End Notes: The Wisdom of Solomon

I see by the papers that a Lutheran theologian at Boston College is publicly criticizing the appointment of an atheist Unitarian to an administrative post in the theology department of that Catholic institution. Her argument—if stating the obvious can be called an argument—is that it makes no sense to put the teaching of Catholic theology and the direction of undergraduate students pursuing a deeper appreciation of their faith into the hands of someone who does not believe in God.

I am old enough to find such a controversy in a Catholic college surreal but also old enough not to be surprised. The Boston College administration, of course, defends the appointment and suggests that the complaint is prompted by a grudge. Are Lutherans Irish? Presumably, the administrators are Catholics—in the elastic sense that term has come to have, particularly in the academic world. But one should not miss the essential note of this story: The defense of Catholic orthodoxy comes from a non-Catholic member of the faculty.

Some sociologist of the future, if there is a future, will doubtless study the number of former priests and nuns, lapsed and otherwise retired Catholics, seething with scarcely conscious resentment, ensconced on the faculties of Catholic institutions of higher learning as they went into their death throes. It is not the non-Catholics who have prodded our colleges and universities down the road to secularism. As often as not, non- Catholic colleagues have been in the small band urging a reverse of direction, a recovery of the treasures of the Catholic tradition, regaining the guts to be countercultural when the culture is the culture of death.

At my own university, where we have Calvinists in many key positions—one is provost—and non- Catholics in number on the faculty, there are such non-Catholic defenders of the Catholic tradition. Singly and as a group, non-Catholics are far from being a threat to the Catholic identity of Notre Dame. That threat comes from the priests and former priests who infest such comic operas as the faculty senate, one more sounding board for their oceans of discontent. It comes from perhaps erstwhile Catholics who loathe their origins and are determined to distance the university from its historical mission.

In a Dublin lecture, “A Form of Infidelity of the Day,” John Henry Cardinal Newman identified this type of heterodox Catholic but thought of him as a medieval phenomenon. The great cardinal’s view was that in the 19th century, enemies of the Church were dispersed outside the walls over which they lobbed their missiles of dissent. No more. One of the ironies of Ex Corde Ecclesiae is that it provides no way of discerning among the quantitatively predominant Catholics on the faculty those who are from those who no longer are.

In the meantime, we should be especially grateful for those among us who, while not Catholic, are committed to the great moral and intellectual patrimony of Catholicism. A striking instance of such commitment is the Center for Ethics and Culture recently established at Notre Dame under the direction of David Solomon. The literature in which the aim and nature of the center are stated makes clear that it is the polar opposite of the center directed by Peter Singer at Princeton. Singer can’t tell the difference between men and animals—except in the case of his mother—and grounds his moral judgments on that confusion. Solomon’s center takes its cue from the moral Magisterium of John Paul II.

The work of the center “begins from the supposition that systematic and rational discussion of ethical problems must be rooted in traditions of thought and practice. This work is guided by the moral vision of Pope John Paul II in his recent encyclicals Veritatis Splendor, Evangelium Vitae, and Centesimus Annus.” This moral vision is taken to provide a forceful defense of the dignity of persons, the absolute character of basic human rights, and the fundamental importance of love and concern for others.

On October 13-15, the center held an inaugural conference on the culture of death. This will be followed in 2001 by a conference on the culture of life and another in 2002 on agendas of reform.

God is good. When Catholics waver, others rise up to play the roles they have abandoned. The wisdom of Solomon once elicited sense from rival claimants for a baby. And David slew Goliath. How can an effort with David Solomon at its head go wrong?


Ralph McInerny was a popular writer, philosopher, and teacher, as well as the co-founder of Crisis Magazine. He passed away on January 29, 2010.

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