Fr. Michael Sweeney, OP
May 21, 2011
As president of the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology it is my privilege this afternoon to welcome you to our 79th Commencement and to be the first to congratulate our graduates.
Our purpose today is to bestow upon them the certificates and degrees which they have earned. Or, at any rate, that is usually what is understood to be involved in commencement exercises. Actually, however, this is not quite the case. Whereas most in our society might think of a degree as something earned or merited, rather like a wage, the language in which we speak of graduation suggests that the degree is not a wage, but a gift: whereas we pay a wage, we bestow or confer or grant a degree; whereas a wage is a right, we speak as well of the honors and privileges that attach to a degree. We would no more speak of bestowing or conferring a wage then we would speak of paying a degree. We should also notice that if we were to speak in such a manner there would be a lively danger that others might fear we had lost our minds, and, to quote an American vice president, "a mind is a terrible thing to lose." Our very language intimates that, even if all the course work has been done, there is yet a further step in order that the degree be granted and that there is something gratuitous in the conferring of a degree.
I want, at this juncture, to reassure our graduates that we do mean to present degrees to them and that we do respect their accomplishment. Yet there is, indeed, something more at stake today than the fulfillment of a contract. We expect something of our graduates beyond the mere mastery of a certain subject matter.
It is the stated mission of this school that our students enter into the rich tradition of classical philosophy and Catholic theology, especially as exemplified by St. Thomas Aquinas, and from this tradition engage contemporary scholarship and culture in mutual enrichment. What is it that we expect of our graduates? It is our hope and therefore our confidence that our graduates are men and women in whom this tradition lives, and through whom it can be encountered. The degree is freely and gratefully conferred upon those who live the tradition with us.
For the tradition is a living thing carried by living minds, minds living in time. Minds that meet with problems, and acquire resources, which lead them to endow tradition, or the truth it contains, with the reactions and characteristics of a living thing: adaptation, reaction, growth, fruitfulness. Tradition is living because it resides in minds that live by it in a history that comprises activity, problems, doubts, opposition, new contributions and questions that need answering (Ives Congar, The Meaning of Tradition, Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 2004, pp. 77-79).
A tradition such as this, a living tradition, requires philosophy to make certain that the problems, doubts, opposition, and above all, the questions that need answering are not short changed. The faith itself insists that the truth we seek, the truth that is contained in the tradition, is a person, a divine Person: the Word of God incarnate. The problems, opposition, doubts and questions that need answering arise in the very encounter with Christ. There is no faith, no belief, which does not occasion problems, opposition, doubts and urgent questions. A faith that truly seeks understanding –a faith that gives rise to theology– insists that the whole of human experience be examined. The greatest contemporary enemy of faith is not unbelief, but ideology, and faith itself insists that problems not be too soon resolved, harmony not cover up real opposition, certainties not be feigned in the face of doubt or urgent questions dismissed with facile answers. To sustain the living tradition that is born of the faith requires of us that we pursue philosophical study for its own sake.
At the same time, because of the confidence born of faith that God, whom we dare to call Father, has revealed himself to us through the incarnate Word, we are free to philosophize: no questions are forbidden to us, no questions dismissed in advance as futile. St. Thomas Aquinas dares to ask whether there is God –and the question is a real question, a question that needs answering. Because we hold that there is truth, and that the truth is, through Christ, accessible to us, if only in a partial manner, we are free to interrogate every aspect of human experience, and can tolerate the fact that philosophy, unaided by the revelation, will never present to us a fully adequate account of our life in the world. Philosophy remains worthwhile, inasmuch as through philosophical study the horizons of our natural understanding are illumined, and the questions most needed to be answered are made apparent. Philosophy requires theology in order fully to be itself, and the mark of philosophy liberated through its interface with the theological tradition is that it is not only sober, probing and insistent, but also playful!
We are the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology, and it is precisely the interface of the classical philosophical tradition and the Catholic tradition that defines us as an institution. We expect of our graduates that they will continue to partake with us in a living tradition, that they will remain hopeful in the presence of the problems, opposition, doubts and questions that will inevitably be our lot and that, through their further study and their work, they will, perhaps, illumine for us and for our Church and society further questions that need answering. We expect that they are, and will continue to be, men and women who prefer dialog to polemic while looking upon what is human and refusing to look away.
It is this collaboration with us that deepens today as they complete their studies and begin the next adventure to which Our Lord is calling them. It is because we can recognize them to be our collaborators in a common work that, having completed their requirements, we bestow upon them the degrees of this School, with all of the rights and privileges that pertain to them.