The Catholic Philosopher's Task: Four AMU Professors Represent at AMA Annual Meeting

The Catholic Philosopher's Task: Four AMU Professors Represent at AMA Annual Meeting

What is the task of a Catholic Philosopher?

Should he preserve and cultivate the body of knowledge which is his inheritance, even if such work will never garner a broader audience? Or should he seek to address a wider community–one that rejects and is sometimes hostile towards his heritage–and by doing so, risk compromising the very principles he represents? 

This question was raised explicitly by AMU’s own Michael Pakaluk and implicitly by all–including three other AMU professors–who gathered in New York for the American Maritain Association’s 39th annual international meeting. 

The conference, "Along Unbeaten Pathways: Jacques Maritain’s Pursuit of Wisdom in Untrammeled Approaches,“ focused on an exploration of Maritain’s “pursuit of wisdom” in Untrammeled Approaches, the grouping of philosophical and theological essays that make up his final work. 

It seems entirely fitting that four Ave Maria University professors were present or honored at this year’s AMA meeting; after all, AMU is an institution dedicated to an intellectual life ex corde Ecclesiae (from the heart of the Church). Over the course of the weekend of February 25-27, 2016, Michael Pakaluk (Professor and Chair of Philosophy) and Michael Novak (Distinguished Visiting Professor) each delivered plenary addresses. Michael Breidenbach (Assistant Professor of History) gave a paper on “Jacques Maritain and Leo XIII on Church and State,” while Fr. Matthew Lamb (Cardinal Maida Professor of Theology) was honored with the 2016 AMA Lifetime Achievement Award.

Novak’s address on Saturday morning, “The Crucial Role of Léon Bloy in the Maritains’ Catholicism,” examined how, in Jacques Maritain’s own words, he and his wife “would not have become Christians” without Bloy. Jacques and Raïssa were on a path searching for something worth living for, some deeper meaning to life, when they met Bloy. He was to be, Novak explained, the embodiment of the fire of true faith that the Maritains needed to encounter in order to rise up out of a culture of bourgeois materialism and aim for something far greater—the way of the saints. Philosophical inquiry and the pursuit of truth led Jacques Maritain to the Roman Catholic faith. “At the heart of the universe,” Novak said of his quest, “there had to be impulsion toward the most real of all realities, from which all that exists had sprung. In short, only Christianity answered all the longings of the human spirit.”

For Maritain, the task of a philosopher was an honest search “for the true, the good, the beautiful, and for infinite Love,” Novak remarked. Martain found the answer to his quest in the God of Catholicism. After his conversion, he lived out his life as a “Catholic philosopher” by rooting his thought in the tradition, particularly in that of St. Thomas and, like St. Thomas, upholding the balance of faith and reason.

Pakaluk followed shortly after Novak with his address, “The Meaning of Sex Differences and Marriage in Maritain.” He opened by posing the question given above: What should be the task of a Catholic philosopher? To speak to the relatively narrow community of like-minded individuals, further developing and enriching principles and ideas that are not widely accepted, or to try to speak to the broader community, even if it means compromising or adopting weaker principles?

Above: Michael Pakaluk (left) speaks with former student James Jacobs, Ph.D.,  who now serves as Assistant Academic Dean and Professor of Philosophy at Notre Dame Seminary’s Graduate School of Theology in New Orleans.]

Without immediately answering the question, Pakaluk went on to offer a critical view of Maritain’s position on sex differences and marriage, arguing that Maritain, atypically for him, rejects the classical philosophical view (put forth by Aristotle and innovated by St. Thomas) in favor of something that, although perhaps more appealing to modern ears, is ultimately philosophically flawed. Maritain’s objection to the classical view, Pakaluk demonstrated, rests on a misreading of a specific passage in St. Thomas and the low view of procreation with which Maritain approaches the passage. Maritain typically “gives St. Thomas the benefit of the doubt and finds the Thomistic text a fruitful source of philosophical intuitions,” Pakaluk said. “However,” he went on, “when it comes to the philosophical treatment of sex differences, he sharply dismisses the Thomistic view, and proposes his own theory, independent of Thomistic texts.”

It would seem, according to Pakaluk’s paper, that on the matter of sex differences and marriage, Maritain lapsed in his role as a Catholic philosopher. He would have been better to stick with St. Thomas; imagine the rich innovations of his own he could have offered if he had!  

The conference concluded with the AMA annual Awards Banquet, at which Fr. Matthew Lamb was awarded the AMA Lifetime Achievement Award. The President of the American Maritain Association, Michael D. Torre, handed out the award.  Torre delivered gracious remarks in praise of Fr. Lamb’s life and work, referring to him as “deeply thoughtful” and “wise,” one who has had remarkable success building up and developing Ave Maria University’s graduate programs in theology, and one “equal” to Maritian’s “breadth and depth of mind.”

Fr. Lamb was unable to travel to the conference, so his colleague, Michael Pakaluk, received the award read Lamb’s acceptance remarks in his stead. Within his remarks, Lamb touched on the task of the Catholic philosopher: “A serious shortcoming in Catholic circles after Vatican II was a severing of a genuine Ressourcement from Aggiornomento.  … A most important aspect of Maritain’s many writings is how during the 1920’s through the 1960’s he forged in philosophy the importance of recovering the great intellectual achievements of the past in order to provide adequate answers to contemporary questions. He saw clearly that major problems in modernity are due to the failure to keep alive the intellectual, moral, and religious traditions of Catholic Europe. He saw clearly the universal validity of the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas as inviting the reader to discover the natural reason of humanity. … Indeed, it was Jacques Maritain who illustrated in his philosophy how only by recovering human reason (Ressourcement) through a thorough study of the ancients could one bring renewal and reform to modern times (Aggiornomento).”

This is the task of the Catholic philosopher: to defy a hermeneutics of rupture by preserving human reason and the continuity of tradition, the very things which make renewal and innovation possible.