What are the foundations of a good Catholic education?

What are the foundations of a good Catholic education?

Dr. John J. Haldane

Briefly stated, the main point of a Catholic education should be to lay down the foundations of a good life and of a good death. The pagan Romans could say "Mors ianua vitae" (death is the gateway to life); yet these days many Catholics seem more disposed to say "life is the gateway to self-fulfilment." The four last things: death, judgment, heaven and hell are in danger of being seen as unhelpful and perhaps removable intrusions from the Dark Ages.

But life in the natural order is conditioned by death and human activity should be measured against this end. It is not morbid to think often of mortality when the point of doing so is to reflect back on one's present condition and actions.

It is within this context that a Catholic philosophy of education should be developed. Education is an activity or process. As such it is defined by its goal, what it aims to achieve. G.K. Chesterton had this in mind when he wrote that "Education is only truth in a state of transmission," and immediately raised the rhetorical question "how can we pass on truth if it has never come into our hand?" Philosophy, he said, is "merely thought that has been thought out," adding that "man has no alternative, except between influence by thought that has been thought out and being influenced by thought that has not been thought out."

Holy Scripture, (together with the Creeds and biblical spirituality which it inspired), is religious experience that has been thought out. Nothing less would be worth transmitting across the centuries, nor should the religiously disposed settle for anything else. The spiritual, the historical and the philosophical are no more separable in reality than are the three sides of a triangle or, dare I say it, the three persons of the Trinity.

Accordingly, however Catholic education (at any level) proceeds, it needs to attend to the integration of these three aspects of faith. The ultimate concern on this occasion is with the spiritual, but the others are equally important and my sense is that we are failing in our educational task with regard to them. It used to be the case that Catholics knew that the Church placed great emphasis on reason and that theology was closely identified with philosophy. They were aware of the great figures of the Middle Ages, such as Aquinas and Bonaventure, and they knew in very broad terms the two main styles of argument for the existence of God: from the contingency of the world and from the order within it. They had some sense of the Catholic argument against the Protestant doctrines of the exclusivity of Scripture, and of salvation by faith alone.


Of course their knowledge in these matters was from testimony and they deferred to the expertise of others. But that is no disqualification. In general, think of how little of what we know, we are in a position to confirm by our own efforts. In any society there is division of labour by competence, and this is true also with regard to matters religious. Just as my scientific knowledge rests on the say of others whom I take to be (sufficiently) expert, so my knowledge of dogma is based on the word of those who have it from those who know. Certainly this assumes that someone somewhere does know, or that the knowledge is set down and may be recovered, but it ill behoves a Catholic, as it would not a sceptic, to deny this.

The following counsel of prudence may be recommended to all Catholics: "Cultivate the habit of thinking that if the Church teaches it as a matter of faith and morals, then somewhere there is a good case for it drawn from revelation, tradition or natural reason." This may seem utterly obvious, but there are many who would regard what I have said as intellectually naive and as encouraging an attitude of docility. Well, the more I pursue questions of doctrine the more I am impressed by the richness of the Church's resources, and so far as docility is concerned, it is a virtue whose corresponding vice is ineducability. Better to be teachable than not!

Similar points of contrast may be drawn in relation to historic practice. It once was the case that Catholic children had developed in them a reverence for the sacraments and the liturgy. This effect was produced through a variety of means: by pious devotions, modes of dress and behaviour, stories of heroic devotion and so on. One benefit of these efforts was to prepare them for the idea that amidst the ordinariness of life there were channels of transcendence.

It is much easier for a child to believe that God is present on the altar if the setting is physically special, if the demeanour of older children and adults is reverential, and if the priest later takes evident care to clean the vessels and consume the residue of the body and blood of Christ.

Talk of the Mass as a meal encourages quite different ways of thinking. It is unsurprising when later in life those raised in the "get- together-with-Jesus" style wonder why the Church should make so much fuss about restricting the Eucharist to Christians in communion with Catholicism.

Yet the well-educated Catholic knows better. The Mass is not a religious service, nor is it a family meal, nor a community feast. It is an event in which heaven and earth come together, as mundane time and sacred time are united. In it the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, a Divine Person, is made really present, not re-enacted or remembered, but made actually present as a means of sacrifice by which our sins and those of mankind generally are atoned. He is the Messiah for whom the Jews longed and for whom many still wait, whose voluntary death opened the gates of heaven and who is presented to us as the priest speaks the words of consecration.

Children cannot be taught this sacred doctrine all at once, but they should be taught it rather than the deflationary, desacralising account of the Mass as a devotional service akin to that of other religions.

It may be suggested that these recommendations would make Catholicism seem esoteric, supernaturalist and exclusive, whereas we should be celebrating the complexity and beauty of the natural order and opening children's eyes to the universally shared features of all religions.

Certainly creation is wonderful, but in order to appreciate the extent of its glory one has to understand how limited are scientific and naturalistic accounts of it. The most compelling evidence for God's existence comes precisely as one realises that the natural order is not self- explanatory and that preternatural causes are effective in it. The "supernatural", as Catholics should know, is not a scientific, quasi-scientific or metaphysical category; rather it is a theological one pertaining to the order of Divine Grace. This, not spooky magic, is what is made available through the sacraments. Furthermore, it is exclusive in as much as it is not generally available in all religions and in so far as it is freely and electively bestowed by God and is not an entitlement to all who feel benignly disposed towards the universe or to the ground of its being. If these matters have been confused or lost sight of it may be because too much attention has been afforded comparative religious education and too little given to Catholic religious knowledge.

The expression "The sacrament of the present moment" was used by the 18th century French Jesuit, Jean Pierre de Caussade. His treatise known as Self-Abandonment to Divine Providence offers this general guidance:

"Perfection does not consist in understanding God's designs but in submitting to them ... They are God working in the soul to make it like himself ... The whole essence of the spiritual life consists in recognising the designs of God for us at the present moment."

For de Caussade, the search for God begins (and in a sense ends) exactly where one is at a given time. No occult incantations, no esoteric diagrams, no strange exercises, no theatrical props, just a call to sanctity through willing service and acceptance. There is a striking contrast between this and many contemporary calls to spirituality.

Recall Chesterton's remark about education being truth in a state of transmission. Then ask what truths we know about the spiritual state and about how to advance it. Young people at school and college live in times where spirituality is often equated with pantheistic psycho-babble. This generally involves vague injunctions to be "at one with oneself" and "develop holistically" in accord with the unity of nature. Like the command to "do something" these offer little direction and it is hard to think what they could exclude.

De Caussade, by contrast, tells us exactly what to do: first, obey God's will as communicated through Holy Scripture and Holy Church; and second, within the structure this creates, accept what comes each moment as part of gracious providence. The theology of acceptance is at odds with a culture that has extended the idea of consumer rights to the conditions of life itself.

Objective moral order

A few years ago commentators and politicians wrote of a "dependency culture" in which people expected resources to come to them from the State. Now we are taught to be self-confident claimants to various moral entitlements. We have rights to be upheld: rights of ownership, of association, of free expression, of respect; in general, rights to fulfilment on terms chosen by ourselves. Ironically, since it wears the mantle of virtue, this ideology of entitlement undermines the notion of an objective moral order, for it treats subjective preferences as the determinants

This twisted logic of entitlement can be seen operating daily in discussions of abortion, adoption, care of the elderly, euthanasia, genetic therapy, human reproduction, sexual orientation and practice, and so on through the familiar list. We are left with the impression that young Catholics are often no better equipped to deal with such issues than are others of their age and general level of education.

Given the riches of Church teaching and magisterial moral theology this must be construed as an indictment of educational practice. But I am not blaming the schools as such, for the explanation lies at an earlier stage in the failure to substitute sufficient lay expertise at the level of higher education in place of seminary clerics. In consequence, the current state of religious knowledge among teachers is often frighteningly limited. There is little point, though, in continuing to condemn the failures of the past. The question is how to make our way forward to something better.

One might try to begin with doctrine, or by retelling the story of the Church. Both are important, but before anyone will attend to these they must first be brought to the point of recognising that doctrine and Church form part of a single divine answer to a deep human need - the need to be united in love with an unfailing companion. This is the role of spirituality in education.

The guide identifies the destination and the starting point, and traces the route between them. De Caussade makes the point that we need travel for no longer than the present moment, and for no further than the spot on which we stand. Slow the pace of discussion to this, lower the volume of talk, and teach children to discern what the moment calls for - sometimes action to change the world, sometimes patience to accept it. With these habits acquired, it will quite naturally occur to them to ask what we know about God and God's will for us.

From that point on, education will construct itself in accord with the Aristotelian- Thomistic pattern of practical reasoning, working backwards from ends to means. I have faith that this will bring true happiness and contentment as well as other less important forms of success. Any education that could achieve this would be a great gift to future generations.

John Haldane is Professor of Philosophy at the University of St Andrews, Fife, Scotland.

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