Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology

Intellectual Hospitality

Opening Remarks for Academic Year 2013-2014

DSPT Community

Fr. Michael Sweeney, OP


I would like to begin by welcoming our new students. You have chosen to study with us and, for our part, we welcome you into the community of scholars that is the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology. 

While the majority of our students are Roman Catholic, our community also includes Orthodox and Protestant Christians and Muslim students. Many of our students are preparing for ordination into the priesthood; many more are pursuing a lay vocation. What, then, is it that we hold in common?To be a community is to hold something in common, which is to say something that first applies to all of us and therefore and necessarily to each. Some of you have chosen to study philosophy and others theology; some of you are pursuing concomitant study in philosophy and theology.

We are a community founded upon the Dominican tradition in education. One of the mottos of the Dominican Order is veritas, “truth”. In a society that is more and more succumbing to what Pope Benedict called a “tyranny of relativism,” a milieu that is “secular” to the extent that, in the words of Charles Taylor, it is easier not to believe than to believe, in an environment that has become politicized and therefore more and more polarized we hold that there is a real correspondence between the mind and things – that is, that there is truth; we hold, moreover, that the relativism, the unbelief and the divisions in society can be addressed and healed by pursuing the truth that is accessible to us through reason and revelation. 

For this reason our institutional commitment is the interface, the conversation, between philosophy and theology. Such an institutional commitment is unusual in our modern world. This is a shame, in that it is, perhaps, what the world needs most. It is a commitment that was determined early in our history: in 1259 at the general chapter of the Order, Thomas Aquinas and Albert the Great both attending, the determination was made that the ratio studiorum, the plan of studies of the Order would require not only theological study, but the study of philosophy for its own sake. It was then, and is now, a courageous decision. Why courageous? As we begin our academic year, I would like us to reflect, for a moment, upon what a conversation between philosophy and theology entails.

Let us begin with philosophy. It is by no means an easy thing to say what philosophy is. My favorite attempt is that of Joseph Pieper, a lay philosopher in the tradition of St.Thomas: “to engage in philosophy means to reflect on the totality of things we encounter, in view of their ultimate reasons.” The philosopher is directed to the whole of reality. This “is not the same as the sum total resulting from adding up each and every thing. Rather it means the totum, the ordered structure of the world, containing a hierarchy, greater and lesser actualizations of being, and above all a highest reality that at the same time is the most profound foundation and origin of everything, of every single thing and of the whole as well. 

The philosopher addresses the totality of things that we encounter, “and this from every possible angle.” But is such an endeavor possible? Pieper concedes that such a demand could never be satisfied in positive terms. No one person could possibly encounter the totality of things from every possible angle. “It can nevertheless be satisfied in a different way, by way of not doing something, as it were. And the form of satisfying this demand can without hesitation be expected from every philosopher: he must never formally exclude from his consideration any possible information on the realm of reality.” The critical attitude that is demanded of the philosopher “does not primarily mean accepting only what is absolutely certain, but being careful not to suppress anything.” 

The philosopher must be committed to an attentiveness that notices everything and that refuses to suppress anything. This, in turn, imposes a further requirement: that the gaze of the philosopher must be disinterested. He can have no obligation other than his engagement with things; his aim is to discover the truth, and nothing else. For this reason Pieper insists that philosophy must be “useless”: “Philosophy does not serve any purpose not only as a matter of fact but because it cannot and must not serve any purpose. In the words of Martin Heidegger ‘it is entirely proper and perfectly as it should be: philosophy is of no use'.” 

If this is the philosophical enterprise then we can, perhaps, begin to see why the decision to study philosophy for its own sake was, and is, a courageous one. Should we not hold that the believing philosopher is obliged to the revelation, that his or her purpose should be to defend the truths that are revealed? Can we afford an approach to things that is truly disinterested, seeking only the truth? Should not some ideas be refused out of hand? 

Many have held that to defend revealed truth is, or should be, the usefulness of philosophy and that some ideas should be dismissed out of hand, most especially if they appear to be at odds with what is revealed. Yet our Dominican tradition has proceeded otherwise, precisely because of the confidence that we have in what is revealed.

“Since faith rests upon infallible truth and since the contrary of a truth can never be demonstrated, it is clear that arguments brought against faith cannot be demonstrations, but are difficulties that can be answered” (S.T. I,l,8,c). 

For St. Thomas Aquinas philosophy must be studied for its own sake because only a disinterested pursuit of the truth will be capable of answering the arguments that can be brought against the faith.

 Let us notice that St. Thomas has utter confidence in the revelation: “the faith rests upon infallible truth.” What might be argued against the faith cannot, in the end, be true and we need not fear such arguments. Moreover, a philosophy that is “useful” to some end other than a disinterested pursuit of the truth, no matter how apparently noble the end, will assist us neither in grasping what is revealed nor in answering the questions of others. But these are the two ends of theology in the Dominican tradition: to come to knowledge of God through reason and revelation and to preach, which is to bring others to conversion by means of the truth through addressing their questions.

In our present society this project of ours will almost certainly be misunderstood. What has become true of the American culture in which we live and work is that everything tends to be politicized: we both judge things according to political ends and we depend upon political process to achieve those ends. Philosophy or theology, it is thought, must be useful for the sake of a social end; faith is manifested in social policies and, in a pluralistic society, tends to be more and more privatized. Political process demands that we polarize disagreements and that we seek and express our identity by joining forces with others of like mind. A disinterested pursuit of the truth would seem to be not only useless (which, remember, it must truly be) but a betrayal; any sort of nuance is, after all, inimical to political process. What, we might ask, would St. Thomas have thought of all this?

It would certainly be disquieting to him (at least) that disputation as he knew it has been replaced by polemic, that the lawyer would supplant the philosopher or the theologian. He sought the truth - what is so – and he presumed argument to have that purpose, not mere persuasion in order to win votes, or to triumph in court, or advance one's own rights, or to prove one's opponent wrong. He presumed goodwill, that no one would take a position for the sake merely of convincing, let alone of deceiving. He would be profoundly dismayed to see that the act of understanding, which he called “speculative” knowledge, would be judged subordinate and inferior to the urgency to apply what is known, what he termed “practical” knowledge. Ideology was unknown to him; he would be deeply dismayed, for example, to hear the Catholic faith characterized as a “belief system” or an “ism” - “Catholicism” - and his own conclusions treated no longer as expressions of what is most fittingly to be thought, but as principles in the construction of a polemic.

Our first task, if we are to live the tradition of St. Thomas, is to be instructed by his method: to presume good will in such a way that we take the positions of others seriously and, in cases that they are not seriously proposed, then to receive them more seriously than they were intended. We must absolutely refuse the temptation to politicize disagreements. If I am to be completely honest, I must confess that I have never found the group with which I am in complete agreement on every major point in any discussion. If the task of philosophy is to insist that nothing be overlooked then politicizing disagreements must, necessarily, be the death of philosophy for, as we well know, membership in a political bloc will inevitably require overlooking a great deal!

Just as I have never found a group with whom I am in complete agreement on every point, neither have I found anyone with whom I cannot agree on some points. For a Thomist, David Hume might not be regarded as one's closest friend and collaborator, especially on topics around causality. Yet I have often cited him when I am in the business of disparaging social contract theories; his defended observation, ''Try opting out” could not be more to the point.

If we are truly set upon a disinterested seeking of the truth of things we will, in fact, find that, depending upon the discussion at hand, we have friends in the most unlikely places. To a Catholic, every Protestant scholar will finally be regarded as heterodox on some points, else he or she would be Catholic. Yet my own theological development, indeed, my very faith, have been wonderfully nurtured by such giants as Neibuhr, Bonhoeffer, and Ricoeur. I would be delighted to have them here to present their work apart from the unfortunate circumstance that they are dead.

I am not at all arguing for “openness”; we must utterly reject attempting some “middle path” whereby we might reconcile opposing views (which is, after all, a political stratagem). Rather, a disinterested pursuit of the truth whereby we overlook nothing requires of us that we take seriously the questions of others whether apparently friendly or hostile, remembering St. Thomas’ insistence that those who oppose us are an assistance to us, in that they require us to articulate more closely our own position.  But this insistence requires courage of us. 

I should add that our Church and society very much need our contribution at this moment in our history. The tendency to politicize requires to be corrected and we are obliged to the work of correcting it if we are to be true to our own vocation. This is our call individually and also as an institution. 

The first concern of our bishops must always be the pastoral care of the People of God. This means that in the prosecution of their responsibility it is necessary for them to alert Catholics to positions that are, in the end, incompatible with the Catholic tradition. This also, necessarily, means that they have not the leisure to probe deeply and to answer all of the objections that might be raised to their positions. Their work is to interpret the tradition from authority; as such their work is not per se theological. The pastoral institutions of the Church are not ordered to the work of theology, let alone to the integration of philosophy and theology. This means that there are issues that the School can address that the bishops cannot.

So, for example, in 2006 at the height of the publicity surrounding the clergy scandal, DSPT sponsored a colloquium entitled, “Can you tell me what a parish is?” We held the symposium in Chicago at Loyola University as I wanted Cardinal George to offer the keynote. (The proceedings of the symposium were first published in two issues of Chicago Studies and subsequently published as a book entitled, What is a Parish?) I invited ecclesiologists, canon lawyers and civil and constitutional lawyers to consider together what the institutional integrity of the parish is. Cardinal George expressed his gratitude to us for taking up the topic. He told me that he could not sponsor such a conversation because it would appear to be self-serving, that speaking of the integrity of the parish would be taken as an attempt to limit the liabilities of parishes when the dioceses were being sued. Whereas the archdiocese of Chicago could not sponsor such a conference, the DSPT could. 

This is the particular strength of a graduate program. It is inappropriate for Catholic schools and undergraduate colleges too engage deeply some of the questions that our contemporaries have in order to convert them by means of the truth. The faith of the young should be protected; it is, I believe, misguided to introduce young people too early to arguments that might scandalize or might cause them to doubt their own tradition, particularly when the arguments are offered by Catholic scholars who appear to dissent from positions that the bishops articulate.

The institutions that can responsibly take up the task of fostering a real engagement with the culture, and therefore with the questions of others, are institutions such as ours. We are a graduate school and our students, very much through self-selection, come to us precisely in order to seek the truth disinterestedly. And, whereas other ecclesial institutions are obliged not to entertain positions that appear to contradict the tradition or the Episcopal magisterium, it is our personal and institutional obligation to engage them in order that their questions and assertions may be answered. The fact that we include dissenting voices in our syllabi or invite them to speak to us as a community is not a political endorsement or a sign that we are in agreement with their positions, let alone that we are, ourselves, heterodox, but is rather an indication that it is our responsibility above all to engage their ideas and respond to them.

So, for example, in 2007 Sister Elizabeth Johnson published her book, Quest For the Living God. A number of bishops objected to her work. I recall that someone (I have forgotten who) studied the syllabi of every theology program in the country to discover where her book was being read.  The inference was that this could serve as a litmus test for orthodoxy; presumably, the fact that her work would appear on a course syllabus would itself serve as adequate proof that the institution in question was teaching in defiance of the bishops. The offending professor at DSPT was, at that time, Fr. Richard Schenk, O.P., one of a handful of scholars worldwide whom Pope Benedict had just consulted before publishing his work on Bonaventure. Fr. Richard was not enamored of her work, but had included the book on his reading list as an example of contemporary scholarship. He shared our Dominican conviction that we cannot respond adequately to books that we have not read.

As we begin the new academic year I want, therefore, to make explicit my hope for us: that we might have the courage to seek the truth disinterestedly and the confidence in the truth that has been revealed to us in Christ that our work requires of us.  May we together serve the Church and society in a manner that is true to our Dominican heritage, even and especially when it requires of us that we stand against the spirit of the age.

Sign up for our newsletter & learn more about the DSPT Difference