Under the auspices of the John A. Ryan Institute for Catholic Social Thought, with the support of the Minneapolis Endowment and the Aquinas Foundation, a group of approximately 20 scholars from around the country convened at St. Thomas in late July to begin an unusual project. The scholars represented a dozen different Catholic colleges and universities and were drawn from such diverse fields as law, business, economics, philosophy and theology. Participants came with a common purpose: to work together to recover the Catholic intellectual tradition in service of professional education in law and business.
Religiously affiliated universities have long made important contributions to the professional formation of lawyers and business people. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, they served as a portal into the professions for religious and ethnic minorities who could not otherwise gain admission to the professions and management. Building on their success and their faith-based approach to intellectual, ethical and practical issues of professional formation, they also have made a major impact on law and the professions. As the 20th century drew to a close, many of these schools, including those represented at this meeting, were ranked among the best programs in the country.
All of these developments are notable achievements, but they are not without their costs. Social change, greater assimilation and integration of their largely immigrant student bodies into the professions, and changes in the business and professional cultures they serve also have changed the character of these schools. One consequence of these changes is that the most distinctive element of the professional education programs in many religiously affiliated universities – attention to the impact that religious intellectual traditions have in and on the professions – is now notably absent.
The meeting at St. Thomas was intended to be a first step in a process to change this trend. In collaboration with the Columbus School of Law at Catholic University of America and the School of Business at St. John’s University (New York), St. Thomas has taken a leadership role in restoring the Catholic intellectual tradition to professional education.
Much of the content of professional education, of course, is focused on technical matters to which there is no distinctive Catholic contribution. Both law and business, however, depend upon fundamental conceptions of the human person – of justice, of community, and of property. It is here that, over the course of the 20th century, secular frameworks have elbowed aside the rich reflections of the Catholic tradition. But it is precisely in this framework that the professions have sharpened their technical skills at the same time that they have lost their real meaning in the context of human life and society. It is that deeper meaning that the project participants hope to recover while preserving the best of the technical accomplishments.
This is easier said than done. The scholars assembled in July agreed to make a small beginning by exploring the concept of property in the Catholic tradition as it may influence thinking in law and business. According to the project director, Robert Kennedy of the Department of Catholic Studies, a continuation of the seminar is planned for 2003. The future may see the organization of a much larger conference, the preparation of textual materials, and perhaps even a series of workshops for law and business faculty. Judging from the response of those who attended, as well as those whose schedule did not permit them to attend, there is great enthusiasm for the project and a lively hope that it may make a real difference in Catholic professional schools.