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Lecture explores Catholic intellectual tradition

Kaitlyn Rabach | Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Despite major Church setbacks in recent years, Catholic intellectual tradition is still alive and well in the contemporary world, Margaret O’Brien Steinfels, former co-director of the Center on Religion and Culture at Fordham University said.

She discussed this tradition, which she defined as the interplay of human intellect and spirituality through history, in a lecture titled “Perspectives on the Catholic Intellectual Tradition” Saint Mary’s College’s spring lecture series, “Mind, Body, Spirit: Connected,” Tuesday night.

Steinfels said the fallout of the major sex abuse allegations in the early 2000s was a significant problem for the Church.

“The scandal reported in January of 2002 about the Boston Catholic Church covering up sexual abuse by Church leaders was a pivotal moment for our Church,” Steinfels said. “This crisis affected every part of the Catholic community. The robust confidence in our Church as a whole has fallen several notches because of this.”

Steinfels said this crisis and other issues created ambiguity about the strength of Church authority, the intellectual tradition and its interplay with social justice.

“This tradition is both decisive and expansive,” Steinfels said. “Catholics have gone from [the tradition] being a structured phenomenon to something that can no longer be pinned down decisively. However, Catholics do have a rich selection of people to cite when we think about Catholic intellectual tradition and social justice. This selection spans decades and continents. “

In order to engage the Catholic intellectual tradition, Steinfels said Catholics must look to future progress.
“Catholics needs to scan the horizon and argue the world,” Steinfels said. “We need to place emphasis on the notion that Catholic intellectual tradition looks not only to the past, but to the present and the future.”

In order to actively participate in this tradition, Steinfels said Church members must seize the label “intellectual” as a badge of honor.

“Intellectuals are often found in public forums. They are agonistic,” Steinfels said. “Intellectuals argue on different sides of large and important subjects.”

She said intellectuals are the ones who pass down and reinvent tradition, and that this intellectual tradition will play into how future generations relate to the Catholic faith.

“Tradition defined as something that is passed down implies that we always thought or acted in such a way, “Steinfels said. “If we really do what tradition asks we must acknowledge that each generation asks different questions and faces different challenges. Tradition may be a given that we hold near, but it is also invented.”

Steinfels said Catholic intellectual tradition is especially important in today’s world, with its strong emphasis on empirical evidence.

“There is more to the world we see through microscopes and telescopes,” Steinfels said. “Our Church’s tradition allows us to contest ideas and worldviews. This tradition allows us to create conversation that works to criticize and understand what we see around us.”

“Empirical findings enrich the understanding of a human person, but they are not the end-all, be-all. Aspects of the human person cannot be explained scientifically,” she said. “If the scientific context of truth is not questioned then we will forever be living in a society where human life and human action are reduced.”

Steinfels stressed the importance of the Church sharing this tradition with the public.

“Some people wish for religion to be confined to private life. I believe it is a loss to the whole society when any religion is confined to the private life,” Steinfels said. “Catholics have a tradition that takes philosophy and philosophical thought seriously. These thoughts should be open for public discussion and do have an influence on policies and other matters of public life.”