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The intellectual appeal of Catholicism

Grace is required to bring the desire for truth—which any intellectually inclined person possesses—toward God, who has called the Catholic intellectual through no merit of his own.

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When St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians about the “varieties of spiritual gifts,” he noted how, with whatever gift they have received, believers can work for the common good. What he did not mention is how these gifts work inwardly to transform the recipients’ souls through the Spirit. The first two gifts Paul mentions are wisdom and knowledge—two of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit—which are given in baptism and strengthened in confirmation.

Of course, not every wise or knowledgeable person burns with a zealous faith; far from it. Nor, for that matter, is every saint endowed with uncanny intellectual gifts—Joan of Arc, John Vianney, Andre Bessett, to name but three, have proven that personal holiness, and not personal IQ, is most pleasing to God.

But for certain Catholics, the wisdom and knowledge alive in our beautifully compelling Catholic intellectual tradition speak intimately to their souls and inspire in them a deeper love of the Lord. Why can a heady book by a Newman or a Ratzinger have such a transformative effect on one’s faith and practice? And why do so many converts “read their way into the Church”?

Faith, the assent of the mind to God and His revelation, is an intellectual virtue. All those who have been blessed with faith use their intellect to know God, but not all are attracted to faith through the life of the mind.

For those who are, an irresistible, perhaps inexplicable, compulsion to learn more about the faith burns within. The learning then motivates greater devotion and spiritual hunger.

So there has to be something additional, beyond the gift of faith itself, that enthralls the intellectual and drives him to read, to study, to learn so that he may come into a more profound union with our Lord.

This additional gift is the vocation to the life of the mind, which is the call to seek rabidly after the truth of all things. This vocation is discovered rather than sought after because, as Father A.G. Sertillanges articulates in The Intellectual Life, “it is written in our instincts, in our powers, in a sort of inner impulse of which reason may judge.”

Toward books and ideas, the person blessed with the intellectual vocation feels “as a deer longs for flowing streams.” As the mind craves truth, “so longs my soul for you, O God” (Psalm 42:1).

“Every study is a study of eternity,” continues Father Sertillanges. “Each truth is a fragment which does not stand alone but reveals connections on every side. Truth itself is one, and the Truth is God.” In seeking the truth, we find God.

Such a longing is not confined to teachers or writers, nor to Catholics alone, as the long line of converts makes clear. God plants the thirst for truth in the souls whom He chooses—laborers, farmers, doctors, businessmen, craftsmen, lawyers. He then uses this thirst as His providential means of leading His creatures home.

In other words, grace is required to bring the desire for truth—which any intellectually inclined person possesses—toward God, who has called the Catholic intellectual through no merit of his own. The gift of grace, and its willing acceptance by the individual, is the difference between Nicodemus and the other Sanhedrin members, between Augustine and his former Manichee associates, between Father Stanley Jaki and Richard Dawkins.

We rightly celebrate the wondrous achievements of the intellect. From architecture to medicine to science to philosophy, the human mind is endowed with tremendous capabilities. The Catholic intellectual, though, knows that such works, in addition to fulfilling an end in the natural order, point beyond themselves to a Creator from whence the ability to think comes.

Hence, in addition to grace, the Catholic intellectual’s perspective is broader than the non-believer’s in three ways.

First, he is blessed with humility, knowing that his intellectual gifts come from God. Aware of his vocation, he also knows that his intellectual work plays a role in God’s plan of salvation—a role, and not the role. He offers his talents back to God, just as those blessed with other vocations offer theirs.

Second, he desires to share the truth with others not only out of his genuine interest, but also because he knows it can lead them to God as he himself as been led. Many, though certainly not all, intellectuals are teachers and writers precisely for this reason. Like St. Theresa of Avila, the intellectually-inclined Catholic “often feels like the one who has a large amount of treasure in her charge and would like everyone to enjoy it…. I call upon You, O Lord, beseeching You to find me a means of gaining some soul for Your service.”

Third, he has received these gifts for the greater purpose of his sanctification and salvation. Father Sertillanges suggests that “sanctity and intellectuality are of the same essence” because truth is the holiness of the mind; it preserves it; as holiness is the truth of life and tends to fortify it for this world and for the next.”

Best of all, the intellectually-inclined Catholic chases more and more knowledge always in view of the lesson of St. Thomas Aquinas, who near the end of his life had a mystical vision, after which he never wrote again. “All I have written is straw compared to what I have seen.” If the Angelic Doctor’s books, some of the greatest explorations of God and the universe ever composed, are mere straw compared to the reality he saw, then we must rejoice that the path of knowledge and the ways of truth lead, if we stay the course, to the Beatific Vision—the goal of all spiritual gifts.


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About David G. Bonagura, Jr. 10 Articles
David G. Bonagura, Jr. teaches at St. Joseph’s Seminary, New York. He is the author of Steadfast in Faith: Catholicism and the Challenges of Secularism. and Staying with the Catholic Church: Trusting God's Plan of Salvation.

3 Comments

  1. In his doctoral thesis, “God and Intelligence in Modern Philosophy” (1925) and “Religion Without God” (1928), Ven. Fulton Sheen explored this question as well. As he noted, faith and reason go together, but are not the same. The Intellect (reason) has the primacy in natural law and the temporal virtues (prudence, fortitude, temperance, and above all justice), while the Will (faith) has the primacy in God’s law and the supernatural virtues (faith, hope, and above all charity). Reason and faith fulfill and complete each other; they do not replace or subordinate one another. This is why many of the popes for the past 200 years have insisted that charity is no substitute for justice, and is not even true charity if justice is violated. To try and redefine justice as charity or simply toss out justice altogether to establish a New Age of love inverts the proper order of things and ultimately turns us from God-made, into God-makers.

    The problem as Sheen saw it, is that in the modern(ist) age, reason has taken a second place to faith, or (more accurately) to the opinion of whoever has the most power; “might makes right.” This — in Sheen’s analysis — is the problem with modern society. Mortimer Adler expressed it somewhat differently, but came to the same conclusion. In “Ten Philosophical Mistakes”, Adler pointed out that many people today simply don’t know the difference between knowledge (which is always true) and opinion (which may be true).

    This is why in the First Vatican Council the Fathers defined the Primacy of the Intellect in matters pertaining to natural law, and the Infallibility of the Teaching Office of the Roman Pontiff in matters pertaining to supernatural law, i.e., “faith and morals.” (This was in part done to correct the errors of Félicité de Lamennais, whose “theory of certitude” claimed the pope is infallible in both faith and reason, and even in politics; individual human reason is nothing, only collective human reason as discerned by the pope is valid — according to de Lamennais, considered by Charles Périn to be the first modernist.

    To confuse or invert faith and reason, justice and charity, or the natural and the supernatural is the essence of the “New Things” (rerum novarum) of socialism and modernism. This was reiterated in the first article of the Oath Against Modernism, and was also declared in § 2 of Humani Generis: “Absolutely speaking, knowledge of God’s existence and of the natural law written in the hearts of all men may be known by the force and light of human reason alone.”

    The bottom line is that neither faith nor reason have the primacy in all things as so many today believe, or that faith has displaced reason — which is why the late Dr. Ralph McInerny of Notre Dame claimed that fideism is the single greatest danger to the Catholic Church today. Rather, faith and reason fulfill and complete each other, and neither may contradict the other.

  2. What a wonderful article. This reminds me of the great quote that comes from the Dominicans – St. Catherine of Siena, I believe – that “love follows knowledge.” You can’t love God until you know God.

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