On Georgetown and the Essential Unity of All Knowledge

Freedoms are being restricted with the aid of Catholics who have denied, in practice, any real connection between reason and revelation.

Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius. (CNS)

Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius. (CNS)“Faith’s recognition of the essential unity of all knowledge provides a bulwark against the alienation and fragmentation which occurs when the use of reason is detached from the pursuit of truth and virtue; and in this sense, Catholic institutions have a specific role to play in helping to overcome the crisis of universities today.”

— Pope Benedict XVI, “Ad Limina Address to U. S. Bishops, May 5, 2012.


In its editorial occasioned by Georgetown University’s invitation to Kathleen Sebelius—a Catholic, who is engineering the requirement that Catholic institutions must provide services to any employee, even if they include things contrary to conscience, faith, and reason—the Catholic Standard (May 10) called the invitation disappointing “but not surprising.” Though this statement is rather blunt, it is probably too mild in light of the damage the invitation causes. It is more than “disappointing,” though it is indeed no “surprise.”

The distance that many Catholic universities are perceived to have moved from Catholicism is, for many, illustrated by the publicity of this invitation. Honoring the person who intends to shut one’s institution down unless it conforms to laws that deny religious liberty and human intelligence seems, at best, dubious.

The best background “theory” about why Sebelius was interested in this invitation is that the Obama administration does not think it can win the election if people are reminded of the economy. Thus, effort is made to shift attention to what are called “moral” issues, a euphemism for the use of “rights” to redefine the whole field of public life. Obama’s advocacy of gay-marriage also falls into this category. The administration understands the value of splitting the religious vote between those who stand for Christian teachings and practices and those who reject them but insist on changing the Church to conform to the secular pattern. However many can be enticed by this tactic may be enough at the polls to win reelection. The only bad prince, as Machiavelli put it, is one who loses power.

The Church would expect, at a time when its liberty of mission and action is threatened by specific governmental decree, that universities, not just Catholic ones, would be the first to come to its aid. But they seem to be the last. They appear mostly indifferent to what has been probably the most unique of American legal innovations about the relation of religion and government. The Sebelius invitation, from the outside, seems an indifference to the Church by those who would be most expected to support her on the grounds of intelligence itself.

The issue is whether universities called “Catholic” have not become rather secular with vague religious symbols still about but no substantial connection with what it is to be Catholic in reason and intelligence. The bishops, for all their courage in facing this question, have not addressed the factual question about what is the actual orientation of universities that are called “Catholic” for whatever reason.


Meanwhile, Pope Benedict XVI has been speaking to various groups of the American hierarchy on their periodic visits to Rome to report on the status of the local Church. To the final group of visiting American bishops, the pope spoke of education. “Catholic colleges and universities need to reaffirm their distinctive identity in fidelity to their founding ideals and the Church’s mission in service of the Gospel,” Benedict observed. Obviously, Benedict knows that both the identity and fidelity are in serious question in many if not most universities. The universities are not doing what might be expected of them. The pope tells the bishops, however, that “the schools remain an essential resource for the new evangelization” He acknowledges that they should be better recognized and supported.

“It is no exaggeration to say that providing young people with a sound education in the faith represents the most urgent internal challenge facing the Catholic community in your country.” The young, in fact, have a “right to encounter the faith in all its beauty, its intellectual richness and its radical demands.” One would be hard-pressed to say that the young are so presented with this fullness in many of our schools.

Education is directed both to minds and hearts. “The question of Catholic identity, not least at the university level, entails much more than the teaching of religion or the mere presence of a chaplaincy on campus.” The pope is direct. “Catholic schools and colleges have failed to challenge students to re-appropriate their faith as part of the exciting intellectual discovery which mark the experience of higher education.” The pope himself clearly understands the excitement of intellect, an excitement enhanced and elevated by revelation directed to reason. The harmony of faith and reason should guide our life-long “pursuit of knowledge and virtue.” In this endeavor, teachers and professors are vital. This fact underscores the issue of who is hired and by what criterion. If it is only a secular criterion, the school will soon be secular. The “splendor” of truth, both human and divine, needs to be seen in the teachers themselves.

By its nature, faith incites us to know the fullness of truth that includes what Christ revealed. And who is Christ? “He is the creative Logos in whom things were made and in whom all reality ‘holds together.’” Christ is the new Adam who reveals “the whole truth of man,” a phrase that Bl. John Paul II used to love. The pope here repeats a title that is proper to Christ, something that he discussed in his Jesus of Nazareth. Christ is the new Adam “who reveals the ultimate truth about man and the world in which we live.”


As he often does, Benedict recalls Augustine and Plato. He compares the unrest of our time with that of Augustine’s time. “Augustine pointed to this intrinsic connection between faith and human intellectual enterprise by appealing to Plato, who held, he says, that ‘to love wisdom is to love God’” (City of God, Book 8, c.  8). It just happens that I had been reading the City of God with a class this semester. I went back to reread this remarkable chapter of Augustine.

Augustine pointed out how, of all the philosophers, Plato is the closest to revelation. (See Josef Pieper,Platonic Myths). “Plato defined the Sovereign Good as the life in accordance with virtue (Gorgias, 470d), and he declared that this was possible only for one who had the knowledge of God and who strove to imitate  him; this was the sole condition of happiness.” And Augustine concludes: “Now this Sovereign Good, according to Plato, is God. And that is why he will have it that the true philosopher is the lover of God, since the aim of philosophy is happiness, and he who has set his heart on God will be happy in the enjoyment of him.”

It seems most remarkable that, in these very days of hassle about what a Catholic university ought to be, the pope himself explains it to the bishops in terms of Plato. As I often say, there is no such thing as a university in which the constant reading of Plato does not on. It seems quite clear that this reading has not been going on.

“The Christian commitment to learning, which gave birth to the medieval universities, was based upon this conviction that the one God, as the source of all truth and goodness, is likewise the source of the intellect’s passionate desire to know and the will’s yearning for fulfillment in love.” In recalling that the very foundation of universities was in the effort to relate revelation to reason, to the fact that the source of intellect both in reason and revelation is the same God, Benedict puts his finger on the heart of the issue. Universities, on a very narrow basis of methodological reason, close themselves off from the whole of reality that is open to the human mind. All of this was brilliantly set forth in John Paul II’s Fides et Ratio, a seminal document which, I would estimate, was read by less than one percent of graduates of Catholic colleges during their past four academic years.

Leading us all to “the truth is ultimately an act of love.” What is lacking in our universities is precisely this openness to all reality. “Faith’s recognition of the essential unity of all knowledge provides a bulwark against the alienation and fragmentation which occur when the use of reason is detached from the pursuit of truth and virtue,” Catholic institutions have a role to play but only if they are able to recognize what is at stake in their purpose for existing. Evidently, many have failed in this matter.

The pope speaks of a “culture that is genuinely Catholic.” What is obvious today is that, with the decrees constantly coming from the government, the culture is becoming less and less open to any sort of Catholic presence except that which is confined to a narrow range of itself. It is consoling that the bishops seem to recognize what is at stake. It is, shall we say, “unsettling” that the universities largely do not.

In an official statement (May 15), the President of Georgetown has affirmed, even in cases like the current one, that the university does not approve of anything that is contrary to basic Catholic teachings. Kathleen Sebelius speaks because she recognizes the value of her role as a nominal Catholic in submitting the freedoms of the Constitution to the control of a “rights-state” that is all too willing defines for us what religion must mean if it is “allowed” to participate in public life.

We are perhaps seeing the end of the great American experiment of religious freedom by those who have little understanding or sympathy for it. Catholics, ironically, are seeing their freedoms restricted and ended by the aid of other Catholics, political and academic, who have denied, in practice, any real connection between reason and revelation. 

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About James V. Schall, S.J. 180 Articles
James V. Schall, S.J. (1928-2019) taught political philosophy at Georgetown University for many years until retiring in 2012. He was the author of over thirty books and countless essays on philosophy, theology, education, morality, and other topics. His of his last books included On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018 (Ignatius Press, 2018) and The Politics of Heaven and Hell: Christian Themes from Classical, Medieval, and Modern Political Philosophy (Ignatius, 2020).