The Italian philosopher Gianteresio (Gianni) Vattimo has gained international renown over the last few decades. Many of his books have been translated into other languages—into English by no less a publisher than Columbia University Press. Several years ago, he was chosen to deliver the prestigious Gifford lectures in Scotland, a kind of Nobel prize for philosophers.
Vattimo is best known for his phrase pensiero debole, or “weak thought.” By this he means that history, hermeneutics, and human finitude have exposed as pure illusion all attempts at finding definitive truth—“metaphysics,” as he styles it. For him, the trajectory of contemporary philosophy bears witness to a world which is infinitely interpretable, and so to the apposite character of Nietzsche’s belief: The truth is that there is no truth. Those who insist on objectivity and finality, Vattimo asserts, display philosophical neuroses; only abandoning such confining strictures can unleash freedom for men and women.
A decade ago, I wrote a book about Vattimo that asked whether fruitful dialogue could be established between his philosophy and Christian thought. I concluded that any such dialogue could exist only in the broadest terms, for while Vattimo rejects definitive claims, the Christian faith insists it purveys the ultimate truth, Jesus Christ. In the words of Lutheran theologian Robert Jenson, Christianity “knows the one decisive fact about all things, so that theology must be either a universal and founding discipline or a delusion.” The opposition could not be starker: While Christians claim to know absolute truth, Vattimo insists that such assertions are per se illusory.
Vattimo came to mind recently when administrators at my own institution, Seton Hall University, circulated a letter stating that new initiatives had been proposed “in our journey to be a more inclusive and welcoming campus.” An “Inclusion Committee” was tasked with making recommendations, among which were an “Inclusion Speaker Series” and a faculty seminar on “Teaching for Inclusivity.” The Inclusion Committee also recommended that the university hire a “Chief Diversity Officer” who would “shape and create an Office of Diversity and Inclusion.”
No one can disagree with a Catholic university’s desire to make “all people feel welcomed, respected and valued,” as the campus letter indicates. But unless subjected to serious reflection, “inclusion” and “diversity” initiatives at Catholic universities are fraught with danger. Simply adopting mainstream terms and jargon, without framing them within an explicitly Christian context, risks importing ideas contrary to the religious identity and mission of a Catholic university. “Diversity” can be understood to mean that every viewpoint is equally acceptable—that no position is ultimately truthful and normative. It can mean that even uttering definitive truth claims can be injurious to those who do not share them. Improperly understood, “diversity” can echo the Vattimian claim that pluralism and multivalency must be celebrated, while articulations of “ultimate truths” must be deconstructed. It can even mean that one must avoid any attempt to establish first principles or foundational archai—even those mandated by the Catholic faith itself.
Recently, a search firm visited campus to interview various constituencies about the essential qualifications for a new vice president of student affairs. I warned the members of the firm about candidates who casually invoke the term “diversity.” Have candidates thought seriously about what the word means? Is it code for overturning or downplaying Catholic truth—or the Christian ethos that must pervade the campus? Is it a way of saying that the only form-giving principle is the sovereign will or social agreement?
Catholic universities—and, by extension, all religiously-affiliated ones—do their students a disservice when they veer toward Vattimo’s “weak thought.” By invoking an uncritical and undisciplined notion of diversity, they communicate to students that all claims to truth are provisional and contingent. They also disseminate another major theme of Vattimo’s philosophy: that the Christian notion of caritas—supernatural charity animated by the Holy Spirit—is best understood today as “tolerance,” the ability to value all positions equally. The most important virtue to be cultivated at a university, then, becomes not love of truth, but unlimited tolerance based on truth’s unknowability. This reflects Vattimo’s repeated criticism of the traditional dictum rooted in Aristotle’s Ethics, “Amicus Plato sed magis amica veritas.” The Torinese philosopher wants to turn this ancient axiom on its head, insisting that “there is no truth worth affirming” in comparison with the tolerance to be extended to all perspectives.
Borrowing another Christian term, Vattimo argues that the instability of truth displays its essentially “kenotic” character—that is, it manifests “weakness,” just as the Son of God displayed weakness in emptying himself to become man (Phil. 2: 6-7). Here, the contingency of all assertions finds its model in the vulnerability of God exhibited in the story of the Incarnation. Just as the Son did not insist on clinging to his divinity (in Vattimo’s telling), so truth claims must never cleave to objectivity, to finality, to absoluteness.
Unfortunately, Vattimo’s ideas have subtly worked their way into Catholic universities. Of course, borrowing from philosophers is not wrong in itself. The history of Christian thought is replete with examples: Augustine with Plato and Plotinus; Aquinas with Aristotle and Arabic thought; and Newman with Locke and Hume. But imported ideas have always been disciplined and measured by orthodox Christian faith. And this “transposition” must also occur when Catholic universities adopt terms such as “diversity” and “inclusion.”
Opponents of the Catholic faith have long claimed, laughably, that the term “Catholic university” is oxymoronic because Catholics insist they know the truth from the outset. Yet if universities continue to imbibe principles purveyed by the likes of Gianni Vattimo, the term “Catholic university” will indeed become oxymoronic—but in a way that induces not laughter, but regret and dismay.