Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Our Robust Tradition Today

Just in case you don't think I do anything anymore, below is the talk I gave to the Ottawa Teachers Guild last night at St. Patrick's Basilica. Thanks to Mark Woermke for inviting me to give it.

By the way, I have also written two articles for Catholic Insight (one for November's issue, one for January's, I think).

Lastly, I am giving Maryvale teachers a work shop on Classical Education tomorrow night. Maybe I'll post that talk here too.




Good Education is Evangelization


            Dear Catholic Teachers, the history of the Church provides myriad examples of both effective and ineffective evangelization strategies. As a student of the early church I often feel as if too many Catholics limit themselves to the examples of the last few centuries. You can see this kind of reasoning operative here and there. Catholics will often argue for the sort of strategies employed by figures like St. John Vianney or St. Francis de Sales, or even St. Francis of Assisi. Now this isn’t necessarily wrong, yet the more limited our historical perspective the greater the chance for mis-analogy, when we argue that because something was effective in the past it should be effective today. When we come to education, a prominent example of this kind of mistake might occur when we unreflectively look to the Baltimore Catechism as the cure-all of catechetical problems. Why strategies happened to be effective in the past is a lot harder to determine than might first appear. About a century ago popes looked to the philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas as a particularly effective salve for certain heretical opinions that appeared at that time. Here we need not question the intrinsic brilliance of the Summa Theologica, but perhaps might wonder whether the problems facing the intellectual world today are the same ones the Church was facing a century ago. A wrench cannot saw wood, and a saw cannot aid with a flat tire. Unreflective conservatism is bad evangelization. None of the great missionaries of the past were guilty of this. The romance of following in the footsteps of St. Thomas or St. John Vianney is powerful, but I would argue that we model them better when we try to match their effectiveness, not when simply do precisely that they did. St. Thomas never imagined that one would ever actually try to claim he was born homosexual and that marriage could actually be between two men or women. On the other hand, the intellectual world of today is not afire with a debate over how many souls there are – one or many – as it was in the 13th century.

Yet I am not arguing that history has little to offer us as Catholic educators today. Indeed, I would like to argue just the opposite. I am calling for us to adopt a broader perspective, though. What is the Catholic way? A perspective confined to the last century might have one end up with the completely false view that the Church is opposed to intellectual advance, that the Church is a force against reason, as for instance, Richard Dawkin and the like have asserted. I have heard the claim that the Church is opposed to intellectuality made both within and without the Church. The liberal environment in which I did my graduate studies rehearsed ad nauseum the position that the papal interventions against Modernism were anti-intellectual. To any objective reader, however, it’s easy to see that the truth was just the opposite. Pius IX was simply continuing on Aquinas work, the very work of Pope Benedict XVI today; all three were united in their defense of the objective order of the universe, both its epistemological objectivity and its moral objectivity, its philosophical and moral coherence. Catholic morality is based on natural law, natural law is based upon philosophical realism, sometimes called Thomistic Realism: that the world is ordered and can be known as it really is. Benedict XVI’s condemnation of post-Modernism, which is what he is referring to when he speaks of the “Dictatorship of Relativism,” simply echoes Pius IX’s condemnation of Modernism a century earlier. Modernism wasn’t a pro-intellectual movement. In fact, the popes were convinced that it was just the opposite. In his Encyclical, Fides et Ratio, John Paul II referred to “intellectual laziness” as a specific temptation of the modern intellectual. This laziness, he said, primarily consists in an unwillingness to take on the significant questions – what is the meaning of life, in what does goodness consist, etc.? Many contemporary intellectuals have been unwilling to take on these questions, having adopted the very anti-intellectual stance that such questions admit of no solution but are just matters of personal position. The ‘Catholic position,’ on the other hand – this intellectual optimism, this realism, this naturalism – was precisely the preoccupation of Pope Benedict’s now famous Regensburg Address. In one remarkable passage, the Holy Father contrasted the Muslim tradition with the Catholic intellectual tradition. I think that the pope was as much condemning the misinterpretation by some Christians of their own tradition as he was Islam. The pope has argued in many places for a proper reading of our tradition. I think the Holy Father would like us to identify this tradition with the life and thought of John Henry Newman, whom he beatified last year. Would you guess that the Catholic tradition has as often been labeled too intellectualist as it has been anti-intellectual? The Protestants of the 16th century, the Modernists of the 19th and post-Modernists of today are united in considering Catholicism too intellectual.

What is this ‘too-intellectualist’ tradition to which Benedict would direct us, to which John Paul II directed us in Fides et Ratio, which Pius IX was defending in Pascendi Dominici Gregis?

I want to expand our gaze, not simply back to the previous generation of Frank Sheed, Fulton Sheen, etc., not simply back to the time of Newman and Pius IX, not simply back to the time of the Counter-Reformation with St. Francis de Sales or St. Francis Xavier, not simply back to the time of the 13th century missions to the Cathars by the first Dominicans. All of these missionary epochs were radically different. The effectiveness of the Church’s missionary efforts at each of these moments was due to its versatility in application – St. Dominic’s and St. Francis Xavier’s missions were different because the Indians of Goa and the Cathars of Southern France were different, but, nevertheless, the effectiveness of these missions was also due to the missionaries’ commitment to the Faith and Reason Tradition of the Church. Let’s go back even earlier to see this in its first few moments. Let’s go back, 1000 years before St. Dominic to the first Apologists of the Faith, as they are called. In doing this I am not doing something new. In his encyclical mentioned already, John Paul II did just the same, as did the great Catholic historian and philosopher, Etienne Gilson, in his Spirit of Medieval Philosophy.

I think we can begin even earlier, frankly. I see in the New Testament a hearty intellectual engagement with the schools of thought then dominant in Hellenistic Culture. St. Paul takes on the Stoics, St. John takes on the Gnostics, nor do they do so with mere argumenti ab authoritate, arguments from authority. The works of the Apostles constitute substantial philosophical polemics against the harmful ideas they found influencing the world around them. This is important. This is a strategy hardly characteristic of the Pentateuch, the Mosaic Books of the Law. Certainly, the prophets argued and persuaded, but not even they engaged the currents of the time with an alternative metaphysic. John and Paul tell us about the nature of the good life – that is ethics – but they also tell us about the nature of the soul and the body, about the afterlife, about man’s position in the universe – that is metaphysics – and, again, they also tell us about the meaning of suffering and the nature of the will – that is anthropology. These apostles, in other words, did not refrain from matters of the intellect. Religion to them did not mean some sort of separate realm of knowledge or of belief removed from the world of everyday experience. Religion did not mean for them the absence of rational inquiry.

Let’s move ahead, then, a few generations from the time of the Apostles, to the time of St. Justin Martyr and St. Clement of Alexandria. St. Justin tells us that, after a fruitless search through all of the major schools of thought of the time, he found in Christ the very answers he was looking for – the secrets of nature and of the supernatural world. When he called Christ the Logos – the Word – of God, he meant the rational foundation of all things – which is exactly what the pagan philosophy, Plotinus, meant by it. St. Justin is emblematic in this way of the Early Christian tendency to see in Christianity, not a religion of experience but a religion of explanation. All of the great early Christian writers sought to coordinate the world of nature, the world they studied and read about in the great textbooks of their time, with the Scriptures. I would argue that they thought it innately Christian to know, to know the world, to know the world in itself and how it related to God. St. Clement also approached the faith this way. He wrote on so many topics that one would not necessarily describe as religious topics. But their view of religion was a lot more comprehensive than ours. I think that they would hardly have bothered with a religion that offered them no insights into nature, into ethics, into metaphysics and into psychology. This is not, generally, our approach today.

Of course, in what has been called the ‘Golden Age of Patristic Writing,’ roughly that fifty years spanning the second half of the 4th century, so, about two centuries after Justin and Clement, we find another type of work being produced, works of a sort that are never written today, the commentaries on Genesis. The greatest two instances of these are, of course, that of St. Basil written around 370, referred to today by its Latin title, In Hexaemeron, On the Six Days, and that of St. Augustine, his Literal Commentary on Genesis, written around 420. That latter work was only Augustine’s last word on Genesis, for he had, in fact, written four others like it beforehand. Now as the title of Basil’s work makes a little clearer than the title of Augustine’s, these were studies of the origin of the world, not commentaries on all 50 chapters of Genesis, but rather just the first 3 chapters, which tell of the creation of the world and of man. In this they were much more like John Paul II’s Theology of the Body, than of a contemporary historical-critical study of Genesis such as we would find in any modern theological library. But they were a lot more than the Theology of the Body, which is primarily interested in Genesis 2 and 3. In fact, St. Basil only dealt with Chapter 1, an omission which his little brother, St. Gregory of Nyssa made up for in his sequel to In Hexaemeron, which is called ‘On the Making of Man.’ Augustine’s great Literal Commentary on Genesis is a massive work, which spans all three chapters of Genesis, and in many ways can be thought to epitomize the view of faith and reason that the Fathers of the Church had, and that, I would argue, the Church still has today. Today, theologians like John Paul II and Benedict XVI urge us to be careful about not letting faith override reason and reason override faith; they are united but distinct mental operations. St. Augustine and St. Basil would not dispute that. Indeed, all four of these figures would also insist upon the com-penetration of the one with other. Let us recall the phrase from Psalm 19, which runs,

The heavens declare the glory of God;   the skies proclaim the work of his hands.2 Day after day they pour forth speech;  night after night they reveal knowledge.3 They have no speech, they use no words;  no sound is heard from them.4 Yet their voice goes out into all the earth,  their words to the ends of the world. In the heavens God has pitched a tent for the sun.5   It is like a bridegroom coming out of his chamber,  like a champion rejoicing to run his course.6 It rises at one end of the heavens   and makes its circuit to the other;  nothing is deprived of its warmth.

 How do the skies proclaim the glory of the Lord? – and let us remember many languages do not have a different word for sky and for heaven, so the idea that there is a natural world that needs to be distinguished from the supernatural one is not self-evident, though it seems so to us today.

 But the next passage of the Psalm is just so surprisingly conjoined to this,

The law of the Lord is perfect, refreshing the soul.

 What is the connection between the sky and the Law? Not only does the sky speak about God, but the sky tells us about the rules people must live by. The first our Catholic tradition calls, for lack of a better word, Thomistic realism, as I’ve said; the second concerns our doctrine of natural law, that the natural world can tell us about how to live morally. These are our age-old doctrine, but they are ones that the secular world rejects out-of-hand. Christianity is committed to them.

 Of course, the Church’s tradition is not easy to defend, is not easy to understand and it’s not easy to determine what it is calling us to in our confrontation with modernity. What lessons might we draw from it for this Year of Faith as Catholic educators? There are many. I’d like to focus on one in particular. It is that the Church always made its greatest strides when it entered most fully into the intellectual fray. What does this mean for today – how can the Church enter more fully into the intellectual fray? Certainly, not by retreating from it.

1. On the positive side, we must do what we do best by embracing the real human questions, and presenting the truth of God as it impacts upon sociology, politics, psychology, natural science, ethics, etc. It can and it must take a leading role in these areas. It will take unpopular positions, but popularity is a fleeting thing and human beings have real needs that transcend this. There are such things as intellectual fads, believe it or not, and there are so many orthodoxies that rise and fall in the secular world. Oftentimes the position of wisdom is not flashy. The Desert Fathers prayed for decades in silence for the truth to come to them. We should be prepared to do nothing less.

2. Universalized scope. A true sense of Catholic: meaning universal. Reality defines the object of study, politics does not. Education is not a cause, a reaction, or an inward-facing culture. Catholic education is evangelical simply because it pertains to what exists in the world. It has something to say, an interest in, everything that is. Its special interest in Latin, various more or less esoteric questions, should not be thought to characterize Catholic education. There are Catholic causes – like the defense of the truth of Scripture, but these are special questions; Catholic education is not limited to Catholic questions, since all questions are Catholic questions, because Catholics are interested in the truth wherever it is to be found. Abortion and contraception are not Catholic questions, they are human questions, and, as such, of interest to Catholics. This is why the Medievals put theological topics at the top or end of educational formation – they were the most elevated, but they were not the most, frankly, important to human life. I think there is a tendency for Catholic intellectuals – all intellectuals are victims of this, but I am holding the Catholic ones accountable here – of forming schools of thought accessible only to the few initiated. Time and again good Catholics get-together and form institutions that become more and more in-ward facing, like the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars, and the Society of Catholic Social Scientists, etc. These institutions might have originally conceived of their mission as in some way apostolic or evangelical, but too often they define a language and set of interests the finessing of which uses up more and more of the attention of the institution. For the Society of Catholic Social Scientists, it is the culture of death, figures such as Christopher Dawson, Leo Strauss, and de Tocqueville, concepts of right, justice and citizenship, the issues of abortion and homosexuality. There is nothing wrong with an interest in these things, but the scope of Catholic culture and education needs to many times larger.

3. I have entitled this talk, good education is evangelization and so let my last point be my central one. We must strive for excellence. Humility is one’s estimation of oneself before God; humility does not imply doing things poorly, especially education. And yet, humility does come in to play in an important way precisely in the matter of academic excellence: humility urges us not to waste time on vain theories, but rather to concentrate on doing well the important things: the three-R’s, etc. For this reason the Catholic interest in Classical Education is good not because old is good, but because, in this case, this old system is particularly suited to imparting solid intellectual formation. At every time in the Church’s History when its mission was most effective, its commitment to the pursuit of reason was strongest. This was the case in the age of the Apologist and the Fathers, the High Middle Ages and the 16th Century. Whether evangelization led to mental rigor of vice versa, I do not know, but their coincidence is unmistakable. What is also unmistakable is that material advantage had nothing to do with success either in the missionary or in intellectual fields.

Here our models are the early apologists who looked for and found the truth of the world in the Logos, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, and the Fathers of the Church who sought to integrate the truths of revelation and the truths of the scientific world, for sake of the furtherance of both, and, of course, the Jesuits of the Early Modern Period who saw that excellence in every intellectual field glorified God.

Certainly, in arriving at a balanced view of faith and reason, there are many pitfalls. But not only is this possible, it is essential if the Church is to continue to reach souls in an age of increasing darkness. The Christian Tradition tells us that moral darkness always follows close behind intellectual darkness – not a lessons many of us want to acknowledge. We veer too far to one side or to the other. We as individuals make these mistakes, but the Catholic Tradition has not.

 So, in sum, let me say this, that just as the Apostles ably contended with the Stoics and Gnostics, St. Justin scrutinized all the contemporary schools of thought, especially the Platonists, St. Augustine and St. Basil confronted the received scientific wisdom with their studies of the origin of the world and of human life, so we too can, inspired by the Gospel itself and informed by our venerable tradition, confront modern schools of thought with a rigorous study of the world as it really is.

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