Tradition and Innovation at Catholic Universities: Ideas from Bernard Lonergan

By Teevan, Donna | Catholic Education, March 2004 | Go to article overview
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Tradition and Innovation at Catholic Universities: Ideas from Bernard Lonergan

Teevan, Donna, Catholic Education

This article discusses applications of Lonergan's thinking on tradition and innovation to the world of Catholic education. Even now, at the beginning of the 21st century and 20 years after his death, it is worthwhile to explore his understanding of tradition and innovation, with attention to how it related to the Catholic intellectual culture of his own time and, more importantly, how it might contribute to an understanding of the identity of Catholic educational institutions in today's period of great transition. In recent years, faculty members and administrators at Catholic universities have been engaged in many discussions about the Catholic intellectual tradition and Catholic higher education. Most of the attention in these conversations has gone to the issue of what it means to be Catholic. The next step is to explore what it means to have a tradition. Thus, this essay examines the usefulness of one leading 20th century Catholic intellectual's approach to tradition as it relates to Catholic education in general and to Catholic universities in particular.


Lonergan, a Canadian Jesuit theologian and philosopher who lived from 1904-1984, aimed to do Catholic theology on what he described as "the level of the times." In his day, this entailed bringing Catholic thought into dialogue with the social and natural sciences, historical consciousness, and modern philosophy. In our own time, in Catholic higher education, this dialogue is taken for granted. What has become more challenging for many today, especially for Catholic theologians, is an understanding of tradition that maintains identity while embracing a life-giving pluralism. The Catholic intellectual tradition, understood not as an artifact but as a process, is always at its best when its capacity for innovation is fully functioning.

To explore Lonergan's approach to tradition, we begin with a few comments about what he said directly about tradition. In itself, however, this will not suffice because a fuller understanding of a tradition demands a consideration of the dynamics of community, the workings of history, and the nature of meaning. We will examine each of these and will conclude with some thoughts on the relevance of Lonergan's thinking to a few key issues facing contemporary Catholic universities.


Lonergan's recognition of the ambiguous status of tradition is clear in his distinction between authentic and inauthentic tradition. He asserts that a tradition may be described as authentic in one or two senses: (1) in its faithfulness to the original message it seeks to carry forward, and/or (2) in its embodiment and promotion of conversion. In the first sense, authentic tradition is "a long accumulation of insights, adjustments, reinterpretations that repeat the original message afresh for each age" (Lonergan, 1972, p. 162). In contrast, inauthentic tradition offers only a "watering down of the original message," a recasting of it in terms that satisfy those who have dodged what he calls "radical conversion" (Lonergan, 1972, p. 162). Hence, a tradition that is authentic retains its connection to the original message by continually opening itself to intellectual, moral, and religious conversion. Note that for Lonergan a tradition may stand in need of conversion and may be either authentic or inauthentic.

Along with the issue of the authenticity or inauthenticity of the tradition itself is the question of an individual's authenticity in relation to a tradition. Lonergan points out the complexity of this matter. A person may authentically appropriate an inauthentic tradition. Conversely, a person may inauthentically appropriate an authentic tradition. In this latter case, the person promotes a decay of what is authentic in the tradition, and the tradition itself may eventually become inauthentic. Thus, the individual's relation to the tradition is not just a private concern even though it is deeply personal.

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