The Failure of Catholic Academia

By Stephen Sammut, PhD

Stephen Sammut, BPharm, PhD, is a Professor of Psychology at the Franciscan University of Steubenville. Dr. Sammut received a BPharm from Monash University in Victoria, Australia, and a PhD in Neuroscience from the University of Malta. For more than 20 years Dr. Sammut has conducted varied research in animal models to investigate questions related to psychopathology, including depression, schizophrenia, Parkinson’s disease, and drug abuse.


In the preface to the first edition of the book The Devil’s Delusion: Atheism and its Scientific Pretensions, after addressing the fact that he’s a secular Jew whose “religious education did not take,” who “barely remembers a word of Hebrew” and “cannot pray,” and after addressing the content of the book as a “defense of religious thought and sentiment,” with biblical verses being the “least of it,” David Berlinski, a mathematician and philosopher, makes the following striking statement: “A defense is needed because none has been forthcoming. The discussion has been ceded to men who regard religious belief with frivolous contempt.”

This statement summarizes the sad state of our current reality. Every person, in every role in society, has a responsibility toward serving the Truth. This is most especially true for academia and academics of faith. However, in reality, Catholic academia and academics have, overall, failed miserably at upholding the dignity and integrity of the academic vocation, of being the mind and source of true education of society, from inside and outside of the Church. 

On the one hand, we have atheist scientists/academics who care nothing about seeing the immensity of God in their findings and make no hesitation in being open, militant, and on the offensive. However, on the other side, contributing to the absence of defense, is what appears to be an arrogance that has infiltrated many Catholic circles, including Catholic academia. This arrogance often appears to be based on a misguided logic that because we are on the “right side” (meaning on the side of Truth), we need to make little effort toward ensuring the highest level of integrity and rigor of the work that is being done. 

Additionally, there seems to be a hesitation to go on the offensive to defend the Truth that is so evident across all disciplines, including in the sciences (which I vouch for with all my heart as a neuroscientist of over 20 years). It appears that many on the side of Truth have found a “safe space” within the many budding organizations and have abandoned the reality of the active battle ensuing to defend the Truth. It needs to be said that there is nothing wrong in finding and joining groups of like-minded people, but the goal and effort must never be with the intention of escaping from reality.

Of course, it is easier to speak to people who think like you. As academics, it is easier to only publish in journals that are friendly to your ideas, but we cannot be limited to this simply because of the higher possibility of problems in more secular journals. How is evangelization going to take place if we do not seek to fight to present our work at the larger professional conferences or publish in the more popular, more read, scientific journals? Preaching to the choir is helpful only to some extent. Ultimately, the goal is to reach those “outside the choir” since a choir singing to itself is of little use.

Of course, going on the offensive involves more work from our end because in a battle one needs to not only prepare one’s weapons and strategy but also to know the enemy, their weapons and their tactics. Defending our work, defending ethical standards, defending the truth against distorted ideologies is our obligation. This may mean taking longer to have a paper published because one is arguing with editors and reviewers to defend their point. However, if one has conducted their work ethically and rigorously, what is there to fear? This stance does not necessarily guarantee the publication or presentation of one’s work (please note that these are not concocted situations but real experiences of the author and his research team), but it may also provide one with evidence that can be utilized to publicly expose the corruption and to teach those who have been entrusted to us for instruction. 

What does all of this have to do with faith, one might ask? Our faith and the actions surrounding it need to be active and evident in the fruit they bear. Yet, many seem to compartmentalize faith. 

Academia was created for the development of the intellect and ultimately for the better understanding of matters that affect and influence human life, broadly speaking. However, in this process of investigating and learning, academia was meant to assist in equipping society with knowledge of the Truth, and to challenge, to fight, and to defend (not to indoctrinate with Marxist or socialist ideologies, as is often taking place, but also to not be passive). The question arises as to whether Catholic academia is being appropriately active in the intense social, moral, ethical, and scientific battle that has been unfolding around us. 

Sadly, the overall situation appears to indicate passivity or quiet acquiescing to the social pressures and ideological bullying that we have come to observe more frequently in recent times. Examining recent events and the Catholic response makes it difficult to conclude otherwise. 

Let me address two specific incidents, one related to politics and the other related to COVID-19 responses. 

Pertaining to politics, prior to the 2016 election, we observed numerous Catholic scholars, in what can only be referred to as spiritual elitism (judging what Trump will do before he even had a chance to prove himself, despite an opposition that had already proven its anti-life agenda), and ignorance of the reality of the dynamics of politics, strongly discourage Catholics from voting for Donald Trump. To the best of my knowledge, none of the scholars involved have ever openly apologized for what they said, even after Trump proved himself true to his promises supporting life. 

Scholars also did not hold back from discouraging Catholics from voting for Trump in the 2020 election even after he proved himself. The same criticism can be addressed to the bishops and many other religious who spoke little to defend the positive impact that President Trump and his administration made in relation to matters of life and morality, but they did not hesitate to congratulate “Catholic” Biden in what potentially is an illegitimate presidency, given an election fraught with ambiguities and the significant indications of fraud.

Pertaining to COVID-19 and the measures taken by governments and administrators at all levels, we observe a resounding silence, and in some cases, just plain, unquestionable compliance. We even see collaboration from universities and academics of faith in relation to addressing the distortion and abuse of science and medicine in relation to the unjustified and inhumane lockdowns, isolations/quarantines, mask-mandates, and questionable testing, in addition to the various and numerous problems relating to the COVID-19 vaccines.

We observe a disregard of history involving the suppression of human rights and the use of tactics that replicate, in many ways, those of the Nazis in Germany and the communists in the former Soviet Union, China, and many other communist countries. In addition, with the exception of very few, in matters of faith and spiritual well-being, we observe silence and compliance in the deprivation of the faithful from the sacraments as well as a misuse of various teachings of the Church (e.g., the common good). 

Yet, these same scholars and bishops have a problem coming up with an answer (a simple answer) as to whether Communion should be withheld from those in public office who advocate publicly for gravely immoral behaviors such as abortion! Similar arguments can be made in relation to the philosophical arguments swirling around us addressing the acceptability of the COVID-19 vaccines, when little has been said about the immorality of the inhumanity and harm caused to society by the disproportionate responses to COVID-19. Where are all the scholars in these fields, fighting at the real frontline of the battle for the soul? 

Catholic academia does not exist to be fluffy and huggy-feely. Such academia—if it can even be called that—raises the question as to how well, practically speaking, we are preparing the next generation to take on the evils of secularization and atheism. Sloppy academia, hidden behind grandiose, verbose statements often devoid of reality, only assists in putting the next generation in a temporary bubble and at a significant disadvantage when the bubble bursts on them with all the resultant consequences when they go out into the world to face reality. 

Catholic academia can only justify its existence if it challenges the status quo. It exists to stand up for the Truth, to teach and challenge those entrusted to its care (and this does not include just the students) and it must lead by example and a firm, unrelenting stance defending the Truth. There is a necessity for Catholic scholars to retire from their lofty thrones, pomposity, and sophisticated verbosity and to step up and address reality and ensure that in living our intellectual lives and vocations we are not providing a shallow defense of the Faith and of the truths evident in science, but we are taking the proverbial bull by its horns.