Dr. Jude Dougherty

Interview with Prof. Dr. Jude Dougherty - 26-10-2004


In response to our interview, Professor Dougherty, Dean-Emeritus of the School of Philosophy at the Catholic University of America (Washington D.C.), has send us the following essay on the state of the catholic philosopher in the United States.

Professor Dougherty served as dean of the School of Philosophy at CUA for over thirty-one years and is the editor of the distinguished international philosophy journal 'The Review of Metaphysics'. He is the author of a.o. Jacques Maritian : An Intellectuel Profile (Washington D.C.: CUA, 2003), The Logic of Religion (Washington D.C.: CUA, 2002), Religion-Gesellschaft, Demokratie : Ausgewählte Aufsätze (Berlin: Duncker & Humblot, 2003) and Western Creed, Western Identity: Essays in Legal and Social Philosophy (Washington D.C.: CUA, 2000).


The Catholic Philosopher and the Catholic University in North America

Jude P. Dougherty

The Catholic University of America


A Catholic is used here as a sociological category.  Its referent is philosophers who are members of the Catholic Church.  Few believe that there is a Catholic philosophy, though all are likely to affirm that some philosophies open one to the Catholic faith while others close it as an intellectual option.  It is true that Catholics who are philosophers have an interest in certain areas, especially metaphysics and philosophical anthropology, that may not be as pronounced in the work of their secular colleagues.  That collective interest generates a body of literature that in some sense may be called catholic.

There are over 200 colleges in the United States of America that identify themselves in some way as Catholic.  Most call themselves universities, but few are in the sense of a research university.  Most are liberal arts colleges in the traditional English model so ably described by John Henry Newman.  Jesuit universities have taken to identifying themselves not as Catholic but as universities in the Jesuit tradition.

Nearly all maintain a core curriculum that contains at least some philosophy and theology.  Gone are the days when the core curriculum contained one course each in philosophy and theology in all of the eight of the semesters it normally took to earn a bachelor's degree.  The philosophy taught in schools under Catholic auspices until the upheaval in the wake of Vatican II was scholastic in a broad sense, Thomistic for the most part.  The philosophical emphasis tended to be placed on the classical sources of medieval philosophy, medieval philosophy itself, and the history of philosophy, including the British empiricists and modern giants such as Kant and Hegel.  Post-Enlightenment philosophy was viewed critically, usually from the standpoint of the philosophy of St. Thomas .  In the years immediately following  World War II, Jacques Maritain and Etienne Gilson were widely read; so also many European philosophers in the tradition of Aquinas, usually in translation.  Louvain University professors, such as Van Steenberghen, De Wulf, Masion, Verbecke, and Nöel were available in English translation, as were a number of German authors such as Joseph Pieper and Heinrich Rommen.  The Italian, Tanquery, provided a commonly used textbook.

When Americans returned to Europe to study in the 1950s, they brought back a lively interest in Husserl and the phenomenological movement.  The works of Martin Heidegger, Hans Georg Gadamer, and Franz Brentano became objects of philosophical study.

Within Catholic universities of the period, one could find doctoral dissertations on nearly every major figure of modern philosophy.  I, myself, wrote a master's thesis on Benedette Croce and a doctoral dissertation that focused on the thought of John Dewey and his school. Dissertations in Catholic universities were written ad mentum divi Thomae. Many would bear the subtitle, "An exposition and critique" of the author under consideration.  It was a good exercise for the beginner, deepening his own commitment while opening him to other modes of thought. The emphasis was not always on Thomas.  The Franciscans maintained an interest in Duns Scotus, the Jesuits in Suarez, and later in Rahner, Longeran, and Teilhard.

In the aftermath of Vatican II, Catholic higher education began to lose its focus.  An openness to everything began to erode the center.  Theologians, en masse, abandoned Thomas.  Many who rose to positions of leadership in Catholic higher education were only vaguely familiar with the founding purpose of those institutions. For many, the episcopacy, to the extent that it sought to exercise influence, was thought to be the enemy rather than the large secular culture, which threatened the Catholic faith.

Today the Church lacks a major presence in higher education.  Most former strongholds have abandoned their founding mission and resemble more and more their neighboring state or private universities.  Perhaps the only major research university is the University of Notre Dame , but even there the Catholic presence of a generation ago is failing, and those who represent the Catholic mind seem to be fighting a losing battle for control of appointments and the curriculum.

With the loss of the major research-oriented universities and their component colleges, a number of smaller Catholic colleges in the traditional mold have come into being, and these tend to attract intelligent students steeped in the faith who desire to study within a Catholic ambience.  These are liberal arts colleges whose graduates tend to go on to major secular universities for training in the sciences and in the professions.  The phenomenon is only decades old, but the graduates of those institutions are beginning to make their mark as Catholic intellectuals.

The Catholic intellectual tradition is not completely lost in the large, formerly Catholic institutions of higher learning.  On nearly every campus one can find distinguished Catholic scholars, but they are not part of any program or distinctive intellectual community.

Apart from the universities there have arisen a number of institutes or think tanks, which provide a counter to the aggressive secular, anti-Christian orientation of the universities.  These institutes and think tanks foster the work of individual scholars who may not readily find a place in a major university. Their resident scholars tend to be skilled writers who promulgate their reflections through the popular media as columnists or contributors to the op-ed pages of major newspapers.  Thus we will occasionally read Michael Novak in the Washington Post or the Wall Street Journal.  Residents of the Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute, and the Hoover Institution are often  called upon for expert testimony before committees of the U.S. Congress and frequently provide briefs amicus curiae at the appellate court level in an attempt to influence the judiciary.

Most European philosophers have heard of Quine, Rorty, and Putnam, just as most American philosophers are acquainted with the work of Karl Popper, Edmund Husserl, Martin Heidegger, Jürgen  Habermas, Max Horkheimer, and Jacques Derrida. Just what this portends for the future is anybody's guess. It could be argued that the most substantial work in philosophy, work that is likely  to survive is work in the classical if not scholastic tradition, work that is being done by scholars such as Ralph McInerny and Alasdair MacIntyre, both of the University of Notre Dame, and Kenneth Schmitz, Thomas Langan, and John M. Rist of the University of Toronto.  Perhaps the foremost Catholic philosopher in North America is Robert Sokolowski of The Catholic University of America . Working in the phenomenological tradition of Edmund Husserl, his books bear titles such as The Logical Investigations, Husserlian Meditations, The God of Faith and Reason, and Eucharistic Presence.  Medieval scholarship is well represented by John Wippel, Timothy Noone, and Kevin White at Catholic University .  John Hittinger (Sacred Heart Seminary), Russell Hittinger ( University of Tulsa ), and Robert George ( Princeton ) carry the tradition of Jacques Maritain and Yves Simon in social and political philosophy.  In the philosophy of law one will find contributions from Douglas Kmiec (Pepperdine), William Wagner (The Catholic University of America ), and Bernard Dobranski ( Ave Maria Law School ).  Other Catholic scholars of note are to be found at Boston College , Fordham University , and Georgetown University , but their numbers are few compared with the vast majority of the faculty members who staff their institutions.

Outside those colleges and universities that in some way identify themselves as Catholic, one will not find many Catholic philosophers, less than one percent, it is estimated, of the approximately 8,000 that are members of the American Philosophical Association.

Although statistics do not show it, Thomism is alive and well in the United States . Significant work is being done by those who have retained their allegiance to the tradition, a hard core of scholars who produce not only critical editions of ancient texts but sophisticated systematic work and timely analyses. Only the future will tell the scope of their influence.  Much will depend on their ability to recapture their own institutions and the willingness of the episcopacy to lend support.
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