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Spotlight on the Liberal Arts

Spotlight on the Liberal Arts

Keyword: the unintended reformation

The following is the second response from Paige Hochschild:

It is a great pleasure to have Brad Gregory here with us at the Mount.  The best thing about his book is that a number of us read it together—an indirect sort of thanks to the author!  The Unintended Reformation was the occasion for the display of some real intellectual rigour and inter-disciplinary conversation.  It was also the occasion for intra-denominational combat, pro- and anti-modern hymnody, methodological crises, and political-theoretical indignation.  In the end, however, as a small Catholic institution attempting to ask just the kind of questions about “Catholic identity” to which Gregory alludes, reading this book was (I hope) a constructive move on the part of our faculty to take on-going intellectual responsibility for our heritage and mission.[1]  John Haldane, a celebrated intellectual who spends about half of his time at Notre Dame, recently passed through town, giving a fine lecture on the modern Catholic university.  He proposed that small institutions like the Mount might become the last places where learning for wisdom could prevail over the forces of specialization, research outcomes and technical-career preparation; as a place where history would dominate broadly over the humanities as a method and sensibility; and finally as a place where something like Newman’s university could at last be instantiated—non-sectarian, but ordered to truth. 

Gregory’s book has received plenty of press, with some critiques more substantial than others.[2]   Even the title, over the striking cover design, immediately provokes a reaction.  I believe this is the intent, given that the final two chapters find Catholics and magisterial Protestants united as both perpetrators and victims of modernity.  While Gregory concludes without any trace of “nostalgia,” many readers wonder what the wistful praise of the Benedictine ideal might really conceal.  Gregory is not an ideologue; he is a cultural critic and an untimely prophet, and his overall “genealogical narrative” is deeply compelling.

Whether one considers outcomes such as economic injustice or environmental degradation (as Gregory frequently does), or whether one considers cultural symptoms such as the negative effects of social mobility, the shallow tone of public discourse, or the sad eschatology proclaimed from the side of a Walmart semi-trailer: “buy more stuff, for less money, and you will have a better life”—one must receive Gregory’s book as yet another warning about the dangers of modern forgetting.  Gregory freely admits that his argument is not original, following as it does in the line of Nietzsche, Funkenstein, MacIntyre, Lasch and Berry.  It is hard to celebrate our apparent inability to negotiate properly moral categories in a polity that prizes “negative liberty.”[3]  It appears that religious pluralism can only be preserved by the combination of a powerful secular state and the near-total subtraction of religion from public discourse: this is a crucial theme in Gregory’s book.  We all feel in our daily lives the price that we pay for the great benefit of progress through technological economy—and if we do not feel it, we should.  We should reflect upon the costs of our luxury, our ease, our shallow carelessness with the lives and well-being of others; we should feel that our excess de iure belongs to the wounded neighbor at our doorstep.

I offer two comments, one a constructive critique of Gregory’s philosophical starting-point, and the second as a word of encouragement to my colleagues to continue the conversation occasioned by Gregory’s book.  First, the foundational argument about a univocal metaphysics that almost inevitably generates Weberian disenchantment: this part of Gregory’s genealogy is familiar from various narratives of intellectual decline from the high Middle Ages on.  I am sympathetic with these, as a student of Augustine.  It is not clear what Gregory would like to see as a corrective, “non-dualist” theology of creation.  A world in which the God of Israel is appropriately transcendent, and yet “related to” creation not only in the order of grace—this could take many theological forms.  For Thomas Aquinas, the order of secondary causality can offer a total account of itself (even when it remains at heart unknown).[4]  It is not clear what it would look like to “invite God” into the university curriculum, or into a new, modern polity.   Disenchantment, at least for St. Thomas, might be a price worth paying for keeping philosophy and theology at the table of scientific wisdom.

The subordination of the divine to natural reason and a mechanistic world-view might be more effectively challenged through the hermeneutic-epistemological approach of Gadamer.  The criterion of certitude, and thus of scientific respectability, has been narrowed: reserved on the one hand to the empirical research of the hard sciences (‘empirical’ construed as quantifiable), and on the other hand to the conscience of Luther, who cried “faith that is not certain, is not faith at all!”  The “failure” of modern philosophy that Gregory diagnoses is at heart a matter of epistemology. Before we issue an invitation to God to return to the university, we must challenge our own disciplinary narratives of self-sufficiency.[5]

My second point, offered to my colleagues with whom I have shared these few weeks of conversation: with all the negatives, I think Gregory stands for us as a good example of a historian mindful of his limitations, even in his willingness to range far and wide in the hope that his story will resonate as truth-telling.  I am inclined to be as negative as Gregory—things are surely getting worse!  (I am waiting for another St. Benedict.)  However, I will offer a word of hope in the form of a non-triumphalist Catholic exhortation to the modern, over-specialized academy.  In 1998, a genuinely odd Polish Pope offered an encyclical to Catholics, particularly academics, which he claimed had special value and significance to him: Fides et Ratio said many things, but most important was the Pope’s conviction that the modern university was a microcosm of spiritual and intellectual malaise at large.  Could this place once again awaken and address the deepest questions of the human spirit?  Who am I?  What am I for?  What are we humans about?[6]  This text was not really about faith, but about human knowing: it was a call to return to a conviction that a) there is truth; b) we cannot know that truth exhaustively, ever, but we can still know things; and c) this truth is more precious than any other thing in life.  The encyclical was John Paul II’s treasured life-work, speaking to the arts, sciences, humanities and the social sciences: look for the truth proper to your discipline; just don’t forget what you are. 

In 2008, a planned lecture by another Pope (at La Sapienza University, Rome) was cancelled due to protests led by faculty.  In the text of this address, the autonomy of the secular university, founded originally by Pope Boniface VIII, was warmly acknowledged.  He claimed nevertheless good reason to speak in such a context, because of his role as Bishop of Rome, but even more because of the moral authority of a Church that could no longer claim anything like political authority in a pluralistic society.  He said it was his task to remind that university that its sole authority was truth.  What is truth?  Good question, and what would the Church have to say?  Well, Pope Benedict XVI talked about Rawls, and Plato’s Euthyphro; he asked, “what is the good that makes us to be true?”  He looks to the university, with its “proper autonomy of reason” embodied above all in the supreme place that Newman gives to philosophy (as the discipline that holds all others accountable to humane reasoning).  But the role of theology is significant: while the academic study of both philosophy and theology draw from a “great dialogue of historical wisdom,” theological reflection above all reminds human reason (“as a purifying force”) that it is limited

There is no tone here of sectarian anxiety over “Catholic Identity”, but a strong confidence that if the disciplines in the academy a) seek to order their work, by their proper principles, to truth-seeking; and b) converse openly, critically and above all humbly with one another, then a significant gesture is being made in the restoration of human culture.  Gregory at the end of his book opposes within Catholic intellectual life the “propositional” to the “participatory” (363).  This may be a true statement about the modern condition.  The reduction of “theological speech” to praxis-theory always runs the risk of ‘historicist black-holes.’  I would not give up too quickly on the transformative power of genuinely contemplative truth, even in the “historical and humanistic sciences.”[7]

PAIGE E. HOCHSCHILD is an Assistant Professor of Theology here at the Mount, and this is her second year full-time. She graduated from King's College and Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, with a BA and MA in Classics; she spent three years at Notre Dame in the Medieval Institute before completing her PhD at University of Durham, England. Her dissertation was last year published by Oxford University Press, "Memory in Augustine's Theological Anthropology." In addition to Patristics and medieval theology, she has recently been doing research in modern Catholic theology and history before, during and after the 'Modernist Crisis.”


[1] Gregory, 363.

[2] Gregory has received plenty of scholarly criticism: from Mark Lilla, for writing an homage to After Virtue while pretending to do history; from Mark Noll, for a narrative that is basically correct, but which fails to lay adequate blame upon the medieval Church; from Dale Van Kley, for being an “unapologetic exercise in Catholic apologetics”; from Thomas Pfau, for inadequate hermeneutic attention to the sources that themselves have shaped the modernity that Gregory laments.,1; for a video of the Lumen Christi event at University of Chicago (May 9, 2012), see; for Van Kley, see; for Pfau, see

[3] 18-9.  By contrast, Gregory does not support argumentatively his use of the term “teleological Christian morality” (233, 244); certainly this is not the only form of distinctively Christian morality.  Does the “fissiparous” genre of this book require the articulation of this teleology in philosophical terms, or not?  Are ‘practices’ (364; 266) enough to bring this morality to light?  On “negative liberty” see Isaiah Berlin, “Two Concepts of Liberty” (1958), upon which Quentin Skinner patterns a “gothic,” Rawlsian (cf. ‘negative’ liberty of) freedom from restraint, as opposed to a positive, “Roman,” republican sort of liberty; cf. “A Third Concept of Liberty,” Proceedings of the British Academy, 117 (2002), 237-68.  By referring to Nietzsche, the association with Gregory is one of method, and not of the historiographical telos of the will-to-power.

[4] Thus Milbank may not constitute the most metaphysically reliable diagnostician of modernity; cf. Summa contra Gentiles 2.18.2, “creation is not a change, but the very dependency of the act of being upon the principle from which it is produced”; and on the non-redundancy of the perspectives of theology and (natural) philosophy, which “considers the proper causes of things… [which] belong to them by nature” (2.4.2).  On the essential unknowability of the “principles of things” see In Aristotelem De Anima, 1.1.15 and J. Pieper, The Silence of St. Thomas (South Bend: St. Augustine’s Press, 1999), 59-65.

[5] To my esteemed colleagues in history, a friendly provocation: yes, Skinner and Pocock admit that, at the end of the day, the historian has to buckle down and tell a story (even if cautiously described as a ‘narrative’).  This acknowledges that the historian must possess a measure of prudence and mature good sense in intuiting the whole that she cannot see materially or linguistically (as Skinner does, for example, at the end of Foundations of Modern Political Thought (1978), where he submits the striking historical generalization/story that “political thought became modern through a process by which ‘the state’ came to be seen as an impersonal structure and not merely an attitude of the ruler…”).  Pocock says that philosophers who do history are no better than “historiosophers”—fair enough, and perhaps Gregory reveals his basically philosophical interests too quickly.  However, the supposition that (all?) philosophers are unaware of the history within which their own questions are formed, precisely by making history into something that of itself generates knowledge and/or wisdom (and not by mere attempts at “relevance”), implies in turn that a good historian is safely committed to “what can be shown or said to have happened.”  Admitting the real danger of writing “historical fiction,” it seems that there is an opposite danger for historians who reckon that they attain “facts” through the methodological assumption that words are deeds—and in so doing, run the risk of making the facts of history to be the interpretation of history.  See J. G. A. Pocock, “Quentin Skinner: The History of Politics and the Politics of History,” Common Knowledge 10:3 (2004), 532-50.

[6] Fides et Ratio, 1.

[7] And I would take a look at Grant, on the university.  Cf. La Sapienza Address: “And that means at the same time that reason, in the end, bows to the pressure of interests and the charm of utility, constrained to recognize it as the ultimate criterion. To put this in terms of the point of view of the structure of the university: The danger exists that philosophy, no longer feeling itself capable of its true task, might degenerate into positivism; that theology, with its message addressed to reason, might become confined to the private sphere of a group more or less sizable. If, however, reason -- solicitous of its presumed purity -- becomes deaf to the great message that comes from the Christian faith and its wisdom, it will wither like a tree whose roots no longer reach the waters that give it life. It will lose courage for the truth and thus it will not become greater but less. Applied to our European culture this means: If it wants only to construct itself on the basis of the circle of its own arguments and that which convinces it at the moment -- worried about its secularity -- it will cut itself off from the roots by which it lives; then it will not become more reasonable and more pure, but it will break apart and disintegrate.”  Accessed at


One of the most fascinating books read by Mount faculty members that has caught the interest of many is Dr. Brad S. Gregory’s (University Notre Dame) book The Unintended Reformation. During the past fall semester, thirty-four members of the Mount faculty participated enthusiastically in three reading groups facilitated by theologians David Cloutier and David McCarthy, and historian Charles Strauss. The members make up approximately 1/3 of the faculty, and participants came from all four of the university’s colleges as well as the seminary. The reading groups have met four to five times each to actively discuss the points brought about from the book, the implications it has on Catholic universities, and interpretations of Dr. Gregory’s message.

On Friday, April 25th, the author of the book Dr. Gregory will be visiting the Mount to give a public lecture at 3:00 PM, followed by a faculty seminar at 5:00 PM. During the faculty seminar, two Mount professors, Dr. Jamie Gianoutsos and Dr. Paige Hochschild, will have the floor to each give a prepared response to Dr. Brad Gregory about the book. Following the responses, Dr. Gregory will respond to the comments. Afterwards, Dr. Cloutier will facilitate questions and answers, as well as general discussion, between the reading groups, respondents, and author.


The book is described as the following:

In a work that is as much about the present as the past, Dr. Gregory identifies the unintended consequences of the Protestant Reformation and traces the way it shaped the modern condition over the course of the following five centuries. A hyperpluralism of religious and secular beliefs, an absence of any substantive common good, the triumph of capitalism and its driver, consumerism—all these, Gregory argues, were long-term effects of a movement that marked the end of more than a millennium during which Christianity provided a framework for shared intellectual, social, and moral life in the West.

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