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The Catholic Intellectual | Fr. Stanley L. Jaki | Ignatius Insight

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The expression, "Catholic Intellectual," may seem to involve a twofold superfluity, suggestive of some contradiction. Is it not superfluous to write the word "catholic" as "Catholic" if "catholic" truly stands for an appreciation of the whole range of reality and values? And can such an appreciation be truly at work if it is not also the work of the intellect?

The apparent conflict between "catholic" and "Catholic" will especially bother intellectuals who take ideas and not facts for their starting point. Consideration of facts certainly must come first as long as one wants to come up with something tangible about the predicaments, duties, and prospects of Catholic intellectuals. A most relevant fact in this respect can be noticed by the Catholic intellectual if he considers the beginning of the wide usage of the word "catholic," a Greek word by origin.

Surprising as it may seem, the word "catholic" occurs only here and there in the writings of ancient Greek philosophers. While Aristotle, for instance, often uses the adverb kath'olou (on the whole or in general), he never uses its adjectival form catholikos or its feminine and neutral variants. The reason for this may lie in the Greeks' contempt for all others, whom they gladly lumped under the term barbaroi. Greek philosophers did not even draw in full the logic of the idea, widely entertained by them, that the individual mind was but a bit from the universal mind into which the former was reabsorbed following the bodily death. For if such was the case, the mind of each individual must have had a truly catholic or universal character, even if in its bodily framework the mind was not Greek but barbarian.

The failure of the Greeks to see this was, of course, rooted in their inability to look beyond the mind to the personhood of each individual. That personhood revealed its infinite value only within Christianity. In the measure in which Christians surrendered to the incomparable fact of Jesus Christ, as the Incarnate Son of God, they were able to perceive in full what it meant for man to have been "made in the image of God."

This last expression, so unmistakably Hebrew in its origin, failed to reveal its full catholic sense within the context of the Old Covenant. This is not to suggest that the Old Testament had not contained increasingly more forceful suggestions about a truly catholic future or consummation. But Christ's very struggle with the Jews of his own time came to a head precisely on the question of whether the rest of the world had to become Jewish, or whether the Jews had to become universal in outlook in order to comply with a divine plan of salvation equally valid for all. The plan was catholic, because it was also Catholic, that is, tied to a very specific individual, who, being a Galilean, was very provincial even within the Jewish perspective.

The universality of Christian perspective became epitomized in Paul's phrase that in Christ there was neither Jew, nor Gentile, but only the new creature. This was a supernaturally universal or catholic view of man which implied the conviction that there was in man's nature something universal or catholic. It was on this ground that Nazi racism was denounced by Pius XI and Pius XII as a sheer abomination. In the face of that racism, Darwinist gurus could mutter only some equivocations about individual dignity and human equality. This is a point that cannot be pondered long and deeply enough by Catholic intellectuals who do not wish to trade their Catholicity for its mirage, be it a cosmic sweep toward an omega point, christened Jesus Christ.

The first Christian use of the term katholike comes in a set of writings, the letters of Ignatius of Antioch, that have great cohesion and unity considering the fact that he wrote them within a very short span of time, during his journey as prisoner from Antioch to Rome. The one who first uses in those letters the expression katholike ekklesia, meaning the unity of all local churches, also makes it forcefully clear that individual churches exist only because each of them has a bishop who in turn stands for Jesus Christ himself.

This strict combination of catholicity with the individuality of a given human being, the bishop, should make clear that Christians' understanding of the catholicity of the Church meant from the start something very different from diffuse universalism. Their catholicity was for them something strictly concrete, as all facts and entities are. At the same time that catholicity had a center which was clearly conveyed in the awareness of the bishops that they had a strict duty to be in communion with one another, which emerged as an adherence to a very concrete overall center. These two developments are worth considering for a moment, if one is to gain a firm, concrete basis for considering the status and duties of the Catholic intellectual.

One need not be a believer, it is enough to be an unbiased observer of facts, in order to register something which is without antecedent in history: The sudden emergence inside of the Roman Empire, or the oikumene, of centers of spiritual administration, eventually paralleling the political centers of administration, but totally independent of them, and indeed at times in fierce antagonism to them. Such is the background of the expression "diocesan bishop," which evokes the main political administrative areas, or dioceses. The political system soon found a fearsome rival in that new set of administrative centers that had a powerful overall center of its own. What some modern students of the early Church are reluctant to recognize was all too clear to the Emperor Decius. He was quoted by St. Cyprian as having remarked that if he could not be emperor he would like to be Bishop of Rome.

Those particular centers were concrete individuals called bishops, whose number ran to about seven to eight hundred in both the Eastern and the Western parts of the Empire by the time Constantine came on the scene. For purely political considerations, even if he had nothing higher, Constantine had no choice but to make peace with that other administration. When the Empire collapsed, civilization survived because those spiritual centers, strangely enough, were not swept away.

Perceptive historians of early Europe (it should be enough to think of Henri Pirenne) have always been aware of the contribution of bishops as sources of cultural stability for their own, at times, very limited regions. And when a historian looked back at the years which in this or that European country saw the introduction of bishops with not even a nominal tie to a Catholic center, he could at least register a marked contrast between two kinds of bishops. The historian who did this most memorably was James Antony Froude. His observation is all the more significant as he became an agnostic after he had briefly sympathized with Newman and even was ordained a deacon in the Church of England. In coming to the moment, in his twelve-volume literary masterpiece, of Elizabeth's order that set up a new hierarchy in England, Froude made a most "Catholic" observation. He did so as he described Elizabeth's order as the substitution of an essence with its mere image, in order "to sustain the illusion" that the same sap was still flowing in something that was made to look like the old tree of the unbroken succession of bishops, as so many pivots of a catholicity truly Catholic:
A Catholic bishop holds his office by a tenure untouched by the accidents of time. Dynasties may change--nations may lose their liberties--the firm fabric of society may be swept away in the torrent of revolution--the Catholic prelate remains at his post; when he dies another takes his place; and when the waters sink again into their beds, the quiet figure is seen standing where it stood before--the person perhaps changed, the thing itself rooted like a rock on the adamantine basements of the world. . . . The Church of England was a limb lopped off from the Catholic trunk . . . If not what it had been in its essence, it could retain the form of what it had been--the form which made it respectable, without the power which made it dangerous. The image, in its outward aspect, could be made to correspond with the parent tree; and to sustain the illusion, it was necessary to provide bishops who could appear to have inherited their powers by the approved method, as successors of the apostles. [1]
Froude also noted that Cecil, the power behind Elizabeth, gathered all the Edwardian bishops who survived Mary's reign, "to supply in numbers their qualifications." Those qualifications were defects. Chief among these was the inability of those bishops of knowing with assurance whether they had been validly ordained. Such a dubious transmission of spiritual power could but result in a hierarchy, which, according to Froude, "would have crumbled into sand" had Elizabeth fallen. Clearly, the unquestionable validity of the ordination of Catholic bishops had to be the reason why they, in spite of all their individual failures, could provide the kind of validity which translates itself into permanence and stability.

Whatever the failing of individual bishops, which the media is desperate to keep in the focus, the College of Bishops displays the only force worthy of respect in a morally decaying world. The decay started in the developed or affluent part of the world which is feverishly parting with the last shreds of its Christian intellectual and moral heritage. Perceptive Protestants cannot help noting a huge difference between their predicament and that of their Catholic brethren. While they find themselves ever more forcefully in the grip of shifting fashions, Catholics are still being steadily reminded about unchanging eternal principles. The cause of that difference lies precisely in the fact that the Catholics have bishops, whereas Protestants do not. Those whom Protestants call their bishops are such only in name. A Lutheran bishop or a Methodist bishop, let alone a Calvinist or a Baptist bishop is a conceptual construct to which their respective origins and theologies can assure no more validity than a mathematician can accord to squaring a circle.

What some Protestants, regretful of not having bishops as defined by a two-thousand-year-old tradition, fail to realize is that Catholics have bishops not because they make bishops. It is the other way around: bishops make Catholics. Catholics are believers whose faith is essentially a submission to the voice of given individuals who present themselves with the extraordinary claim that they speak with the authority of Christ himself, and do so two full millennia after Him. They make this claim because they look on their authority as something transmitted to them by individuals who had in turn made the same claim in their own time, and so back to the apostles. These certainly made no secret of their conviction that they were the depositaries of the authority of Christ himself and therefore their authority was indivisible.

Awareness of a need for strict cohesion among bishops was strong from the start. This is a point which the Christian intellectual cannot ponder enough as he stands in the middle of academia where dissent, often dissent for dissent's sake, readily passes for learning and originality. Nothing shows the strength of the bishops' awareness of that need more forcefully than the fact, again a fact, that from the earliest times they looked at the sin of heresy as a crime worse than idolatry. Such was the view of Alexander, the martyr bishop of Alexandria. In the West, Augustine of Hippo took the view that there could be no just necessity whatsoever to break the unity of the Church. Augustine also gave a pregnant expression to the concrete criterion of being in unity with the whole or the catholike. In saying that the criterion consisted in being in unity with the actual bishop of Rome as a successor of Peter, the first bishop of that city, Augustine merely echoed a famous phrase of Irenaeus, the martyr bishop of Lyons, about the obligation of all churches to convene around that Church.

That Irenaeus did not voice anything "Western" or Latin as he gave that criterion is clear from two facts. One is that his origins were in the East, and that Lyons was very much an outpost of Greeks in the heart of the West. The other is that Chrysostom, the greatest of all Eastern doctors of the Church, was perhaps the most emphatic defender ever of the primacy of Peter and his successors. This fact remains a thorn in the side of all "ecumenical orthodox" who not only pride themselves in being intellectuals, but also in knowing something of the true history of Eastern orthodoxy.

Here, too, history performed for theology the same role which laboratories perform for science. History brought out in connection with "catholic" too the only meaning which its sane use can have: it must have some specificity in its generality. All those who tried to leave the word catholic in a vague generality or universality were rebuffed by history. The challenges of history proved too much for the gnostics, who set up some studiedly undefined preferences of their intellect for a criterion of catholic or universal truth as against the standard of truth which was the bishops' concretely authoritative teaching. History rebuffed the esoteric holiness of Cathars and their varieties, and vindicated the externally tangible norms of conduct as preached by the bishops. History unfolded in full the principle of fragmentation which the early Protestants in vain tried to exorcise from their initial presuppositions. History left behind "old Catholics" precisely because they did not want to be concretely young with the ever living Church that could not be confined to a given stage of its history. Those who very recently tried out the stance of "loyal opposition" certainly proved themselves poor logicians, whatever else they have proved to their own and to many others' spiritual discomfiture.

Those Christians who want to be catholic though not Catholic may well ponder the lessons of two efforts to come up with a universalism which was catholic but not Catholic. One of them, being more than two hundred years old, is largely forgotten though very instructive. In fact its instructiveness was brought by none other than Talleyrand, hardly a paragon of a Christian, let alone of a Catholic, a bishop though he was. One day he was approached by Larevallière-Lépeaux (1753-1824), a member of the Directorate, who had thought up and tried in vain to propagate a new religion, called "Theophilanthropia." On being told by the founder of the new religion, which seemed to fit perfectly the dictates of pure intellect, that it failed to make converts, Talleyrand remarked: "I do not find your failure surprising. If you want to make converts, perform miracles. Cure the sick, revive the dead, allow yourself to be crucified and rise on the third day."

Once this remark becomes engraved over the entrance of all departments of "Christian" theology, where each new set of professors starts all over the business of reinventing the Church according to ever new molds of intellectual fancies, one may recall with the hope of some profit, the lesson of the other effort as well. It can be read in an essay "Reflections on Catholicism," penned about a hundred years ago. It may difficult to find a stylistically more overpowering celebration of catholicism. The author of the essay claimed everything noble. Nor did he insist that the same person should be the embodiment of all "catholic" virtues and perfections. In fact, he warned against such a surfeit: "It is only the fantastic notion that we must eat everything on the table that makes the banquet seem burdensome." The mere recall of the name of that essay's author, George Tyrrell, [2] should reveal that what he actually advocated was the liberty of choosing from the catholic banquet table according to one's own preferences, and, if necessary or desirable, not to feed on items that smack of Catholicism. Those items are above all the great, and apparently very provincial, facts of salvation history.

Almost a hundred years later, after a systematic misconstruction of what Vatican II stood for, the president of the American Catholic bishops' conference had to warn, in connection with the Pope's visit, that "the Church is not a grocery store, where Catholics are free to take what they want or not." [3] Compared with Tyrrell's diction, these words are very pedestrian indeed. But precisely because of this they should be within the reach of all Catholic intellectuals, especially of those who pride themselves to be theologians and all too often more ready with phrases than with hard thinking and respect for facts.

For regardless of whether one is an intellectual or not, a Christian or not, facts should control the intellect and not the other way around. This is a point of supreme importance if one is to discourse sanely about the predicament and responsibilities of Catholic intellectuals. Catholicism means above all the surrender to the greatest fact of history, Jesus Christ, or the flesh and blood, and therefore very provincial (Catholic) reality of the incarnation of the Son of God. But an integral part of that reality was His intention to teach with universal authority and, in all evidence, to have that authority of his concretely (that is, very provincially) perpetuated. Therefore the Catholic intellectual's submission to Christ must be preceded by a submission to those who today are the concrete factual voice of Christ's authority which renders their teaching strictly authoritative. Only then can the Catholic intellectual begin with the task of unfolding the conceptual implications of the fact of the Incarnation for an understanding of Catholicism in its full range.

The task is undoubtedly a vast one. A sensible approach to that task would be to start from clear definitions derived from that authoritative teaching. But this may not pay off in an age wary of definitions though proud of the intellect. Pride always blinds and makes one most vulnerable. Suffice it to think of the advice which a prominent professor of philosophy gave to a journalist ready to interview Jacques Derrida, the father of deconstructionism. He advised the journalist, Dinita Smith, not to ask Derrida right away to give his definition of deconstructionism. "Make it your last question because it sends deconstructionists into a paroxysm of rage." [4] The advice is, unfortunately, applicable to many Catholic intellectuals nowadays who are loath to give at the start the definition of some central terms in their discourse about Catholicism.

Instead of definitions it may perhaps be advisable to begin with considerations of facts of history. One such fact is the sad privilege of Rome in remaining, within Christendom, the sole staunch and stubborn upholder of all the Christological dogmas for which so many Catholics, above all Athanasius, had to run for dear life, at times to lay down their very lives. It is enough to consider that in this age of ecumenical largeness the Catholic Church has tolerated for long the Kantian skullduggeries of Hans Küng, but stopped him in his "Catholic" tracks when he tampered with the Church's authoritative understanding of Christ as the consubstantial Son of the Father.

Read Part 2 of "The Catholic Intellectual"


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