restricted access 7. Catholics, Catholicism, and the Humanities since World War II
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189 7 Catholics, Catholicism, and the Humanities since World War II John T. McGreevy “Today in America,” explained the Jesuit John Courtney Murray to the Columbia University sociologist Robert MacIver in 1952,“there is really no such thing as a genuine intellectual community.” Instead, “each professor is a law unto himself, entitled to make and present his own synthesis, his own order of truth.And out of all the competing orders the student must be free to make his own choice.” Murray regretted, too, that MacIver’s soon-to-be published study of academic freedom declined to emphasize the important role the university must play in conserving “the intellectual, social and spiritual heritage of the community.”1 MacIver demurred. “The kind of truth on which all men agree,” he retorted, “is based on inference from data or evidences. It is the quest for truth, so understood , rather than the exposition of it, that is the universal bond of scholarship.” The achievements of science, in particular, where “astronomers of Soviet Russia are in essential agreement in their field with the astronomers of the United States,” demonstrated that “common devotion to truth seeking” trumped shared beliefs. “What common tradition can there be . . . if the Buddhist and the follower of Confucius and the Jew and the Methodist and the Roman Catholic and the agnostic are equally welcome so long as they are competent seekers of knowledge?” The “denominational college,” MacIver pointedly added, must be distinguished from “the university.” Such colleges had their proper function but “in the light of so many historical warnings it would be perilous to identify it with the university. Its creed, whatever it may be, takes certain things as given, not to be questioned, and these things subtly reach into and impinge upon the field of scientifically discovered knowledge.”2 The status of the correspondents is noteworthy. Murray was the most important American Catholic intellectual of the twentieth century, a central figure in the Catholic effort to combat what he termed in 1950 “a newly articulate, organizedanddoctrinalsecularism,”aswellastheguidinginfluenceontheDeclaration on Religious Freedom (Dignitatis humanae) issued at the conclusion of the John T. McGreevy 190 Second Vatican Council in 1965.3 A distinguished sociologist, MacIver directed the era’s most comprehensive effort to define and defend academic freedom, an effort spurred by attacks on alleged Communists on university faculties.4 The two men exchanged several cordial, even frank, letters. Three themes in the correspondence locate Catholics and Catholicism within our assigned rubric, “The Humanities and the Dynamics of Inclusion since World War II” (although the natural boundaries of the subject require forays into the history of the social sciences as well). The first is Catholic access: Murray knew that Catholic students (especially ) and Catholic faculty (much less so) were increasingly visible within American higher education in the first years after the war. When the exchange with MacIver began, Murray was finishing a year as a visitor at Yale University, “the land of the infidel” as he wryly termed it, where he hoped that “sheer presence” might defuse tensions between Catholics and non-Catholics.5 (Upon learning of Murray’s appointment, one of Yale’s most prominent alumni and guardians, the minister Henry Sloane Coffin, privately warned that Murray was “outwardly smooth, but can be poisonous.”)6 The second is Catholic intellectual life. Murray’s dismissal of MacIver’s effort to base the secular university on anything but pragmatic grounds— “the university cannot presume to know what to think or to teach anyone to think. Let it be content to teach people how to think”—did not prevent him from despairing at the state of Catholic inquiry.7 In 1955 Murray applauded as “splendid both in content and in tone” his friend Father John Tracy Ellis’s influential attack on “the perpetuation of mediocrity” within Catholic universities .8 That same year Murray’s Jesuit superiors forced him to stop publishing in his area of greatest expertise, church and state, because of pressure from Vatican officials. Nonetheless, Murray’s sustained engagement with critics inside and outside the church helped edge Catholics toward the center of contemporary debates over American pluralism.9 The third theme is the suspicion with which some American intellectuals in the 1940s and 1950s viewed Catholics and Catholicism. MacIver’s own foreboding about any “authoritative faith, the priests of which interpret its doctrines to the faithful” was clear.10 Just weeks before initiating his correspondence with Murray, MacIver had read William F. Buckley’s minor cause célèbre, God...


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Subject Headings

  • Learned institutions and societies -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
  • Learning and scholarship -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
  • Multicultural education -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
  • Demography -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
  • Humanities -- Study and teaching (Higher) -- United States.
  • Education -- Demographic aspects -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
  • Humanities -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
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