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  • History, Secularity, and the Problem of Catholic Seeing
  • David Foote (bio)

But now we have found that the soul is immortal; and so her only refuge and salvation from evil is to become as perfect and wise as possible. For she takes nothing with her to the other world but her education and culture; and these, it is said, are of the greatest service or the greatest injury to the dead man, at the very beginning of his journey thither.

PLATO, Phaedo

The universe, created in and by the eternal Word, the "image of the invisible God," is destined for and addressed to man, himself created in the "image of God" and called to a personal relationship with God.

Catechism of the Catholic Church

What might history look like if it were practiced and taught from a Catholic worldview? Is this even a legitimate question? Certainly there is at least some justification for raising it; after all, Catholicism makes claims about the why, how, and what of the world and the people who inhabit it (i.e., ontological claims), and it has much to say about the value of all these things and people (i.e., [End Page 35] axiological claims). What strangely superfluous claims these would be, if they made no difference in how one understands the world of human action. Conversely, might not one's account suffer if, for one reason or another, one felt pressured or obliged to bracket ontological and axiological claims that have the potential to illuminate one's understanding of human action?

And so, it would seem that there are reasonable grounds for the endeavor. All the same, the question is frustratingly elusive, threatening to evaporate the moment one touches it. To bring a religious point of view to bear upon the study of history cuts across the grain of received academic wisdom. It is simply a matter of common sense that the pursuit of truth must be unencumbered by personal commitments, value judgments, religious bias, and so on. So deeply engrained is this methodological common sense in the discipline of history—a common sense that history shares with the social and natural sciences in general—that any attempt to approach an academic discipline from a Catholic worldview is likely to sound a bit silly and Bible-schoolish, perhaps even heretical, not only to secular academics, but to many Catholic academics as well. One cannot simply ignore this and swim against the current. Without first understanding the way in which this common sense operates, practicing an intellectual discipline with full and open Catholic intentionality is likely to run aground rather quickly or perhaps never even make it out of port.

Therefore, the goal of this article will be relatively circumscribed and propaedeutic in nature.1 My central argument is that the common sense that seems to preclude, or at least marginalize religious insight in the practice and teaching of history and other academic disciplines is itself the manifestation of a worldview, a "way of seeing," characterized especially by naturalism. It is all too common to adopt what Hans-Georg Gadamer calls the Enlightenment "prejudice against prejudice," and mistake this naturalistic worldview as if it were the view of a "neutral" observer, or some democratically chosen common denominator among all views.2 Such is [End Page 36] the blindness to which the world of education has long been prone. As will become clear in the course of this article, I think this pervasive masking of a naturalistic worldview as either a "scientific" or "democratic" method is a source of the deep and widespread confusion in the world of Catholic education.3 Therefore, what follows is the beginning of a critical project, the goal of which is to clear and prepare a space for Catholic seeing in the practice and teaching of academic disciplines such as history. This project hinges upon coming to a critical awareness of worldview as a hermeneutic problem.

How the Problem Manifests Itself: Everywhere I go, I see you

One Evening at Dinner . . .

Some time ago, at a conference in which the question of religion and history seemed to knock persistently on the door, I witnessed a dinner conversation as fascinating as...


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