Catholic universities, contemplation, and our cultural future

What many parents still fail to grasp is that their children’s university education isn’t just going to get them a job, it’s going to give them a worldview.

(Image: j zamora |

For better or for worse, universities are shapers of culture, not the only ones, of course, but decisive ones. The reason for this isn’t mysterious. Most of our cultural elites – the people in the media, business, politics, religion, literature, and so on – the people who have the biggest impact on our beliefs and practices, are where they are because of their university education. And it’s a safe bet that, for most of them, that education is fundamental for their thinking. If you want to know what our cultural future will look like, look at our universities.

What many parents still fail to grasp is that their children’s university education isn’t just going to get them a job, it’s going to give them a worldview. Some young people will already have strong beliefs of their own, often imparted by their families, when they matriculate. And some of them will hang on to those beliefs. Others won’t. In any case, many graduates will be carrying on the project of their professors – whether consciously or not – when they go out into the world. This may be a good thing or bad thing, but it’s probably what will happen.

The privilege of the practical and the earthly paradise

Today’s universities have a predominantly practical orientation. This is true not only in the United States and the rest of the West but globally. The dominant orientations of our universities are technological, medical, political, social, and professional. These institutions may initially appear an unlikely amalgam: in part big business feeders, in part STEM factories, in part neo-Marxist seminaries for social activism. But these are just different manifestations of their essentially practical core. In this respect, our universities are thoroughly modern institutions. What I mean to say is that their controlling educational doctrine is radically different from that of classical antiquity and the Christian middle ages.

Francis Bacon and René Descartes were the original theorists of the practical turn in education.i Privileging the quantitative analysis of nature, they viewed education as a handmaid of the artes serviles, whose final purpose was the creation of an earthly paradise, where, as Descartes puts it, we might “enjoy without any trouble the fruits of the earth and all the comforts we find here” but above all have good health, “which is without doubt, of all the blessings of this life, the first and fundamental one.”ii

It was Descartes who called for the “speculative philosophy” of the “schools” to be replaced by a “practical one.”iii So, Marx was only being a good Cartesian when he explained that instead of interpreting the world his intention was to change it.iv And I need hardly add that Marx’s hope too was for an earthly paradise.

A rival vision

Classical antiquity and the Christian middle ages had a different vision of the content and purpose of education. It is supposed to help us cultivate a beatific life of what Josef Pieper would call “leisure.” At its heart leisure, for Pieper, is divine contemplation. Using the words of Diotima in Plato’s Symposium, Pieper writes: “This is the life that above all others man should live, the contemplation of divine beauty; this makes man immortal.”v

We find Plato’s student Aristotle describing this way of life at the end of the Nicomachean Ethics. Aristotle too sees this life as the best one – and what our education should aim at. Like Plato he understands it as a life of virtue. The virtues are meant to support and facilitate a contemplative life, which is the life of the philosopher. But Aristotle also realizes, as does Plato in the Republic, that we can’t live a life of pure contemplation. It’s not a question, however, of choosing between action and contemplation; rather it’s about creating the appropriate hierarchies, organizing your life so that contemplation has the priority.

The premise of the Platonic-Aristotelian approach is simple. Our highest powers as human beings are to know and to love, and the best thing to know and to love is the Cultures and political communities will be cohesive and flourish when this is understood and lived.

St. Thomas Aquinas, an inheritor on this classical vision sums it up well:

In fact, all other human operations seem to be ordered to [contemplation], as to an end. For, there is needed for the perfection of contemplation a soundness of body, to which all the products of technical skill that are necessary for life are directed. Also required are freedom from the disturbances of the passions – this is achieved through the moral virtues and prudence – and freedom from external disorders, to which the whole program of government in civil life is directed. And so, if they are rightly considered, all human functions may be seen to serve the contemplation of truth.vii

The “truth” that Thomas is talking about here is, ultimately, God himself, as the textual setting of the above passage makes clear.

With the advent of Christianity the classical vision wasn’t rejected but appropriated and revised. In the language of Hegel, it was aufgehoben, that is, “sublated.” The revelation that comes to us from Christ in his Church makes us see that the contemplation possible in this life is already a participation in a perfect contemplation that continues beyond death into eternity. The grace of the sacraments that quickens in us the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity puts this divine contemplation within everyone’s reach. So, Nietzsche’s reproach is on target, though not in a way that he fathoms: Christianity is “Platonism for the people.”

The educational program that Plato proposes for the Republic’s philosopher-king – what the Romans would later christen the artes liberales – was understood to be a preparation for philosophy. This idea would be taken over and developed by Christianity as well. Thus, when in the twelfth-century Hugh of St. Victor explains in his Didascalicon that the liberal arts are paths to philosophy, he isn’t saying anything new.viii St. Thomas follows Hugh and classical antiquity.

As Hugh of St. Victor says, the seven [liberal] arts are grouped together – leaving out certain other ones – because those who wanted to learn philosophy were first instructed in them. And the reason why they are divided into the trivium and quadrivium is that “they are, as it were, paths (viae) introducing the quick mind to the secrets of philosophy.”ix

But, with Aristotle, Thomas establishes an order within philosophy too: natural philosophy, then ethics, then metaphysics as the crowning telos. Yet moving beyond Aristotle, Thomas makes the whole of philosophy a preparation for a higher wisdom, which he calls sacra doctrina; this is a share in the “science” of God and the saints.x John Paul II reaffirms theology’s need for philosophy in Fides et ratio, where he places a special emphasis on the importance of metaphysics.xi

The ancients and mediaevals saw the artes serviles as essential to creating the material conditions that make it possible to develop the institutions that could generate and sustain a contemplative culture. We already saw this in the first quote from St. Thomas above. Aristotle explains the idea in his Metaphysics:

Hence when all such inventions were already established, the sciences which do not aim at giving pleasure or at the necessities of life were discovered, and first in the places where men first began to have leisure. This is why the mathematical arts were developed in Egypt; for there the priestly caste was allowed to be at leisure.xii

For the Greeks and Romans, this contemplative culture of leisure was the preserve of a few, but with Christianity it became available to everyone, in different forms, of course, according to each person’s state in life.

Catholic universities and our cultural future

For a time, Catholic universities were, even if imperfectly, the guardians and organic developers of the classical-mediaeval educational vision. But the forces of Baconian and Cartesian modernity were powerful and the inversion of the traditional hierarchy, with the gradual disappearance of some of its more “useless” elements, began to find its way into Catholic higher education too. In the preface to Sacrosanctum concilium the Second Vatican Council mentions contemplation’s priority over action almost as something that the Church takes for granted.xiii But by then, the mid-1960s, that assumption couldn’t be counted on as a guiding principle of Catholic universities.xiv

I have no brief against advances in medicine or technology, or against training in business or promoting social justice. These can all be positive goods. But how can we integrate the related disciplines into an educational model that prioritizes true leisure? If we can’t, then our cultural future is bleak indeed.

Naturally, curricula between schools could vary considerably and there is certainly no absolute need that any particular school should integrate technical or prevocational disciplines. But basic to any curriculum would be the liberal arts, in their classical or modern iterations, ordered appropriately to philosophy and theology. The modern natural and human sciences should also be represented, along with the fine arts. And why not classical languages? As Ambrose McNicholl reminds us, they open up Holy Writ, the Fathers, and the great scholastics in a deeper way; so too they open up in a deeper way the civilization into which the Church, providentially, was born and which she in great measure consecrated and sanctified.xv

We can’t expect secular universities to veer any time soon from their modernizing course. Whatever small, isolated, and ineffectual pockets of resistance that still exist in them will remain just that or be overrun. Sadly, the same is true of most of the older, established Catholic universities. In the Catholic world in the United States perhaps the only reasonable hope at this point is in what, in the common parlance, have come to be called the “Newman Guide schools” –after the well-known publication of The Cardinal Newman Society. (In the interest of full-disclosure I should tell you that I teach at a Newman Guide school.) Only in this small network of Catholic colleges and universities does there seem to be an inkling among a critical mass of faculty and administrators of what is at stake and what needs to be done. These schools, to be sure, have had their own share of problems, often but not always precipitated by administrations and boards who lack a sense of their radically counter-cultural mission and its urgency. But, imperfect as they are, the Newman Guide schools are what we desperately need right now in higher education, especially in Catholic higher education.

We can redeem the culture in the twenty-first century, if we want to. Universities are essential to that project. The good news is that in Catholic higher education we don’t need to start from scratch. The institutions already exist to advance this project. They only need our encouragement, support, and the right leadership.


i Admittedly, this may be a bit of an oversimplification but in a brief essay like this I can’t work through all the complexities that a thorough historical account would demand.

iv This is from the last of Marx’s eleven “Theses on Feuerbach.” These notes that Marx jotted down in 1845 weren’t published in until 1888. But the evangelizing efforts of twentieth-century state-sponsored communism guaranteed their universal dissemination and immortality. On the connection between Descartes and Marx see J. Pieper, The Philosophical Act in Leisure: The Basis of Culture (New York: Mentor, 1963), p. 81.

v In Tune with the World: A Theory of Festivity (South Bend: St. Augustine’s Press, 1999), p. 16.

vi Of course, contemplation can take on many forms: some intend God directly and some intend him indirectly. On this see Pieper’s Happiness and Contemplation (South Bend: St. Augustine’s Press, 1998), pp. 82-85.

viii Didascalicon, III.3 (PL 176: 768).

ix Super Boethium De Trinitate, q. 5, a. 1, ad 3. Thomas is not saying that the only purpose of the liberal arts is to prepare us for philosophy. Any discipline can be considered in itself or in relation to other disciplines. Here Thomas is considering the liberal arts in the latter way.

x Summa theologiae, Ia, q. 1, a. 2. What I said about the purpose of the liberal arts in the previous note also goes for philosophy. If we don’t understand the proper relationships of the disciplines, we won’t understand the purpose of a university and certainly not of a Catholic university. John Paul II reminds us of this imperative in Ex corde ecclesiae: “By means of a kind of universal humanism a Catholic University is completely dedicated to the research of all aspects of truth in their essential connection with the supreme Truth, who is God” (§4).

xi For the pope’s comments on metaphysics see §83 in particular.

xii 981b.

xiii “It is of the essence of the Church that she be both human and divine, visible and yet invisibly equipped, eager to act and yet intent on contemplation, present in this world and yet not at home in it; and she is all these things in such wise that in her the human is directed and subordinated to the divine, the visible likewise to the invisible, action to contemplation, and this present world to that city yet to come, which we seek” (§2). Commenting on Jesus’s instruction to Peter to “set out into the deep” (Luke 5:4), John Paul II explains that “[t]he deep towards which the Church must set out is not only a more intense missionary commitment but first of all a more intense contemplative commitment” (Homily, May 4, 2001). The emphasis is in the original.

xiv Historically speaking, it’s difficult to assess how much Catholic universities gave contemplation its proper place. However, it seems to me that one indicator of how much contemplation is or was valued in practice would be the number of philosophy and theology requirements in a curriculum. We know that over the past several decades there has been a general trend toward reducing or eliminating these requirements at most Catholic universities. And even where some philosophy and theology requirements remain, the content of the courses is typically not one that stresses the contemplative dimension of these disciplines.

xv “The Matter of College Education,” in The Divine Synthesis: Some Lectures of the Conference on Christian Humanism (Ashville, 1968), p. 50.

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About Joseph G. Trabbic 15 Articles
Joseph G. Trabbic is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Ave Maria University. He has published in various academic journals, including Religious Studies, International Journal of Philosophy and Theology, and New Blackfriars. He is also a contributor to


  1. “What many parents still fail to grasp is that their children’s university education isn’t just going to get them a job”

    Actually it may not get them a job, or one that is sufficient for family formation.

  2. Author Trabbic correctly cites Aquinas that all endeavor is by nature, that is insofar as the end of human nature ordained toward contemplation of God. That focus of faith is driven by Love not mere intellectual pursuit. Love is a sentiment realized by the intellect. Sentient by nature though not simply sensible as many believe. The error being in dividing knowledge as exclusively sense knowledge and intellectual knowledge. That’s impossible because there cannot be knowledge that excludes apprehension by the intellect. When we ‘sense’ something it’s the intellect that apprehends. Aquinas explains that the phantasm in perception is not the object of our knowledge as in reflection. Rather it’s what conveys the reality apprehended by intellect in a quasi reflection. What that says is that it is one act of knowing not sense knowledge followed by intellectual knowledge. Love, a desire is an act of the will in response to a sentient apprehension of God’s goodness. That is the rationale as commended by Prof Trabbic that all studies incorporate knowledge of God. Exclusively as revealed by Christ the Exemplar of Love.

    • As to the end of contemplation and the senses Aquinas adds, “Now the appetitive power moves one to observe things either with the senses or with the intellect, sometimes for love of the thing seen because, as it is written (Matthew 6:21), ‘where thy treasure is, there is thy heart also,’ sometimes for love of the very knowledge that one acquires by observation. Wherefore Gregory makes the contemplative life to consist in the ‘love of God,’ inasmuch as through loving God we are aflame to gaze on His beauty. And since everyone delights when he obtains what he loves, it follows that the contemplative life terminates in delight, which is seated in the affective power, the result being that love also becomes more intense.
      Reply to Objection 1. From the very fact that truth is the end of contemplation, it has the aspect of an appetible good, both lovable and delightful, and in this respect it pertains to the appetitive power” (ST 2a2ae 180 Ad 1). Insofar as the highest form of knowledge of God, His essence which is purely spiritual it is given directly to the intellect.

      • If I may clarify for the reader that all desire to do good, to love God, affect upon the “appetitive power” in spiritual delight is the effect of the prior gift of grace that is imparted directly to the soul. Not thru the senses. Although the visual and other senses can invoke reverence though always in unison with grace. There is one exception, adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. As a personal appreciation shared by others there is something mysterious and wonderful, different in kind from Icons, incense, music. The visual experience of being there before the Real Presence conveys an entirely special interior sense of goodness, unique from those other sensible experiences. It may be compared to the two on the Road to Emmaus who said, “weren’t our hearts burning within when he talked to us” when in Christ’s presence although unaware it was Him. And of course the other is faithfully receiving the Holy Eucharist.

  3. You are not going to see any universities cultivate leisure (presumably for Catholic contemplation) while inflated tuition locks its students into decades-long grind with debt against a marketplace that either automates jobs out of existence or whittles down benefits and salaries until people are mere subsistence workers. The very concept of ‘leisure’ is foreign to a person whose sole leisure time is relegated to two weeks out of fifty-two.

    In earlier days, colleges were either the sole purview of elites, or in more democratized times, heavily subsidized by the state. This financial freedom produces ‘leisure,’ not the mere presence of Latin and Greek courses on a college campus.

  4. I contend that a speculative journey is a life long pusuit but learning to use the tools of science and reason is a natural extension of our primary and secodary educational system. The goal of free compulsory education at least in this country is, as it was when my grandparents first arrive in this great country,for the purpose of developing a well educated work force able to make a descent living. Education allowed my family to go from sugar cane plantation workers to college professors, doctor, engineers and attorneys in one generation. Yes it is true that today my wife and I struggle to keep my own children faithful Catholics, but see the forrest for the trees (UCLA ’87).

  5. Wonderful essay! And this is exactly why we are sending our kids to Ave Maria Univ. so that they grow in the faith that has been so hard won. We are converts from atheism–just 10 yrs–still babies really. A young person doesn’t think much about leisure or contemplation; they are too involved in the world. But our hope and prayer is that they will remember these lessons and recognize their relevance as they fulfill their vocations.

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