Catholic Intellectual Life:Reflections on Mission and Identity

Landy, Thomas M. “Catholic Intellectual Life: Reflections on Mission and Identity,” U.S. Catholic Historian 13, no. 2 (Winter 1995): 87-100.

In this five-part article Thomas Landy reflects on Catholic intellectual mission and identity in the United States during the last part of the twentieth century. Part One describes John Ellis’ famous 1955 critique in which he blamed the mediocrity of Catholic higher education on a “self imposed ghetto mentality.” Part Two appraises the status of Catholic colleges and universities in 1995. Landy notes that although many Catholic institutions have recently been highly ranked academically, they have increasing trouble defining their “Catholic identity.” He adds that Catholicism at these institutions has given way to other “isms” of the day, such as multi-culturalism, post-structuralism, and deconstructionism. He argues that the Catholic intellectual of the past was better able to integrate knowledge with faith. Part Three describes how Landy sees this change having taken place. As the church began to recognize its own pluralism and that of the world around it, it separated the notion of intellectual life from vocation altogether. Late twentieth-century culture wars further damaged Catholic intellectual life, while a new ecclesiological self-understanding, pluralism and ecumenism undermined the vitality of Catholic intellectual life. In many Catholic colleges and universities, Thomism had once provided an integral intellectual structure. But when its authority began to fade, the disciplines taught at these institutions became increasingly compartmentalized. In Part Four Landy claims there is still a need for intellectual life among Catholics, and intellectuals are hungry for a sense of vocation. In order to fill these needs, however, Landy thinks Catholics should “expand the roles and means of dialogue” instead of returning to former definitions of intellectual life. He claims that committed Catholics are out there. But they must be engaged intellectually more effectively than they are at present. The Church must encourage those in newer fields, especially the sciences, to shape their work as a Christian vocation. Finally, Landy describes how pluralism offers both a challenge and an opportunity to Catholic intellectual life. The opportunity lies in the diversity of the current community; the challenge is to defend traditional texts as sacred. According to Landy, Catholic intellectual life must be both integrative and individualized, which is in the truest sense a vocation. (LT)