President's Corner

Opening Remarks for the Academic Year 2011-2012

Fr. Michael Sweeney, OP

I first want to thank you for your attendance here this afternoon. As President of the school it is my privilege every year to welcome our new students, and I wish to do so now. We are delighted to welcome you into the community of scholars that is the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology.

This year, in addition to welcoming our new students, I have requested the attendance of our faculty, administrative staff, and returning students to place before you some considerations which, I hope, will bear fruit in the coming academic year.

There are two assertions in our mission statement to which I wish to draw your attention: we are "a community of scholars committed to the pursuit of truth as revealed in the Gospel and discovered by human reason" and, as a school, we are "committed to preparing women and men for academic and apostolic vocations."

We are a community of scholars committed to the pursuit of truth. We are also a community that is attentive to vocation, to the personal invitation and summons or call whereby all of us, faculty, staff and students have elected to come here. These two dimensions of our community –the pursuit of truth and the fact of personal vocation– are intrinsically related: it is the fact of a vocation or call that we first share in common, and I can assert with perfect confidence that each of us has been called to the work that we undertake together.

It is evident, I hope, to all of us that the study of philosophy or theology, or both, and, for that matter, the service to a school of philosophy and theology, is not a fast track to a lucrative career. The apparent usefulness of our study is likely not evident to our family and friends or even, perhaps, to us. We can make the case that the study of philosophy and theology is foundational to every other discipline, for this is, in fact, the case. Yet we are unlikely to bother to do so for our own sakes, because each of us has the experience of being compelled to investigate or, better, to contemplate things in their causes, to get at the root of things, whether useful or not. The immediate utility of our study is not what compels us.

At the same time, our study is, in truth, useful for the sake of the Church, of the Academy, and of the whole of society. This usefulness of our study is of an entirely different order: in our tradition its name is wisdom. The purpose of our institution is not merely knowledge, and our study is not fulfilled merely in demonstrating the mastery of a discipline adequate to the conferral of a degree. Wisdom is speculative, that is, it is grounded in a habit of contemplating things, but it is also practical whereby, as the Philosopher says, the wise man orders all things well. We are committed, not merely to knowing things in their roots or in their causes, but to perceiving the order in things whereby they are both appreciated in their own natures and directed to the ultimate fulfillment of the human person in the vision of God. Our community is ordered not merely to knowledge, or even to understanding, but to wisdom.

In our seeking of wisdom, we are a community that is grounded in a tradition: we are the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology. We are an institution of the Catholic Church, and therefore we are an institution founded upon a charism. The Church never institutionalizes a task, no matter how noble, but always institutionalizes a charism, a particular gift of the Holy Spirit for the sake of the redemptive or healing work of Christ. This means that it is not only what we study that defines us, but the manner or spirit of our study. In our case the school institutionalizes the charism or gift of St. Dominic: we are ordered to a study that is for the sake of others, that is solicitous of others to the degree that we regard study as an act of mercy which, St. Thomas Aquinas remind us, denotes a compassionate heart for another's happiness. In more contemporary terms, mercy, Bl. John Paul II taught us, is a special power of love to restore relationship, so that the pursuit of truth that we hold in common has this, eminently practical, objective: the reconciliation, the happiness and even the final beatitude, of others.

Therefore, study in the Dominican tradition is spoken of as an act of intellectual compassion: " Sapiential study thus unfolds itself necessarily as intellectual compassion: a form of compassion which presupposes insight (intellectus) gained or developed by study; and a form of insight which leads to compassion. “For even as it is better to enlighten than merely to shine, so is it better to give to others the fruits of one's contemplation than merely to contemplate” (ST II-II 188, 6). Thus, even though God's mercy and compassion are made available to the world in a multitude of ways, through the Dominican charism it is available through study and the consolation of truth" (Acta of the Chapter of the Order at Providence).

We are a community imbued also with the spirit of St. Thomas Aquinas, our brother in St. Dominic, who taught us to acknowledge the truth whatever its source. Because we are Catholic and formed in the Dominican tradition, because we institutionalize the charism or gift of St. Dominic, our community also embraces members of other Christian communities and of other faiths, united with us in seeking for ourselves, and especially for others, the consolation of truth.

Our call to seek the truth that consoles ourselves and others, that reconciles and redeems, imposes upon us obligations that are foundational to our life in common. They are obligations that have a bearing not so much upon the substance of our study as upon the manner of it.

We speak of our study as the exercise of "an intellectual compassion." This requires of us what we might best call an intellectual hospitality to the concerns and the ideas of others. On the one hand we are confident that we have something to offer. Perhaps more than any other, our tradition expresses a founded optimism in the capacities of the human person to discover the consoling truth we seek. To quote again from the Providence Chapter of the Order, "Our confidence to take part in the quaestiones disputatae of our day must derive from our confidence that we are the heirs to an intellectual tradition which is not to be preserved in some intellectual deep-freeze. It is alive and has an important contribution to make today. It rests upon fundamental philosophical and theological intuitions: an understanding of morality in terms of the virtues and growth in the virtues; the goodness of all creation; a confidence in reason and the role of debate; happiness in the vision of God as our destiny; and a humility in the face of the mystery of God which draws us beyond ideology” (Acta of the Providence Chapter).

On the other hand, our confidence must never be expressed by way of disdain or contempt for the ideas of others, even when they appear to be opposed or contrary to the fundamental philosophical and theological intuitions that we hold in common. In fact, it is our obligation to bridge the tradition that we have received and, as it also says in our mission statement, to enter into dialogue with contemporary scholarship to our mutual benefit. This is twice difficult in that it requires of us both a thorough knowledge of the tradition that we have received and a knowledge of and sympathy for the understanding of our contemporaries.

By way of example: Victor White was a great Dominican of the English province who studied under Carl Jung. White knew both the work of St. Thomas and of Carl Jung well enough to perceive that Jung's postulation of what he termed the “collective unconscious” might be seen to resonate with St. Thomas's treatment of prophecy ­–not at first glance the most obvious of connections. He was able to bridge and, in a sense, to reconcile the work of Jung with the more ancient tradition, casting a new light upon each. Unfortunately, not every story ends happily: while White manifested a deep and respectful grasp of his psychology, when he differed with Jung on the problem of evil, Jung severed all relationship with him. White, nonetheless, continued to study the work of Jung of whom he spoke with deep respect to the end of his life.

Charity begins at home. Therefore, by way of another example, closer to home: I am of Irish descent and my first response to an idea or a doctrine that challenges my own sensibilities and convictions tends to be to want to kill it before it spreads. So it is that when Manuel brought to me an article of John Searle in which Professor Searle was speaking of knowledge and belief in animals, my initial response was incredulity verging on outrage that anyone would predicate “belief” of animals. Manuel, with a rather tired look, pointed out that by "belief" Searle simply meant "to estimate": a dog "believes", that is “estimates”, that when a stick is thrown it will follow a certain trajectory. What should have occurred to me immediately was the fact that my understanding of what it is “to believe” – to have access to knowledge concerning things that I have not experienced nor therefore can verify that is founded upon the actual knowledge of another– is no longer the common understanding of what is belief; “to believe” in common usage has come to mean either to estimate or to hold a conviction that cannot be demonstrated. It was my use of the term, not Searle's, which was unusual. What was required of me was the charity to look deeper and to see that, in the terms of our tradition, Searle is merely exploring what we would call the “estimative” sense which we also very properly attribute to animals.

Along with a hospitality or openness to the ideas and concerns of others, we have an obligation to speak what we see, to offer to our whole community and to others the fruits of our own contemplation. This requires of us courage, humility and trust that our study is founded upon a common work, and that each member of our community will therefore respect the contribution of every other. Put simply: our school must be a place in which it is safe to speak. We must bear in mind that our task is not to get things right –we are not ideologues– but rather to probe the tradition to such a degree that we are able to deepen our own understanding and to make the tradition accessible to others. In fact, it is precisely because of our confidence in the tradition that we have received that we are free to ponder it and, sometimes, to get it wrong. There are, after all, semi-Pelagian tendencies even in St. Thomas Aquinas, and some of the great Augustine's utterances, taken alone and out of context, could be seen to be, at least materially, heretical.

Our task is not to get things right but to probe that dimension of the truth that has been given each of us to see for the sake of the common good. It is certainly the task of our faculty and staff to make a place for the contribution of each of our students. But you, our students, must also make a place for the guidance of our faculty and the contributions of your fellow students. We will do well always to assume good will on the part of every member of our community and to be intolerant of any remark that would deprecate the integrity of another. I cannot overestimate the significance and urgency of this requirement: this community must be –and will be– a place in which it is safe to speak. In the age of St. Thomas a Dominican who conducted himself uncharitably in a disputation was put on penance. It is, perhaps, regrettable that we have not the means to restore that practice here and now. Some of the remarks that I have been privy to in the past seven years that I have been at the school are well deserving of bread and water for a week or two.

I do not in the least mean to imply by these remarks that we are to “tolerate” each other or that, in the spirit of our age, “tolerance” should take precedence over truth. Tolerance, as I have remarked elsewhere, often implies a denial of community: we never tolerate those whom we love. You do not look longingly into the eyes of your beloved and say, with quivering voice, “I tolerate you!” (Should you do so you will, strictly, deserve what happens next.) We do not tolerate our friends; we suffer them!

To “tolerate” a position that appears to be false is, similarly, an act against our common vocation; it is not to take our common seeking of the truth seriously. To dismiss the position of another contemptuously is equally opposed to our common vocation for such an act sunders our community. We must remember that we are confronted by a mystery in the face of which we would do well to follow St. Thomas who sought the truth of what an opponent presented and then elaborated his position, carefully and charitably, not in order merely to refute a false argument, but, rather, to seek what is true, and what is most fittingly said.

We live in a time of political and social polarization and fragmentation. This is to say that we live in an age in which the charism of St. Dominic, institutionalized in this school, is more needed than ever. I very much doubt that the divisions in our society are susceptible of a political solution. To the degree that we are able to penetrate to the causes of things, to the degree that we achieve a measure of wisdom by participation in our common work, and only to that degree, we will be able to address the urgent social questions of our day and claim for ourselves and others the truth that consoles and that alone is conducive to happiness. This, in the end, is profoundly the business of our school and is the adventure that we are undertaking together. In this light it is my conviction that the interface of philosophy and theology that defines this institution is perhaps the only thoroughly practical study.

Again, I thank you for your attendance. I would like to conclude with an announcement concerning our College of Fellows:

The Fellows of the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology are men and women of extraordinary accomplishment in their own fields who are affiliated to our school for the sake of discerning the "signs of the times" in the interface of our Catholic faith with contemporary culture. It has become our custom to convene the College of Fellows on January 28, the feast of St. Thomas Aquinas, in the presence of his Eminence, James Francis Cardinal Stafford, their Dean.. This year the College will meet over two days. On the afternoon of Friday, January 27, the Fellows will meet with our faculty and students to discuss the lineamenta or preparatory documents for the world Synod on the new evangelization that our Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, has announced to take place in October of 2012. I invite each member of our community to attend and to prepare for our discussion by reading the lineamenta, which we will make available to you. Please mark your calendars and plan to attend.