Everyone has a desire for truth, especially about the most important things. People want to know whether there is a God, and what he is like; whether the world has a meaning; whether life ends with the grave, or whether we will live forever. How should we live? What religion, if any, should we practise?
Those who are satisfied they already know these things should still seek a deeper understanding of them, both for their own lives and so as to be able to share what they have with people who are searching for answers. Particularly today, with confusion prevailing everywhere, it is imperative to know what we should believe, and why. But where does one go for answers? Plenty of lectures, seminars, courses are offered, but some are dangerous, and likely to produce error and confusion, instead of truth and clarity.
In 1985, a group of people, most of whom had studied philosophy and theology under the great Dr Austin Woodbury SM, founded the Centre for Thomistic Studies in Sydney. Its purpose is to continue the work Dr Woodbury had done in providing courses of philosophy, Christian doctrine and related subjects. These are based especially on the principles of the man recognised by the Catholic Church as the greatest of all her theologians and philosophers: St Thomas Aquinas.
The Centre is open to everyone, with no prior qualifications needed. It attracts people from all walks of life and all ages, with a good percentage of young people. One student, Don Ford, said: "As far as I know, there is no other educational institution in Australia which teaches Catholic apologetics, doctrine and Thomistic philosophy so expertly and thoroughly as the Centre for Thomistic Studies."
Most courses consist of about thirty lectures each which are held one night a week and spread over four terms. There is opportunity to gain real intellectual formation - essential, if one is to avoid the secularism, subjectivism and relativism which are so pervasive that they penetrate the mind by a kind of osmosis, and can only be countered by a clear understanding of the truth.
Philosophy is a fascinating study, which deals with what reason can tell us about ourselves, the world and God. It studies, among other things, whether man has a spiritual soul which will live forever; whether there is a natural moral law as the foundation of morality; whether God's existence can be conclusively proved; whether the world depends on the will of God for its existence. It studies the nature of truth, goodness and beauty; it looks at the basic principles to be implemented if economic and political society are to be healthy and prosperous.
In theology, some topics treated recently at the Centre have included the Incarnation and Redemption as yielding fruit for our spiritual life; the sacraments; the Last Things (death, judgment, heaven, hell, purgatory); and the final renewal of the world; also, courses on apologetics and on the Fathers of the Church.
These are deep subjects, so some people are discouraged by the thought: "I wouldn't be able to understand." But so much depends on how the topics are taught - and they are clearly presented at the Centre. Really, philosophy is a development of common sense knowledge, while sacred theology is a development of basic Christian doctrine.
Jim Mong, who has attended the Centre, comments: "My wife and I have been coming to the Centre for Thomistic Studies for the past nine months. What impresses us most is the depth of knowledge of the subject matter, but presented in an easy to understand manner."
Today, many discordant voices are heard in the churches, including the Catholic Church, with the result that a person seeking knowledge may be offered error instead of truth, and end up hopelessly confused. Some courses, while claiming to present the best in modern Catholic thinking, are in reality a betrayal of the Faith, sowing doubt and error instead of truth. But most of the students may fail to detect the subtly presented distortions, and finish intellectually alienated from the Church.
The Centre for Thomistic Studies is completely loyal to the magisterium. It was founded to teach sound doctrine and the perennial philosophy, which the popes have constantly endorsed. It continues to do so. Of course, legitimate theological and philosophical opinions are discussed too, but are not confused with matters of faith.
Another Centre student, Frank Cudmore, offers further endorsement: "The teachings firstly satisfy my great need to know the meaning of life and our place in the universe. Secondly, they help me in everyday living. The moral teachings of the Church sound very reasonable and necessary after having studied philosophy, psychology and ethics. Even at work I notice that my appreciation of logic helps in solving day to day problems."
Tony Skegro adds: "I go to CTS because it is a real community of scholars." This attitude, I think, is common, and shows itself in the lively interest taken in the topics discussed. Pam Van Oploo says the Centre "provides me with greater understanding of my Faith. I really have been looking for something like the Centre for some time, having not received much instruction in the Faith at school. It also allows an opportunity to mix with other young adults who are orthodox Catholics."
The courses for the coming year, held on Monday nights, begin on 28 February 2000. The first session is at 5 pm. The venue: Level 8, St Andrews House, 474 Kent Street, Sydney. (Walk through Sydney Town Hall Arcade to Kent Street and turn left). For further information, phone (02) 9759 8014 or (02) 9550 0231.
John Young is a Sydney Catholic lecturer and author of several books on philosophy and related topics.