Some time back, I had the pleasure of being interviewed by Kevin Spinali, S.J. for America magazine. An abridged version of the interview was published in the magazine. Here is the complete text.
Prof. George, how do you pray?
On my knees, the old-fashioned way—not always, but I do find that being on one’s knees in a posture of prayer facilitates trying to remove oneself from all of one’s cares and concerns. It’s valuable to remove oneself from one’s normal routines and put oneself in the presence of God for that conversation. So, to me the posture matters. Of course, one can’t always be on one’s knees.
I often pray when I am driving, for example, if I am alone. I like to pray with people, a lot, with friends—some of whom are Catholic, some of whom are not. I am happy to pray with just about anyone who wants to pray. But there is something special about—especially at the end of the day—being on one’s knees before God, in that posture and praying.
Is there a particular text or devotion that you ordinarily use to initiate or shape prayer?
That can vary extraordinarily widely. Sometimes it is petitionary prayer: something I am concerned about; something that I want to ask for God’s help with, assistance with, blessing upon. It might be a person; it might be a cause; or it might be an event. Often, I find myself praying for help in thinking things through, trying to discern what I am supposed to be doing.
It is difficult for me and I have to make an effort at this, but I try to remember the importance of prayers of praise in addition to petitionary prayer. That is something I have to discipline myself to do; otherwise I find myself always in the asking mode. It is very easy. I do not have to think much about petitionary prayer.
It is very easy if I feel or judge there to be a need—I find myself very easily moving into prayer to ask for God’s help with that need. But I recognize that it is very important to give God the praise he is due, and I have to discipline myself to remember to do that. It does not come as immediately or effortlessly as petitionary prayer.
I like the old-fashioned forms of prayer, although I do not restrict myself to them. The rosary is great—praying the rosary is valuable. The traditional forms of prayer that I was taught when I was a boy, what we Catholics call the Our Father, the Hail Mary, the Glory Be, I still say all those prayers—the guardian angel prayer, I still say all those prayers.
In part, I like these traditional prayers because of their simplicity. Jesus said that we are supposed to be childlike in our faith, and those prayers are prayers that are prayed by children as well as adults. We learned them as children, most of us, and they continue with us in our adult life. We should never regard ourselves as too sophisticated for these prayers. Saying those prayers is a help in maintaining the kind of faith that Jesus said we should have: the faith of those little children who were clamoring to get onto Jesus’s lap, whom the disciples were trying to shoo away—Jesus says, “No, no, no, let them come. … Your faith should be like their faith.” [Mark 10:13-16]
What about spiritual desolation—how do you address it?
So far in my life, I have rarely had such feelings or experiences. I have never been put to that kind of test. Unhappiness of various sorts comes to us all. We lose relatives to death; we have friendships that are fractured; we have problems. But I am very fortunate—I do not expect this to be the case for my whole life, but, so far—not to have experienced the type of desolation of which you speak.
But I do find that reading and praying the psalms, praying with the psalmist, is helpful in general, in all aspects of prayer. When we are in any condition, there will be a psalm or some psalms that are appropriate and uplifting, and useful to one’s spiritual life. But especially, in the darker moments, those moments of peril or, as you say, desolation—psalms that remind us that God is in charge, and that we ultimately are reliant on him.
I think of Jesus’s prayer from the cross—“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” [Mark 15:34]—some people read that not understanding the context, and they think this is Jesus experiencing the dark night of the soul; that is, Jesus actually having lost faith, actually believing that God had given up on him. But, of course, read in context, Jesus is beginning a psalm [Psalm 22]; he is stating the first few words of a psalm that will end not with an expression of despair but, rather, with a profound expression of hope and trust in God, who is in charge in the end. We are not in control. My great and dear and much missed friend, Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, used to say: “We have to remember that we are not in charge of making things turn out all right. That’s God’s job. We are just in charge of being faithful. We are just supposed to be faithful. The rest is God’s part.” We cannot make it the case that everything comes out O.K. That is up to God, and we should not try to usurp his job. We won’t do it that well. We won’t succeed and it will distract us away from what we should be doing, which is being faithful.
So the Psalms are always useful and important, but, maybe, most especially in the lower moments, when we can begin as that psalm begins: “E’lo-i, E’lo-i, la’ma sabach-tha’ni,” but know that we end by trusting God’s providence, God’s grace, to make things turn out O.K. in the end.
Whom did you look to as you matured spiritually and intellectually?
Certainly, my parents were very important spiritual influences in my life, in quite different ways. My father has a very childlike, yet very deep faith. He has a very direct relationship with God. When you hear him praying—he often prays aloud, when he does not know that other people are listening—you would think that he is talking with a friend. It is that personal and informal. My father comes from the Eastern tradition, Syrian Orthodoxy, and, of course, there is a very strong mystical component in the Eastern tradition, very deeply Trinitarian, and a strong devotion to Mary as well. And that was an important influence on me. My mother is from an Italian background and, of course, is Latin-Rite Catholic. She taught us the formal prayers, the Hail Mary, the Our Father. The rhythm of our lives was the rhythm of the Church’s year: Sunday Mass, the stations of the cross in Lent, the special cases of adoration of the Eucharist—these were all emphasized in the kind of spirituality that I got from our mother.
We had some very good priests when I was a boy growing up in West Virginia—not a very Catholic area, but there were some ethnic communities that were Catholic there: Italians, Poles, Irish, others. The priests were men that I really respected and admired, our parish clergy.
I got interested pretty early on in the intellectual side of religion and in the intellectual side of Catholicism. When I went to college, a strong influence on me was the Catholic chaplain. I was at Swarthmore College, and the three local liberal arts colleges (Bryn Mawr, Haverford, and Swarthmore) shared a Catholic chaplain assigned by the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. His name was Rev. Thomas Halloran. He was very interested in philosophy; he had studied it, I believe, at the Gregorian Pontifical University in Rome. He was very interested in transcendental Thomism, particularly in Bernard Lonergan’s work, and he helped to feed that interest that I had already developed in the intellectual side of Catholicism, especially the philosophical side—in fact, I was a good deal more interested in the philosophical side than in theology. So, when it came to Lonergan, I was much more interested in his book Insight, which he wrote in the 50’s, than I was in his later work such as Method in Theology and the later theological essays.
In graduate school, I was supervised by John Finnis at Oxford, who is a very important contemporary Catholic moral and political philosopher, who had himself been very deeply influenced by Germain Grisez, whom I got to know then through Finnis. Finnis, like so many of my Catholic friends, especially my intellectual Catholic friends, is a convert. It is really remarkable to me how many of my closest Catholic friends are converts. It’s also true that a great many of the Catholic philosophical writers whose work I most admire are converts: Elizabeth Anscombe, Michael Dummett, Peter Geach, Alasdair MacIntyre, Finnis himself, Nicholas Rescher; and a lot of my personal friends and my peers in graduate school, and people whom I am in very close touch with on intellectual matters, are converts as well. So, those were the people who had the greatest influences on my faith life, not just what are ordinarily thought of as the spiritual dimensions of it, but also the intellectual dimensions of it.
I’ve also benefited massively from thinkers in other traditions of faith. Rabbi David Novak, at the University of Toronto, has been a very deep influence on me. He is a very dear friend. He dedicated his book on religious liberty to me, which was a great honor. And, of course, Richard Neuhaus became a very dear friend. I knew him originally in the transition when he was moving from being a Lutheran and a Lutheran pastor to become a Catholic and then a Catholic priest. Gilbert Meilaender, who is a Lutheran, at Valparaiso University has been a big influence on me. Leon Kass, who recently retired from the University of Chicago, who is Jewish, has been a big influence on me. Hadley Arkes, who is also Jewish, was another big influence, long before his reception into the Catholic Church a few years ago. Writers, C. S. Lewis, Chesterton, both in his pre-Catholic and in his Catholic stages. Martin Buber—the great Jewish existentialist thinker of the first half of the 20th century. Contemporary people like Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, in England. I think it is wonderful to live in a period when we are encouraged by the church to engage with people of other faiths and to learn from them and to learn with them, and to work together and—under the proper circumstances—to pray together, so that everyone involved can have his or her faith enriched. It has certainly been enriching to me to be involved with people of so many different faiths—with Catholics, my Syrian Orthodox relatives, people from the Protestant, Jewish, and Muslim traditions.
How does you faith influence or sustain your academic scholarship and teaching?
The Second Vatican Council teaches us that all of us, not only those called to priesthood and religious life, have vocations. And the council stresses the importance of discerning our vocations and integrating all the different aspects of our lives in light of our discernment of what God is calling us to do. I view my teaching, my scholarship, my activism in the world of public affairs all as part of my vocation—what God is calling me to do. And I think that if the Council is right, if the Church is right, then this is what we should all be doing. And it certainly seems to me that it is right. So, faith plays a really big integrating role in my life: tying its aspects together—life as a husband and father, as a son and brother, as a member of the Christian community, particularly the Catholic community, as a professor, as a scholar, as a teacher, as someone who is active in public affairs. It is part of a whole, and it is sustained, I feel like my life is sustained, by faith. It is sustained by God, and I need that. I need God in my life for that sustenance; I need God’s help to discern what I should be doing and how to do it well. I need God in my life to apologize to when I fail. I need God as comforter and also God as challenger; I find that I need to be challenged. I am a little too lazy. If no one is challenging me, I find it all too easy to go on autopilot or to just ride along on what I or we have already done or ride along on one’s reputation. I think that God challenges us to do more and to do better. It is in the light of God that we can see just how little we have accomplished no matter how generously the world has showered its honors on one.
Sometimes if you do not have God in the picture, you are all too willing to believe that all the nice things people say about you are true—that you have accomplished so much and that you are such a great figure. But as soon as you get God in the picture, that all gets relativized, and you realize how much time you have wasted and, in the great scheme of things, how little you have accomplished. But it is also comforting because you know that—as Fr. Neuhaus would say—it is not our task to make sure everything comes out O.K. Our duty is to be faithful; whether we are successful if up to God, not us.
How does a person know that this particular vocation—whatever it is—is what God intends for him or her?
I think the only way anyone can know is by discerning one’s vocation in prayer. One has to be in relationship with God, which means—for a Christian—being in relationship with Christ, and look for that guiding hand and feel the force of that hand when you are going off the path. God is always trying to bring you back onto the path, and it is all too easy to pretend that we do not feel it—that hand pushing, if it is gentle. But when you are in a right relationship with Christ, you are willing to admit it when you feel that hand bringing you back to the path. And of course it happens all the time, because we so easily stray in this fallen condition that we are in.
Of course the real danger with any human life is rationalization—going on the basis of mere feeling. If you rely just on feeling, then most of the time you are going to think that, well, if I want to do something, then that must mean that God wants me to do it. Why would God have put this desire in me if he did not want me to do it? So then we confuse God’s will with our desires, when in fact God may be willing that we resist those desires, and it is our temptation to rationalize them, to do what we want to do, to do what we feel like doing, what would seem to give us pleasure and give us something that we want—power, status, prestige, or what have you. And then we rationalize it by claiming that this is what God wants or means us to have so that we could do more good. So it is important and difficult to keep a critical perspective on one’s own life. Criticism—self-criticism—as all the great teachers of humanity have taught us, is central to living a good life; and I think that faith and Christian faith help provide the resources of self-criticism. Faith helps provide an external standard against which to judge one’s own feelings and actions so that one keeps a critical perspective.
What aspect of Christianity or Christian belief most resists a rational account?
I think the Christian faith, particularly the Catholic faith, is a very reasonable faith. We as Catholics do not believe that there is a big chasm between faith and reason. On the contrary, we think that faith and reason are both important and mutually supportive and are not that strongly different from each other. Pope John Paul II, in his encyclical Fides et Ratio, begins with this wonderful image: He says that faith and reason are “like the two wings on which the human spirit ascends to contemplation of the truth.” And, you know, it really does take both wings. If you have ever seen a bird that has a broken wing, it might flap that other wing as hard as possible, but it is not going to get off the ground. Catholics believe that you need both faith and reason, and they are not radically separate things at all. There are good reasons for faith, and our faith should be reasonable.
I think the challenge, of course, is powerful emotions, natural human emotions—and I think this might be the strongest, most mysterious, and in some ways most impressive aspect of Christian faith, that it challenges these natural human emotions. Perhaps the most challenging, most radical, most impressive, amazing of all of Christ’s teachings is the commandment to love our enemies. Jesus knew that no one would be surprised if he, as a good rabbi, taught that we should love our friends, love our neighbors, love our countrymen, even love the stranger who comes peacefully to sojourn among us. But love your enemies? That is a radical teaching! I would not say that it is contrary to reason; but I would say that it is contrary to the natural emotions we have, and so it challenges us in a fundamental aspect of our being because we are not just rational; we are not pure minds. We do have emotions and we do have feelings—and loving our enemies, that is something more than merely difficult—it goes against the way we are made emotionally. And it is impossible, humanly speaking, because our emotions are so powerful. We have enemies and we dislike them. We fear them. Often we hate them. How are you to love them?
How do you make an act of will such that you are willing to will their good for the sake of them—which is what love is? Well, it is humanly impossible, but (as Jesus taught us) with God’s help, nothing is impossible. So, with God’s grace, it is possible. Now, for someone who is not a Christian that must sound a little crazy. They may be respectful and think it is an interesting teaching—perhaps even a praiseworthy one—but not strictly speaking one that can be true. It is so unnatural—so contrary to the substance of human life on its emotional side—that it constitutes a big count against Christianity. To me, it is the opposite. It is an impressive part of Christianity. It is more evidence for the truth of Christianity that it could make so bold and radical a claim—and not just a claim but a command, an injunction, an obligation. That requires us, with God’s help, to submit to the grace of God so that we could do something as impossible as loving our enemies, blessing those who persecute us.
Does the event of Jesus’s death on the cross defy reason?
I do not think it defies reason, as long as we do not make the mistake—a characteristically modern mistake—of supposing that reason is merely a power of calculation or computation. If we have the richer, deeper, more ancient understanding of reason, one that is not uniquely Christian—it was Aristotle’s conception of reason—if we have this richer conception of reason, then we see the hope that is so integral to Christian faith as being itself rational, not irrational. In the New Testament we are told always to be prepared to give a reason for the hope that is in you. And that is part of the essence, I think, of Christianity. It is a rational hope. It is a trusting of God, not irrationally, not as a purely blind faith, but because we know something about God. God has already manifested himself. Jesus gave us “signs,” so that when the trial came, when the cross came, when the darkness rolled in, there were still grounds for hope that death would be defeated, that even if people destroyed that temple as Jesus said they would, God would rebuild that temple in three days. So I see the Christian faith as a faith that integrally involves a hope that is not an irrational hope or a blind faith, but a rational hope.
We can give a reason for the hope that is within us. Of course, since the whole story of salvation, the whole story of redemption, is so magnificent and spectacular, marvelous and transcendent, it is plainly outside the realm of our affairs, and, in that way, is a challenge to reason because reason characteristically deals with what is normal, what happens most of the time, almost all of the time. Here you have something really out of the ordinary, extra-ordinary in every way, so yes, there is a certain kind of challenge to reason; but it is not one that should lead us to think that we should praise the irrational, or that our faith as Christians is an irrational faith or that there is some value in irrationality. I think the Christian story is quite a persuasive story in all sorts of different ways. Even historically, the testimony of the apostles—as to their experience of the risen Lord—is very powerful and compelling testimony; it is evidence on which I think we can reasonably rely for the truth of what they experienced, and therefore we can rely on our judgments that Jesus is indeed what St. Peter declared him to be: the Christ, the Son of God.
How does the reality of suffering affect your prayer, your living-out of faith?
It is a cliché, but nonetheless, I think it is true, that from the Christian point of view, suffering can only be accounted as a great mystery. Christianity has a story about suffering. It is a very powerful and beautiful story, but it is a difficult one, and it is that suffering offers us the opportunity to participate in a small way in the redemptive sacrifice, the suffering of Christ. Martin Luther King emphasized this, put enormous emphasis on this: that unearned suffering is redemptive; it is participation in the act of redemption. Now, why redemption would require suffering, how is sacrifice necessary for redemption—these are deep issues that are certainly beyond my pay grade, deep theological issues to which, ultimately, I think there is no completely satisfying answer. With a mystery like this one can only enter more deeply into it rather than solve it. It is not meant to be solved. You have the wrong idea of what a mystery is, in this sense, if you seek to solve it as you would solve a math problem or an Agatha Christie mystery.
Suffering is a challenge to us in two ways. First, no life is free of it. The highest-ranking person in the world may find it necessary to endure more suffering in his life than the poorest person in the world, the least worldly or significant person in the world. It is in the nature of suffering that you cannot protect yourself against it or ward it off by being rich or important or by having status or prestige. Things can happen in your life—alienation from a child, the loss of a dear loved one, a sin one has committed that one has trouble forgiving oneself for—that is objectively deeper, more horrible suffering than is suffered by a starving child in southern Sudan. In that sense, it is a challenge. No one is immune from it, no life is completely free of it, and it does not hit the poor harder than it hits the rich.
The second sense in which it is a challenge is that it calls forth from us a natural human empathy. But beyond that, in our Christian vocation, it calls forth the need for a response, to be there for the other person—to try to ameliorate suffering. And that is most challenging when it is not just finding some policy solution for hunger, although it is very important to do that. It is most significant and most challenging when it is suffering that cannot be made to go away, but that can be lightened by sharing. Where one’s Christian vocation requires one to meet the needs of others who are suffering, by sharing their suffering, by taking part of it on oneself. That is the imitation of Christ. Christ does not make the suffering go away, so that it does not exist. He takes it on himself, and he says that if we are his disciples, we have got to take up our cross and follow him—what does that mean? Well, it means taking up that suffering, making that sacrifice, lightening the burden on others by taking some of that burden on ourselves. We imitate Christ, but we are really Simon of Cyrene. We are pulled out of the crowd and asked—commanded—that we take up that cross and share in the burden.
We should try as hard as we can to ameliorate suffering in the sense in which we ordinarily think of it—poverty, hunger, fear, despair. But we also need to remember—as Mother Teresa reminded us—that the worst kind of suffering is spiritual and the worst kinds of poverty are spiritual poverty. I have been thinking a lot in the past day about the singer Amy Winehouse. I do not know very much about her; I do think I could identify her voice if I heard it on a record; I do not know a title of a song she sang. I know that she was rich and she was a celebrity and she quite defiantly used drugs and abused alcohol. And I think what terrible spiritual suffering, and now that she has died as a result of the way she lived, I think—what a horrible tragedy. Here is a human being made in the very image and likeness of God, of inestimable worth like any other person, whose life was ruined not by any lack of money or prestige, but because she yielded to the temptation to seek pleasure in the wrong things, in the wrong places: status, celebrity. I wonder what the rest of us could have done to avoid such a catastrophe. Why do we let a celebrity culture flourish in which people find that way of life appealing? This worries me, this suffering, this poverty, every bit as much as the hunger we work to ameliorate in Africa and other parts of the world. And, this brings me back to that point that part of the mystery of suffering, part of the challenge of suffering—is that it is not a respecter of persons. It affects the rich and the famous and the powerful as well as the poor and the unknown and the powerless.
What advice do you have for young Catholics (18-35) maturing spiritually and intellectually?
My first bit of advice would be to attend to your spiritual life. Develop a strong interior life, especially when we are young and things are very exciting and we are making educational choices and anticipating making career choices and so forth. We can be filled, our heads can be so filled with these concerns, and we have lots of activities going on and very few commitments tying us down. We can be so focused on those things that we neglect the need to develop a strong interior life. We have to discipline ourselves to do that: regular prayer, recourse to the sacraments, engaging a spiritual director, examining the options for different kinds of spirituality—Ignatian spirituality, or the spirituality associated with some of the new movements in the church like Opus Dei and so forth. Find something that one is comfortable with, and make it a point to work on strengthening one’s spiritual muscles all the time. The way that a lot of young kids today will really be determined about jogging or going to the gym and working out and staying physically healthy, we need to have the same attitude toward our spiritual lives. Now, in part, I think it is important to do that because it undergirds the discernment that goes on in considering one’s vocation. And, perhaps, the most important thing for a young person, sort of the 18-25 age bracket, to be thinking about is what is God calling him or her to do with his or her life and the gifts he or she has been given? Discerning that vocation is in a certain sense your primary job, and if you do not have a strong interior life, you lack the foundation for that discernment. So I think that it is very important to strengthen one’s spiritual life, not only for its own sake, but also so that you can properly discern God’s will for you in all the dimensions of your life and gain God’s assistance in living a life that makes sense, that is integrated and devoted to things that matter and are important.
Another bit of advice that I would give is to remember the story of the rich young man who approached Jesus. He is sometimes called the rich young ruler, in different translations of the Bible, and the gospels use different terms. But, you will remember, he comes to Jesus and says, “Good master, what do I need to do to gain eternal life?” Jesus begins by saying, “Why do you call me good? Only God is good.” Very interesting way to begin. Jesus does not give him an opportunity to answer that question, but he moves on, he says, “Well, you know the commandments: Do not steal, do not kill, do not commit adultery, honor your father and mother.” That is what you can do to attain eternal life, and the rich young ruler could be any of our young people from 18-25 today—the people that I am addressing this advice to. The rich young ruler says, “Lord, I have obeyed those commandments from my youth.” Now, imagine how he must have felt. I picture him in resplendent clothing, middle eastern robes, maybe a turban. He has camels and dromedaries and servants, a whole retinue of animals and people. And he is able to look his Lord and master—we already know that he knows who Jesus is, in fact I think that is being signaled in Jesus’s comment, “Why do you call me good? God alone is good.” This rich young man is on to it. He knows that he has come to the right place to get the answer. And, he is able to look the Lord in the face and say: “I have kept them from my youth.” What a feeling of exhilaration he must have experienced; he must have pumped his fist in the air and said, “I’ve got it. I’ve done it. I’m there.” But then, the Gospel tells us, Jesus looked at him with love and said, “Then one more thing is required: Go and sell what you have and give to the poor and come follow me.” And at this, “the young man’s face fell and he turned away sad for he had many possessions.”
There’s the message for our young people. Jesus is not merely calling us to follow the commandments or do the minimum. He is calling us to be … perfect. He is calling us to do something that from the human point of view is impossible. Every Christian vocation includes Jesus himself asking something that is humanly impossible. “So you kept the commandments? Very good—now go and give up something extraordinarily precious to you for the sake of following me.” You see, each of us is the rich young man. It is a mistake to suppose that the story is directed only to those who are materially rich. If that is what you think, you have missed the whole point of the story. It is directed to every single one of us. Every single one of us has something that we would prefer not to give up, some treasure. It might be our good reputation, our social standing, our status in the community, our good name, our respectability. But here is Jesus saying, “No, you have to give that up—not because it is in itself bad, but because you are being called to a higher and more demanding way of life.” Perhaps in your case or mine, Jesus is calling us to speak out against some popular cause or in defense of some unpopular one. The marriage cause, for example, the pro-life cause—some cause whose advocacy could get you into serious trouble with the cultural elite, the respectable people, the people who make and break reputations and careers. But there’s Jesus saying what we would prefer not to hear: “Go, sell what you have, give to the poor and follow me.” We are called to follow Christ in a difficult, humanly impossible way.
Now remember that when the young man went away sad because he had many possessions, the apostles were just amazed. Recall that it is in response to their amazement that Jesus says, “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to get to heaven.” And the apostles say, “Who then can be saved?” Jesus answers: “With human beings it is impossible, but with God, nothing is impossible.” You see, Jesus knew he was making a humanly impossible demand of the rich young man—just as he knows when he asks us to sacrifice our respectability or our career ambitions to take an unpopular stand that will cause our stock to fall in the eyes of the world, he is making an impossible demand. He knows how we are made emotionally. He knows we do not want to give that stuff up. “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle.” But through God’s grace, the impossible is made possible. So, that is what our young people should be working on, creating a strong interior life as they are discerning their vocations, so that when they encounter Christ as the rich young man encountered him they will not “turn away sad,” unable—because unaided by grace—to accept or do the impossible.
My prayer for our young people is that they will be able to do what the apostles did—drop their fishing nets and go follow Jesus. The sacrifice demanded will not necessarily be abandoning a lucrative career. It could be any precious thing in our lives. It does not necessarily mean following Christ by becoming a priest or a nun. Some are called to religious vocations. Most are not. But for all of us it is going to require sacrifice. And if we lack the spiritual strength to make the sacrifice, we are going to be like the rich young man and turn away sad because of our “many possessions.”
What do you think of the future of Catholic higher education and the reality of lack of manpower among men’s and women’s religious orders?
Well, let me preface this by saying that I am entirely the product of the secular higher educational system. I have never been a student or a full-time professor in a Catholic or other religious institution. Still, I am a very sympathetic observer of Catholic (and other Christian) higher education, and I do think I see places where it is done better and worse. But, for every religious institution, especially Catholic colleges and universities, this is a period of real challenge, and it is not because there are so few members of the orders now to staff these places. It is because people do not know what it means to be a Catholic university. There has been a separation of faith and learning which seems to be somehow a product of the Enlightenment. No one knows exactly how that is so, and it is complicated and obscure, but somehow, from the Enlightenment (the so-called “Age of Reason”), you get this idea that faith is one thing, learning is another thing, and there is supposed to be a chasm between faith and reason. Faith is subjective, emotive, personal. Reason is public, intellectual, and so forth. To some extent, all of us have absorbed it, even those of us who fight against that dualism of faith and reason. And, it has plainly been absorbed quite uncritically in a lot of circles where people are running historically religious universities. So it creates these dilemmas—in what sense are we a Catholic university? Is it because we have crucifixes on the walls? Does it mean we have a strong social justice mission? Does it mean we treat our employees well? Does it mean that we have a vibrant chaplaincy that has daily Mass and not just Mass on Sunday? What does it mean? There are all these questions.
What we have to recover is, I think, is an understanding—and it is really an understanding—of the proper relationship between faith and reason and faith and learning, an understanding that does not see faith and reason as opposed or even sharply separable. We need to recover the idea of faith and reason as the two wings on which the human spirit ascends to contemplation of truth, and integrates the life of faith of the members of the university with the intellectual project of the university. Of course, this does not mean you will have a “Catholic physics” class. You will never have a “Catholic physics” class. But it does mean the whole spirit of the place, including the sciences, is suffused with an underlying view about the nature of reality and the world and of the moral life and the life of faith. It means promoting the view that the world is there for us to understand, and that our understanding of the world is possible because there is an ordered, intelligible reality. This is a big mission, and it cannot be accomplished by any one administrator or any one university. It is partly a mission of recovery—but not just recovery. I think it is a problem that has never really been solved. There is no golden age of Catholic higher education. We need to make more and more progress toward a richer and richer understanding of the proper relationship between faith and reason. And I do think it is important that in our Catholic institutions we give some priority to the Catholic intellectual tradition, because Catholicism is a religion that includes a very strong, important, valuable intellectual tradition. And there is no reason that any Catholic university should be neglecting that—that should be a feature of any Catholic university. That should be the strong suit, or one of the strong suits, of any Catholic university.
I think one of the great things about the Second Vatican Council is that it taught all of us about the errors of clericalism. It taught the clergy about the errors of clericalism, and more importantly, it taught the laity the errors of clericalism. Sometimes, I think that the laity are more clericalist than the clergy are. But, I think that there is an important message in this for Catholic higher education. I am not one of these people who thinks that in order to have Catholic higher education functioning at its best, you need large numbers of the clergy on faculty or in the administration. I value the clergy’s participation and presence, and in fact I would like to see more clergy than we have now on faculties and in administrations. (I would like to see more vocations to religious life generally, and I pray for that.) But I do think the laity are fully capable of playing leadership roles, not only on the faculty but also in administrative offices in Catholic higher education. I do not see Catholic higher education as in jeopardy because we do not have enough clergy; the laity are certainly up to the task. A far greater problem is the tendency of Catholic colleges and universities to look to the most prestigious secular institutions as models to be emulated. These institutions have strengths, to be sure; but they also have profound weaknesses. Catholic colleges and universities should aspire to something far beyond what secular institutions today are able to accomplish.
Kevin Spinale, S.J., teaches at Boston College High School, in Boston, Mass.
Robert P. George is the McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University.
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