Thursday, January 21, 2010


A passage from Derek Wilson's history of the court of Henry VIII:
Humanism was a different organism from scholasticism, the system of study hitherto prevailing in the schools. They shared common DNA elements but with crucial variations. Study of Scripture, the Fathers and classical authors were the fundamental genetic elements in all classrooms but, whereas the old schoolmen based their teaching around age-hallowed commentaries and convoluted disputation over doctrinal minutiae, the reformers insisted on going back to the original texts so that students could discover for themselves a civilized and pious pattern of living untrammeled by traditional interpretations and barren logic-chopping.
Those early years of the 16th century were indeed a time of intellectual ferment in the universities -- new learning versus old. Both groups professed to want the same things: equipping men (not women) for the good life in this world and salvation in the next. At issue was method: primary classical texts, including Scripture, versus medieval commentaries. We know the outcome: the Reformation and Scientific Revolution.

The Council of Trent and the Galileo affair kept the Roman Church locked in a backwater of history, as the rest of the world moved toward modernity. I mentioned here a week or two ago the 1907 encyclical of Pope Pius X, Pascendi Dominici Gregis, still defending the old order and scholasticism five hundred years after Erasmus set the pots of modernity boiling at Cambridge and Oxford. These issues interest me because I lived through something of a replay at a crucial time in my intellectual development.

I was a sophomore at the University of Notre Dame in 1955 when Monsignor John Tracy Ellis set our pot a-boiling with a speech and essay titled "American Catholics and the Intellectual Life." He asked: Where were American Catholic Rhodes scholars, scientists, and intellectual lights? He blamed the universities and seminaries for a "self-imposed ghetto mentality" -- in effect, a slavish adherence to traditional commentaries and barren logic-chopping. His essay was a spark in what was called -- briefly and grandly -- the "Catholic intellectual renaissance."

As I experienced the "renaissance," it was all a bit of a muddle. On the one hand there was something called neo-scholasticism, which was no more attractive to some of us than the logic-chopping scholasticism it replaced -- Thomas Aquinas gussied up in dull modern duds. We were supposed to be excited by Jacques Maritain, Etienne Gilson, and the whole Sheed and Ward (Catholic publishers) neo-scholastic stable, but frankly it all seemed like gobbledygook to me. I had fallen in love with the clarity I found in my science courses, and, as for the Catholic renaissance, it was an altogether different strain that attracted me. What did Thomas Merton, Teilhard de Chardin, Sigrid Undset, and Georges Bernanos (among many others) have in common? I don't know, but it wasn't logic-chopping. I loved their journeys into a sensuous darkness, which made a happy (and sometimes soul-stirring) counterbalance to the logical purity of my studies in mathematics and physics. Oh, it was Catholic all right, but more to the point, it was visceral, elemental, intuitive.

Anyway, it's all gone now. Students in Catholic institutions of higher learning today have likely never heard of Thomas Merton or Sigrid Undset, and certainly not of Jacques Maritain or Etienne Gilson. Some 1950s Catholics drifted into a Buckleyesque Catholic conservatism; others drifted right out of the Church into a firmly liberal agnosticism -- in other words, pretty much the same thing that happened when Erasmus showed up at Cambridge early in the reign of Henry VIII.