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Catholic, University?  OR . . . University, Catholic?

by Samuel B. Condic

Catholic, University?  OR . . . University, Catholic?

A reflection for my fellow long-hairs

In the standard Aristotelian scientific nomenclature, a species is marked out or distinguished from all others through its specific difference.  Syntactically, this is done by listing the genus first, followed by a comma, and then the specific difference.  So we say that “man” is an “animal, rational.”

Importantly, for a given species to be conceptually distinct from its genus, the specific difference must not be included in the concept of the genus itself.  Typically, we refer to this requirement by saying that the specific difference must be “outside” the genus, though this phrasing is a touch confusing.  All it really means is that one can conceive of the genus without simultaneously conceiving this or that specific difference.  Thinking “animal” does not imply thinking “rational,” or any other specific difference.  This logical requirement is existentially validated because we find, in the concrete, really existing animals – elephants, platypodes and porcupines—that lack rationality and yet are perfect in their respective species.  In other words, one need not possess rationality or any other given specific difference to be a perfectly good animal.  You get the picture.

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What is a “Catholic university”?  Syntactically (in English at least), the arrangement of words suggests the genus/difference relationship outlined above, and there is some sense to this sort of reading.  Just as there are Catholic hospitals, charities, and even parishes, so too there are Catholic universities, each falling under the genus “Catholic” and yet distinct from each other in virtue of their respective specific differences.  So far, so good.

But what about this.  Upon inspection it turns out that the specific difference “university” is also subject to the genus/difference treatment.  A university, after all, is an “institution,” with the specific difference “dedicated to rational inquiry” (or something like that).  Does this spoil the genus/ difference reading of “Catholic university”?  Not really.  It might seem weird to have a specific difference itself be compound, but this arrangement can be readily accommodated by orthodox Aristotelianism (cf. Categories, ch. 3).  We can say for example that a platypus is a substance that is an animal (“substance, animal”), where “animal” is a compound difference meaning “living thing, capable of self-motion and sense.”  One genus (itself composed of a genus and difference) doing duty as a difference for another genus is not problematic, though we should notice that both parts of the differing genus remain outside the genus to which they are predicated:  Neither life nor self-motion and sense are included in “substance.”

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Other cases, however, present a challenge to the genus/difference arrangement.  Consider:  Tom is a Catholic.  Is it possible to think of Tom as a perfectly good member of the genus “Catholic” without dragging along the concept of “university”?  It would seem so.  Tom, or Jerry, or Punch, or Judy can be thought of perfectly well as Catholics without ever implying they were college educated.  One need not be a recovering academic to be Catholic.

Recall though that “university” is itself a compound concept; namely:  An “institution, dedicated to rational inquiry.”  Our intuition that Tom or Jerry need not be part of such an institution is spot on, but what about the second part?  Is it possible for Tom (or Punch . . .) to lack a dedication to rational inquiry and be a member in good standing of the genus “Catholic,” the same way that platypodes are perfectly good animals even though they lack rationality? 

For instance:  As a Catholic, Tom acknowledges and accepts the command to love his neighbor as himself.  Is his sincere acceptance of Magisterial authority in this regard, and his will to act upon it, sufficient for Tom to be regarded as a good instance of the genus?  To put it more concretely, can Tom fulfill this Divine command without ever making an effort to understand (make rational inquiry regarding) what love of self might entail (cf. NE Bk. 9, ch. 8), or how love of neighbor might manifest in relation to, say, Pol Pot?  Can Tom remain true to the genus “Catholic” absent a rational effort on his part?

Some have thought so, and they are known as voluntarists, and though they do find a home in several Protestant groups, the compatibility of voluntarism with orthodox Catholic thought is . . . less than obvious.  For the voluntarist, God commands with sufficient clarity that the truly faithful understand what they must do merely by grasping the meaning of the terms.  In those (rare) cases where the meaning of the terms is not plain, one need only appeal to the divinely appointed earthly authority for clarification.  Under the voluntaristic model, understanding the “why” of the command might be possible and even nice to have, but it is certainly not necessary.

This seems out of step with Catholic orthodoxy.  St. Thomas for example holds that “a good life consists in good deeds” and that “in order to do good deeds, it matters not only what a man does, but also how he does it; to wit, that he do it from right choice and not merely from impulse or passion” (ST I-II q. 57 a. 5).  “Right choice” in turn depends on reason, for “human morals depend on their relation to reason, which is the proper principle of human acts; those morals are called good which accord with reason, and those are called bad which are discordant from reason” (ST I-II q. 100 a. 1).  For Aquinas, the “why” is indispensable, and the “why” is only known through rational inquiry.

In addition to morals, reason is evidently also involved in some fashion in our very act of faith.  On this point St. Thomas insists (following no less an authority than St. Peter) that “those who place their faith in this truth [i.e., the Gospel]. . . do not believe foolishly, as though ‘following ignorant fables’” [indoctas fabulas; cf. 2 Peter 2:16], and that “divine Wisdom itself . . . reveals its own presence, as well as the truth of its teaching and inspiration, by fitting arguments,” and that one of the most wonderous signs of its workings is “. . . the inspiration given to human minds, so that simple and untutored persons, filled with the gift of the Holy Spirit, come to possess instantaneously the highest wisdom and the readiest eloquence” (SCG Bk. 1 c. 6).  So, the pious peasant woman with a third-grade education not only wills, but knows, via the gift of faith she has received.  In recent times, St. Faustina is an example of this, par excellence.  It would seem then, to the minds of Saints Peter and Thomas at least, that reason and the Catholic faith are intertwined in a fundamental, even essential manner:  Faith not only informs reason, but reason also imposes certain limits on faith –we do not, after all, believe in a fairy tale. 

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All the above suggests that a voluntaristic approach to a Catholic anything is off the menu, and this in turn suggests that we are being misled a bit by English syntax.  A Catholic university is not something marked out in the genus “Catholic” by being an institution dedicated to rational inquiry, since “rational inquiry” is implicit in the genus and as such cannot form part of the specific difference.  As the late Rev. James Schall put it:  Catholicism . . . is an intellectual religion.  It is more than that, but it is at least that.” 

In light of this, we may do better to think of it the other way around.  A “university, Catholic” is an institution dedicated to rational inquiry that has found its terminus in the Gospel.  As such, it carries an additional burden not found in secular universities.  The university that is Catholic goes beyond the mere investigation of the physical order to lay bare both the rational character of revelation and how the world known by the various sciences relates to what has been revealed.  This latter task, especially, does not necessitate that any given academic have the faith or be strong in it, granting obviously that no Catholic anything can long survive without a “critical mass” of serious believers among its ranks.  What is required are academics particularly mature in their thought.  A Catholic university needs intellectuals who have thoroughly explored the landscape of their respective fields and, having reached the periphery, remain willing to explore further and thoughtfully engage the question of how that part of reality they study relates to a whole that is both created and inclusive of Divine revelation.

About the Author — Samuel B. Condic

Samuel B. CondicDr. Samuel B. Condic is an Associate professor in the department of philosophy and holder of the Cullen Trust for Higher Education Chair of Business Ethics.





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