The Catholic Intellectual Tradition

The Catholic intellectual tradition is a 2,000 year-old conversation about the deepest questions that haunt the human spirit. What is of ultimate value? What is the nature and character of God? What are the ingredients for a happy and fulfilling life? What does a just and peaceful society look like? Catholic colleges like Siena are places where this long-running conversation about life’s meaning and purpose continues to unfold.

A Conversation with Recurring Themes

Common threads run through the rich and varied Catholic intellectual tradition, and shared assumptions bind together the participants in the conversation:

A sacramental view of the world

From a Catholic perspective, all of reality is holy. God’s light, life and love shine through the fabric of God’s creation. Catholic tradition teaches that God is encountered not only in sacred writings and houses of worship, not only in quiet prayer and the inner recesses of one’s conscience, but in active engagement with the world where God dwells among us and communicates with us.

An optimistic view of the human person

What is unique about Catholicism isn’t so much its understanding of God—an understanding shared by other Christian churches, but rather its understanding of the human person. The Catholic view of the human person is basically optimistic. It is built on the conviction that men and women are fundamentally good. We are made in God’s image, and although that “family resemblance” may be obscured by sin, it is never erased by sin.

An emphasis on community

The Catholic tradition maintains that life, both human and divine, is profoundly communal. It teaches that God is not an isolated individual, but a trinity of persons, a communion of love. It teaches that men and women, made in the divine image, are by their very nature communal creatures who only become fully alive when they love and are loved, and when they enjoy all the rights, privileges, duties and responsibilities of membership in the human community.

A balance between faith and reason

In the Catholic intellectual tradition, faith and reason are not enemies, but allies. Both are gifts from God guiding men and women to the riches of God’s wisdom. Texts, even religious texts, need to be critically examined and intelligently interpreted. Insight ripens with time, and understanding grows and develops as different points of view begin speaking to one another. As limited creatures, we do not so much possess the truth as pursue the truth, and we must do so with humility and intellectual honesty, with courage and perseverance, and in respectful dialogue with all people of good will.

A concern for social justice

The Catholic intellectual tradition, particularly over the past hundred years, has emphasized the fundamental dignity of the human person and the fundamental sanctity of human life. It has stressed the right and duty of all people, especially the poorest and most vulnerable, to participate in society, to share in its blessings and to contribute to the common good. It has promoted the dignity of work and defended the rights of workers, including their right to organize. It has underlined the need for human solidarity and environmental stewardship in a profoundly interdependent world.

A conversation that is open and on-going

Obviously, in a pluralistic society not all the participants in the conversation at Catholic colleges and universities are Catholic Christians, nor need they be. The Catholic intellectual tradition has long benefited from the insights of non-Christians like Plato, Aristotle, Averroes and Avicenna, and continues to be enriched by the perspectives of those from other faith traditions as well as those of no faith tradition. May this respectful and mutually enlightening conversation continue at Siena for many years to come!

The Franciscan Contribution

St. Francis and His Followers Join the Conversation

The 800 year-old Franciscan tradition in education is a critically important voice in the conversation that constitutes the Catholic intellectual tradition. Born of the insights and experience of Saints Francis and Clare of Assisi, the Franciscan tradition took root in the great medieval universities of Europe. It was transplanted to the Americas by Franciscan missionaries who established the first institution of higher education in the New World in 1536. It continues to inform the mission of Siena College and 21 other Franciscan colleges and universities in the United States.

The Franciscan Tradition at Siena

The intellectual and spiritual heritage of St. Francis and his followers that inspired Siena’s founders is distinguished by the following features.

Franciscan education at Siena is incarnational.

Because God became human in Jesus of Nazareth, our tradition affirms that the Creator is found in creation, the divine in the human, the spiritual in the material, the abstract in the concrete, the theoretical in the practical, and the exalted in the humble.

Franciscan education at Siena is personal.

Because God is personal and we are made in the divine image, our tradition affirms the dignity of the human person and values each individual as a unique gift of priceless worth.

Franciscan education at Siena is communal.

Because God is a communion of love who draws us into divine and human relationships, our tradition promotes common worship; fosters welcoming, inclusive communities of brothers and sisters; and seeks to understand and sustain the profound interdependence of all creation.

Franciscan education at Siena is transformative.

Because God has given us an inexhaustible capacity for truth, goodness, beauty and love, our tradition is devoted to on-going, life-long intellectual, moral and spiritual growth and development.

Franciscan education at Siena engages the heart.

Because God is the source of all compassion and the fulfillment of all our desires, our tradition cultivates habits of the heart as much as dispositions of the mind, interpersonal skills as well as intellectual abilities, compassion for one’s neighbor as well as passion for one’s work.

Franciscan education at Siena develops servant-leaders.

Because God the Most High became “most low” in the poverty and humility of Jesus of Nazareth, our tradition seeks to instill in our students a perception of their life’s work as service in solidarity with their brothers and sisters, especially the least among us.

Franciscan education at Siena pursues wisdom.

Because God calls us to live rich, full lives in communion with our brothers and sisters, our tradition seeks to discern what constitutes human happiness and what is of real and enduring value, and to apply this knowledge to the practice of making a good living and living a good life.

The Franciscan Difference

Newcomers to campus often comment on how warm, friendly and helpful they find our students, staff and faculty. What they are experiencing is the Franciscan tradition, not as a set of abstract values and ideas, but as a mode of living, learning and working together. While few members of the Siena community could rattle off the seven features of a Franciscan education that are listed above, the vast majority of them bear witness to the Franciscan tradition by the way they interact with one another and with visitors to our campus.

That’s what sets Siena apart. That’s the Franciscan difference.