Catholic tradition

 What is the Catholic intellectual tradition and what is its place in the curriculum of the Catholic university?

I am very grateful for the invitation to share this afternoon of reflection with all of you regarding such an important topic as the Catholic intellectual tradition and its place in the Curriculum of Catholic Universities. I will try to answer this question concretely from my view as a Latin American.

1. Current situation of Universities and students in Latin America

a) The Technocratic Society: the Catholic university must respond to the many challenges it faces in order to be faithful to itself. Today, one of the first challenges it faces is globalization. This process brings many positive lights and dimensions, but I would like to concentrate on one aspect that I consider important for our topic in relation with the university. Many times, globalization tries to impose a technocratic type of society that strongly influences the university model proposed. Nevertheless, the technocratic mentality goes hand in hand with a barrage of information that challenges the formative process. The technocratic mentality and technology constitute the «most visible face of the truly most relevant phenomenon, that of attributing information value to the different “knowledges” that are communicated in the heart of society and are capable of generating expectations in the different areas of its organization. Because of this, some social scientists begin to talk about the emergence of a "network society" to demonstrate that the role traditionally occupied by legally recognized and legitimized institutions has started to be snatched away by large communication networks, more or less private, depending on the case, which benefit from society’s functional organization without having to pay for the costs of representation common to institutions occupying public spaces. The success of these networks as complements to public institutions has been quite visible, both at the financial level, and at the political and educational ones as well.»(1) So, along with the fragmentation of specializations, we add the enormous weight of information that prevents us from generating a synthesis of knowledge, which tends to undermine a humanistic perspective and an interdisciplinary convergence.

The technocratic mentality also points toward an economic pragmatism in the organization of its educational authorities. In order to survive in the milieu, many Catholic universities subordinate the anthropological criteria of the formation of persons as the guiding criteria for education, the training of functional abilities and skills in accordance with requirements from the State or the market.(2) Many Catholic universities have renounced a humanistic formation and the Catholic intellectual tradition, because they feel displaced by these technocratic universities. Thus, they have the double challenge of offering the Catholic intellectual tradition and at the same time offering the necessary skills to respond to diversification and specialization in a synthesis of knowledge.

b) Social Challenge in Latin America: The Latin American social situation carries its own challenges. The scourge of poverty, corruption, and laws that oppose natural rights, expresses how the Latin American Christian culture seems to weaken in its social expressions and clamors for leadership in the political, social, cultural and economic spheres. We are facing a serious problem regarding the conception and distribution of educational resources and the deficient presence of the Church and other Catholic institutions in some areas of education that would allow the greater formation of future Catholic leaders so as to have a consistent presence in culture. Only 17% of the population in Latin America has access to the University. The Holy Father Benedict XVI, in his Inaugural Speech during the General Conference in Aparecida, indicated that «this being a Continent of baptized Christians, it is time to overcome the notable absence — in the political sphere, in the world of the media and in the universities — of the voices and initiatives of Catholic leaders with strong personalities and generous dedication, who are coherent in their ethical and religious convictions».(3)

Facing the Latin American social situation, galloping consumerism is blindly dragging down the values of solidarity. A consumerism that enters through social communication media affects the children of the Church, making us forget «that the greatest social inequalities in the world take place in Latin America».(4) With great urgency we must search for paths that lead to experiencing social reconciliation, which will only spring from each person’s reconciliation and peace with God. To overcome this hiatus between faith and life, between faith and culture, the urgent mission of Catholic universities is to boost an integral human and Christian formation, thus helping the secular faithful to know the truth and choose good. At the same time, it is becoming necessary for Catholic universities to develop programs that reach far beyond mere welfare toward integral human promotion through the supportive solidarity channeling of resources.

2. Catholic Intellectual Tradition

With these great challenges as framework, I have been asked to speak about the Catholic intellectual tradition and its position in the curriculum of Catholic universities. What is it about? What is the Catholic intellectual tradition?

When we speak about Catholic intellectual tradition we are not talking about a monolithic and static collection of truths, dogmas or groups of knowledge. In the catechism of May 10, 2006, Pope Benedict XVI has defined Traditio as «the permanent presence of the Word and life of Jesus among his people».(5) Cardinal Scola points out how even in the primitive community one can perceive the two fundamental dimensions of Traditio.(6) The Acts of the Apostles indicates how «they devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles and to the communal life, to the breaking of the bread and to the prayers» (Acts 2:42). On one hand we face an objective, institutional dimension that refers to the sacramental reality of the Church (communion, the breaking of the bread) and to the veritable instance of teaching that is transmitted (the teaching of the apostles). At the same time, the tradition is that transmission in the life of the people, and therefore, that more subjective and personal dimension which must be transmitted in each time, in each situation, in each place, in such a way that it may reach and attract the listener.

Catholic universities should feel responsible for this objective and subjective dimension of tradition. So, when we speak of Catholic intellectual tradition, even if in the university field we accentuate the “intellectual” – because intellectual formation and the search for truth are the universities’ own objectives -, this intellectual dimension cannot be completely separated from the person and it cannot be separated at all from the subjective dimension of tradition.

3. Responsibility of Catholic Universities in Latin America

Thus, the responsibility of Catholic universities, especially those in Latin America, regarding the intellectual tradition, is fundamental. The constituent evangelization reached millions of people in Latin America making it possible that today they represent 43% of all Catholics in the world. The profound faith that seals the identity of the Latin American people, forged through evangelization, is a gift; it is a fundamental part of the Latin American tradition and a calling for the continent to remain faithful to its Catholic roots and faithful to its Catholic tradition. Already having lived the encounter of diverse cultures with the Gospel, with its lights and with its shadows, Latin America has a fundamental historical role in the globalization process we are living in. She must respond to her universal vocation because the future of the Church in Latin America will have important consequences in the future of the entire Catholic Church.(7) The Latin American Church must bear witness, before the entire world, and especially western secularism, to the synthesis that was generated in the meeting between faith and culture as a fundamental part of its tradition. Our mestizo culture is a richness that sprung from the meeting between two cultures, and that far from becoming lost in vague relativism, it can become a way for the light of Christ to shine more brightly and with its own tonalities from the unity and truth of the Gospel.

A fundamental task for Latin American Catholic universities will be to go deeper into their Christian roots. Regarding this, already far from an ideological reading that would try to suppress the years of colonization, or a romantic one of a past that never existed, historical revisionism becomes necessary, as well as a reconciling synthesis where «there is no room for a “black legend” that denigrates everything done by Spain and Portugal, nor for a “rose-colored legend” that only sees the goodness of this presence. Both are false. It is well known that even though on one hand there were those who imposed their presence, there were also those who promoted respect for the local cultures and with Christian charity and worldview, promoted the defense of the dignity of the natives».(8) Venezuelan Mariano Picón Salas thinks that «against boastful hispanicism and against an indigenism that would return to prehistoric times, the synthesis of America is the definitive mestizo conciliation»(9). Doig states: «said multiracialism is based on the ethnic, but from there it opens to a cultural dimension».(10) Alberto Wagner de Reyna calls it «spiritual interethnicity».(11) Víctor Andres Belaúnde maintains that faith is the substrate of the Latin American identity: «referring to our America, the Christian conception of life supposes the only realistic and adequate portrayal of our culture, and the affirmation of the personality of our countries. The Christian conception draws apart from the exclusivist tendency that sees in our America a mere continuation of western culture and from the other regressive tendency that only deals with indigenous factors and which wants to return us to religious, political and dialectical primitivism. Christian conception does not contemplate either our Continent as the simple theater of juxtaposition and mixture of cultures (...) because it conceives our countries, from the cultural point of view, as living synthesis»(12).

The General Conference of the Bishops of Latin America in Puebla follows this line of thought, highlighting how faith is the substrate of this new cultural reality: «evangelization was profound enough for faith to become a part of its being and its identity, granting it the spiritual unity that persists in spite of the ulterior division in various nations, and of being affected by the ripping away at economic, political and social levels».(13) I believe Catholic Universities in Latin America cannot set aside this Catholic substrate and this mestizo synthesis that was generated: «from the encounter between that faith and the indigenous peoples, there has emerged the rich Christian culture of this Continent, expressed in art, music, literature, and above all, in the religious traditions and in the peoples’ whole way of being, united as they are by a shared history and a shared creed that give rise to a great underlying harmony, despite the diversity of cultures and languages».(14) In Latin America this Catholic tradition was transmitted primarily through educational institutions themselves. During the Colonial period from 1538 until 1812, more than thirty institutions of higher education were founded. Universities have the important role of bringing together all the Catholic tradition of the Latin American peoples.

The mission of Latin American universities before Europe is also important. Octavio Derisi pointed out that Europe, sliding progressively deeper into inmanentistic anthropocentrism, would have distanced itself, in direct proportion, from Christian humanism, whereas Latin America, not having suffered the debilitation and decomposition experienced by Europe in recent years, would have “greater youthful vigor” which could act as an advantage against the “viruses of decadence” that attack Europe (15).

I am going to mention some of the great principles of this Catholic intellectual tradition, obviously without trying to cover them all, only those I consider fundamental:

a) To promote the search for truth: a basic element, which Catholic universities cannot renounce, is that more than anything they must become an environment that is favorable for the sincere search for truth. This search must become the university’s essence, in its being and acting, capturing Ex Corde Ecclesiae in the «joy of searching for, discovering and communicating truth in every field of knowledge».(16) The same search for truth demands from educators a confidence in the fact that it can be reached. Not a few Catholic universities, when touched by the relativism or by the nihilism of post-modern culture, have renounced the possibility of gaining access to an integral vision of reality, branding any sincere search for truth as impossible. Nevertheless, this certainty of being able to reach the Truth requires profoundly believing educators, who have the certainty that the Church holds God’s Revelation that «offers men and women the ultimate truth about their own life and about the goal of history»(17). At the same time the educator and the Catholic university must feel the responsibility of the diakonia of the truth (18). Hence, Catholic universities have the privileged task «to unite existentially by intellectual effort two orders of reality that too frequently tend to be placed in opposition as though they were antithetical: the search for truth, and the certainty of already knowing the fount of truth»(19).

The Catholic university must promote the search for truth both in its philosophical and in its theological dimensions, in a continuous dialogue between faith and reason. The reflection on truth must become the common denominator of the faith and reason that go in search of it. Christian philosophy and faith must establish reciprocal communication because both are referred to and tend toward the category of truth.

This search for truth must also have a sense of totality and a strong dose of anthropology. The knowledge of the reality of the world has a fundamentally existential dimension, and therefore, the search for truth must illuminate the student to the truth about himself and about the meaning of his life: «knowledge is not understood as erudition or as relative to a sector that specializes in science, but as the answer to the question to the sense of existence, which ends up referring not only to those strictly academic tasks, but more than anything to that thirst for truth that is deeply inscribed in the human heart, in other words, to that preoccupation that characterizes any man who seriously questions himself about his own humanity. It is essential that all disciplines cultivated in the university be inspired by this search for truth».(20)

Because of its identity, the Catholic university wants to contribute to the person’s development according to the full extent of the truth revealed by Christ through research, teaching and formative extension. The university must promote the dialogue between faith and reason, which is based on this certainty in the full revelation brought by Jesus Christ. In its deepest root, a Catholic university must have ontological supremacy of the Revelation in the importance that is given to Jesus Christ as a path of synthesis and meeting between faith and reason. The Catholic university must launch, through all its initiatives, a positive provocation, continuous to philosophical reason, to discover in Jesus Christ a fundamental key to human thought: «it is important then that philosophy rediscover that dimension of the Revelation that is definitely fulfilled in Jesus of Nazareth. It must discover that which He brings to humankind, and therefore also to thought: the news about God and about man» (21).

Nevertheless, this Christ-centricity that must characterize a Catholic university, does not try to eliminate the space that belongs to reason to reduce itself to a mere fideism. Theo-ontology, as well as fideism, must be avoided in order to propose a circularity in which every order of knowledge has its space, and where, at the same time, one is within the other.

It must thus promote the synthesis between reason and faith, where both the possibilities and the limitations of human reason are recognized, as well as the legitimate sphere of its deployment. Reason opens itself to the Revelation, which allows it to have access to the fullness of life. The Catholic university has the duty to surpass philosophical relativism and set out to meet the matter of truth.

b) To promote a solid faith in the mind: regarding the situation in Latin America, I think it is fundamental to elevate the intellectual formation of education in Catholic universities in Latin America, in other words, to elevate the level of the objective dimension of the Catholic intellectual tradition. Faith in the mind «corresponds to the spirit of the cognitive being. (...) The categorical aspect of faith is unavoidable (...) The Church has always maintained the importance of intellectual formation (...) In spite of its transcendence, there are those who do not consider faith in the mind important. The result is that religious education has been abandoned, or replaced by more subjective curricula, in many Catholic fields of instruction (...) leaving on one side the teaching of and the meditation on the revealed truth, as if it were a mere subjective emotional sensation».(22)

It is truly sad that today many Catholics feel incapable of giving reasons for their own hope and their own faith. They perceive the difficulty of explaining the why of their options. We cannot forget that the human values proclaimed by Christianity are based on natural law and that they are values that are deeply rooted in human nature, and are therefore accessible to reason.

It is becoming urgent to raise the academic level of Catholic universities and especially those in Latin America. Nevertheless, when we speak of the formation of the mind, it is not about a cold or cerebral truth. Here I believe that the Latin American spirit can be of much help because of the particular manner of or cognitive process regarding faith and all reality. The characteristics of the Latin American people’s faith and its own idiosyncrasy, are a source and a richness to value and encourage: it is characterized for being a faith that draws away from illuminist rationalism, it is not a cold or calculating faith. The Latin American faithful express their relationship with God in a strongly symbolic, quite intuitive and immediate way, with joyful docility before the Mystery of the Incarnate Word. This is a faith that is born from a «personal experience» that is not reduced to its emotional or sentimental dimension, but that springs from the fascination of the encounter with the person of Christ, which is experienced as Truth and which gives meaning to all existence. I believe Catholic universities must welcome this richness of the Latin American people so it may mature through a solid formation that joins the rational, emotional and practical dimensions, showing how the encounter with Christ existentially commits everyone.

I think in this case the diversity of cultures can be very helpful for common enrichment. In the Latin American Catholic University we must give solidity to this immediate and intuitive reason. At the same time, the western Catholic university, for example, needs a non-rationalistic reason, a reason that is permeated by existential experience and the encounter with Christ. It is in a way what Newman proposed as the unifying wisdom of university education. Newman sought to extend the dominating concept of reason to embrace the rich rationality of religious faith: «Newman has changed the terms of the debate on faith and reason. According to him, all believers “have a reason, but not all can give a reason”. The mistake of empirical culture was to overvalue that which may be argued explicitly and forget that the “real reasons” commit everyone and not just the capacity to articulate an argument. (...) According to him, a disincarnate cognition was a reductive and false path; only an existentially integrated reason could reach religious truth».(23) The lack of a human form of reason that overcomes the empirical field is a fundamental challenge for the university.

c) Christian anthropology: one of the great principles the Catholic tradition has given us and one which might enter into a dialogue with non-Catholic realities is the development of Christian anthropology. I consider that every university project must be centered on the human person.

It is very important that the Catholic university understands its mission as service to the human being and that the center of the entire educational project be focused on the whole person. In these times when the human being is reduced to a thing or a function, the integral truth about the person must be communicated. Where the person is valued and recognized not for his or her function, or for his or her production, but for his or her original uniqueness. The university must therefore encourage its students to deploy their capacities in the diverse areas involved in being a person, making sure to promote a personal, personalized formation, respecting the freedom of the person.

Every Catholic university will affirm the value of human dignity. Human dignity that is based on the fact that the human being was created in the image of God. The Catholic perspective must be attentive to legal positivism that denies natural law, the reality of the nature of the human person as a concept and a value with universal character. Christian anthropology can offer very important support in order to overcome the dictatorship of the relativism that is present in many institutions.

d) Affirmation of the Catholic identity: I believe that in a time when cultural diversity is strongly accentuated, a diversity that is real, Catholic universities have the mission of fearlessly affirming their own identity and Catholic tradition, because we run the risk of «emphasizing the cultural, religious and ethnic “differences” until they are made incommunicable among them».(24) Cultural differences exist, but it is the mission of the Catholic university to show the universality and transcendence of the Gospel’s message based on an anthropology that is common to all the human family. In the Catholic tradition, truth is assumed and found in every culture.

e) Sacramental dimension: a Catholic university should always look to be a true community among students, teachers and staff, celebrating and inviting all to celebrate the mystery of faith. A celebration through the university’s Pastoral Ministry becomes fundamental, where the sacraments are central in the importance of the liturgy.

4. Some practical observations regarding the Catholic tradition in the curriculum of Catholic Universities.

a) Integral formation courses: in order to respond to these challenges and generate an integral formation, I consider it important that Catholic universities offer general formation courses in all academic degrees along with the courses that correspond to each specialty, thus promoting in the student the adequate balance between the mastership appropriate to his/her area of specialization, as well as his/her elevated reflexive capacity.

I consider that these general formation courses should be compulsory, and offer the theological and philosophical elements that favor the search for truth and promote a worldview that allows the unification of diverse knowledge into an integral approximation to the truth.

These general formation courses, common to all professional programs, should include Philosophy subjects (25), such as: Introduction to Philosophy, Philosophical Anthropology, Logics and Theory of Knowledge and Ethics. At the same time, there should be theology subjects common to all professional programs, such as: Christian Formation, Social Doctrine of the Church, Christian Vision of Our Time. All of these courses would help to strengthen in students the formation of the faith, values and the Catholic worldview of the human person and the world.

In the humanities’ courses it is fundamental to go over the contents of the specialization courses in order to identify complicated topics where a particular contribution from the point of view of the Social Doctrine of the Church becomes necessary. It would be interesting to identify the points where the impact of Christian axiology and the Social Doctrine of the Church allow students to develop a criteria of judgment and discernment that in the future allows them to perform as high-level professionals, not only technically, but morally as well.

b) Materials to use: in this sense the knowledge of both the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church seem to me to be two very valuable instruments to go deeper into the Catholic tradition.

c) Projection: The university is not, then, a building that is closed on itself, but a “resonating box” of the cultural dynamics of its own time. A Catholic university that would only dedicate itself to pure academia or that would establish a community of scholars isolated from the problems of modern man would be betraying its identity, both in the university sense and in the Catholic sense. Following that line, Ex corde ecclesiae emphasizes that «its purpose is that the Christian mind may achieve, as it were, a public, persistent and universal presence in the whole enterprise of advancing higher culture»(26).

At the same time, because the Catholic university must educate people integrally, it cannot forget the social dimension, especially in continents like Latin America. I think it is important to make emphasis on the commitment and solidarity with regional and national development. It is important to underline the active participation of students, through various solidarity projects in social services that are required to obtain a degree later on. It is important that students live and embody a supportive and subsidiary response to the most needy and disenfranchised members of society, looking to make this commitment a permanent part of their professional work.

These actions must be directed so that students may live the experience of helping people achieve a better quality of life, and so they may be sensitized to the reality they live in, one that will be their future workplace; likewise, we must look for students to feel responsible – according to the role they play in society– for achieving the common good (27). The Catholic university is conscious that the greatest contribution of Catholic education is not just at a technical level, but in the development of a criteria of judgment that guides decision-making. Because of this, a practical experience where technical knowledge helps promote social and economic development of the most needy becomes necessary.

We must take into account that the university is, more than anything, an organization, a group of people who share a common goal: the integral education of persons as future professionals, exemplary men and women who are well directed onto the path of their own fulfillment, and committed with the development of their own society; this is only possible if the university, in and of itself, defines itself as an academic community (28) of people in search of the truth and at the service of the common good.(29)

(1) P. Morandé, La misión de los centros culturales católicos ante la mentalidad tecnócrata y secularizada. en: (our translation).
(2) Cf. Congreso-Seminario Diagnóstico y perspectivas para la Nueva Evangelización en América Latina”, Lima 2008, 32.
(3) Benedict XVI, Opening speech for the V General Conference of the Bishops of Latin America and the Caribbean, n. 4.
(4) G. Carriquiry,Una scommessa per America Latina,Memoria e destino storico di un continente, Firenze 2003, 21.
(5) Benedict XVI, General Audience, in “L’Osservatore Romano”, (english version) May 17, 2006, 11
(6) Cf. A. Scola, «Ecclesial movements and new communities in the mission of the Church. Priorities and perspectives» in: Pontificium Consilium pro Laicis, The Beauty of Being a Christian, Città del Vaticano 2007, 59-83.
(7) This Catholic presence is not reduced to the physical space within the boundaries of Latin American soil; we are witnesses to a migratory process towards North America and Europe, and we still cannot see the totality of its cultural and social repercussions. Nevertheless, as a product of this process we can note, for example, the United States has become the developed country with the largest Catholic presence in the world. In 1998 there were 59’156,237 Catholics, which is 22% of the population. (Cf. Catholicism USA, A portrait of the Catholic Church in the United Status, New York 2000). Of all North American Catholics, 40% are Hispanic and of this 40%, 80% are young people.
(8) G. Doig, América Latina, identidad y destino, Lima 2007, 24-25 (our translation).
(9) M. Picón Salas, De la conquista a la independencia. Tres siglos de historia cultural hispanoamericana, México 1994, 17-18 (our translation).
(10) G. Doig, América Latina, identidad y destino, op. cit., 28 (our translation).
(11) A. Wagner de Reyna, La filosofía en Iberoamérica, Lima 1949, 66 (our translation).
(12) V. A. Belaunde, Víctor Andrés Belaunde, La obra y el programa de la Universidad Católica, in: Palabras de fe, Lima 1993, 227-228 (our translation).
(13) III Conferencia General del Episcopado latinoamericano Puebla, n. 412.
(14) Benedict XVI, Opening Speech for the V General Conference of the Latin American Episcopacy in Aparecida, n. 1.
(15) Cf. A. García, La fe y la cultura en el pensamiento católico latinoamericano, Arequipa 2007, 17 – 34 (our translation).
(16) John Paul II, Apostolic Constitution on Catholic Universities Ex Corde Ecclesiae, n. 1.
(17) John Paul II, Encyclical Fides et ratio, 12.
(18) Ibid., n. 2.
(19) John Paul II, Apostolic Constitution on Catholic Universities Ex Corde Ecclesiae, n. 1.
(20) A. García, «El desafío cultural de las universidades católicas. Consideraciones en torno a Ex corde ecclesiae», en Revista Persona y Cultura,año 2, n. 2 (2003), 71.
(21) R. Fisichella, «En torno a la Fides et ratio», 62.
(22) L.F. Figari, «Giving a reason for the beauty of Christ in the world today in the education of youth», in: Pontificium Consilium pro Laicis, cit., 153-155.
(23) M. P. Gallagher, «allargare l’intelletto verso l’amore» in: L. Leuzzi ed., La carità intellettuale. Percorsi culturali per un nuovo umanesimo, Città del Vaticano 2007, 20 (our translation).
(24) A. Scola, «Ecclesial movements and new communities in the mission of the Church. Priorities and perspectives» in: Pontificium Consilium pro Laicis, cit.,, p. 79.
(25) Cf. JOHN PAUL II, Apostolic Constitution on Catholic Universities Ex Corde Ecclesiae, Part II, art. 4, §5.
(26) JOHN PAUL II, Apostolic Constitution on Catholic Universities Ex Corde Ecclesiae, n. 9.
(27) Cf. PONTIFICAL COUNCIL «JUSTICE AND PEACE», Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, n. 167.
(28) By vocation, the Universitas magistrorum et scholarium is dedicated to research, to teaching and to the education of students who freely associate with their teachers in a common love of knowledge. JOHN PAUL II, Apostolic Constitution on Catholic Universities Ex Corde Ecclesiae, n. 1.
(29) Cf. JOHN PAUL II, Centesimus Annus, n. 35.