instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

An exercise for the reader

I had a discussion about Catholic intellectuals with someone, and as sometimes happens I wound up more confused than I started. I blame grammar, as "Catholic" and "intellectual" function as both adjectives and nouns.

We could say that an intellectual is a person who traffics in ideas, as compared with a grocer, who traffics in groceries.

A "Catholic grocer," then, would be a person who traffics in groceries and who is Catholic. In other words, "Catholic grocers" is the intersection of "Catholics" and "grocers."

More strictly, "Catholic grocer" could mean a person who traffics in groceries in a manner consistent with the Catholic faith; in this case, "Catholic" modifies the way in which the traffic in groceries is conducted.

Similarly for "Catholic intellectual," there is a broad meaning ("Catholics who traffic in ideas") and a narrow meaning ("Catholics who traffic in ideas in a Catholic manner").

There seems to be plenty of stuff in being a grocer that can't really be modified by being Catholic. A grocer order his goods, stocks his shelves, prices his merchandise, receives payments, keeps his books, and so on. These can be done in accord with the Catholic faith, but they are essentially natural, material acts.

What is the stuff in being an intellectual that can't really be modified by being Catholic? An intellectual marshals facts, weighs evidence, pronounces judgment, scribbles hastily on napkins, and looks around for someone to buy the next round.

But the measure of an intellectual is the content of his ideas. Can a Catholic intellectual have an idea, immaterial as it is, that is not thoroughly permeated with the Catholic faith in a way at all analogous to the way a Catholic grocer can have a loaf of bread that is not thoroughly permeated with the Catholic faith? I mean, a loaf of bread justly baked is the same in a Catholic store as in a Buddhist store. Can an idea that is the same in a Catholic mind as in a Buddhist mind be said to be Catholic?

And if it's the case that the content of the ideas of Catholic intellectuals are thoroughly Catholic, then might it even be the case, somehow, that the content of the stores of Catholic grocers are thoroughly Catholic? Does that actually mean anything, and if so, what?

On another tack: The term "Catholic intellectual" suggests that being an intellectual is more fundamental than being Catholic. (Cf. "intellectual Catholic.") Is the risk that a Catholic intellectual would put being an intellectual ahead of being Catholic in the event of a perceived conflict qualitatively different than the risk that a Catholic grocer would put being a grocer ahead of being Catholic?

Oh, and finally: Who do you think of as Catholic intellectuals? When I started to write down a list, I couldn't much distinguish it from a list of "well-known Catholics who write in complete sentences."