Eamonn Keane
Catholic intellectuals in a secular age
By Eamonn Keane
September 24, 2010

In terms of proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ and relating it to the critical questions and concerns of our time, Pope Benedict XVI's recent trip to Britain has been hailed by commentators of all religious stripes and none as a resounding success. Perhaps this sentiment was best expressed by British Prime Minister, David Cameron when, in addressing Pope Benedict on his departure from Birmingham airport, he praised him for raising "searching questions" and "challenging the whole country to sit up and think."

This task of challenging people to "sit up and think" about the more important questions of life in light of the Gospel of Jesus Christ is an essential dimension of the vocation of all Catholic intellectuals and educators. This is the focus of the following article by my colleague Andrew Lynch. Andrew has recently received his PhD in Sociology from the University of Sydney where his doctoral thesis examined interpretations of Vatican II and the impact of the social changes of the 1960s on the Council.

Catholic intellectuals in a secular age

Andrew P. Lynch, Ph.D

Spring Fairs can be a wonderful place to find books, and it was with excitement that I discovered Frank Furedi's book length essay on the plight of intellectuals poking out from a pile of second hand paperbacks. Where Have All the Intellectuals Gone? is Furedi's examination of the state of knowledge and its transmission in our modern world, especially in the context of increasing globalisation and the changes that technology has wrought on the education sector. Furedi is professor of sociology at the University of Kent in the UK and has written extensively on the impact of a therapeutic mindset on Western culture.

Furedi's purpose in his book is to lay bare the situation of intellectuals not only as paid staff of educational institutions, but rather as members of an intelligentsia whose purpose it is to engage with a literate public and prompt them to deeper thought on matters of freedom, democracy, ethics and the good life. For Furedi, intellectuals are those people who work in the areas of art, philosophy, literature, journalism, and teaching and research. Further to this, for Furedi, intellectuals are those who live for ideas rather than living off them.

At the heart of Furedi's discussion is the paradox that although we are living in a time of increased learning with unprecedented access to information, much of what is being learned and disseminated is shallow, meaningless and vague. Much of what passes as knowledge today is only the learning of technical points needed to qualify for an occupation or finish a course. Furthermore, Furedi recounts how many university courses today are focused on the throughput of students as efficiently as possible, so that the next fee-payers can be slotted into courses. Furedi refers to this situation as the rise of a new form of instrumentalism in knowledge and learning, so that what is learned is done so on the premise that it serves a purpose or function, rather than being valued in its own right.

Furedi does not suggest that a golden age of knowledge really did exist where learning for its own sake was prized above all else, and here he is no doubt right. Knowledge has always served a purpose of some kind. However, and here Furedi is also probably correct, the quest for knowledge has not historically been carried out for only instrumental reasons as, he feels, much of it is being done today. The consequence of what Furedi is writing about, that knowledge today is being valued more for its ability to be transacted than appreciated, is that learning and knowledge become values traded on a marketplace, and therefore subject to market forces and market regulations.

With knowledge being treated as such, this has an adverse effect on the work and emotional state of the intellectual. When the material that you work with is a unit to be traded it is in many ways devalued. When this becomes the case, the quality of the knowledge that is generated is inevitably affected by such a change in attitude towards learning, and so information rather than knowledge becomes the goal of one's efforts. Furedi sums up this mood: "Without a mission, a project or a desire to uphold and promote knowledge with a capital K, intellectuals must of course feel uneasy and constrained; and in such circumstances the loss of authority, underwritten by engagement with the pursuit of the truth, must have a major impact on intellectual life" (p. 10). Furedi's analysis here may display some Marxist inspirations about the worker being alienated from his labour, but the point about changes in the treatment of knowledge altering how intellectuals approach their work is a valid one.

These reflections from Furedi about the state of knowledge and intellectuals in modern times prompts thought about the situation for Catholic intellectuals in such an environment. If the secular intellectuals of Furedi's study are having such a hard time of it in government universities, think tanks and public schools, how are Catholic scholars coping? To be a Catholic intellectual in what the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor has dubbed 'a secular age,' is to find oneself largely isolated from an intellectual environment that has been caught up in recent decades with postmodernism, pragmatic ethics and relativism.

This is at a time when the need for Catholic intellectuals being engaged with a broader public is more important than ever. With contemporary issues of bio-ethics, the God debate prompted by Richard Dawkins and others, and the increasing intrusion into daily life of a relativist agenda that seeks to undermine the family and the dignity of the human person, Catholic intellectuals are needed to defend the importance of faith and the centrality of personhood. Debate about the environment is another area where a Catholic voice is needed in a public discussion that is increasingly being framed by political parties and thinktanks that are hostile to human population increases and who see people as a natural problem rather than the reason why nature is so important in the first place.

The reality, unfortunately, is that ideas that come from a perspective based on faith, be it Christian or otherwise, are typically viewed with suspicion in institutions of secular learning. This is a display of bias towards a form of reason that is purely agnostic, if not atheistic. It is an example of the commandeering of reason, rather than the critical use of it. The production of theologically based knowledge uses the same reasoning faculties as that of secular knowledge, and should be treated as an equal partner in the conversation, as it was until the advent of modernity.

Many Catholic intellectuals are working hard and effectively to defend authentic human freedom and human dignity by being actively engaged in their respective disciplines. This is a wonderful achievement when we remember that they often travel a lonely path in learning institutions where they are swimming against the current of 'post-Christian' values.

Cardinal Newman was a man who knew what it was like to hold views which challenged the closely guarded ideas of his peers. His beatification is an important event for Catholic intellectuals to reflect on. Newman's vocation as both a cleric and a scholar provided him with a vantage point from where he could reflect on the inconsistencies of his times and draw his contemporaries' attention to them. Newman was not a man who stayed silent when he witnessed error, and this is one of the reasons for his beatification in the first place. Newman defended the importance of truth and the search for it, regardless of the controversy this created for him when he spoke out. He was the consummate scholar, who used his gifts and talents for the betterment of the lives of others. Catholic scholars can in turn draw inspiration from him and his work in their struggles to face both a decline in the value of knowledge, and the struggle to promote Catholic thought in the wider, secular world.

Dr. Andrew Lynch teaches English and History at Redfield College, Sydney, Australia.

© Eamonn Keane


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Eamonn Keane

Eamonn Keane is married with five children. He studied Commerce and Education at the National University of Ireland and Religious Education at the Catholic Teachers Training College in Sydney, Australia. He currently serves as Head of Social Science at Sydney's Redfield College... (more)


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