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A Conversation on the Catholic Intellectual Tradition

By Christina Gonzalez ’09

Growing up, children are often taught that it’s unwise to mention politics or religion in casual conversation. Yet as college students, especially at the College of Mount Saint Vincent, such topics often yield interesting and fruitful debates.

While the term Catholic liberal arts institution might sound like an oxymoron, there are more similarities and historical connections than meets the eye. We spoke with Dr. Alfred D’Anca, associate professor and chair of the Department of Sociology; Sister Jean Flannelly, Executive Director of Mission; and Dr. Edward Zukowski, professor of philosophy and religious studies, to understand what is meant by the phrase “Catholic intellectual tradition,” and the connection between the Catholicism and the liberal arts.


D'AncaDr. Alfred D'Anca

Dr. D’Anca is an associate professor and chair of the Department of Sociology. He earned his Ph.D. at Fordham University. Prior to coming to the College of Mount Saint Vincent in 2000, he served in the Federal Criminal Justice System as a U.S. probation officer. Dr. D'Anca's professional and research interests include the nature of crime and criminal behavior, and systems of social control. He explores the relationship between religion and criminology, as well as institutional influences on human behavior.

Sr JeanSr. Jean Flannelly, Ph.D.

Sister Jean, the executive director of mission, is a new addition to our Mount administration.  She earned her Ph.D. at Fordham University in clinical psychology. Her educational roots trace back to the Mount, where she earned her bachelor of arts in math. Her diverse professional experiences range from teaching and working as a psychologist to leading parish enrichment programs.

ZukowskiDr. Edward Zukowski

Dr. Zukowski is a professor and former chair of the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies.  His research topics include the subject of death, the subject of one of his courses at the Mount. (Waiting for bio since not on website.)

     How does the College balance its Catholic intellectual tradition with the fundamentals of being a liberal arts college in New York City?

AD: The Catholic intellectual tradition is not narrow or self-contained. Rather, it is a rich and dynamic intellectual inquiry, which promotes critical thinking. It explores culture, events within culture, and the development of culture to seek truth that speaks of the reality of God.

We are a liberal arts college that not only attempts to ground our students in a deep-seated awareness of  the multiple dimensions of life experience, but also, in such a quest, to reinforce the connection between such understanding and service to the reality of God. A rather awesome goal, but one that I think prepares our young men and women to make a difference in the world.   

EZ: The question seems to imply some sort of opposition between the Catholic intellectual tradition and liberal arts. This does not do justice to the historical fact that the Catholic and other churches were great promoters of academic study, as reflected in the fact that they founded many of the most famous universities in the world, in which theology was often referred to as "Queen of the Sciences.” Harvard was originally intended to prepare young men for the ministry. The implied opposition between the Catholic intellectual tradition and the liberal arts also does not do justice to theology's respect for reason and the unity of all truth that has its source in God.

Q: What distinguishes a Catholic education from a secular education? Are there long- term psychological or sociological effects on students?

AD: The Catholic intellectual tradition provides the context of meaning for Catholic education.  Knowledge gained is not self-contained, but rather is the outcome of scientific, critical inquiry, complemented by deep-seated principles of faith. So, the content of what is learned and becomes known  is necessarily complemented by a real appreciation and profound respect for the human person, his or her creativity, and an understanding and appreciation of different perspectives on issues that affect individuals, communities, and the environment. This is very consistent with the “common good,” a central principle of Catholic social teaching.

From a sociological perspective, students who are trained in methods of critical inquiry can become much more aware of the common identity they share with each other, and look beyond labels or biases in communicating with one another, as individuals and as groups, and as communities.

JF: I believe most people’s perception of Catholicism, and by derivation Catholic education, is the one formulated by the media, whose addiction to sensationalism, controversy and “hot button” issues is well known.  This image is a travesty of the richness of Catholicism and its respect for the intellect and people’s right and responsibility to seek the truth about themselves, others, creation and God.

One of the basic differences between a Catholic and secular education is that in the former God is a conversation partner. Our understanding of human existence with all its ups and downs is enriched by including God and the spiritual dimension in the things we think about.  If there are not long term psychological effects, then I wonder whether or not we are fulfilling the mission entrusted to us?

Q: What are the characteristics of a Catholic intellectual tradition and how does it better prepare graduates in the current economic climate?

AD: A Catholic intellectual tradition, characterized by traits noted above, complements the college’s Mission Statement, that seeks the “development of the whole person” and in the spirit of Saints Vincent de Paul and Elizabeth Ann Seton, promotes a real commitment to the dignity of every human person and “appreciation of our obligations to each other.” At the same time, this tradition demands a person’s real engagement in the process of intellectual inquiry that contributes to the development of self in relation to others.

In today’s uncertain economic times, our graduates will be prepared to engage the challenges of the professional and career marketplace by the knowledge and skills they critically develop. But they also will appreciate the structural forces that influence economic trends and, with a grounded self-confidence, pursue goals in a systematic and committed fashion.

JF: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition, like Catholicism, has several characteristics that are not unique to it, but are put together in a unique way.  These characteristics include: perceiving the world as good and worth knowing; seeing in people and things more than meets the eye; freeing us from being locked into the present and opening us and our imaginations to wider possibilities; respecting the cumulative wisdom of those who have gone before us at the same time being willing to make a contribution to that wisdom; seeking to connect the various pieces of what one knows into a coherent whole; and calling us to remember that we are part of a community.

These characteristics might not land our graduates the highest paying jobs, but they will equip them with a deeper respect for themselves and others as together we go about the most important job of caring for creation and all its inhabitants.

Q: How has Catholic education evolved throughout the years to be more inclusive, even though a student may not be Catholic?

AD: For one, it reinforces a sense of one’s connection with a believing community based on the teachings of the Church and the social dimensions of those teachings…The college’s motto, “Teach me goodness, discipline, and knowledge” emphasizes human dignity, critical thinking to engage in scholarly inquiry and understanding of one’s responsibility to self and others, and the use of reason with faith in the search of truth and learning in the quest of a present God.  I think that such a broadened and vital focus would appeal to students, Catholic and non-Catholic alike.  
EZ: Throughout the centuries, Catholicism had incorporated elements from the various cultural milieus in which it found itself. For example, the structure of the universal Catholic Church is patterned on the Roman empire. The very first canon of the 1917 Canon Law demanded respect for local customs where they did not contradict Catholic faith and morals. There are a number of different rites with Catholicism, such as the Maronite and Byzantine, with their own distinctive liturgies, rituals and customs. Especially since Vatican II, there has been an even greater appreciation for diversity of cultures, perhaps best evidenced in the mass being said in the various vernacular languages, instead of the traditional Latin. 

Q:  With the passage of gay marriage in New York, how does the College’s Catholic identity fit into educating and encouraging debates among students on topical issues?

AD: The liberal arts nature of the Mount, practiced within the Catholic intellectual tradition, is reinforced by a commitment to social justice for all and by the values and spirit of the Sisters of Charity. This constitutes the context in which the critical pursuit of knowledge occurs at the Mount. Consequently, a critical inquiry of all social issues, regardless of the controversy they represent, is promoted.

JF: The passage of gay marriage in New York is a wonderful opportunity for debate.  In any debate, for there to be fruitful education and exploration, the first step involves naming and sorting out the myriad issues involved in this legislation. On a personal note, I would welcome, among other things, an in-depth exploration of the church’s teaching on human sexuality.  For too many folks their understanding is limited to a series of “don’ts,” which never tap into the values inherent in the teaching.