Catholic Intellectual Tradition

Right reason, that is Reason rightly exercised, leads the mind to the Catholic Faith and plants it there, and teaches it in all its religious speculations to act under its guidance.
- John Henry Newman, The Idea of A University

In his seminal work on Catholic higher education, Saint John Henry Newman is insistent on the importance of faith and reason working together. Faith, Saint Augustine says, seeks understanding.This means that, for Catholics, the meanings and values embedded in divine revelation, even God himself, can be intelligently asked about under the light of the grace of belief.

The liberal arts tradition at Saint Mary’s College might be described as a strategy to educate and engage the intellect in an attempt to ask questions that arise from human experience, in what is an inquiry that probes for fundamental principles and causes. God is one of these fundamental principles and causes, indeed God is the one who gathers all else together as their origin and their end, their beginning and their fulfillment. Thus Newman says, "A university may be considered with reference either to its students or its studies; and the principle that all Knowledge is a whole and the separate sciences parts of one, is equally important [since] all branches of knowledge are connected together for the attainment of truth, which is their common end."

In the same spirit as Newman, Pope John Paul II wrote that the Catholic university’s intellectual mission is characterized by a commitment to the integration of various types of knowledge, a dialogue between faith and reason, an ethical concern, and a theological perspective. In the apostolic letter Ex Corde Ecclesiae, John Paul II explains that there are two intellectual orders. The first concerns the search for truth. The second concerns the certainty of truth already known.  The truth sought and the truth known are not separate, but are aspects of the one Truth who is Jesus Christ. Therefore, while Saint Mary’s College seeks always to develop discerning minds, it is clear about the truth that the Catholic tradition already knows by faith.

For those working at Saint Mary’s College, this means that we first encourage students to trust their own minds as intelligent and rational, as ever-more shaped to intelligently and reasonably seek answers to questions.This is accomplished by assisting them in developing their knowledge of themselves as intelligent, reasonable, and free. At the same time, Saint Mary's encourages students to consider what it would mean to be intended, created, and loved by God, and how knowing that might inform or reinform all that they are and all that they do, including when they ask questions.

Particular strategies to assist students include integration, interdisciplinarity, and an appreciation for the common good.  The new core curriculum learning outcomes are based on these.The Catholic tradition tells us that God governs the cosmos. It tells us that God wills the good for all His creation. It tells us that God wills us to be radically in love with God and with the universe God has made. We learn about the immanent governance of the universe in the sciences. We learn about the transcendent governance of the universe in philosophy and theology. Different disciplines/perspectives inform us about the cosmos and in this fashion we are able to see the cosmos in new ways.

From these different perspectives, we learn that there is a diversity of ways to see the world. We learn that people are different from each other in how they learn and in how they see the world. The Catholic tradition, therefore, sets itself in no particular environment or culture. Rather, it understands that all cultures have something to offer to God. A dialogue between Catholicism and every culture is important and should occur in a special way at Catholic colleges and universities.

Diversity, discernment, and openness, therefore, are not at odds with the Catholic intellectual tradition. Non-Catholics are not at odds with the tradition simply because they are not Catholic. Catholicism embraces all who seek the truth. It embraces a vigorous intellectual life, an intellectual life which strives to identify the good not only for oneself, but also for the community. For this reason, the Catholic tradition tells us that seeking the good happens in and with a community, and for the good of the community. The common good is a matter of importance and responsibility for all of us.

It is the responsibility of those teaching at Saint Mary’s College to assist students in understanding what it is to ask questions, to seek truth, and to know truth. It is their responsibility to assist students in understanding themselves authentically so that they can better ask about what will lead them to happiness and goodness, so that they can better seek God, who is Goodness and Truth, and in whom we hope to come to know someday face-to-face.


McCarthy, Timothy G., The Catholic Tradition: The Church in the Twentieth Century. 2nd edition.  [Chicago:  Loyola University Press, 1998]     

Newman, John Henry, Apologia Pro Vita Sua [London: Penguin Books, 1994]

  • The Idea of A University [Notre-Dame, IND: University of Notre=Dame Press, 1982]
  • Rise and Progress of Universities and Benedictine Essays [Notre-Dame, IN: University of Notre-Dame Press, 2001]

Pelikan, Jaroslav, The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1971]

Pieper, Josef, “The Intellectual and the Church,” in  Josef Pieper: An Anthology [San Francisco: St. Ignatius Press, 1989]

Rist, John, “Faith and Reason,” in The Cambridge Companion to Augustine, E Stump and N. Kretzmann, eds. [Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2001]


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