Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology

The Vocation of the Catholic Scholar

Fr. Michael Sweeney, OP


Here I am… living in a time of human drama, witnessing upheavals such as perhaps the globe never before saw since the mountains rose and the seas were driven into their caverns.  What have I to do for this panting, palpitating century?  More than ever before thought is waiting for men [and women], and men [and women] for thought.  The world is in danger for lack of life-giving maxims.  We are in a train rushing ahead at top speed, no signals visible.  The planet is going it knows not where, its law has failed it: who will give it back its sun?[1]

So wrote Antonin-Gilbert Sertillanges, OP in 1920 in his book, The Intellectual Life: Its Spirit, Conditions, Methods  [sertillanges] . It is not, so far as I know, included in anyone's canon of the great books; nonetheless it is very likely the most profound and most helpful guide to study ever written.

Who will restore light to the earth, or “give it back its sun” as Sertillanges puts it? This, I suggest with Sertillanges, is precisely the vocation of the Catholic scholar. The concern of a scholar who is Catholic must be one with the concern of Christ for humanity: what organizes the work of the Christian scholar must be more than the quest for the truth of things; it is to be found, rather, in the Redemptive Mission of Christ whereby he heals humanity and calls it to be one in him. Hence:

... The Christian worker who is consecrated by his call must not be an isolated unit. Whatever be his position, however alone or hidden we suppose him to be materially, he must not yield to the lure of individualism, which is a distorted image of Christian personality. ... Isolation is inhuman; for to work in human fashion is to work with a feeling for man, his needs, his greatness, and the solidarity which binds us closely together in a common life.

A true Christian will have ever before his eyes the image of this globe, on which the Cross is planted, on which needy men wander and suffer, all over which the redeeming Blood, in numberless streams, flows to meet them. The light that he has conferred on [each of his disciples] is a priesthood; the light that [the disciple] seeks to acquire supposes an implicit promise that he will share it [with others].  Every truth is practical; the most apparently abstract, the loftiest, is also the most practical. Every truth is life, direction, a way leading to the end of man. And therefore Jesus Christ made this unique assertion: “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.”[2]

If we are to seek our purpose, then, it is to be found in this period of history that we ourselves inhabit: we are to diagnose its need and answer it. Again, Fr. Sertillanges:

Every age is not as good as every other, but all ages are Christian ages, and there is one which for us, and in practice, surpasses them all: our own. In view of it are our inborn resources, our graces of today and tomorrow, and consequently the efforts that we must make in order to correspond with them.[3]

What, then, do we perceive when we consider our present age? What light must be shed upon our contemporary society?  – for this is the work that Our Lord has entrusted to us. No one person can answer such a question fully; the redemptive mission of Christ belongs to the whole People of God. I wish, instead, to begin a conversation, and in that spirit to offer some remarks that, however partial, may be of use as you engage this challenge. 

Let us first notice that Fr. Sertillanges assumes a fundamental unity to the human experience, whereby he can speak of a “solidarity which binds us closely together in a common life.”  We read in Lumen Gentium (The Pastoral Constitution of the Church in the Modern World from Vatican Council II) that the Church is called to serve that unity, for she is “in Christ like a sacrament or as a sign and instrument both of a very closely knit union with God and of the unity of the whole human race.”[4] A sacrament, remember, is a sign that affects, makes real what it signifies: the mark of the presence of the Church as sacrament is that humanity again becomes one. Yet the profound unity of human experience and the solidarity with others that follows upon it is the very thing that contemporary society either denies outright or is reluctant to assert. What characterizes our society is not unity, but fragmentation, not solidarity but an increasing polarization, even to the degree that we have begun to speak of “culture wars.”

When I was an undergraduate student four decades ago the concern of Catholic scholars was to elucidate the relationship that pertains between faith and reason. This certainly is still a concern: fifteen years ago Pope John Paul II issued his encyclical letter Fides et Ratio. But the force of his concern was differently nuanced than was true of the works of Gilson, Maritain, Pegis, Phelan and others that I then studied. Read closely, his Encyclical was not so much concerned about faith and reason as about faith and culture; Western culture, once Christian in its inspiration, is no longer so. For his part, Pope Benedict has spoken regularly of the relativism and fragmentation that characterizes contemporary scholarship and, more and more, popular culture. 

I wish to propose that the challenge of our culture –its  tendency to fragmentation and to relativism, its refusal of its own heritage – is rooted in an incapacity to assert the fundamental unity of life-in-the-world human experience, and that the work of restoring unity must become the pre-eminent concern of a follower of Christ. This pertains, moreover, to at least three realms of human engagement: first, to thought itself, in which a fascination with the particular has replaced seeking wisdom, which is nothing other than the grasp of that order, once called ”natural” that is written into things; second, to political society, in which an emphasis upon the individual has eclipsed all sense of what is common in human experience; third, to our businesses and professions, in which we have emphasized and institutionalized tasks to be accomplished, to the neglect of work as an expression of human creativity and giftedness. I would like briefly to comment upon each.

First with respect to thought: When St. Thomas Aquinas asks “What is truth?” in the first question of his De Veritate he proposes an order that is rooted in the observation that the very first act of the intellect is an apprehension of being itself:  “Now… that which the intellect first conceives as, in a way, the most evident, and to which it reduces all its concepts, is being.” [5]  Such an assertion is, of course, overlooked, if not outright denied in the contemporary academy. However, before we dismiss him we might ask, what does he mean? We might say that the actuality, the very fact of anything is what occasions the human intellect to awaken. Nothing can be said further about being as it is apprehended in this way, for, Thomas notes that, when we assert that anything is, our assertion is necessarily without further qualification. It is. Period. However, something can be said about being by way of negation: the being we apprehend in this first act is indivisible: it is one. We cannot say that something “is” partially; with respect to the very fact of a thing, it is, and, in the moment of its apprehension, it cannot not be. Everything that is, is, and with respect to its being, is one. This apprehension of being, moreover, “precedes truth and is the basis of truth.”[6] Or, put another way, “the true is that which is–it is had when the existence of what is, is affirmed.”[7]  

Therefore, the first apprehension of the intellect concerns the unity –that is, the indivisibility– of being. The intellect itself is first actualized in an apprehension of something that is one. The conformity of the intellect to the unity of being is, moreover, what occasions the first, self-evident principle to which all other knowledge will ultimately be reduced: that something cannot both be and not be at the same time in the same respect. In other words: that which we first apprehend is; with respect to its being –the very fact of it–it is one and, in the moment of its apprehension, it cannot be other than it is. The contention of St. Thomas is that these propositions are universally affirmed by every one in each act of knowing, even if unconsciously. All thought seeks the unity whereby it was originally conceived.

This insight of St. Thomas suggests an approach to study:  we must always be attentive to the starting point –the principle– in whatever we consider. So, St. Thomas begins the De Veritate with the following admonition: “When investigating the nature of anything, one should make the same kind of analysis as he makes when he reduces a proposition to certain self-evident principles. Otherwise, both types of knowledge [knowledge of the intellect and its operations, and knowledge of things] will become involved in an infinite regress, and science and our knowledge of things will perish.”[8]  Whatever we might study, –whether theology, philosophy, or the arts and sciences, or even business or technology– we must seek the unifying principle from which our study proceeds and upon which the truth of our study will depend. 

Hence the study of the “great books.” They comprise the principles or starting points from which much of Western civilization has proceeded; in their study we can find the great themes that unify our culture and distinguish it from other cultures. If we are to influence contemporary society –if we are to be innovative in our approaches to contemporary institutions, if we are to heal the culture and the society that we have inherited– it is profoundly important to know where to start.

In our insistence that reality itself unifies our experience, we see immediately that the depth of our inquiry will matter much more than its scope, in two respects: first, we will be much more useful to Christ and to humanity if we know some few things at great depth than if we have only a casual grasp of many things. Second, we should not be attentive to the fame or notoriety of others, but only to the depth of their insight or lack of it. Hence, the admonition of St. Thomas in his likely apocryphal letter to Brother John: “Never mind who says what, but commit to memory what is said that is true: work to understand what you read, and make yourself sure of doubtful points.” [9] 

The unity that we seek in thought is just as urgently to be sought in political society. It is difficult to overlook the present fact that the moment anyone mentions “individual rights” concerning any social issue, everyone appears to stop thinking. We have, I suggested, placed such an emphasis upon the individual that all sense of what is common has been eclipsed. Our thinking begins and ends with the individual, to the degree that the privacy of the individual is held by some to be of greater value even than human life. This is, almost certainly, the principal reason that our society appears to be characterized by fragmentation and increasing polarization. One cannot have a society based upon the autonomous individual; there cannot be a community of one.  We have, perhaps, achieved what Jürgen Habermas feared, “…the transformation of the citizens of prosperous and peaceful liberal societies into isolated monads acting on the basis of their own self-interest, persons who use their subjective rights only as weapons against each other.” [10]

There is, in modern scholarship and in popular culture, the fixed notion that we cannot any longer generalize human experience, but this is, again, the consequence of an over assertion of the notion of the autonomy of the individual. A radical pluralism is assumed, even to the degree that there cannot be agreement on fundamental moral questions; we can no longer speak of what is natural to the human person. Small wonder that this is the case, if human society is in fact imagined to be comprised of “isolated monads” as Habermas has it. Neither, we should notice, are we able to speak of a common good –or any good; the good, after all is that which all people seek.

The result of all this is that human society has more and more come to be conceived as a political project; the glue that holds the project together is the consent of individuals to an ideology, and the role of the politician has come to be that of a social entrepreneur or salesman attempting to convince individuals to rally around the particular conception of the social project that his or her party has agreed upon. 

Happily, little of what is now regard as “politically correct” corresponds to anyone’s actual experience. The moment that we actually test many of the presuppositions upon which much of popular thinking is based, we find that they collapse, utterly. So, for example, being, as I am, an autonomous individual, on the occasion that my family moved from Vancouver to Victoria, B.C. when I was three years old, I decided to go with them. Our experience testifies: that we are born into a human community that precedes us; that any grasp we have of our own individuality has been discovered in relationships with others, not independently; that there is a common human experience, founded in a common human nature and that we invoke it in every act of communication with someone else.

Here, again, the vocation of the Catholic scholar is redemptive, and must consist, not only in right thinking, but in an invitation for men and women to embrace what is human. Our reflection upon society cannot begin with “I” –an isolated self– but with what we hold in common, what first pertains to all of us and therefore, and necessarily, to each. We must begin, not with “I”, but with “we”.  But that this may be undertaken, we must also insist upon a close inspection of human experience, and invite others to do the same. The chief enemy of the Faith in social matters is not unbelief –with which the Church has had to contend in every age– but ideology, or any position in which the explanation precedes the facts at hand. We must take the tradition that we have received and apply it to the actual challenges of contemporary culture, so as to convince others, and nothing is more convincing to others than to offer to them a deeper understanding of their own experience than they themselves have yet managed. We must be able to manifest to others that intuitive grasp of order in human acts that is natural to the human person –which we term the” natural law”. It was with these tasks in mind that Pope Paul VI insisted that we are to become experts, not merely in the various fields of human study and work, but in humanity itself.

If our study permits us to become experts in humanity, then one manifestation of our expertise will be found in the creativity that we can bring to the institutions that make up our society. This is the third area of human engagement that is, I am convinced, involved in our vocation as Catholic scholars, and one that we can forget to consider. 

In his series “Civilization”, now four decades old, Lord Kenneth Clark referred to the Catholic Church as the greatest force for civilization in the history of the world. I concur with his judgment, but I was nonetheless surprised by it; Lord Clark was not Catholic and even back in 1969 such a statement placed his reputation at risk among many academics. There was, apparently, a truth that he felt obliged to acknowledge. We could certainly make the argument that every modern institution –congresses or parliaments, courts, schools, universities, hospitals, banks, corporations, unions, museums; I will not attempt a comprehensive list– were inventions of Christian and Catholic Europe. I hope it is not immodest for me to mention the fact that De Vitoria and his Dominican confreres at Salamanca can be said to have offered the first formal delineation of human rights and of international law and invented cost accounting. Western civilization has, in many respects, been a child of the Church. Again, whence this cultural and institutional creativity?

Modern institutions tend to be organized around tasks to be accomplished. This might seem, at first glance, to be an obvious thing to do. There are tasks that people need accomplished –or think that they need accomplished– and the measure of an organization is whether it can efficiently and profitably supply those wants or needs. The same assumption is made of ecclesial institutions: the infirm need hospitals, children need schools, the poor need food, shelter, clothing and so, it is presumed, religious orders have been founded to supply those needs. The measure of secular institutions or religious orders is their usefulness. The development of institutions consists in finding new approaches to satisfy more efficiently the tasks that are to be accomplished. 

As reasonable as this assumption might seem, it is not true. The Church has never institutionalized around tasks; it has institutionalized the personal charisms of men and women who have responded to the call of Christ and his redemptive mission to the human community. It is impossible, for example, to account for the work of the Missionaries of Charity if one overlooks the charism of St. Teresa of Calcutta to incarnate the mercy of Christ. What moves the sisters is not the need of the poor, but the dignity of the poorest of the poor who image the stripped humanity of Christ crucified. The tasks that the sisters are given to accomplish are organized around the dignity of Christ whom they serve as he is imaged in the poor. 

While this is obviously the case when we consider ecclesial or charitable initiatives, a close look at the history of our secular institutions will reveal that they, too, have developed as the expression of natural and supernatural gifts (talents and charisms): institutional creativity is grounded, always, in the creativity of the human person, in such a way that the tasks to be accomplished are seen in a new light or changed altogether. Florence Nightingale, appalled at the neglect of the wounded during the Crimean War, conceived of a whole new means of providing medical care through proper administration, and invented the field of medical statistics. She did not merely alter the means of accomplishing certain tasks. Rather, she proposed entirely new tasks, and revolutionized health care.

Social change does not come about through a closer consideration of tasks to be achieved. Rather, society is the expression (for good and for bad) of the creativity of the human person. Once again we discern a unifying principle: work is the expression of the human person, and social institutions are measured in their conformity to the good of the person. If we can discern the good of the person we will simultaneously grasp the foundation of all institutional initiative. If we can discern that part of the human condition that we ourselves have been gifted to address, we will simultaneously discern our personal vocation in Christ and will unleash our own creativity. 

At the same time, there are elements of our social life that do not admit of change, again because of the good of the person. The present threat to the integrity of the family is largely due to seeing the family merely in terms of certain tasks to be accomplished –the provision for children, for example– that anyone of good will could satisfy. What is overlooked is the person of the child, who incarnates a history of relationships that is written into his or her genetic code, and whose very identity is first expressed in the familial relationships into which the child is born.

This, too, suggests a work to be accomplished by scholars who are disciples of Christ.  Just as we seek the principles of any study, we must understand our contemporary institutions through their foundation in the person, which is their origin and their measure. Once again, our task is seen to involve seeking what unifies human initiative, of reducing our study to first principles.

What finally unifies the work of scholarship, both theoretical and practical, is the vocation of the scholar.  This is the great insight behind the Dominican tradition in education, and why I commend to you a close attentiveness to your patron as students, St. Thomas Aquinas. 

St. Thomas taught and wrote “for beginners” in order that they might undertake a preaching mission in the spirit of St. Dominic. To preach, for St. Dominic, did not mean to exhort the faithful to a holy life, or even to expound the scriptures for the sake of moving hearts to conversion.Rather, to preach meant (and, in the Dominican tradition, still means) to convert by means of the truth: to take the tradition that we have received and to apply it, with authority, to contemporary questions for the sake of redeeming our present society and directing them to the One who is the Way, the Truth and the Life. 

This work of applying the tradition has at least two characteristics.  First, it is always a commitment to something new.  The work of retrieving the unity that the human spirit seeks in thought, in society and in our institutions is not merely one of recovering a perspective that once we had and is now lost.  Rather, it is a work that requires of us to take upon ourselves the challenges of contemporary life and to show them in a new light; to provide new possibilities for society; to reinvigorate the institutions through which men and women relate to one another and express themselves.  It is to appreciate with Sertillanges that, “God does not grow old.  We must help our God to renew, not the buried past and the chronicles of a vanished world, but the eternal face of the earth.” [11] 

Second, it is a work that respects the integrity and even the authority of the secular order.  The unity that we seek is the unity that is to be discovered in our actual encounter with the world.  For this reason St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Albert the Great and the early Dominicans insisted that philosophy, the “handmaid of theology” had to be undertaken for its own sake in order to be truly useful to the work of theology.  If we are to stand in the tradition of St. Thomas then we are challenged to a double confidence: in the light that reason provides whereby we can discern the order that is in things and in our own acts and in the divine light that, by grace, affords us insight into the purposes of God himself.


[1] Antonin-Gilbert Sertillanges, The Intellectual Life  [DSPT] , Catholic University Press, pp. 14-15 

[2] Ibid., pp. 12,13 

[3] Ibid., p. 15 

[4] Lumen Gentium  [DSPT] ,

[5] De Veritate  [DSPT] , 1,1,c 

[6] Ibid. 

[7] Ibid., ad 1 

[8] Ibid. 

[9] While the Letter to Brother John is likely apocryphal it is sufficiently in the spirit of St. Thomas to have been widely attributed to him. 
[10] Quoted in The Dialectics of Secularization, Jürgen Habermas and Joseph Ratzinger, Ignatius Press, 2006, p. 35. 
[11] Op.cit., p. 16 

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