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The Impact of Theology on the
Intellectual Life of the Nation: II

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

The second of two papers read at the Annual Meeting of DES, held in Chicago in April 1960; the first, by Dr. Martin Marty, appeared in our Bulletin for May 1960.

In approaching a subject as complex as “The Impact of Theology on the Intellectual Life of the Nation,” the danger is to indulge in platitudes. No one, I suppose, questions either the importance of religious values in shaping the national culture, or the value of theology, which is only religion made articulate, as a medium of influence on the intellectual life of America.

My purpose will be to examine in some detail the influence of Catholic theological principles in our country, with some reference to the past but mostly with emphasis on the future. I shall try to answer, candidly and I hope with some profit, the question, What does Catholic theology offer to the upbuilding of the American mind?

Catholicism is not unique in having a theology of its own. In the higher cultures of human history, the existence of religion has always involved the existence of theology as a rational system of religious knowledge. All the higher religions assert the existence of divine truth and base their teaching on its special communication to man. The alternative is either chaos or a nebulous haze. If we have no true knowledge of religious experience, religion loses its validity and even its social cohesion, and becomes instead an irrational impulse like any other delusional form of psychosis.


It is not difficult to isolate the principles which are characteristic of Catholic theology. One reason is that through centuries of conflict with heresy, the Church has had to reflect on the faith and carefully define its limits in terms that leave nothing to be desired for precision. That men like Harnack should be scandalized at the “nuance” in the spelling of a word at the Council of Nicea (homo-ousios or homoi-ousios) only illustrates how easy it is to specify the Catholic position in cardinal points of doctrine. And Reinhold Niebuhr’s strictures about the wooden orthodoxy of Chalcedon on the divinity of Christ are an implicit tribute to the ancient Church’s uncompromising clarity on the person of its Founder.

First among these principles is the affirmation that man’s destiny lies beyond the world of sensible reality, in the beatific vision of God, seeing Him face to face and enjoying Him with a happiness that transcends the native capacity of creation.

This destiny is not inevitable. Man has to work out his salvation by the right use of his faculties, and, indeed, of everything that enters his life. Conditioned on his use of creatures, which may be naturally secular and temporal, he will either reach heaven or be lost for eternity.

The right use of creatures implies freedom in the will to choose between good and evil, and therefore responsibility for its actions in the moral order. To make choice possible, God supplies the necessary knowledge in two ways: from reasoning on the world of nature and by a supernatural revelation for which the Church is the infallible guide.

In the face of his responsibilities, man finds himself in constant need of divine assistance in the form of grace - light for the mind and strength for the will. And the longer he lives the more certain he is that unless the Lord builds the house, they labor in vain who build it.

For a Catholic the whole structure of human existence rests on these truths with complete certitude. He has no doubt about the purpose of life or the effort he must make on earth among creatures to reach heaven and the Creator or the sovereign freedom he has to decide his lot for eternity or of what he must do to be saved.

If ever the American people needed these absolutes it is today, when the intellectual life of the nation - with stress on education - is being suffocated by an atmosphere of naturalism and determinism, to a point where serious writers with no bias in favor of the Catholic Church are deeply concerned about the future.


Three forms of naturalism have invaded American education in the past fifty years, asserting the priority of sense phenomena over spiritual reality, of space and time over personal immortality, and of man’s ability to reach perfection without grace or special assistance from the deity.

Prominent philosophers of education have substituted a unification of ideal values for the idea of God, who does not exist except as a projection of subjective impulses which may guide human conduct. While the concept of God is not real, since it is created by the fantasy, it is not illusory because it serves the purpose of idealizing our hopes and desires.

A novel distinction has found its way into educational circles. Projected ideals are religious, but there is no warrant for religion, since there is no evidence of an extramental God for religion to worship. Any activity, we are told, pursued in behalf of an ideal end against obstacles because of conviction of its enduring value is religious in quality.

The consequences of this naturalism are devastating. If the difference between substantive religion and religious values is only nominal, it is arrogant for religion to claim any monopoly of ideals or of the supernatural means by which they can be furthered. Out of this claim rises an opposition between two philosophies of life that is not to be bridged, and just because the release of religious values (minus dependence on the deity) is so important, their identification with the creeds and cults of religion must be dissolved.

Some fixed doctrinal apparatus, it is admitted, is necessary for religion. But faith in the possibilities of rigorous inquiry does not limit access to truth to any single channel or scheme. It does not depend for assurance upon subjection to any dogma or item of doctrine. It trusts that the natural interaction between man and his environment will breed more intelligence and generate more knowledge than ever the creeds could produce, provided scientific methods are pushed further into the mysteries of the world.

Here we have a new definition of faith. “There is such a thing,” says John Dewey, “as faith in intelligence becoming religious in quality - a fact that perhaps explains the efforts of some religionists to disparage the possibilities of intelligence as a force. They properly feel such a faith to be a dangerous rival.”

So much for knowledge. The same holds true for action and achievement. “Men have never fully used the powers they possess to advance the good in life, because they have waited upon some power external to themselves and to nature to do the work they are responsible for doing. Dependence upon an external (divine) power is the counterpart of surrender of human endeavor.” In this deification of man’s ability to perfect himself we see the crucial error of naturalism in modern education; an error which may be traced, through Kantian philosophy, to the Protestant Reformation - as a reaction to the sola gratia theory of Luther and Calvin, and a logical application of their principle of religious autonomy.

No doubt others than Catholics are concerned about the naturalist miasma infecting the intellectual life of America. The current interest in promoting spiritual and moral values in public education is a move in the right direction, and Catholic educators are actively co-operating with Protestant leaders to remedy a critical situation. But the standing symbol of fidelity to an unqualified supernaturalism is the Catholic school system the function of which, in the words of Pius XI, is to produce a supernatural man who thinks, judges, and acts constantly and consistently in accordance with right reason illumined by the supernatural light of the example and teaching of Jesus Christ.


As far back as the third century, Christian apologists had to defend the Church’s insistence on the primacy of the spiritual and supernatural, against the charge of suppressing man’s natural powers or neglecting progress in the letters, arts, and sciences. “But we are not strangers to life,” Tertullian told the pagans. “We are fully aware of the gratitude we owe to God, our Lord and Creator. We reject none of the fruits of His handiwork; we only abstain from their immoderate or unlawful use.”

This passage should be framed as the motto of every Christian who knows that while he has not here a lasting city, he yet sees that life on earth is something more than a “thoroughfare full of woe,” to be suffered from necessity or escaped in religious dreams. His faith tells him that he is, literally, in via, on the way to eternal beatitude, provided he uses the powers God gave him, especially his mind, according to their native purpose and the opportunities which present themselves. Not stultifying the mind, therefore, but developing the intellect perfects the image of God in which man was created.

The implications for evaluating the impact of theology on the American intellectual life are manifold. Negatively it means that so far from hindering the progress of secular knowledge, sound theology promotes it, gives it scope and purpose, and alone among the sciences protects the mind from wasting its energies in fruitless cogitation or spending itself to its own destruction. Positively it means that every human discipline, every field of research and study may and ought to be fostered by men and women whose ultimate motives and dedication are derived from authentic theological principles. We shall examine only three: history, the social sciences, and literature.

History has been variously defined as the branch of knowledge that records and explains past events, or again as the account of past human actions connected with a philosophical (or better, theological) explanation of their cause. In either case, three elements are essential to the concept of history: past occurrence, human activity, and a rational explanation.

What a difference it makes whether a historian or the student of history approaches these elements from a supernatural viewpoint and applies the norms of his Christian theology. The past speaks to him a language he can understand, as embodying something more than what happened, because he knows that “in all history God dwells, lives, is to be seen. Every deed demonstrates Him, every moment preaches his name.” He is not afraid to prefix the name “Christian” to “historian,” as though it were invalid or unscientific to interpret human events in the light of a higher than deterministic philosophy.

Let us probe a bit deeper. Not many years ago historians in England and America rejoiced that after centuries of irresponsibility, history had finally come into her own. The historian’s task, claimed Henry Buckle, was to show that the movements of nations are perfectly regular, and that, like all other movements, they are entirely predictable. Unless a man can do this, he is no historian. He must be imbued with that spirit of science which teaches as an article of faith the doctrine of uniform sequence:

Rejecting the metaphysical dogma of free will, and the theological dogma of predestined events - the doctrine of providential interference is bound up with that of predestination - we are driven to the conclusion that the actions of man, being determined solely by their antecedents, must have a character of uniformity, that is to say, must, under precisely the same circumstances, always issue in precisely the same results.

If we are tempted to dismiss this statement of absolute determinism, a sobering reminder is the inroads that Marxian materialism has made among the intelligentsia in Europe and is currently making in the United States.

The social sciences are pre-eminently in need of correct and sustained theological orientation. Take the field of sociology, which is interested in the institutional structure of social systems and the motivational processes in human beings. Remove the notion of human solidarity and a future eternal destiny, the idea of freedom and moral responsibility, the concepts of virtue and sin - and sociology becomes a sterile analysis of human ills without cure or, as in totalitarian states, an instrument of control for the benefit of those in power.

Again we are talking about the American scene. Among the social problems which plague the country and pose a greater threat than Communism is the widespread evil of divorce and remarriage. If there is any lesson history teaches, it is the law of the decadence of nations. Their worst enemy is not an alien power but their own citizens who place selfish interests before the common good and allow family life to disintegrate through marital instability.

I shall not dwell on the divergent theologies of the Catholic Church and other religious bodies as regards divorce, except to mention what I think demands a heavy accent. Not every doctrinal system is equally valid, and even in the Christian tradition, when moral and dogmatic principles are sacrificed to human weakness or calculation, their impact on the mental and moral life of a nation is devitalized.

There is a corresponding need for theological response to the race problem. In their approach to this difficult question sociologists have overlooked two important factors. The origin of race prejudice must be sought primarily in man himself, in his fallen nature and tendency to sin; and the remedy must be found along with human effort, in the saving grace of God.

Theologians have no quarrel with social scientists who boldly affirm their moral bias, and they defend a departure from strict scientific neutrality. In fact the very preoccupation of social science in America for the past quarter century with the racial problem shows it to be prompted by a deep moral compunction. “Social science’s interest in ethnic tensions as a form of social pathology is a mark of its concern for social health. Its assumption that the reduction of prejudice is desirable is not in any sense derived from the facts, but is an ethical dogma.”

All well and good. But everything depends on where this ethical dogma comes from. Throughout the literature on race there appears a wide disparity regarding the grounds of social harmony. Some outlooks make the religion of democracy, vaguely defined as the will of the people, the justification of moral value. With others, “adjustment to life” becomes the ultimate motive. At other points, an apotheosized “science” is taken as the basis of ethical duty. For the most part, these theories cluster about a misty kind of religion which has a constellation of purely human and this - worldly ends. Here the Christian (and Catholic) theologian must step in to offer a healthy corrective and to furnish the grounds that sociology by itself cannot provide.

At the head of these principles stands the belief that race prejudice is not one of a catalog of sins, but an expression of the one sin of pride. Because of his fallen nature, man tends to make for himself or some projection of himself the center of love and value. Then follows a distortion of judgment, wherein the neighbor is regarded not in the universal family of creation as a child of God but, by reference to the partial norm of color or external features, as a thing, with the result that the community of persons is broken and divided. Instead of building on the essential unity of human nature, as taught by revelation, racism looks upon other people not only as different but as inferior and thereby denies the basic equality founded by the Creator.

This corrective is not all; however, that theology has to offer. Why, theologians ask, does sociology consider integration of the races morally normative? Why should black and white live together in harmony and how can the integration be achieved? Because of revelation and the grace of God. Time and again in Scripture and tradition, the word of God urges the practice of justice and charity and teaches that the love of God is proved by one’s love of the neighbor. “By this shall all men know that you are my disciples. . . . Whatsoever you have done to the least of those who believe in me. . . . You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” If the practice of the social virtues is difficult, help is promised for the asking, on the certain promise that “Nothing is impossible with God,” that “whatsoever you shall ask in my name will be given to you.”

What is most hopeful about these judgments is that they are being voiced not only by Catholics, but also by others, notably in the National Council of Churches. It is an implicit recognition that sociology, no more than any other human science, can subsist or be practically effective without guidance and assistance from valid theology.

The teaching and reading of literature need no apology for theological content or evaluation. A single three-volume series like Fairchild’s Religious Trends in English Poetry is proof enough that literary critics, at least, are aware of the theological implications of their art. Someone has observed that it is impossible to write good literature without a religious theme, which on analysis becomes theology. Certainly the great masters of England and America, along with modern writers, have leaned heavily on their own or somebody else’s theology to give us something more than colorful dialogue or clever turns of thought. Separate the ideals, whether high or low, from the plays of Shakespeare and O’Neill, the poetry of Milton and Hopkins, or the essays of Emerson and Belloc, and you destroy their writings. On the other hand, discover the ultimates which moved them to write as they did, isolate and appraise those ultimates, and you come to grips with the deepest issues that ever vexed the thinking minds of men.

My concern here is not to see whether theology has an influence in the field of letters. This is a matter of record, and, in fact, there would not be a lasting literature, except for yellow-backs and dime-store novels, unless theology had contributed to its production. But if we judge from all evidence on the subject, educators in America have a yeoman’s task ahead of them: to widen and deepen the religious impact of literature and, above all, to cultivate a judicious taste in its use and creation. For those dedicated to forming the mind-life of our nation, it should be more than a piece of statistics that library borrowings in fiction and the novel are ten times as heavy as all other fields of publication put together.

Studies made by the American Council on Education show that teachers, especially in public secondary education, are so “self-limiting” when they handle religious themes in literature that everyone suffers by their incompetence or caution: the teachers by not giving expression to their beliefs; the students by receiving a diluted course in the essay, novel, or poetry, out of which the heart has been removed; and the authors, whose best contributions are derived from profound religious convictions.

More serious is the need for an evaluative interpretation of whatever literature is taught in the schools, whether public or church-affiliated. Students should be trained to recognize the attitudes they meet in class or assigned reading. Otherwise they may dissociate literature from theology and identify the latter with heavy tracts De Trinitate, while leaving literature to the secularists and almost expecting what is well written to be doctrinally vapid or indifferent.

To be genuine the evaluation must be critical, in the generic sense of discriminating. Not everything persuasive is true, nor is everything beautifully written good. Unless students are prepared, under professional guidance, to separate the wheat from the tares in what they read, they will scarcely do the same on their own after school and in later life. Unless their power of analysis is grounded on solid principles of faith and right reason and sharpened through demanding exercise, the result will be more grievous than a loss of impact from theology on the American mind; it will leave the mind an open prey to the latest theory that crosses its path or, to change the figure, allergic to every philosophical fad.

We have come a long way from the twelfth century when Europe was predominantly Christian and Catholic. Yet even in those ages of faith, John of Salisbury gave some advice that may still be instructive. “The safe and cautious thing to do,” he said, “is to read only Catholic books. It is somewhat dangerous to expose the unsophisticated to pagan literature. But a training in both is very useful for those safe in the faith, for accurate reading on a wide range of subjects makes the scholar; careful selection of the better makes the saint.” Times have changed. We can no longer trust to the “safe and cautious” way of reading only Catholic literature. Not only scholars or prospective saints, but every product of Christian education must be ready to read “pagan literature” in almost every page of his literary diet, and not only not be harmed but positively strengthened by this inevitable contact with error.

A final word. It would be a mistake to consider the influence of theology on the intellectual life as either inevitable or purely academic. It is neither.

In a recent published statement of the Russian Academy of Pedagogical Science, the writer simply declared that “the task of the Soviet school in the area of mind-formation consists in educating pupils, the future builders of Communism, as atheists by conscious conviction,” and to this end all the subjects of the curriculum and every phase of school discipline should be directed. Imagine Marxist educators looking on the impact of atheology as academic, or doing nothing to promote its success!

Last year, the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education finished a five-year study of the integration of religious values in education, with an eye to teacher training programs in the United States. The results were challenging, as the present writer can testify from co-operating with the AACTE project.

It was found that except for church-affiliated institutions, schools and departments of education in the past generation had ignored the religious enlightenment of their students and had restricted themselves quite “exclusively to the thought and language patterns of a non-theistic scientific naturalism.” The process is still going on. If anything is certain, it is the gradual secularization of American life unless those who profess to believe in God and His Church do more than discuss the theological dimension in America culture.

John A. Hardon, S.J.
West Baden College

Delta Epsilon Sigma Bulletin
Vol. 5-#3, October 1960, pp. 79-86

Copyright © 1998 Inter Mirifica

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