Catholic identity and intellectual tradition


By Corrine Winter

Catholic colleges and universities throughout the United States (and no doubt elsewhere) are engaged in reflection on something called the “Catholic Intellectual Tradition (CIT).” It is identified as that which distinguishes us both from public and other denominational institutions because it is Catholic and from other kinds of Catholic institutions because it is intellectual. Materials posted to the website of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities illustrate a wide variety of approaches to defining the term as well as to reflecting on its implications for our work.

Corinne Winter

The term Catholic Intellectual Tradition is an interesting one. When people, Catholic or not, think about what makes a Catholic, they often think first of external symbols and practices, or of doctrines and moral principles. Catholics go to Mass, believe and participate in seven sacraments, honor canonized saints, pray the rosary, follow the pope, and don’t practice or support abortion or euthanasia. All valuable aspects of Catholicism. But is there a distinctive Intellectual Tradition that marks Catholicism? Besides holding to core beliefs, do Catholics think in a distinctive way? I share with many the conviction that there is a distinctively Catholic way of thinking and that it is a rich and often neglected aspect of Catholic Tradition.
One key aspect of the CIT is a positive view of humanity and of our relationship with God. Grounded in the conviction that humanity is created in God’s own image, we hold to the belief that our natural goal is communion with God. And God calls us to that goal, surrounding us with grace, with God’s own loving presence. That grace, despite the sometimes powerful temptation to think differently, is ultimately stronger than sin. Moreover, it serves not to overcome nature as though our nature were opposed to the work of God, but rather to perfect nature.

As a fundamental aspect of our human nature, our intellectual activity has a vital role in our call to union with God. God is truth, and thus the pursuit of truth is ultimately a quest to know God. And while the fullness of truth is beyond our grasp, we are not created for frustration; we can know God and we can continue to grow in that knowledge. Thus, far from being opposed, faith and reason support one another. Diligent, open-minded, honest and humble study of any discipline can, in fact, be a spiritual activity.


Catholics believe further that all of reality including every culture contains seeds of truth. No culture is to be despised. No honest search for truth is to be counted worthless. This does not mean that we believe truth is relative. Rather, diverse approaches may lead us to new understandings or expressions of the One Truth. Justin Martyr, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas and countless other important Catholic thinkers have made use of the work of even “pagan” philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle in their explorations of Catholic faith.

‘Catholics are not fundamentalists. We understand the truth to be vast, complex, and integrating. It is not something that can be reduced to a manual, contained fully in a set of dogmas or precepts. We value Scripture, the creeds, the sacraments and other elements of our Tradition as normative guides for our work to know God, and keep returning to them. At the same time, we trust in God’s grace and dare to ask further questions as the world changes. We do not condemn those who think differently, nor do we assume that their challenges mean we need to throw out our own convictions. We are committed to a Living Tradition in which a Pope John XXIII, a Pope John Paul II, and a Pope Francis call our attention to different demands that the truth makes on us.

Not long ago, I was talking with my father who said to me that he was so glad that Catholic Tradition is so rich that at age 97, he is still learning more about it. If we could live to be as old as some of the biblical characters are said to have been, we would still have more to learn. So rich is our Catholic Intellectual Tradition.

Since one commitment of The Catholic Messenger is promotion of Catholic Intellectual life, I hope, in a series of these columns, to explore themes and representative works that are part of the Catholic Intellectual Tradition.

(Corinne Winter is a professor of theology at St. Ambrose University in Davenport.)

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