Take Up the Vocation of the Catholic Intellectual Life
by Carl A. Anderson
Former Supreme Knight of the Knights of Columbus
Thomas Aquinas College, California
I am most grateful for the invitation to be with you today. Fifty years ago, my wife and I were like you: graduating after having completed a “great books” program at our university. Although our experience was in many ways different from your experience, we have always felt close to Thomas Aquinas College and so, we are very glad to be with you, especially this year as you celebrate your 50th anniversary. I have had a varied career in government, academia, business, charity, and civil society. During all that time, no educational experience has served me better than has that multi-year study of those great books. Time and again I have turned to them for wisdom and insight — and, most importantly, to better understand the significance of current events.
Let no one tell you that your college experience here was not relevant. Throughout my life I have found such education to be the most relevant. The world will tell you that what is most important in your life is what you “have.” But you know that what is most important is who you “are.” Because wherever you go and whatever you do, the most important value proposition you can bring to any situation is you. Of course, technical and professional skills are important. But what is more important is your judgment, your wisdom, your compassion, and your integrity.
Advances in artificial intelligence will continue to make great improvements in the work environment. But artificial intelligence will never replace what is in your heart and soul.
We commonly refer to studies such as that at TAC as a great books program, but here it is more than that. I think of it as an encounter with the genius of the West. That genius has taken many forms in many different disciplines, and its diversity is like nothing else in the world. We may look at this from many different perspectives. But in a fundamental sense, it is the working out through history of the meeting of Jerusalem, Athens, and Rome. As you know well, this development reached a profound unity in the 12th and 13th centuries. Even more fundamentally, we may see this in the context of salvation history as the encounter of this genius with the reality of the Incarnation. As you know, this process continues. With the help of an outstanding faculty, you have been part of it. Your achievement now sets you apart from virtually every other college graduate in America.
Thomas Aquinas College has been a great gift to you made possible by the sacrifice of your families, the dedication of the faculty, and the vision of those who built and now sustain this beautiful campus and academic program. Yet the value of any gift also depends on how it is received. You have not only embraced this gift, but you have worked hard to develop it. Today, we are justly proud of all you have achieved.
Now, as you graduate, with this gift comes a great task. This task is one that you have already begun. It is what I would call the vocation of the Catholic intellectual life. In addition to what the Lord may be calling you to do — for example, a vocation to the priesthood or religious life or to marriage and family life — you now have the opportunity to continue a life of learning in a special Catholic way.
We often speak of our Church as a pilgrim church. This idea reflects the reality that our life of Catholic faith is not something we possess, but rather is something toward which we continually strive — and not only on our own but as part of a community. We are all on a life’s journey and for some of us an intellectual pilgrimage is an important part of that journey. You are here today because during the past four years you have made a serious commitment to the scholarly life — a life of intellectual curiosity, critical thinking, and discipline. It is to be hoped that this work has not exhausted your wonder at the world which the Lord has given us and the human drama that has been our history in it. The intellectual life is very much part of the identity of many who have taken up the religious life, as we see in the Dominicans and the Benedictines. Their communities embody a Catholic culture of learning. Their legacy is part of the great patrimony of our church. Yet there is no reason why lay men and women should not also embrace a life of learning and create a culture of learning.
You have been given an opportunity that few other Catholics in the world have been given. You have begun an intellectual pilgrimage grounded in some of the greatest works of Christianity — the classic texts of our faith — with a unique scholarly community. Today should mark a continuation, not an ending, of this chapter in your life.
Today, our church needs more of us to take up the special task of defending the truths of our faith. Certainly, at the institutional level there are offices in the Church such as that of bishop and theologian as well as academic faculties that have responsibility for safeguarding and communicating the truths of our faith. But there is no reason why a new generation of lay men and women who do not hold such positions should not also take up this task and in their own way share in this mission. Some might even say the times demand it.
I would suggest that you look closely at the scholar for whom this institution is named. St. Thomas Aquinas is rightly celebrated as the outstanding model of the Catholic intellectual life. He truly embodies this vocation, which is to say, a life caught up in the love of learning and the desire for God. He lived a life of uncompromising and dispassionate discipline in the search for truth. And he complemented that discipline with a serene confidence, humility, and charity in its application. He showed us that the Catholic intellectual has a sacred call, and in response to it he or she must practice the virtues of the Catholic life — and especially those at the center of this life — the virtues of charity and humility. It is a vocation that we could say begins with these words of St. Thomas: “All that is true, by whomsoever it has been said, has its origin in the Holy Spirit” (Omne veru, a quocumque dicitur, a Spiritu Sancto est).
Thus, we begin in a spirit of humility, both as to what we may learn from others as well as what we may ourselves contribute. The Catholic intellectual does not stand alone. Rather he or she is always a member of a community that extends through time — a community that is entrusted with understanding and preserving a great inheritance. It is an inheritance which arises from the very heart of the Church and, like the mission of the Church itself, is intended to bring the reality of the Incarnation ever more deeply into the life of the intellect and thus into the life of the believer.
During your studies the greatest book you have opened is you — and it is in this book that the Lord has been writing during your time here. No study program, no matter how great, can substitute for what He has written in your heart. St. Thomas lived in an age when reading and study were closely associated with prayer. A familiar adage of the time was: “You should apply yourself to prayer or to reading: at times you speak with God, at times He speaks with you.”
The vocation of the Catholic intellectual life goes beyond learning the Christian classics. It is not about seeking knowledge for the sake of knowledge or for the sake of power. Instead, it is about entrusting oneself to the Spirit of truth. I have suggested this is a vocation that proceeds from the inseparable connection between the love of learning and the desire for God. But ultimately this vocation moves us beyond this to a unity of the love of learning with the love of God. It sets our spirit in the one direction that Pope John Paul II told us is the only direction for our intellect, will, and heart, and that direction is toward Christ. Thus, a disciplined life of prayer as well as that of reading Sacred Scripture are irreplaceable elements of an authentic Catholic intellectual life. Here, as well, St. Thomas Aquinas serves as our sure guide to the sum and summit of the Catholic intellectual life. There is a story told about him that, as his death was approaching, he heard the Lord say: “You have spoken well of Me, Thomas, what reward would you like?” To which he replied, “Nothing but Yourself, Lord.”
It has been said that not every age is as good as every other, but there is one age that for us surpasses them all, and that one is our own. I need not tell you the challenges which our society presents to those who would faithfully follow Jesus Christ. Some of the most painful examples of those challenges are here in California, where agents of the cancel culture have defaced our churches and torn down statues of saints such as Junipero Serra. Contemporary culture challenges every believer. But few are better prepared to respond to these challenges than are you. Because, in order to defend a culture from those who would cancel it, you must first know it. And few know the achievement of Western genius and the culture which it has produced better than you. Culture is a shorthand way of speaking about what we mean by the way of life of a people: their ideas, their aspirations, their spiritual values, and what they have sacrificed over generations to achieve and why they have done so. Those who take up the vocation of the Catholic intellectual life have a special responsibility in this regard.
The Thomistic scholar Etienne Gilson often recounted his experience as a soldier in the French army during the First World War and especially the time a dying French soldier begged him to hear his confession. Because of such experiences, Gilson could easily have joined those who, disillusioned after the Great War, became members of the so-called “Lost Generation.” Instead, Gilson and other Catholic philosophers went in a different direction. They took up the challenge presented by Pope Leo XIII in Aeterni Patris. They agreed with this great pope on the importance of St. Thomas Aquinas, and they led a rebirth in Thomistic studies. Undoubtedly, at the time, some questioned the relevance of their attention to medieval philosophy. Yet, as we know, no work could have been more relevant to the crisis of the West than the recovery of the great intellectual genius and spirituality of our Catholic faith.
These scholars lived in an intellectual culture which since the Enlightenment had put the God of Christianity on trial, and which had found His church guilty of a long list of falsehoods. Rousseau, Voltaire, Diderot, the geniuses of the French Enlightenment, positioned their attack on Christianity as a debate between reason and superstition. They were astute enough in championing the Age of Reason to avoid directly confronting the sublime genius of Christian reason found in the work of the Angelic Doctor. Their strategy was effective, if cowardly — simply ignore the work of St. Thomas Aquinas and move on. But their Age of Reason was only a half-way point. By relying upon an intelligible universe and a rational creator, the Age of Reason ended up pointing the 19th century in one of two directions: once again toward the rational faith of Christianity, or alternatively toward the new anti-faith of atheism.
Pope Leo XIII saw the choice more clearly than most and he sought to build a new confidence in Christian philosophy: first by emphasizing the importance of St. Thomas in Aeterni Patris (1879), and then by showing the relevance of such reasoning in finding solutions to the social crises of the day in his great economic encyclical, Rerum Novarum (1891).
But by this time the philosophical turn toward atheism was well under way. The new attack on Christianity was no longer presented as a confrontation between reason and superstition. Instead, Christianity was said to have created something far more sinister — it had created an entirely false consciousness in the mind of the believer. The fathers of modern atheism: Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud — each in their own way sought to dismantle what they said was the false consciousness of Christianity. Whether in the areas of history and economics, freedom and autonomy, or psychoanalysis and science, they sought to “wake up” society with a new narrative of reality. The problem for them was not that people have wrong ideas that must be corrected, but that people have an entirely wrong way of looking at reality that must be replaced. That is what they really mean when they describe Christianity as “the opium of the people,” or as “a slave religion” or as a “neurosis.” And it is precisely this false consciousness that prevents society from obtaining economic justice, personal autonomy, and individual happiness.
You may judge for yourself the extent to which this thinking has seeped into the ground water of America’s culture. But to the extent that it has, more of our fellow citizens live as though God does not exist. They live their lives in a closed-in materialist world — a world with no transcendent horizon. While much here is new, one thing hasn’t changed. Being newly “woke” means feeling no need to climb the heights of Christian philosophy with St. Thomas Aquinas since that philosophy has meaning only within the false consciousness of the Christian.
It seems to me we have once again a problem like that described by Plato in his allegory of the cave. But this time with a modern twist. We have people locked in the cave of a materialist world unable or unwilling to turn to the light. They see only the shadows of a secular culture passing in front of them and they call it reality. And this reality is increasingly one of indifference, isolation, and despair.
How, then, are we to encourage people to escape their cave, to turn and face the light? Our problem is even more difficult than Plato’s. In The Republic, Plato is in dialogue with people for whom the soul, the good, the true, the right, and the beautiful have meaning. His readers contemplate an intelligible world with truths that can be discovered by human reason. Not so today. Many of those around us do not share these ideas. Nor do they have confidence in the intelligibility of the world and in the reliability of human reason.
So, what is to be done? How are we to encourage people to turn away from the shadows of doubt and suspicion and to step out into the light of Christian faith?
St. John Paul II spoke directly to this problem throughout his pontificate. Listen to what he writes in his first encyclical, Redemptor Hominis: “The Church’s fundamental function in every age and particularly in ours is to direct man’s gaze, to point the awareness and experience of the whole of humanity towards the mystery of God, to help all men to be familiar with the profundity of the Redemption taking place in Christ.”
It seems to me that “to direct man’s gaze” to the redemption taking place now in the world is to supplement the reasoning of philosophy and theology with the experience of God acting in the lives of believers. It is to point to the way in which redemption is happening today in the concrete reality of our lives as Christians. In other words, what it means to us that Christ is our Redeemer. As St. Peter advises us, “sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts (and) Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope” (1 Peter 3:15).
The witness of redemption is the great drama of Christianity in every age. In this sense we may even say that every age is a Christian age. This is true because in every age the Lord is alive and acting through the lives of His followers and therefore every age is an age of Christian witness. Your age will be so because of your witness. Here the Catholic intellectual finds his or her greatest responsibility — the responsibility of serving divine truth through a life of Christian witness. St. John Paul II tells us: “Being responsible for that truth also means loving it and seeking the most exact understanding of it, in order to bring it closer to ourselves and all its saving power, its splendor and its profundity.”
Etienne Gilson once said of St. Thomas Aquinas, “Wisdom, to him, was not philosophy; it was not even theology; in its only perfect form, wisdom was Christ.” If you commit your lives to seeking this Wisdom, as did St. Thomas, then you will be those witnesses that our time requires and that the Lord is calling you to be.