Taking Both “Catholic” and “University” Seriously

As you know, this semester The Academy of Catholic Thought and Imagination is hosting a series of talks and events on climate change and Laudato Si. This exciting series culminates with a visit from Fr. Sean McDonagh, who was a close advisor to Pope Francis in the drafting of the Encyclical. Fr. McDonagh’s talk will bring together major themes we’ve discussed together this semester—climate change, economic inequality, and the demands of justice—in the context of a specifically Catholic understanding. As such, it’s readily apparent why Fr. McDonagh is an appropriate speaker to wrap up a series for an “Academy of Catholic Thought and Imagination.”

But I’m interested in reflecting briefly on some of our other programming. When Naomi Klein came to speak to us about her book, This Changes Everything, she expressed her pleasant surprise at being a “secular, Jewish, feminist” invited to consult at the Vatican and speaking at Catholic universities like LMU.

Her surprise, and the surprise of some observers wondering about the programming at ACTI, is entirely understandable; but it is precisely this surprise that ACTI seeks to eliminate.

The mission of ACTI is to foster scholarly and creative work engaged with the Catholic Intellectual Tradition, and in so doing to expand the sense of community and shared mission among faculty, enrich the student academic experience, and make more widely known the intellectual vibrancy here at LMU.

“Fostering scholarly and creative work” is fairly straightforward. Here at ACTI we believe that robust research, creativity, and dialogue are indispensible contributions to the mission of a Catholic university. Precisely because Catholic liberal arts education is about more than mere transmission of knowledge and tradition, faculty cannot be mere experts in rote presentation; they must be active and engaged scholars who, in addition to mining the resources of the tradition, also develop new insights and expand the field of human understanding.

“The Catholic Intellectual Tradition” is a bit more complicated. While Catholics affirm belief in “one, holy, catholic and apostolic church,” the Catholic Intellectual Tradition is a diverse historical bricolage of men and women asking the most enduring human questions and the most pressing questions of their day. Thus, the Catholic Intellectual Tradition—or, to be more accurate, we might want to say Catholic Intellectual Traditions, in the plural—is expressed in almost all the disciplines of the modern university. The Catholic Intellectual Tradition is expressed in systematic theology, apologetics, and scholasticism, and ACTI will certainly continue to encourage and support research and scholarship in those areas; but it is also expressed in economics, political science, sociology, psychology, literature, history, the arts, astronomy, and myriad other modes of inquiry. In principle, no mode of inquiry, if it is genuinely aimed at the truth or at increasing human understanding of it, is outside the scope of the Catholic Intellectual Tradition. Therefore, ACTI seeks to encourage and support—through our Post-Doctoral scholars, Faculty Fellows, event programming, and more—the full scope of human inquiry and creative expression.

This brings us to “engagement,” which is perhaps the stickiest bit. ACTI is a center at a major Catholic university, and this means that we need to take both “Catholic” and “university” seriously. Taking “Catholic” seriously means that the work ACTI encourages and supports must in some way take the Catholic Intellectual Tradition, or Traditions, seriously. While I noted above that any discipline, in principle, can engage the Catholic Intellectual Tradition in a meaningful way, this does not mean that every book, article, or presentation does in fact engage that tradition. Looking at my own published work, there are some contributions that engage the Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the wide sense I described above, and there are other contributions that say nothing meaningful about Catholicism or the Catholic Intellectual Tradition. So, the first thing to say about “engagement” is that one has to engage. Or, again, one’s work has to take the Catholic Intellectual Tradition seriously, as worthy of engagement.

However, as a second point, ACTI also takes seriously the “university” component of “Catholic university,” and is committed to the fact that “engagement” is not always endorsement. Meaningful work engaged with the Catholic Intellectual Tradition is undertaken by non-Catholics and produced in a way that is not aligned with mainstream Catholic understanding or opinion. And, as an aside, we might reflect on the difficulty of even identifying what constitutes “mainstream” Catholic understanding or opinion on a variety of issues. However, in any case, part of the mission of a university is to discuss complex and difficult issues and ideas, and doing so requires that we engage all people from any background or perspective as long as they too are people of goodwill in pursuit of the good. Civil discussion among people of diverse, and sometimes conflicting, opinion should be the hallmark of liberal arts education. If we cannot discuss difficult issues like educated and civil adults at LMU, how on earth can we lament the failure of civility, compromise, and democracy itself among our increasingly partisan elected officials? How can we criticize an increasingly partisan Fourth Estate?

So, to my mind, ACTI’s spring series on climate change and Laudato Si’ represents the very best of what ACTI can accomplish. We’ve chosen an issue of core interest to the Catholic Intellectual Tradition: climate change and its relationship to justice, the topic of Pope Francis’s Encyclical. We’ve invited speakers from diverse backgrounds—disciplinary and otherwise—to engage this issue and, in so doing, to engage the specificity of that issue in light of its relevance to the Catholic Intellectual Tradition. And we’ve invited you—LMU faculty, students, and staff, along with members of the wider community—to reflect with us on this issue.

Finally, by way of conclusion and illustration, let me point out two instance of what I take to be the very best sort of engagement with the Catholic Intellectual Tradition from what others, not I, might think of as unusual sources.

First, I encourage people to look at the Roundtable on Laudato Si, available on video at the ACTI website. Of the seven people on stage that evening, only two were Catholic. Everyone contributed wonderfully to the conversation; each took the document seriously, and brought his or her own perspective to the document, perfectly exemplifying the sort of conversation that can take place only at a Catholic University. Of special note, I think, is the well-articulated response by Prof. Traci Voyles of the Women’s Studies department here at LMU. Prof. Voyles’s response highlighted areas of agreement and disagreement with Laudato Si’. Her contribution both contributed meaningfully to our engagement with the Encyclical and called us to think carefully about it—precisely what we ought to do at a Catholic university. Her contribution, as a non-Catholic who took seriously a Catholic document, elevated the discussion for us all.

Second, consider how Naomi Klein—surprised that a secular, Jewish, feminist would be invited to engage the Catholic Intellectual Tradition at the highest levels: at the Vatican and at Catholic universities—reflected on her experience. She pointed out, in her article in the New Yorker and at LMU, places in which she would take issue with Catholic understanding; and this is entirely appropriate and should be welcomed by everyone in the conversation. When people are called to defend their position, understanding, or belief by encountering other positions, understandings, or beliefs, they either (a) come to a better self-understanding in defending their own position, or (b) change their own position in light of new insight or understanding civil. Klein also spoke with exceptional eloquence about what she had learned from her time engaging Catholics:

What I took from [my time at the Vatican], because I am not religious, was if one of the most, most tradition bound institutions can change, and change as rapidly as Pope Francis is trying to change the church, what is the excuse the rest of us have? I would say that the environmental movement is not changing fast enough…. If the Church can change, we should see that as a model…

Coming back to that question about how I felt when I was at the Vatican was, “Wow, people here believe that it is possible for people to change. People here believe in conversion. They believe it is possible to have experiences that change the way you view the world.”

I’m proud of the events we’ve sponsored this year at the Academy of Catholic Thought and Imagination, and believe that LMU has become better as a Catholic university because of them. I hope you share my enthusiasm for what we’ve done together during this first year, and hope to see you on February 24 for Fr. McDonagh’s talk.

Brian Treanor
Charles S. Casassa Chair and Professor of Philosophy
Director, Academy for Catholic Thought and Imagination
Loyola Marymount University