Catholicism and the University: The Analogy of Catholicism

by Andrew Simmons                                                                           Saturday,  March 14, 2015


In the City of God, Augustine presented the world as being divided between two groups: the City of God and the City of Men. The rift between these demonstrate the clear “otherness” each city displays towards the other. As Christopher Dawson relates in his Dynamics of World History, the two cities have served as a metanarrative for the medieval world’s inconclusive attitude towards Church and State. This rift appears again within the current spheres of the secular and the religious insomuch as each are credited with their own autonomy. Tensions arise when either of these institutions seek to assert themselves upon the other. One particular focal point of this tension can be found in the Catholic university. How does it identify itself when the secular and religious compose its student demographic? Has it not become a sort of unitive point in which both cities have been interwoven with each other? It is my view that this conflict arises from the burden poorly handled by those assuming the catholic identity. Moving from the whole to the particular, an answer to this dilemma can be found in harkening back to the very understanding of this identity: Catholic.

The philosophical stance by which the Church identifies the nature of the world is the analogia entis. Proponents of the stance can trace their origin to the works of St. Thomas Aquinas and his Aristotelian stance in the 12th century. As clarified by Erich Przywara, the analogy of being stipulates that the transcendent is “in-beyond” the nature of creation; the transcendent is outside of the world while also remaining immanent to what it does . There remains no radical ontological separation between the created and uncreated within the analogia entis. What is presented is a unity of what are two very distinct philosophical stances: The Platonic and the Aristotelian.

The founders of these two schools held two very different views of the world. Plato viewed truth and reality as entirely pertaining to the transcendent in which the created domain is an image of these transcendent forms. To unify the multitude of forms, Plotinus proposed that these forms are in the mind of God and united within his one Being. Aristotle differed by asserting that these divine ideas are immanent to the created world, while proposing that the divine is indifferent to the operations of the created world. There is no personal God by which the world refers to. Rather, there is merely many beings united in an act of existence with their reality fully within them. Man need not work to ascend a divine ladder, but focus on contemplating themselves and the idea that is within them; God contemplates himself, while creation works to contemplate itself amid its own changing. This difference between the two schools is seen in Aristotle’s rejection of Plato’s assertion that the arts can be inspired by a divine agency.

The response with the dynamics of history have shown how the unity of these two schools have been a difficult and tumultuous road. From the Platonic/Neo-Platonic perspective, the secular and the Church in this world share the same status as images but distinct in that they reflect different eternal ideas. Plotinus further adds to this by making both of these ideas intermingled in the unity of God’s Being. For the Aristotelian view, both share existence but contain different principles within their very actions. Yet, in history, the actions of both are intermingled and confused which halts an immediate knowledge of pure difference. The Church works to be the form of the secular by making it part a divinely oriented society. Meanwhile, the secular perceives the Church as arising from the same social institutions that compose the secular.

This conflict proceeds from the Medieval struggle to distance the two. The monastic communities were able to succeed by separating themselves from the feudal system, while the Pope could not amid the Investiture crises. Medieval society was able to maintain two strictly different codes of law, but the practice of these laws differed in regards to bishops and popes who maintained both ecclesial and secular authority. Universities, especially within Aquinas own time, shared this struggle between whether the Church or the secular should lead it. Essentially, the struggle pertained to whether one community would restrict the ability for students and teachers to perform their duties. The ecclesiastical fear was that the secular would reduce the university to serving particular needs of the local bureaucracies. Concerns such as this are practically reversed today as the secular fears a limitation of knowledge by the Church; fears which have become justified following the implementation of the Codex of Errors. The Church’s response to modernity has hard-locked the identity of the Church from the secular; meanwhile, the secular’s antipathy towards the ancien regime has created an antithetical structure. Each has proceeded to police and monitor those among their ranks for issues of liberalism or conservatism. From where does the synthesis arise that resolves these two?

What needs to be recognized, regardless of the feud, is that there has never been a clear and definitive break within the shared intellectual history. Any such breaks within a system of thought has continued within that thought’s very history. To point out an example of this, the Church’s history brings with it the continued knowledge of its detractors. The heretic continues on through the historical data just as much as the orthodox. The Gnostics, Nomians, Antinomians, Ebionites, and Docetists are recorded within its earliest histories. Arius follows alongside Nicea, and Nestorius proceeds alongside Chalcedon. Modernity’s principles continue to be entirely accessible from the Church’s own writings in Vatican I. If this knowledge was to be confined to some punitive abyss, it should have been forgotten. Rather, the Church has become a nexus of knowledge in which its benefactors and detractors are united within the historical procession towards the divine. Secular history also contain this nexus as the “Age of Reason”, the Enlightenment, Modernity, and Postmodernity have also continue to appeal to the ancients. As Umberto Eco points out in his From the Tree to the Labyrinth, the Enlightenment, for all its assaults on the aforementioned ancien regime, still keeps the knowledge of its antithesis in its encyclopedic pool of knowledge.

The nexus not only provides a structure for a continuation of knowledge, but also points to a proper understanding of what it means to refer to one as “catholic”. In regards to its very etymology, when one is identified as being catholic, they are identified as “universal”. There never is, historically speaking, a pure mimesis of what is contrary to it, as the detractors are caught up in its very universality. The heretics and excommunicants are the Church’s excommunicants and heretics; they are still identified in regards to it and still compose its history. Duns Scotus speaks of language as the symbols by which the understandings of our minds are expressed to each other. As such, the word “catholic” is not some Derridean construct from rhetoric detached from the intellect. Catholic, much like “multiplicity” or “all”, are these singular expressions of understanding that contain all particulars within them. To use a Deleuzian phrase, it is the “One-All” term that unites the many within one understanding, definition, and identity. As such, there should never be a willingness to cast something out of this unity, especially within the Catholic university. Anything less would detract from this universality. If one is going to assert that transcendent principles are in-beyond all, it must assert that true universality of this phrase.

Andrew Simmons is a graduate from Aquinas College and  a student of the Ukrainian Catholic University. He is working on a masters in philosophy <and theology>, but has to go through a lot of language courses. He finally remembered that he has his own blog


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