William Fahey: Encyclical Has Message for Catholic Universities

Interview with President of Thomas More College

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MERRIMACK, New Hampshire, JULY 13, 2009 (Zenit.org).- Benedict XVI's social encyclical "Caritas in Veritate" contains lessons for all Christians, and not just those who are directly involved in the fields of business and politics, says the president of Thomas More College of Liberal Arts.



William Fahey, who has a doctorate from the Catholic University of America, spoke with ZENIT about the Pope's third encyclical, released last week.

He noted that the Pope's emphasis on the relationship between love and truth has consequences not only for social action, but also for the work of education and evangelization.

ZENIT: How has the new encyclical been received among scholars in the United States?

Fahey: Thankfully, true scholars have not rushed to make pronouncements. There has been the usual flurry of commentary by media pundits. A few have been thoughtful; most of them attempt to provide a general outline of the letter; and a few have been gravely disappointing.

ZENIT: "Gravely"? How so?

Fahey: Well, there have been some prominent public journalists who have attempted to carve up the encyclical into little portions that are acceptable for their ideologies and portions that are not. I found it distressing that one or two well-known and reputably orthodox writers determined to color the text: certain palatable parts were given a golden "papal" sanction -- these parts are, it was asserted, authentic to Benedict XVI; other parts were tarred with a socialist hue -- these parts can be avoided, it was again asserted.

Interestingly, this sort of ideological carving flies boldly in the face of the Church's authority and integrity as stated in "Caritas in Veritate." There is a section early on in which Benedict XVI states that "clarity is not served by certain abstract subdivisions of the Church's social doctrine." Here, he is speaking directly of the common attempt by some to assert a rupture between the social teaching of the Church prior to the Second Vatican Council, but the principle is the same. We do not have the authority to pick and choose from within what Benedict XVI calls the "doctrinal corpus."

Yet some self-appointed guardians of the faith have concluded they can personally divine which sections are worthy of our assent and which should be quietly ignored as stale, old ideas.

ZENIT: So, there is dissent?

Fahey: Well, I am not in a position of determining that. Let's say that there is "near occasion" of dissent, if I can put it in those terms. I hope that it is not dissent. What I found breathtaking was that such facile dismissals of the encyclical appeared within an hour or so of its official release. On prudential matters, of course, the Church expects us to evaluate. But to dismiss sections on the first day strikes me as not the action of a good son of the Church, or even a thoughtful mind.

ZENIT: As an academic, does this social encyclical have anything to say to teachers and scholars outside of the disciplines of politics and economics? It is, after all, a social encyclical.

Fahey: I have only read the encyclical letter once in its entirety. A few key passages struck me as immediately relevant to my own position as a college professor and president.

What are the implications, for example, of a statement such as, "Truth needs to be sought, found, and expressed with the 'economy' of charity?" As the Holy Father goes on to say, this means -- in part -- that those who are the stewards of truth, must love that truth and demonstrate it in love.

Academics do not dwell much on charity or love and its relationship to the truth -- or vice versa. But as the Holy Father reminds us, to know the truth entails a love of the truth; to love the truth means that we will be urged to act, to share the truth. This seems so simple as not to deserve comment, but upon reflection it is profound. As a Catholic educator, when I meditate on this, I perceive more clearly the connection between the intellectual life and the life of grace, the work that chiefly occupies the study or classroom and the broader work of evangelization.

ZENIT: Do you see any connection between the Holy Father's ideas here and the work of your college in particular?

Fahey: Yes, yes, of course. First, there is something perhaps minor concerning the title and the opening paragraphs that I must mention. Benedict XVI frames the encyclical in passages taken from St. Paul: "Each person finds his good by adherence to God's plan for him, in order to realize it more fully. To defend the truth, to articulate it with humility and conviction, and to bear witness to it in life are therefore exacting and indispensable forms of charity. Charity, in fact, 'rejoices in the truth.'"

That last part is a quotation from Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians; it is also the motto of my college: "Caritas Congaudet in Ceritate" (charity rejoices in the truth). "To defend the truth, to articulate it with humility and conviction, and to bear witness to it in life…" This is a fine summary, I think, of the Catholic educational endeavor, a joyful endeavor because of the privileged task to bear witness to the truth.

ZENIT: Your college gives an impressive amount of time in the classroom to the study of the humanities -- literature and philosophy from pagan antiquity to the modern period. Yet one notes that the Holy Father says, "The search for love and truth is purified and liberated by Jesus Christ from the impoverishment that our humanity brings to it." Is there enduring value in studying pre-Christian and non-Catholic visions of man, when it seems that only Christ reveals the meaning of man to man?

Fahey: That is a very good question. First, you are right: Students at Thomas More College study the humanities every single semester with more than typical class hours. Our newly renovated curriculum also allows our students to study theology and sacred Scripture every semester. Still, we take pride in our college's patron the humanist, St. Thomas More.

ZENIT: Who was not canonized for being a humanist, but for his holiness.

Fahey: Again, true, but I would argue his own humanity, his personality, and his humanist learning are irreducibly part of his sanctity. Humanity is not abolished in sanctity. If we return to the encyclical, we find guidance.

First, it is true the Holy Father unflinchingly offers a Christian humanism over and above other views of man and his place in the world. Or as he says, "Amid the various competing anthropological visions put forward today […] the Christian vision has the particular character of asserting and justifying the unconditional value of the human person." I grant that the context there is concerned with human development, but I also think that it sheds light on our discussion.

What follows next is crucial. The Holy Father speaks of the revelation provided by the Gospels, which clearly reveal in Christ the fullness of humanity, but which also illustrate the climactic moment in God's pursuit and love for man. "Precisely because God gives a resounding 'yes' to man, man cannot fail to open himself to the divine vocation to pursue his own development. The truth of development consists in its completeness: if it does not involve the whole man and every man, it is not true development."

ZENIT: So, Shakespeare's Iago or the humanist Machiavelli are necessary for understanding our humanity?

Fahey: Like it or not they are part of the story. In this world it appears easier to see clearly because there is contrasting shadow and light. It would be better to say that Christ is necessary for the full understanding of our humanity. Too much darkness leads to greater blindness, of course, perhaps nearly permanent blindness. But if we leave out the Iagos and Machiavellis are we not obliterating something of our history and our nature -- I do not say our best nature. If we leave them out do we ever really appreciate God's resounding 'yes'? We have a paradox, don't we?

In this world, with our weak vision the depth of God's caritas/love comes into focus when we have some awareness not just of the heights of human freedom, but the depths.

ZENIT: Why is it not sufficient simply to reflect upon our own failings and victories?

Fahey: Perhaps because it is so hard to bear. We learn and have our hearts prepared often best by analogy or parable. Thus, the humanities when they are truly taught well can draw men out of themselves. And perhaps that moving beyond the isolation of the self, may play some part in encouraging the sense of solidarity and fellowship called for by the encyclical.

ZENIT: "It is not by isolation that man establishes his worth…" as the Holy Father says.

Fahey: Yes, exactly, "…but by placing himself in relation with others and God."