Research and the Catholic Intellectual Tradition

The “Catholic Intellectual Tradition” is a concept often invoked to help characterize the warrant for a conversation staged between the sciences and the humanities, where the latter include philosophy and, of course, theology—even if theology is not strictly speaking a discipline of the humanities but a sacred science, a “sacra doctrina,” as Thomas Aquinas would say. It is invoked to address the implicit assumptions about the life of the mind, the intellectual life, and even the nature of human inquiry that make up the premise of such a conversation. It is further invoked to characterize the kind of university reflected in such a conversation.

This “Catholic Intellectual Tradition” is actually a somewhat vague idea, though its basic contours are discernible enough. The word “tradition” as employed in this phrase is not the same as the use of the word in the phrase “Scripture and Tradition,” which are names of the two interrelated means of transmission of the Word of God or revelation. As such the word “tradition” as used in the phrase “Catholic Intellectual Tradition” does not necessarily have normative connotations, but rather refers to a tradition of inquiry, a particular style of inquiry and concomitant conversation, which does, among other things, invoke normative sources such as Scripture and Tradition.

If the “Catholic Intellectual Tradition” is a name for a tradition or style of inquiry, then we can easily substitute the word “research” for “inquiry,” and think of the Catholic Intellectual Tradition as a tradition or style of research, broadly speaking. This does not mean that there is a Catholic style for each discipline of research, for example, scientific research or social scientific research, although the closer you get to theological research, the more it does make sense to talk about a Catholic style. Instead, it refers to a collective endeavor and the kinds of conversations that are possible, and encouraged, and even necessary to bring that endeavor to fruition. Using the word “research” rather than “inquiry,” John Paul II’s Apostolic Constitution Ex Corde Ecclesiae (1990) describes the Catholic Intellectual Tradition and describes the Catholic university as a community where such research, along with the conversation it engenders, takes place:

A Catholic University . . . is a place of research, where scholars scrutinize reality with the methods proper to each discipline, and so contribute to the treasury of human knowledge. Each individual discipline is studied in a systematic manner; moreover, the various disciplines are brought into dialogue for their mutual enhancement (ECE §15).

While “each discipline is studied in a systematic manner,” meaning with method, and where the methodology is in its own way defining of the discipline, the Catholic Intellectual Tradition (and hence the Catholic university) is not envisioned as a place where these conversations are siloed, though, of course, the bulk of one’s conversation will be with colleagues engaging in the same kind of research.

But beyond that, “the various disciplines are brought into dialogue for their mutual enhancement.” In other words, the disciplinary conversations are not simply juxtaposed, in the same space, but are part of a true conversation intended to enhance each of them. This implies that the research or inquiry proper to the Catholic Intellectual Tradition has an end that none of the disciplines can fully perform in and of themselves, but that each one is enhanced as it participates in the wider quest or inquiry.

That larger end is aptly characterized for the Catholic Intellectual Tradition by John Paul II in Ex Corde as “joy in the truth,” taking a phrase from St. Augustine, “which,” JPII comments, “is that joy of searching for, discovering, and communicating truth in every field of knowledge” (ECE §1, referring to Augustine, Conf. 10.33). My own university mission statement echoes Ex Corde when it says, “The University [of Notre Dame] is dedicated to the pursuit and sharing of truth for its own sake.” Ironically, most of the R1 universities in the top ten have abandoned this language in their mission statements, as I have documented elsewhere. Note that this view of inquiry implies a certain view of the human being, namely, as ultimately ordered towards truth rather than, say, its closest competitor, power. John Paul II says as much when he continues a little later, “The present age is in urgent need of this kind of disinterested service, namely of proclaiming the meaning of truth, that fundamental value without which freedom, justice, and human dignity are extinguished” (ECE §4).

Notice that no discipline, not even theology, can fully “proclaim the meaning of truth” on its own. Some disciplines have a major impact on “the meaning of truth” but a necessarily diminutive capacity for discussing or explaining it. Such are the disciplines characterized by the scientific method, which includes the natural sciences and can include the social sciences. Scientific discoveries have an outsized impact not only on the quest for truth but on questions about the meaning of truth, and yet, in order to contribute to explaining that meaning, a scientist must ipso facto step out of the scientific method, which deals with empirical observations and verifiable or falsifiable hypotheses, to explain the observations, while having only limited ability to talk about meaning apart from what a particular, perhaps unexpected, measurement might mean for the truth of a scientific hypothesis.

By contrast, some disciplines have disproportionately little scope to persuasively describe and potentially revolutionize the way we look at physical reality, with all the potential implications for meaning that arise from it, but are much better equipped to discuss these implications, to discuss meaning itself, and the conceptual apparatus and vocabulary in which a discussion can take place. Such a discipline is philosophy. In the Catholic Intellectual Tradition, the “meaning of truth” will arise fully only from the dialogue among these differently abled disciplines. And the stakes are high: “For, ‘what is at stake is the very meaning of scientific and technological research, of social life and of culture, but on an even more profound level, what is at stake is the very meaning of the human person’” (ECE §7, citing JPII’s 25 April 1989 Allocution).

The Catholic Intellectual Tradition uses the language of “integration” to talk about this high-stakes dialogue. It speaks of this dialogue as a quest, in other words, as an ongoing inquiry, in particular, “the quest for the integration of knowledge.” This is precisely how John Paul II talks in Ex Corde: “In a Catholic University, research necessarily includes (a) the search for an integration of knowledge” (ECE §15), which, he says, is of its very nature open-ended, “a process, one which will always remain incomplete.” He notes further that “the explosion of knowledge in recent decades, together with the rigid compartmentalization of knowledge within individual academic disciplines, makes the task increasingly difficult,” and yet, working within the Catholic Intellectual Tradition, “it is necessary to work towards a higher synthesis of knowledge, in which alone lies the possibility of satisfying that thirst for truth which is profoundly inscribed on the heart of the human person” (ECE §16, citing the same Allocution).

Classically this quest for integration and the conversation that ensues involves the relationship between faith and reason, and we will get to that in due course, but the idea is applicable even before faith comes into the picture in the dialogue among the differently abled disciplines, as noted above. We can learn about what this might mean from instances where this kind of conversation has been forestalled, even aggressively forestalled and aborted.

An example of this is on display in Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow’s popular book The Grand Design, first published in 2010 but still very much in print and in demand. It famously begins by invoking the human quest to find answers: “Humans are a curious species. We wonder, we seek answers,” they say; in other words, translating, we could perhaps say, we search for truth. So far, so good. But they go on, famously, to lay down a gauntlet: “How can we understand the world in which we find ourselves? . . . What is the nature of reality? Where did all this come from? Did the universe need a creator? . . . Traditionally these are questions for philosophy, but philosophy is dead” (5). Normally that’s not the very best way to welcome a conversation.

But the refusal of the conversation means that these scientists are unbearably tempted, by the huge potential implications of scientific discoveries to impact our understanding of the meaning of truth, to exceed disproportionately the limited ability of science to speak of meaning or even truth, qua truth, itself. This becomes evident as the authors blunder into elementary philosophical errors and inconsistencies, having eschewed the value of learning any philosophy or dialoguing with someone actually practicing this dead discipline.

For example, there is the introductory discussion of scientific determinism, which “is, in fact, the basis of all modern science, and a principle that is important throughout this book,” namely that, “given the state of the universe at one time, a complete set of laws fully determines both the future and the past,” and, it is insisted, “this would exclude the possibility of miracles or an active role for God” (30). Let it be noted that there is a learned philosophical literature on miracles with some very persuasive arguments in favor of them without in the least underestimating the scientific determinism noted by our authors. They continue, “A scientific law is not a scientific law if it holds only when some supernatural being decides not to interfere.”

But this is a caricature of the literature on the intelligibility of violations of natural law, and it also flaunts its own ignorance about what and who “God” is, philosophically speaking. “God,” in any tradition of what is called “natural theology,” including the so-called “proofs” for the existence of God, is transcendent of the universe and could never be described with the indefinite pronoun “some,” implying one among others.

The discussion goes on, “Since people live in the universe and interact with the other objects in it, scientific determinism must hold for people as well.” But this is a philosophical assumption, not a scientific claim, and there is no argumentation for it whatsoever. It could be that human beings have a spiritual dimension, a soul, a mind, a spirit, however one might describe it. I’m not here even arguing that there is such a thing, but simply pointing out that one has to argue philosophically for one’s philosophical assumptions. Perhaps the argument comes later: “Many, however, while accepting that scientific determinism governs physical processes, would make an exception for human behavior because they believe we have free will” (30). After asking where, if we have free will, did it develop in the evolutionary tree—and hiding the unargued assumption that it must have—the authors conclude,

Though we feel that we can choose what we do, our understanding of the molecular basis of biology shows that biological processes are governed by the laws of physics and chemistry and therefore are as determined as the orbits of the planets (31-32).

In fact, “it seems that we are no more than biological machines and that free will is just an illusion” (32).

The sole evidence—I can’t say argument—for this massive claim with its massive implications for the meaning of the human being and for human dignity is “recent experiments in neuroscience”; for example, “a study of patients undergoing awake brain surgery found that by electrically stimulating the appropriate regions of the brain, one could create in the patient the desire to move the hand, arm, or foot, or to move the lips and talk.” This is taken as evidence that “our behavior is determined by physical law.” It is only the cultural prestige of science—here abused—that allows the authors to seem to make a case where in fact no case is made. For one thing, we don’t need awake brain surgery to reveal that physical stimuli, such as alcohol or certain aphrodisiacs, can affect what we desire. Secondly, desire and free will are not, philosophically speaking, equivalent phenomena. It is precisely our freedom that we must call upon to resist desire, sometimes very strong desire.

And thirdly, Plato, some twenty-four hundred years ago, in the Phaedo, made the distinction between a cause—such as free will—and a condition without which that cause could not operate—meaning certain physical conditions of the body. Even a very elementary dialogue between this scientist and an instructor at the same university in the history of philosophy might have obviated this blunder. In the Phaedo, Socrates, on the day of his execution at sundown, gives his grieving students his own intellectual history, in which he had been exposed to scientific accounts of the human being every bit as reductionist as our contemporary authors’, and he uses the distinction between a cause and a condition to clarify why his body is where it is—because, he says, he thought it right not to escape, out of cowardice, the sentence his country had imposed on him. Plato is asking us, Does courage have any meaning? Or is it simply, as much as cowardice, the result of physical determinism? In which case neither have any meaning, nor does the human being, the citizen of Athenian democracy, have any meaning.

I bring up Hawking’s exposition not, at present, to contribute to the argument per se, but to show, as by a photographic negative, what the stakes are in having a truly dialogical conversation among differently abled disciplines. Hawking and Mlodinow blithely ignore the nihilism that their theory of the human as a “biological machine” implies. But that has huge implications for “the meaning of truth, that fundamental value without which freedom, justice, and human dignity are extinguished” (ECE §4). The Catholic Intellectual Tradition insists on not foreclosing the conversation so that the question of meaning—or, in the present case, of meaninglessness—is itself eclipsed and foreclosed. To cite JPII again, “Scientific and technological discoveries create an enormous economic and industrial growth, but they also inescapably require the correspondingly necessary search for meaning in order to guarantee that the new discoveries be used for the authentic good of individuals and human society as a whole” (ECE §7).

Even before there are any considerations of faith or revelation, then, the Catholic Intellectual Tradition is a quest for the integration of knowledge on the level of reason alone. But notice that in the case of the foreclosure of conversation that Hawking and Mlodinow represent, we can see that the implied conversation, if philosophy had not received its death certificate, would not be simply an “interdisciplinary” conversation. “Integration” is more than “interdisciplinarity.” A conference with biologists and chemists would be interdisciplinary but not integrative in the sense intended by the Catholic Intellectual Tradition.

If the truths about the physical world at which science arrives are to be “integrated” into a larger quest for truth, indeed if there is even to be envisioned a larger quest for truth, we need a discipline that can integrate scientific claims into a larger vocabulary of truth and meaning than science, keeping within its own methodology, can contain.

Hawking and Mlodinow back themselves into questions of meaning by declaring that the very science of meaning, philosophy, is dead and then making philosophical claims as though they were scientific hypotheses: there is nothing transcending the physical order, no transcendent source of the physical world; there is no mind strictly speaking, only the brain; there is no freedom; freedom is equivalent to desire and choice; etc. The scientific results that Hawking and Mlodinow talk about raise the question of meaning precisely as a question—but this is only seen in the presence of a discipline that is capable of talking about the nature of truth and meaning themselves, namely, philosophy. Only then can scientific results be integrated into a larger quest for truth because only then can we see these statements as actually questions, not conclusions demonstrated by the scientific method.

But perhaps the most characteristic trait of the style of inquiry or of research (broadly speaking) that is the Catholic Intellectual Tradition, is that it does not restrict the conversation to the domain of reason alone. It may be the hallmark of the Catholic Intellectual Tradition that it involves a dialogue between faith and reason. John Paul II notes that “in a Catholic university, research necessarily includes” not only the search for an integration of knowledge, but as an element of that search, its defining element perhaps, “a dialogue between faith and reason” (ECE §15). Put in the broadest terms, this means a dialogue or dialectic between reason and revelation. Faith is the way in which revelation is received; faith is the response to revelation. So the dialogue or dialectic between faith and reason is ultimately a dialogue between revelation, as received in faith, and reason.

What is revelation? In short it is God’s self-disclosure, his self-expression offered to us, his Word. Not all discourse about God comes from revelation or involves faith. As we briefly touched on above, reasoning about transcendence and about a transcendent origin of the universe—sometimes called, somewhat inexactly, “proofs” for the existence of God—are exercises in reason alone; and the philosophical knowledge they accrue, often called “natural knowledge of God,” does not depend on faith. It is well known, for example, that Einstein was an exponent—to avoid saying believer—in the God that is known to reason alone:

To know that what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty, which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their most primitive forms—this knowledge, this feeling, is at the center of true religiousness. In this sense, and in this sense only, I belong to the rank of devoutly religious men.

This sounds almost Platonic. Revelation, though, proposes something more. Here is how the Catechism puts it: “By natural reason the human being can know God … on the basis of his works. But there is another order of knowledge, which the human being cannot possibly arrive at by his own powers: the order of divine Revelation. Through an utterly free decision, God has revealed himself and given himself to man. This he does by revealing the mystery, his plan of loving goodness … the mystery of his will” (CCC §50-51). The language mentioning “another order of knowledge” is key here. What is revealed is not a kind of knowledge that differs only in degree from anything reason can attain on its own, like the difference between calculus and the next course, differential equations. Revelation is not unattainable by reason because it is too “hard” to think of, too difficult for reason.

We can think of an analogy in purely human terms. How do you know someone likes you or even loves you? They have to reveal it to you. They have to say something like, “I like you” or “I love you” or “I’d like to be friends.” You could never reason your way to what these sentences reveal, because they involve a person’s will, specifically, the will to give themselves in a certain way, to give themselves in love or friendship, to give themselves freely. You can’t reason your way to another person’s will, and this goes, a fortiori, for God.

What is revealed is therefore, in the language of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, strictly speaking a “mystery.” This does not mean a puzzle that we will eventually solve, but a reality that is not reducible to reason, and yet, once received in faith, is hospitable to reason. It is a “mystery” in the sense that it cannot be fully resolved into the terms of reason alone, fully explained—for that would be to explain it away, and ultimately to reject it. The analogy of human friendship and love is again useful here. If someone discloses—reveals—that they love you, they are not just stating a fact about the universe, like that Indianapolis is the capital of Indiana, or that the moon is the earth’s sole natural satellite, both of which are verifiable by observation. But there is no way to verify someone’s love for you. Even the seemingly most selfless act, for example, the giving of one’s life for someone else, can have ulterior motives, such as the pursuit of glory and praise, rather than love. One must use reason to make a discernment so that it does not offend reason to believe, but in the end the statements cannot be proven to the satisfaction of reason.

The true act of an offer of true love remains a mystery—a gift—which, like any gift, can be rejected or accepted; in this case, if accepted, it is by faith. But reason is not left behind. It is not employed, though, to explain away the gift, but to come to understand its depth more perfectly, to come to see its beauty more clearly and to be able to speak out of the sense of awe at such a gift. Someone who still loves you after thirty or forty or fifty years—who could merit that? The use of reason is to come to understand the mystery precisely as mystery and appreciate it as such; it does not attenuate the mystery but allows the wonder of it to be specified, articulated, and received more fully. Revelation in the theological sense is, as noted by the Catechism, a disclosure of the mystery of God’s will to love us, to make us sharers in his own divine life. Theology is the science or discipline that “seeks to understand,” in the sense just mentioned, the revealed mystery of God’s will; it is, classically, “faith seeking understanding.” Therefore the Catholic Intellectual Tradition, the kind of inquiry or research which it sponsors and which, really, it is, necessarily involves, to quote Ex Corde yet another time, “a theological perspective” (ECE §15).

As a side note, our culture has seemingly lost its “ear” for mystery in the sense just delineated. Religion is presented as having nothing to do with reason. Either one glories in its independence from reason and its resistance to rational inquiry—and this is fundamentalism or fideism—or one rejects faith as irrational, as superstition, as childish naiveté—and this is aggressive secularism. Either nothing truly important is open to rational inquiry, or everything is fully reducible to the terms of reason alone. The culture is polarized along these lines. Secularists think of freedom of religion as a kind of freedom for superstition and irrationality; fideists, on the other hand, reject the discoveries of reason and in particular certain scientific hypotheses, by simple appeal to the Bible and to faith. And then these two poles move farther and farther apart because they react against each other, even though, ironically, they share the same view of faith and its relationship to reason.

The Catholic Intellectual Tradition can offer a mean between these extremes, a kind of refreshment of the cultural imagination, even the possibility of a certain cultural healing. The Catholic Intellectual Tradition can bring to bear a sense of mystery that, while not reducible to reason, is nevertheless hospitable to reason, thus carving out a space for mystery between its shadow cast as superstition by rationalism, and its reduction to simple denial of reason by fideistic absolutism. It thereby extends the horizon of reason into deeply humane sensibilities. Perhaps the world, ultimately, originated from love and is, in its deepest essence, a gift. In that case, the proper attitude towards the world is not simply awe in the way that it reflects a Mind whose designs, as Einstein thought, would ever only be partially available to something as diminutive and puny as finite human reason.

But what if that Mind, coolly transcendent as it might be, cares about us? What if the order we see magnificently disclosed in natural law is only the manifestation or outcropping of an even deeper order, an order of love, of exquisite caring, of cherishing and delighting in the beauty and freedom of it all, yes, in human beings, but also, as the book of Job says, in the wild goats and the ostriches that seem useless to us but are nevertheless the objects of care. Reason would then have to move beyond awe, or, to put it more precisely, would find itself invited to do so. Reason would find itself plying not only the vast tracts of space and time that it can observe and analyze, but the even greater tracts of praise and gratitude which it could never exhaust. In the grandeur of such a mystery of love, we might even learn to look upon each other differently, not just as political enemies or friends, but as all equally objects—subjects—of this love.

Theology thus takes its place in the inquiry or research or conversation that is the Catholic Intellectual Tradition and the integration of knowledge to which it aspires. Here is how JPII talks about it in Ex Corde:

Theology plays a particularly important role in the search for a synthesis of knowledge as well as in the dialogue between faith and reason. It serves all other disciplines in their search for meaning, not only by helping them to investigate how their discoveries will affect individuals and society but also by bringing a perspective and an orientation not contained within their own methodologies (ECE 19).

He goes on to say that, inversely, “interaction with these other disciplines and their discoveries enriches theology, offering it a better understanding of the world today, and making theological research more relevant to current needs.” We could say that if philosophy integrates the conversation from the perspective of reason alone, with its theories of discourse, of truth, of what knowledge is in the first place, what beauty is, what goodness is, and how to talk about meaning, theology, whose formal object of study is revelation, brings to bear the perspective of revelation on all the questions that arise as the result of any other discipline of study with its own intrinsic methodology.

Let’s take the example of the doctrine of Creation which we have just, without naming it, taken up. The doctrine of Creation is not the same as a philosophical doctrine of a transcendent origin of the world in the intellect of a Mind whose thoughts we see displayed in cosmic order. It is that and more, namely, the doctrine that the world emerged as a work of God’s love and continues in existence precisely as God’s beloved.

A classic case, then, is the historical clash between this doctrine and Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, where human beings seem to be accidental developments of a blind, impersonal process of the survival of the fittest. One response, not that of the Catholic Intellectual Tradition but that of fideistic or fundamentalist positions, is simply to reject the scientific evidence presented on the grounds that it conflicts with the Bible. A secularist response, on the other hand, would and does simply dismiss the biblical account as primitive, the best people could do, maybe, in a pre-rational time addicted to mythopoesis. The approach of the Catholic Intellectual Tradition is the aforementioned dialogical relationship between faith and reason. Here is how JPII explains it in Ex Corde:

While each academic discipline retains its own integrity and has its own methods, this dialogue demonstrates that ‘methodical research within every branch of learning, when carried out in a truly scientific manner and in accord with moral norms, can never truly conflict with faith. For the things of the earth and the concerns of faith derive from the same God’ [GS §36]. A vital interaction of two distinct levels of coming to know the one truth leads to a greater love for truth itself, and contributes to a more comprehensive understanding of the meaning of human life and of the purpose of God’s creation (ECE §17).

There is a lot packed in here. In the first place, scientific methodology retains its integrity as such. Apart from the insistence on the observance of moral norms, there is no special Catholic scientific method. To the extent that the evidence for evolution seems scientifically solid, the Bible can’t be used to contradict it simply by authority, though its authority can be the occasion of looking more deeply at what is being claimed, both by theorists of evolution and by the Catholic faith. To take the latter first: Can we more deeply come to understand what we believe in the light of these scientific discoveries? Can we penetrate the biblical teaching more deeply?

Yes, of course, and, in fact, we find in the ancient traditions of Christian biblical exegesis that almost none of the Fathers of the Church thought that the first chapter of Genesis was to be understood in a literalistic sense, such that the world was created in the space of six days. Famously, exegetes like Origen of Alexandria and St. Augustine noticed that the text itself tells you that these are not six ordinary days, since the “morning” and “evening” mentioned on the first, second, and third days occur with no moon or sun. The six-day scheme obviously represents a mystery—the text itself is telling us that. “Look deeper!” it is telling us. Other ancient exegetes saw in the creation narratives of Genesis the idea that God did not create the world in a state of perfection but in a state of journeying towards a perfection into which it would, under his providential care, develop. This is in fact a reading of the Genesis story, from the second century, that sees built into creation a kind of evolution, a freedom for growth, one could say, into its best self. Can these ideas be related to contemporary understandings of evolution?

Yet, as theology in response to scientific inquiry is able to deepen its own understanding of the mystery of creation, that increased sophistication asks questions back. As a sense of what divine “purpose” or “intention” in creation grows in theological sophistication, a scientist might begin to regard an absolute prohibition of the language of purpose, of teleology, as, well, unscientific. This is not to say that science, as an exercise of reason alone, can get us to the doctrine of creation. You can’t reason your way to love. Still, one could imagine a version of the theory of evolution which was more of an opening to a doctrine of creation.

Perhaps there is then a more subtle understanding of “purpose” which actually could illuminate, in some way, aspects of evolution that have stubbornly resisted theorizing, and where the net effect of independent, random mutations seems inadequate to the evidence presented. I am here just indulging in unlearned speculation. My only object in so doing is to illustrate the point that JPII makes about coming to a deeper appreciation for the unity of truth. We see that it does not mean a homogenization of the disciplines such that theology judges and interferes with the methodologies that constitute them as disciplines. Instead, it means a conversation which, on the one hand, precludes an overreach by scientists who might want to say that evolution rules out any kind of spiritual reality in the human being as created by God, including and especially freedom. On the other hand, it also means that theology is open to the results of science, seeks to understand its own faith commitments more deeply, and in the process perhaps not only blocks an overreach, but also provides a horizon for ideas that might even refresh the possibilities a scientist sees for the evidence at hand. It also, in the process, blocks its own overreach into unscientific scientific meddling.

But there is more. Will disciplinary fragmentation have the last word, so that there is no possibility of a unified conversation about the meaning of truth? Is the best we can do in this situation “interdisciplinarity,” that is, the juxtaposition of different discourses of truth which remain ultimately incommensurate with each other even as they discuss their results together? Where there is no discipline that is able to integrate them into a truly unified conversation capable of “proclaiming the meaning of truth, that fundamental value without which freedom, justice and human dignity are extinguished” (ECE   §4)? Is it the best we can do to back ourselves unreflectively into nihilism, supposedly on the evidence of science, or by contrast to refuse the contribution of the empirical disciplines to the meaning of truth?

Or can we accept instead, as the Catholic Intellectual Tradition proposes, that their contribution can only fully be made if it is integrated into the quest for a “higher synthesis of knowledge” (ECE 16) in the search for “the very meaning of scientific and technological research, of social life and of culture,” indeed, “the very meaning of the human person” (ECE 8)? That the first level of integration occurs in the domain of reason itself, with philosophy, which is able to discuss what knowledge is, what language is, what transcendence is, and what freedom is, and what logic is? Thus at very least helping us recognize the incoherence of saying, with Hawking and Mlodinow, “Because there is a law like gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing” (180).

For one thing, as John Haldane has pointed out, nothing can create itself, not even God. For another, the law of gravity is something, not nothing, so this is not a case of creatio ex nihilo, even if Hawking and Mlodinow mean to caricature it. But the challenge to an even higher synthesis comes from revelation, and from the discipline whose formal object is to study revelation. What if, in fact, the meaning of truth, ultimately, is love? And that the value of creation itself, to the Creator, is nothing less than his blood, poured out on the Cross? And that the human person finds his or her deepest meaning as the subject of such love, yes, along with the wild mountain goats and the inexplicably weird ostrich?

There is something humanizing, perhaps even divinizing, about this mode of “research” or inquiry—something open-ended—and instead of a conversation forestalled, or aggressively fragmented, a conversation and a quest that is not even in principle ever complete and aims at deepening a sense of both awe and gratitude and joy in the truth in all its dimensions which alone can satisfy the human heart. At very least it is a possibility not to be overlooked. I take it that such is the function of a Catholic university, to keep this possibility alive and, in however desultory or imperfect a manner, to perform it.

EDITORIAL NOTE: An earlier version of this essay was delivered during the 2024 - 2025 Organs and Origins Conference Series.

Featured Image: University of Notre Dame Golden Dome taken by Carol M. Highsmith; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-LOC.


John Cavadini

John Cavadini is the McGrath-Cavadini Director of the Institute for Church Life and a professor in the department of theology at the University of Notre Dame. He was appointed by Pope Benedict XVI to a five-year term on the International Theological Commission in 2009. He is the recipient of the Monika Hellwig Award for Outstanding Contributions to Catholic Intellectual Life and is the author of Visioning Augustine.

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