George W. Rutler
Christendom College Commencement Address, May 14, 1989

On this happy occasion in such verdant countryside, you will not think it odd, I hope, if I begin by saying something about the ancient Egyptian method of embalming. Given the superior education you have received here, you most likely are familiar with this and with most other things. But it is interesting to me, at least, that when a Pharaoh or some other celebrity of the Nile Valley was mummified, everything was preserved except the brain. Ornate receptacles were prepared for the liver, heart and lungs because each of these was considered important. But the brain was thrown away; for no one, not the royal physicians or the priests of Isis could figure out what it was for.

The situation is different today. We do preserve the brain. I understand that a few miles up the road in our nation's capital there even are think tanks. In higher education, the system of mummifying brains is an expensive process called academic tenure. But for all that, we have not progressed. You could actually say we have frightfully regressed. For now there is another part of the human being which is discarded by scientists and even by theologians who have forgotten its purpose: I speak of the soul. The whole body is preserved now, but the soul is lost. There are schools for brains, and health clubs for the body, hearts can be transplanted and bodies frozen, the seed of life is juggled in test tubes and yet the soul is thrown away. A nation will rivet its attention on efforts to preserve even the bodies of whales, while professional voices deny that the soul of a baby means anything.

It may seem that the soul is no more fitting a subject for a commencement address than Egyptian embalming. The great Duke of Wellington said it is a dreadful thing when religion begins to interfere with the conduct of one's private life. I say not so. The crisis in education today is caused by the ignorance of the holy economy which fits body and soul together. Secular education has tried to feed the organs of the body while starving the soul. What has been the result? Writers secular and religious have admitted that universities and colleges at the end of the modern age have become factories of childish moralism and the welcoming refuge of arrested development. Some of the most distinguished complainers, like Professor Alan Bloom of the University of Chicago, only compound the problem: they make a good appeal for a classical revival, but in an aesthetic sense without a higher moral authority. They speak of virtue apart from grace. Their heroes are charming figures like Rousseau and Kant who were moral frauds and who largely caused the form of ignorance called modernism which we are beginning to scorn in retrospect. As you graduate, you may take pride in the knowledge that your college has been founded as part of the rediscovery of the soul in the life of the intellect.

The history of Christian doctrine in large measure has been the history of defining the mutual dignity of souls and bodies. Sad but impassioned sagas of Christian heresies have been stories of how people give wrong accounts of what happened when God Himself took flesh. An obligation to form the moral person is binding on what is known as secular education as much as it is on religious education. But humility should make Catholics so free of human respect that they are willing to assert this truth: education is incomplete if it does not conclude in the vision of God. The universal intuition of Catholicism gave the world the university, and only a renaissance of Catholic thought, regardless of the cost in human terms, can bring scholarship to its full potential. Thus John Henry Newman spoke:

The Catholic Creed is one whole, and Philosophy is one whole; each may be compared to an individual, to which nothing can be added, from which nothing can be taken away. They may be professed, but there is no middle ground between professing and not professing. A University, so called, which refuses to profess the Catholic Creed, is, from the nature of the case, hostile both to the Church and to Philosophy.—<The Idea of a University>

Now by "Philosophy" Newman meant not wisdom or knowledge or science or judgment, but a habit of mind which sees through ideology. It is an illumination which challenges the pedant, cracks the cliche, and enables the intellect to meet what Newman called the great infidel questions of the day. The questions of his day remain the questions of <this> day, and are written even more darkly on the cracking walls of the modern age: is there a difference between the liberal arts and secular liberalism? is there a difference between moral freedom and political liberation? is there a difference between truth and utilitarianism? Only the Catholic vision is wide enough to give full answers. Therefore academic freedom is free precisely when it is freedom for Christ's truth and not freedom from it. Surely there is no particular way to be a Catholic engineer or a Catholic lawyer; but there is a way to be an engineer or a lawyer who is a Catholic; and that is to be a good one. This cannot be done unless the result of one's work conforms to the law's of God's universe.

To this end, the Holy See has mandated a profession of faith and a new oath of fidelity to the Teaching Church. They cannot compromise the freedom of the intellect; they can only form that freedom while exiling any deformation of it. Newman required all officers and professors of his new Catholic University of Ireland to make a profession of the Catholic faith according to the formula of Pope Pius IV. In American history, the Declaration of Independence only declared independence from another order; it became the guarantor of freedom when its assertions were obeyed according to sacred honour. In a culture riddled with academies which have liberated themselves from humane discourse and the life of the virtues, the authentic Catholic college is a beacon of moral freedom because it obeys the Truth. Colleges such as Christendom will secure freedom so long as their teachers affirm that they share the mind of Christ, a thing arrogant to say by one's self, but sane when one shares the mind of the holy Doctors of the Church and the Vicar of Christ.

The twilight of this century broods over a dying form of intellectual slothfulness known as modernism. Its essence is subscription to ideology instead of truth. Albert Einstein warned his generation not to expect the intelligentsia to be brave in a moral crisis. As the modernist rejected the prophetic demands of sacred tradition, so does the reactionary who invokes that tradition to canonize his own prejudices. Honest Catholic scholars hold neither false progressivism nor reaction against the future. They abide by the truth which will sanctify the future. On the campuses of the world today, from the venerable halls of the Western nations to the greatest square of China, students once again are rebelling; but this time the rebellion is against the rebels, challenging the false orthodoxies of materialism which denied the existence of the soul. The present academic order is threatened and angry because it boasted of being a perpetually new order. Tin sages who taught that God was dead and man had come of age now hear rumours of new saints as they watch themselves aging beyond maturity into oblivion. This is the time for Catholic scholars to speak the truth, for some have been <afraid> to speak. Indeed, they let the cynics speak for them, and so in these recent years they came close to bartering the entire patrimony of Catholic scholarship for the abbreviated social vision of the 1960's. The current educational reforms by the Holy See would redress this capitulation.

As a response, untutored neo-conservatism is no more valid than modernism, nor will the Yuppie redeem the Yippie. The truth which secures the health of souls and bodies in the year 1989 will be the truth which secures it in the year 2089, and secured it when Newman entered his last year teaching it in 1889, and when Anselm proclaimed it against Rufus in 1089, and when Augustine prayed it on the sands of Tagaste in 389, and when John the Apostle thundered it beneath Asian skies in 89. I do not know what sense any of them would have made of the term "academic freedom". I should think each would have said: any freedom in the academy is a form of obedience to the laws of the academy, and that the academy is not an academy at all whose laws are not true to God Who is the Truth.

A popular motion picture this year tells the story of an American high school which had become a virtual den of everything except learning. To this day, the sociologists and politicians and educators of the last generation whose theories encouraged that school's degeneration are still not indicted for their social delinquency. With whatever flawed methods, only that school's principal had the courage to try to invoke some kind of institutional reform based on character reform. I have keen memories of my <own> high school: the opportunities it offered regardless of race or rank, its graduates who included world famous poets, athletes, actors, and a winner of the Nobel Prize for curing polio; its honest and healthy sporting life, its curriculum which opened the world of Latin letters to me when I was twelve years old, its stern and sacrificing teachers, and the pride the old town took in it. Of the two best friends in my class, one is a distinguished rabbi and the other an aid to the Dalai Lama. Everyone I suppose embellishes one's golden school days. But here is my point: that school shown in the film, riddled with drugs and patrolled by security guards is the same school I attended. Only twenty years marked the change. In one generation that kind of thing can happen. Not because of poverty, not because of crime, not because of social change, but because of a loss of moral vision. And until that is repaired, as only the splendour of virtue can repair it, more barbarians will smash more gates. Demagogues and vulgarians are chanting on the campuses of America, "Hey, hey, ho, ho, Western culture's got to go". The time has come for the heirs of the scholastic tradition to cry with a recovered voice: "You who say that must go."

I do not want to end these remarks as I heard a college president end not long ago. He raised his arms and said to the graduates, "May you find satisfaction." That is the way to send robots out into a world of neon lights and stainless steel. I trust you have learned why Socrates found truth in discontent, and why the unsatisfied heart of Augustine became happy when it rested in God. You are Bachelors of Arts, and you have learned quite a lot. But I hope you have learned what to do with the restless intellect, and the restless imagination, and the restless will. For you are entering a world which does not know what to do with these articles of the soul, as those ancient Egyptians did not know what to do with the brain. When they find their proper rest in God our Creator, you do not have a mummy, you have a saint.

At a ceremony, I watched the face of Bishop Ignatius Kung Pin Mei of Shanghai who spent some thirty years in prison for confessing his loyalty to the Roman Catholic Church and the Roman Pontiff. There were distractions on that occasion and the air was full of the trivial rhetoric which too frequently marks gatherings in our comfortable part of the Church. But the Bishop of Shanghai sat quietly praying his rosary, with an ineffable smile on his face. Perhaps we should give posthumous degrees in theology to Lenin and Hitler and Mao, because they have shown the world despite themselves how to educate heroic men and women in the peace which surpasses all understanding.

There are those who say the liberal arts are useless. They say that who are slaves of this world. Your diploma is most useful: it is a license to go out now and be holy. You do not need a degree to do it. But you do need a body and soul. You have both.

<Rev. George W. Rutler> holds his doctorate in theology from the Angelicum University in Rome. He is currently Associate Pastor of St. Agnes Church in New York City. Father Rutler has written many articles and books including <Beyond Modernity> and <The Curé d'Ars Today> (both published by Ignatius Press).

This article was taken from the Summer 1989 issue of "Faith & Reason". Subscriptions available from Christendom Press, 2101 Shenandoah Shores Road, Ft. Royal, VA 22630, 703-636-2900, Fax 703-636-1655. Published quarterly at $20.00 per year.

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