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 higher education, John Henry Newman is insistent on the importance of faith and reason working together, on faith seeking intellectual understanding.  Reason acting alone tends to consider itself independent and supreme, making itself a religion.

The Catholic intellectual tradition promotes a dialogue between faith and reason.  The Mission of Saint Mary’s College states: [n]ourished by its Christian faith, the College understands the intellectual and spiritual journeys of the human person to be inextricably connected…where the liberal arts inform and enrich all areas of learning.

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 resolve the great questions that arise from common human experience through a search that probes for fundamental principles and causes.  This activity is ordered to the development of intellectual abilities important for life as a whole, beyond the knowledge and skills for any particular professions.

Again, Newman writes: A university may be considered with reference wither to its Students or it its Studies; and the principle, that all Knowledge is a whole and the separate sciences parts of one, I equally important [since] all branches of knowledge are connected together for the attainment of truth, which is their common end. 

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 goes on to write that these are two intellectual orders set out.  The first concerns the search for truth and the second concerns the certainty of truth already known.  The truth sought and the truth known are not separate, but aspects of the one Truth who is Jesus Christ.  Therefore, while Saint Mary’s College instructs students in strategies to search for the truth, to develop discerning minds, it is clear about the truth already known.  Furthermore, Saint Mary’s College encourages love for the truth.

For those working at Saint Mary’s College, this mean first to encourage students to trust their own minds.  This is accomplished by assisting them in developing an authentic self-image.  No one can be or do whatever one sets his/her mind to be or do.  We all have strengths and weaknesses, talents and shortcomings; our own particular gifts.  Identified, we can better grown into ourselves.  We must, then, help students appreciate themselves, to love themselves.  Seeing what thy really/truly can be and loving what they really/truly can be, directs students to realize goals and, thereby, they can succeed.

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 forever happy.  We learn about the governance of the universe in the sciences.  We learn about the governance of the universe in philosophy and theology.  Different disciplines/perspectives inform us about the cosmos and in this way we are able to see the cosmos as a whole.

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.  Again, John Paul II made it very clear that a dialogue between Catholicism and 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.  The Catholic intellectual tradition is one of inclusive excellence.  For this reason, the Catholic tradition tells us that choosing the good happens in community and for the good of the community.  We hope to help students – and each other – to understand that none of us is the measure of all things.  None of us can be happy isolated from society.  We are by nature happy in community.  The common good, then, should be a matter of importance and responsibility for all of us.

It is the duty of those teaching at Saint Mary’s College, it is their responsibility, then, to assist students to understand what it is to be human.  It is their duty and responsibility,  then, to assist students to understand the role of the intellect.  It is their duty and responsibility to assist students to understand themselves authentically so that they can better identify what will lead them to happiness, so that they can better direct themselves to God, who is the end of all, in whom we hope to come to rest.


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, eE Stump And N. Kretzmann, eds. [Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2001]


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