty years, but in recent years their number has mounted. Examples are the Arthur J. Schmitt Chair of Catholic Studies at the University of Illinois in Chicago, the William K. ­Warren Chair of Catholic Studies at the University of Tulsa, the Monsignor James A. Supple Chair of Catholic Studies at the Iowa State University of Iowa in Ames, and the Cottrill-Rolfes Chair in Catholic Studies at the University of Kentucky, to mention only a few.

The oldest, the Stillman Chair at Harvard, was established in 1958, and its first incumbent was the distinguished Catholic historian Christopher Dawson. A few years later, Yale set up the Riggs Chair of Roman Catholic Studies, and its first occupant was Stephan Kuttner, an expert in medieval canon law. Today there are several dozen Catholic chairs in universities around the country, and several more are in the works.

The strongest argument for Catholic chairs is that the incumbent becomes a regular member of the university faculty and is able to offer ­courses for credit within a department of the university. In this setting, the study and presentation of Catholicism becomes part of the academic program of the university. At its best, a Catholic chair ensures that the ­university community has someone who can teach not only Catholic history and thought but also address current issues from a Catholic perspective.

A limitation of Catholic chairs, however, is that whoever is appointed will probably be a specialist in history or literature or philosophy or theology—not a student of Catholicism. For example, the Jesuit biblical scholar George MacRae held the Stillman Chair at Harvard University for a number of years. His academic profile was less as a Catholic thinker than as a New Testament scholar. Similarly, the present incumbent at Yale is known primarily as a historian of the sixteenth century. It is, of course, a good thing to have Catholic scholars of this caliber holding chairs at major universities. But their impact on students outside their fields is ­limited.

In the modern university, it is easy for a Catholic chair to become merely another faculty position serving departmental or university needs. Search committees are notorious for ignoring the reason the chair was endowed in the first place. Even if the first person to hold the chair presents the Catholic tradition in its integrity and fullness and makes a genuine effort to create a Catholic presence on campus, there is little guarantee that future occupants will have the same vision. It is seldom possible for the Church, through the local bishop, to have any say in the selection process. Colleges and universities are fiercely independent about faculty appointments and consider it an infringement of academic freedom to include a non-university person as part of the process of selection even in an advisory capacity.

There is no reason to discourage Catholic benefactors from endowing Catholic chairs at leading private colleges or universities. Students are likely to take more seriously courses for credit offered in conjunction with other programs within the university. If Catholic parents and alumni let their universities know that it is important to have a Catholic scholar on the faculty, and donors are willing to contribute for that purpose, development officers will respond.

Nevertheless, it is shortsighted to endow such chairs without an awareness of what they cannot do. Unless a Catholic chair is complemented by an independent Catholic institute, it is unlikely to awaken the interest or marshal the energies of other members of the faculty. A solitary faculty member has neither the visibility nor the resources to bring together Catholics from around the university. Nor is such an expectation likely to be part of the job description. A medievalist may seem a fine appointment, and recent decisions suggest historians may be the default preference for search committees. But a specialist in the Middle Ages is unlikely to build bridges to faculty in other disciplines. Any presentation of the fullness of Catholic thought and culture requires many voices: law, history, theology, philosophy, ethics, literature, the social sciences, and the natural sciences.

There is a deeper question as well. Is the notion of a Catholic chair itself a capitulation to the ideology of the secular university? Catholicism becomes an object to be studied, a social and historical phenomenon that finds its place among the myriad other phenomena that make up the humanities and social sciences today. When the appointment of a scholar for a chair in Catholic Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, was announced, it was stressed that Catholicism would be presented within “a comparative religious studies framework that emphasizes historical, cultural, and ethnographic approaches.”

Gifted teachers and scholars can transcend the limitations imposed by the modern university, but it is more likely that they will have profiles as historians, sociologists, or philosophers—not as Catholic thinkers. For a genuine Catholic witness within the university, it is not enough that Catholicism be presented simply as one more field of study. Yet that is the only way that the academy can welcome Catholicism. A secular university that knows its own ethos and understands and respects that of the Church would not take on the burden of deciding who would be an authentic representative of the Catholic tradition.

The changing role of theology in divinity schools over the last generation is instructive. When I was a student at the University of Chicago in the 1960s, most of the divinity school’s faculty were ordained Protestant ministers. Among university divinity schools, Chicago was the most liberal, linked historically to the American Baptists. Yet there was a sense among the professors that they were part of a faculty of Christian theology with responsibility to the churches as well as to the ­university.

As the academic community has become more imperious, it filters everything through its own sieve. Divinity schools have morphed into large departments of religious studies, and their faculty have come to understand their work as the study of and teaching about religion. Without the presence of the Church, however formless, such a development is inevitable. As the carrier of an intellectual tradition, the Church reminds the university that there are things worth caring about in an ultimate way, and these too have to do with the life of the mind.

When I lectured at the Lumen Christi Institute, I was no less part of the university than if I had been invited by the divinity school or the history department, but I felt that what I had to say was not constrained by the feigned impartiality that governs so much academic discourse. I found that atmosphere liberating. At the same time, I knew there were certain constraints placed on what I could say—constraints that came from the Church’s teaching, from the Magisterium, and from my own sense of faithfulness to Catholic tradition. But these are ones that I gratefully live with in all that I do.

Some years ago at a faculty meeting at the University of Virginia, there was a spirited debate about whether the college of arts and sciences should approve an area elective on “moral and religious reasoning.” In the discussion, a prominent professor in the English department, a man of culture and learning, rose to oppose the proposal on the grounds that he didn’t see that religion, and in particular Christianity, had anything to do with reason.

In his 2006 lecture at Regensburg, Benedict XVI argued that reason cannot be shackled by the constraints placed on it in the modern university. That was one of the deepest points he made in the lecture, but it was ignored by most commentators. In our time, the pope said, people assume that reason has to do only with what can be established on empirical or mathematical grounds. Other forms of thinking are considered a matter of feeling or sentiment or faith. “In the Western world,” he said, “it is widely held that only positivistic reason and the forms of philosophy based on it are universally valid.” As a consequence, the scope of reason is severely reduced. But the ancient Greeks, the first teachers in our civilization, understood that one could reason about the soul, about metaphysics, about cosmology, about transcendent things and the divine—that is, about what could not be seen or touched.

If reasoning about the soul and God, and hence about what it means to be human, is excluded from the university, the intellectual enterprise makes itself a captive of the present, welcoming the past only on present terms. The dialogues of Plato will be read as works of literature, not of philosophy, and the grand tradition of Christian thought will be viewed as a tribal subculture, historically instructive but without any cognitive claim on those who study it. In that atmosphere, which is the air university faculty breathe today, there can be no genuine dialogue or intellectual exchange across cultures or religions. The best one can muster is: “How ­interesting!”

The pope reminded his academic audience of the wisdom of Socrates’ words in Plato’s Phaedo: “It would be easily understandable if someone became so annoyed at all these false notions [bandied about in the dialogue] that for the rest of his life he despised and mocked all talk about being—but in this way he would be deprived of the truth of existence and would suffer a great loss.” To which Benedict added: “The West has long been endangered by this aversion to the questions which underlie its rationality, and can only suffer great harm thereby. The courage to engage the whole breadth of reason, and not the denial of its grandeur—this is the program with which a theology grounded in biblical faith enters into the debates of our time.”

In childhood, Catholics come to know the Church as a community of faith and worship and service. Those who go on to college and aspire to be educated Catholics must discover that Catholicism is also a community of learning with a long history of thinking about the great questions of life. Inquiry and questioning, criticism and correction, debate and disagreement—all the work of reason—are as much part of Catholicism as the Mass, the papacy, and monastic life.

Mature faith is nurtured by thinking, and the renewal of Christian culture will happen only with vigorous and imaginative intellectual leadership. The valuable pastoral work of Newman Centers needs to be complemented by serious Catholic scholarly institutes organized with intellectual integrity at the same level of excellence as that of the university.

At its best, a Catholic institute at a university should be a kind of school within a school, in which faculty and students can be apprenticed to the Catholic tradition of thought and culture. That means being introduced to a way of thinking with its own language, heroes, books, ideas, and forms of reasoning deeper and more ancient than those that dominate the modern university. It means making one’s own that ancient maxim: faith seeking understanding.

Robert Louis Wilken is the William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of History at the University of Virginia.