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Law, culture, and Catholicism...up in smoke!

Monday, March 19, 2007

The Church's "Missio ad Intellectum"

A not uncommon appearance in an old missal or prayerbook is the occurrence of a "Prayer for the Publication of Good Books." Now whether this was inserted by the pious authors because all of the books being published at the time were being put on the Index or whether it was a reaction to the beginnings of the "grocery-store romance" with variations of Fabio on the cover in various stages of undress holding what appears to be a woman at the height of orgasm, I do not know. Nevertheless, the prayer for the publication of good books seems to be a worthy and wonderful prayer that should be reintroduced into our prayerbooks today.

Several years ago, I had occasion to accompany Down South on an expedition to rescue good books from passing into oblivion. One of the unintended consequences of aggiornamento was, unfortunately, a fascination with novelty and a politicizing of anything deemed traditional or old. Certainly not a post hoc ergo propter hoc, but nonetheless a symptom of the time and currents let into the Church by opening the windows just a little too wide. Significantly, this attitude reached the very religious orders that were the schoolmasters of Europe. Whence does this attitude come? A full explanation of the phenomenon is probably a dissertation topic and not for a blog post, however, I will venture to say that it was a combination of the "professionalization" of the various academic disciplines beginning in the 17th-18th centuries and a modern tendency to view reality through the subjective lens of one's own experience (hence the academic aberrations of "Queer Theory," "Pastoral Counseling" and "Women's Studies.") But I digress--back to the expedition. Our trip took us to the University of Detroit-Mercy where there was a book sale. Most of the books were from the university's old library. Such sales seem to be a good barometer of the health of an academic institution. Most of the books were old, and most of them were classics. Classics in the sense of Greek and Latin literature, but also classics in the sense of John Henry Newman.

One of the books that I rescued was an old dog-eared copy of a series of lectures given by John Henry Newman on various university subjects. One of the more memorable lectures that I recall was entitled "Christianity and Letters" given in 1854. In this lecture, Newman takes to task the "experimental sciences" (what I would call "job training") and invokes the glories of Arts and Letters in forming one's mind. He certainly doesn't denigrate "job training," but he does contend that the formation of the intellect and the training of the mind are best done through study of the classics. Sayeth Newman:

The simple question to be considered is, how best to strengthen, refine, and enrich the intellectual powers; the perusal of poets, historians, and philosophers of Greece and Rome will accomplish this purpose, as long experience has shown; but that the study of the experimental sciences will do the like is proved to us as yet by no experience whatever.

Far indeed am I from denying the extreme attractiveness, as well as the practical benefit to the world at large, of the sciences of Chemistry, Electricity, and Geology; but the question is not what department of study contains the more wonderful facts, or promises the more brilliant discoveries, and which is in the higher and which in an inferior rank; but simply which out of all provides the most robust and invigorating discipline for the unformed mind.
This seems to foreshadow one of the cornerstones of Benedict XVI's pontificate. The program that he enunciated at his Regensberg Lecture was an echo of John Paul II's Fides et Ratio. If the raison d'etre of the Church is to bring man to his final end, how can She not contribute to the development of his reason? She has a duty to bring man to his destiny and to provide him the tools with which to do it. Job training is important, but it doesn't get one to heaven. "Arts and Letters"--specifically the greats of Greece and Rome--has been a proven way to form the intellect. Ought not this be the focus of our Catholic universities? Ought not this be the focus of our teaching orders? Ought not this be the focus of one determining what books to place upon a shelf? A lesser focus (viz. "job training") coupled with a platitudinous "persons for others" does not bring man closer to his God, it condemns him to the small universe of his own experience.