The Catholic Intellectual Tradition:
A Classification and a Calling
MARY ELLEN O’DONNELL
“Just as we reject the principle of divorcing faith and works, so we reject the principle and the practice of divorcing the life of faith and the life of study,” wrote Father Leo Ward of the University of Notre Dame in 1961.1 Describing the ideal for the Catholic school, Ward’s rejection invites reflection on Catholic intellectual life. However, this comment, which might galvanize Catholic professors who perceive themselves as exemplars of the ideal, might also solicit quite a different reaction from those outside the professionally academic arena. The public perception of Catholicism does not always incline toward a scholastic tradition. Thomas Landy writes, “To many Americans, a ‘Catholic intellectual’ is regarded at least as an enigma, if not a full-fledged oxymoron. Numerous critics have asserted that ‘real’ Catholics are not able to think independently, and are thus not capable of being legitimate intellectuals.”2 For some, the Catholic intellectual tradition is the most engaging aspect of the religious heritage, boasting such famed thinkers as Augustine and Thomas Aquinas. For others, the combination of “Catholic” and “intellectual” yields little more than a paradox. This spectrum of possible assumptions regarding the concept of “the Catholic intellectual tradition”—from its enduring and characterizing capacity to its apparent impossibility—exemplifies the complicated nature of my subject. Depending on whom you ask both inside and outside the faith, the Catholic intellectual tradition can seem a vital and lasting part of this religion or a nonsensical contradiction of terms.
Is there Catholic intellectualism? Is it a religious practice? How does intellectual work function within ecclesiastical structures? My interrogation of the Catholic intellectual tradition relies on a historiographical approach to scholarship that addresses this tradition as a categorical problematic. Numerous volumes have been written attempting to define the Catholic intellectual tradition, creating competing views of