The Catholic University of America

Phi Beta Kappa Address
The Catholic University of America
May 14, 1999
Monsignor Robert Sokolowski
professor of philosophy

Congratulations to you, our graduating seniors who are being inducted into Phi Beta Kappa, and congratulations also, on this happy day, to your parents and families. You parents were our students' first teachers, and anything we, their later teachers, have been able to accomplish was built upon the foundations that you have laid.

The moment of graduation gives you a kind of sudden snapshot of your four years of college, and it allows you to see things in perspective. It becomes very clear, for example, as you are about to take your leave from this community, that learning is something done through and with others; we learn from teachers and with friends, and the things we learn will always bear the imprint of those who were associated with us when we learned them. You can be proud of what you have done, but you must also be grateful.

Your studies have given you a certain expertise, a certain professional skill, a certain body of knowledge, but if you have been well educated, you will also have learned something more. You will also have acquired a certain ability. One of the best descriptions of this ability was given by a British headmaster, William Cory. He wrote, "At school, you are not engaged just in acquiring knowledge but rather in making mental efforts under criticism. . . . A certain amount of knowledge you can indeed . . . acquire; nor need you regret the hours you spent on much that is forgotten, for the shadow of lost knowledge at least protects you from many illusions. But you go to a great school especially for arts and habits; for the habit of attention, for the art of expression, for the art of assuming, at a moment's notice, a new intellectual position, for the art of entering quickly into another person's thoughts, for the habit of submitting to censure and refutation, for the art of indicating assent or dissent in graduated terms, for the habit of regarding minute points of accuracy, for the art of working out what is possible in a given time, for taste, discrimination, for mental courage and mental soberness. And above all, you go to a great school for self-knowledge."

These arts and habits-the attention to detail, the care for precision, the ability to listen to and understand another person-are virtues of the intellect. They are excellences of the mind. I trust that you have cultivated these abilities at our University, that you have begun to practice them, and that they will grow in you as the years go on. They are talents that are meant to be used and developed, and we are never finished in the great human task of using our intelligence in our lives, and of thereby making our lives more and more humane.

Furthermore, you have studied at a Catholic university. The Church was, in the middle ages, the founder of the university. The university, as the Holy Father, Pope John Paul II, has said, arose "from the heart of the Church, Ex corde ecclesiae." Why did this happen? Why did universities arise within the Church? The Church established and sponsored universities because her faith is founded on truth and on a teaching. The Church believes that the human mind is ordered toward truth, that it finds its perfection in the truth, and that human actions and human moral conduct must be based on the truth of things and the truth about ourselves. The impulse to look for the truth of things, to discover the nature of things, is part of our Christian inheritance, because our Christian faith is based on the word of God, and the whole issue of truth arises when we are called to listen to this word and to respond to it.

I have spoken earlier about the intellectual virtues that you have developed here at The Catholic University of America. These virtues would be incomplete if they were not strengthened by our religious faith. Human beings who do not recognize their relation to God are empty and thin; the most important part is missing in them. Your faith does not conflict with your intelligence; it brings it to perfection.

Furthermore, intelligence needs not just religious truth but also religious devotion for its own completion. We must not only think about God but must also pray to Him. Prayer elevates our mind and deepens our understanding. The highest form of prayer for Catholics is, of course, the Eucharist, and when we participate in the Eucharist, we do not set aside our reason and become blind and credulous; rather, when we praise God in this manner, our minds are nourished by God's own truth, a truth that surpasses our understanding, but puts everything else into place. Through the Eucharist, your life and your actions become related to the God who created you and gave you the life that you have. As Phi Beta Kappa scholars, you have been blessed with talent and you have used your abilities well, but it is also important to acknowledge what we owe to our Creator and Redeemer and to respond to the love that he has shown us.

The simple practical upshot of all this is, make sure you go to church on Sunday. Never think that you are too busy or too smart to participate in the Eucharist and in prayer. Just as we learn from other people and with others, so do we pray in union with the Church. It is there that we find the truth that sets us free.

Phi Beta Kappa was founded in 1776, the same year in which the American colonies declared their independence of England. It was founded at the College of William and Mary (not very far from here) by a young Virginia gentleman, John Heath. From William and Mary it moved on, within a few years, to Harvard and Yale, and over the course of two centuries it became the prominent American academic honors society. There is, therefore, something patriotic about it, something that calls its members to service in our political community.

The most important service you can now offer to your country, the most patriotic thing you can do, is to be witnesses to the truth. The letters Phi Beta Kappa are an acronym for the Greek words, "Philosophy the Guide of Life." Philosophy is the love of the wisdom, the search for truth. The name of the fraternity therefore states that the search for truth is the guide for our lives. In very plain terms, this means that we should be honest men and women: we should love the truth and express it in our lives, even when it means that we may have to correct ourselves in the light of the truth. Nations go through different periods in their history and have to face different problems at different times. In our time, in your time, one of the greatest problems facing our country is confusion about the most important things in life. Our country provides us with a comfortable economic life, but in recent years especially it has not been able to give us the vocabulary and the habits to help us use these material goods well. What value do things have if they cannot be incorporated into a worthy and serious human life?

Through your education and your own hard work, you have inherited a rich moral and intellectual tradition. You can make a great contribution to your community and your country by courageously bearing witness to this tradition, this Christian way of life, in your words and your actions. May God give you the grace and strength to do so.