George Weigel

To Sanctify the World: The Vital Legacy of Vatican II

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On the Thirty-Fifth Anniversary of Thomas Aquinas College

**George Weigel gave the keynote address at a dinner, held at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel in Los Angeles on September 30, marking the thirty-fifth anniversary of Thomas Aquinas College. His remarks follow. **

Your Eminence; Anna Grant and members of the Board of Governors; Dr. Dillon; faculty, students, and friends of Thomas Aquinas College:

Thank you for inviting me to share this evening with you and to celebrate with you the thirty-fifth anniversary of Thomas Aquinas College — one of the jewels in the crown of higher education in the United States.

Speaking of gems, a quick google search revealed that thirty-fifth anniversaries are known, for purposes of jewelry stores and the Hallmark Corporation, as “emerald anniversaries.” But “emerald” rings up “Emerald City,” which rings up The Wizard of Oz, and if there’s anything that Tom Dillon manifestly isn’t, it’s the wizard of Oz, or the wizard of anyplace else, for that matter. So let’s forget the emerald business and just say, “Happy thirty-fifth anniversary.”

When did this remarkable enterprise called “Thomas Aquinas College” begin? You could, obviously, say that it began thirty-five years ago, when a group of educators, concerned about what they rightly perceived as the meltdown in American higher education under the cultural pressures of the Sixties, decided to try something different. True as that might be, though, to think of the college that way might suggest that Thomas Aquinas College is defined by what it isn’t, or by what it’s against, and that would be a serious mistake: for this is a college that knows precisely what it is, and precisely what it’s for.

We could widen the historical lens a bit and say that the seeds of this enterprise were sown in 1955, when the dean of Catholic historians in the United States, Father John Tracy Ellis, challenged American Catholics to bring the Catholic tradition of intellectual excellence to bear on U.S. Catholic institutions of higher education. And there would be some truth in that, too, although the people of Thomas Aquinas College have read Father Ellis’s injunction rather differently — if far more accurately — than many of their peers in Catholic colleges and universities; and to explore that rocky terrain would not be quite appropriate for an after-dinner reflection, which is, after all, meant to aid, not impede, good digestion.

No, I suggest we widen the historical lens by several orders of magnitude. So, as we ponder the origins of Thomas Aquinas College on this anniversary, let’s revisit the city of Ephesus, in Asia Minor, toward the end of the first century a.d..

There, insofar as tradition and scholarship can determine, the aged apostle whom history would eventually know as St. John the Divine sat down to write his Gospel. The genre “gospel” was likely well known to him, but (inspired, we believe, by the Holy Spirit) he had something distinctive in mind. His would be a different kind of Gospel, and so he began in a distinctive way: Έv άρχη ηv o λόγoς, και o λόγoς ηv πρoς τov Θεόv, και Θεoς ηv o λόγoς — “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” John the evangelist wanted to bear witness, in the very first sentence of his Gospel, to the truth he had learned in Christ, from Christ, about Christ: this Jesus of Nazareth was not only the “lamb of God” to whom the Baptist had born witness, this was the Word, the Logos of God, come into the world for the world’s salvation.

And in bearing that particular witness in that particular way, St. John, two millennia ago in Ephesus, set in motion the cultural revolution of which we are the heirs here tonight, as we honor Thomas Aquinas College.

Why? Because John’s identification of the historical Jesus of Nazareth with the Logos of God was the crucial moment in the coming-together of faith and reason, the coming-together of Jerusalem and Athens that is at the very foundations of the civilizational enterprise we call “the West.” The civilization of the West did not begin in the Enlightenment; it did not begin in the high Middle Ages or in the era of the Fathers of the Church (although it took many of its characteristic intellectual forms in those great periods of cultural accomplishment). No, if you want to find one absolutely crucial point from which to date the beginning of what we know as “the West” as the unique civilizational enterprise it is, I suggest we look to Ephesus, and to John’s identification of the One on whose breast he had reclined at the Last Supper with the Logos, the Word, the Reason, of God. (And, given our proximity to Hollywood, I suppose I must insist, with the historical Da Vinci, that that was the apostle John, not Mary Magdalene, reclining next to the Lord at the Last Supper…).

In a beautiful homily at Regensburg earlier this month, Pope Benedict XVI taught that, in the Christian view, the world does not begin in nothingness. No, the Pope preached, “we believe that at the beginning of everything is the eternal Word;” we believe, in other words, that everything that is, begins “with Reason and not Unreason.” “And with this faith,” the Pope continued, “we have no reason to hide, no fear of ending up in a dead end.” Why? Because, Benedict taught, “this creative Reason is Goodness, it is Love. It has a face. God does not leave us groping in the dark. He has shown himself to us as a man.”

And in that man, the man of Nazareth, we meet the Logos of God. The recognition of that, the definition of that, is at the very fons et origo, the very beginning, of “the West.” That is where Europe and its progeny, like the United States, begin. That is where Thomas Aquinas College begins.

That is why this college, so small as the world measures educational largeness,  is poised on the edge of an even more brilliant — dare I say, an even more urgently important —  future: because it is dedicated to the Logos, to the truth of things, to the wisdom of both Athens and Jerusalem. And because of that commitment, it can give us the kind of educated men and women we need in a world where irrationality is rampant, on the march, and threatening.

As everyone who hasn’t been stuck in a soundproof cave in Antarctica for the past two weeks knows, Pope Benedict did more than preach a homily at Regensburg on September 12. He gave a lecture at his old university, speaking on the relationship of faith and reason, a theme that had been developed in the encyclical Fides et Ratio by his predecessor, John Paul the Great, and a theme to which Benedict XVI wished to return — with perhaps an even greater sense of urgency.

Why? Because, as the Pope argued in his Regensburg lecture, the future of civilization was being threatened today by two forms of irrationality.

There is the irrationality which teaches that it is the will of God that we do the irrational — such as willfully killing innocents in the name of God. This irrationality, the Holy Father suggested, was grounded in inadequate ideas of the nature of God himself — for if we think that God is merely Will with a capital “W” (as some Muslims believe and as Christians like Scotus and Ockham also taught), then we can conclude (as jihadist Muslims do) that God can will whatever God likes — including the irrational. One cannot, however, believe any such thing of a God who presents himself to the world as Logos, as incarnate Reason.

And so, thanks to the brilliance and courage of Benedict XVI, a great question has been put on the table of the world’s conversation: how does our concept of the very nature of God shape our concept of the world, of our responsibilities in the world, and of the just society?

Or, I must add immediately, our lack of a concept of God. For there is another irrationality afoot in the world, causing enormous mischief in Europe as well as in many segments of American high culture: I mean that secularist irrationality, often called “postmodernism,” which teaches us that, while there may be “your truth” and “my truth,” there is nothing we can know, with certainty, as the truth.

Which includes, among many other things, the truth that persuasion is morally superior to coercion in public life; or the truth that human beings are the bearers of rights which the state is obliged to respect; or the truth that the murder of innocents in some putatively great cause is irrational and always wicked. A West that cannot say with certainty that anything is the truth — a West which is caught in the quicksand of postmodernism — is a West that will not be able to deploy the new knowledge 21st century genetics gives us so that the result of the revolution in biotechnology is genuine human flourishing, not Huxley’s brave new world of manufactured and stunted humanity. By the same token, a West that cannot say with certainty that anything is “true” is a West that has been stripped naked before its enemies, not because it lacks material power (which it has in abundance), but because it cannot explain to itself why its civilizational achievement is good, and why it is worth defending.

By being a community of reason — by enabling its students to create communities of reason in their post-collegiate lives — Thomas Aquinas College is preparing its students for the most urgent public task of the early 21st century. No one can fail to be impressed by the statistics over these past thirty-five years: 44% of Thomas Aquinas graduates go on to graduate or professional school; 35% becomes teachers; 11% enter the priesthood or the consecrated religious life. Those are results in which any Catholic college or university could take justifiable pride.

But what is most important, I believe, is what happens to everyone who comes through Thomas Aquinas College — not just the professionals and teachers and professed witnesses to Christ, but young men like the computer geek working in a hotel in Victoria, British Columbia, whom I met over a beer Friday night a week ago: they all become men and women of reason, who can foster communities of reason where their peers (and perhaps even some of their parents) can come to grips with the fact that human beings can know the truth of things, including the moral truth of things; and where the people whose lives they touch can come to understand that, in knowing those truths, we come to know our responsibilities and our duties: the fulfillment of which is a crucial index of the happiness for which, as St. Augustine reminds us, all human  beings long — the happiness that is our intuition, here and now, of the eternal happiness promised us because of the saving work of God in Christ.

The notion that “ideas have consequences” has become something of a truism, perhaps even a cliché. What really counts, however, for ourselves and for history, is that we get the ideas right. The world almost came apart in the 20th century because of false ideas: about human nature,  human community, human origins, and human destiny. The world is at risk of coming apart in the 21st century for the same reason: because of false ideas about the human condition in all its dimensions. Thomas Aquinas College prepares students who are not only equipped to critique the bad ideas; it prepares men and women of character whose lives, as well as their arguments, put the good ideas, the true ideas, the ideas that reflect the Logos as the creative agent of history, into play.

I have been privileged to spend a total of about a year and a half of my life in Poland, and in the course of that experience, I’ve learned a lot of Polish history — including the fact that Poles have often thought of themselves, throughout the drama of their millennium-long story, as the antemurale Christianitatis: the “rampart of Christendom.” That was true in 1683, when the Polish cavalry of King Jan III Sobieski repelled a Turkish invasion at the Battle of Vienna; that was true in a different way when Poland led the successful non-violent resistance to the communist usurpation of the West’s liberties that we now know as the Revolution of 1989. Given the nature of the threats facing us today, however, no one place is likely to be the antemurale Christianitatis, or, in a more pluralistic vein, the antemurale occidentalis, the “rampart of the West,” the defender of the civilizational accomplishment that emerged, as Benedict XVI reminded the world at Regensburg, from the marriage of faith and reason, of Jerusalem and Athens.

The ramparts to be fortified and defended today are within each one of us. For unless a critical mass of the people of the West believe that they can know the truth about how men and women ought to live together, the darkness will, eventually, suffocate the light: not the Light of which St. John wrote at the end of the prologue to his Gospel, for that Light can never be extinguished, but the light of western civilization.

That beautiful campus of Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula, soon to be enhanced by a magnificent chapel of Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity, is a crucial sector of both the antemurale Christianitatis and the antemurale occidentalis — not because it is a bunker into which timid souls retreat, but because it educates the kind of men and women who can make the case for reason, for persuasion, and for civility in a world of irrationality, coercion, and incivility — including lethal incivility. The graduates of Thomas Aquinas College, in turn, become part of the living rampart of the West.

That is no mean accomplishment.

That is cause for celebration.

And that is why those who have made Thomas Aquinas College possible in the past and present, and those who will continue to make it possible in the future, deserve the thanks of us all.

Godspeed on your journey into the future.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

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