New Sexual Revolution Requires Faithful, Parent-Centered Solutions

Catholic families need the Church’s help facing what amounts to a second “sexual revolution” in America. To that end, there are many good efforts to understand and rebuff the radical “gender ideology” and false ideas about sexuality, marriage and the nature of the human person that are taking hold in American society.

But a recently released sex education program promoted by the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for the Family, in its current form, is not what families need.

The Meeting Point: Course of Affective Sexual Education for Young People was developed by married couples in Spain and has enjoyed the support of the Council and the Spanish bishops. It’s being presented as a work in progress, “an opportunity to convene a large community of people to collaborate, to work, to exchange experiences and knowledge in this special field of education.” The Council is inviting feedback for what may be future improvements to the program or alternative options. Thus far, no directives to use this resource have been issued by the Vatican or the U.S. bishops.

Even so, there is danger that the program in its current form will be adopted by Catholic educators and families since it’s seen as having a stamp of approval “from the Vatican.” But this program is clearly not ready for Catholic schools or homes.

As The Cardinal Newman Society found in our review of the program, following upon similar criticisms, The Meeting Point “makes frequent use of sexually explicit and morally objectionable images, fails to clearly identify and explain Catholic doctrine from elemental sources including the Ten Commandments and the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and compromises the innocence and integrity of young people under the rightful care of their parents.”

This is not what Catholic families need while facing today’s corrosive culture, which is only getting worse. According to one national survey, acceptance of premarital sexual activity spiked in the 1970s and changed little in the next two decades, only to suddenly jump again in the new millennium. Most Americans now believe that premarital sex is “not wrong at all.”

I was struck by another recent report indicating the rapid slide of morality even outside the U.S. The article published last month in The Guardian declared, “Welcome to the most promiscuous Olympics in history.” Apparently what occurred off-screen in the Olympic Village during the Summer Games required the distribution of 450,000 condoms and other bedroom aids, supplied with a wink and a nod by the International Olympic Committee.

Such evidence of a declining culture shows why families need to ensure a faithful Catholic education for their children, especially as public schools become increasingly dangerous to the soul. It’s also why Catholic parents should reject any sex education for their children that does not fully conform to Catholic standards and does not have their permission and approval.

Saint Pope John Paul II wrote in Familiaris Consortio:

Sex education, which is a basic right and duty of parents, must always be carried out under their attentive guidance, whether at home or in educational centers chosen and controlled by them.  In this regard, the Church reaffirms the law of subsidiarity, which the school is bound to observe when it cooperates in sex education, by entering into the same spirit that animates the parents. (Sec. 36-37)

In its 1995 publication The Truth and Meaning of Human Sexuality: Guidelines for Education within the Family, the Pontifical Council for the Family also recognized the essential role of parents in ensuring education that is sound and faithful. It instructed parents, as the primary educators of their children, to refuse to “tolerate immoral or inadequate formation being given to their children outside the home” (Sec. 44). Sadly, The Meeting Point fails the parent test.

There’s much to be admired in the work of the Pontifical Council for the Family, but The Meeting Point in its present form is a significant departure from the traditional approach to Catholic instruction about human sexuality. Even if its unique approach to affective, conversational learning deserves further study by the Council, the program is not ready for Catholic homes and schools. The times demand much better from Catholic education.

This article was originally published by The National Catholic Register.

American Jesuits Are in a Free Fall, and the Crisis is Getting Worse

Excitement is building for Jesuits worldwide as their general congregation to elect a new superior general is quickly approaching this fall. The election presents an important opportunity for them to reflect on the future of the Society of Jesus — and to address serious concerns. Even under a Jesuit Pope, the order suffers from a steady decline in membership, dissent and moral confusion within its ranks, and a widening gulf between many Jesuit universities and the Church.

Perhaps that’s why there has been so much attention lately to the announcement that 20 new Jesuit priests were ordained this year in the United States, Canada and Haiti. That’s good news, with the hope that these new priests will be true Soldiers of Christ and embrace the fullness of Church teaching, like their predecessors of old and some notable giants today.

Unfortunately, the ordinations have given rise to misleading claims that the Jesuits’ membership woes are coming to an end. Last month, a Jesuit official told the National Catholic Register that “the trends of new Jesuit entrants show demographic stability is on the horizon.” As best I can determine, that’s fantasy. It’s easy to understand why the Jesuits would look for any sign of hope after decades of decline, but exaggeration is dangerous if it diverts attention away from a very real crisis that is deeper than the numbers alone.

Again, someone seems to have spun a tale to Catholic World Report, which last week declared that, contrary to warnings in recent years, “there never really was an ‘implosion’ of the Jesuits worldwide.”

But there was … and still is. The “implosion” claim was made by Matthew Archbold of The Cardinal Newman Society in 2013, when he cited predictions of “a demographic free fall with declining ordinations and former Jesuits outnumbering active Jesuits in the United States.” Most convincingly, he cited hard data published in 2011 by Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) that clearly supported the forecast.

I checked the CARA data again — including a newer study of Jesuit numbers released in 2015 — as well as both Jesuit and Vatican sources, and the numbers remain dismal. Jesuit membership has been spiraling downward for more than 50 years. It’s possible that new entrants and ordinations during the three-year pontificate of Pope Francis could help slow the rate of decline in the Jesuit order, but that’s yet to be proven. What’s certain is that the Jesuit order has a membership crisis, and there’s no reason to predict stability or growth anytime soon.

First, let’s take a look at the local numbers. It’s suggested that this year’s 20 Jesuit ordinations is a high number for the North American region, and therefore we should be excited about it. Perhaps so, but there’s not much data to confirm the long-term impact on the order. According to the website for the North American Jesuit provinces, the continent had 28 new Jesuit priests last year, 19 in 2014, and 16 in 2013. Therefore, 20 is relatively good, and yet it’s a substantial decline from last year’s 28 — the largest number of Jesuit ordinations for North America in 15 years.

Should Jesuits be concerned that last year’s number was not sustained? Or should they be excited, because 20 ordinations is significantly higher than in prior years? Is it just a momentary benefit of having a Jesuit pope, or is it a trend? Unfortunately, I couldn’t find data for North America earlier than 2013, when Pope Francis went to Rome. After a fruitless Web search, I requested information from the communications secretary of the North American provinces, but I was only given numbers of Jesuits worldwide.

Another Jesuit official told the Register that there’s a second reason for hope: Although the number of U.S. entrants to the Society of Jesus declined from 102 in 1982 to a low of 45 in 2010, it has since increased to the “mid-50s” this year. Here we’re not talking about ordinations to the priesthood, but novices preparing to be priests and brothers.

That’s indeed hopeful, yet uncertain. While the Register was told there have been no fewer than 45 entrants in the U.S. alone since 1982, CWR reports that 44 men entered novitiates in both the U.S. and Canada in 2015. CARA documents Jesuit membership in the United States (including Jamaica, Belize and Micronesia) and reports 177 entrants from 2009 to 2013, which is an average of just 35 per year. The numbers don’t match up.

Regardless, the numbers of entrants do not tell us as much as we’d like about the future of the Jesuits. If the numbers of new entrants and priests is increasing annually, that’s a hopeful sign. But ultimately, showing growth in the Society of Jesus requires producing a net gain of their membership numbers. This means counting not only new additions but also subtracting the many novices who depart each year before completing their studies. Furthermore, we must subtract the number of Jesuits who pass away each year.

If we take the deceased into account, any prediction of approaching “stability” in the Society of Jesus seems ludicrous. The Register reports that the average age of the North American Jesuits is 65. In the period 2008-2013, CARA counts 445 Jesuit deaths in the United States, an average of 89 per year. In the same period, the U.S. Jesuits had a net gain of just 10 novices per year, subtracting those who departed from those who stayed.

Putting it all together, American Jesuits are still in a free fall. CARA reports that the number of Jesuits in the United States declined by more than half in just 25 years, from 4,823 in 1988 to 2,395 in 2013. Presented in five-year increments, the data shows much sharper declines in the most recent two periods (15.2 percent in 2003-2008, 14.4 percent in 2008-2013) than in the prior three periods (hovering around 12 percent). That’s not improvement by any stretch of the imagination; it’s a worsening crisis.

Are things any better for the Jesuits worldwide? Well, some regions are certainly doing better than others. As CARA notes, “The clear majority of younger Jesuits are now coming from Asia and Africa.” The Center adds, “As Jesuits gather in 2016 for a General Congregation and to elect a new Superior General, the demographic center of the Jesuits will be in South Asia and the global South.”

That’s true, but somehow CWR cites the CARA data wrong when it reports: “… the number of Jesuit priests in East Asia (including Australia, Philippines, Indonesia, Korea, Japan, Vietnam, China, Thailand, and Myanmar) as well as the number of Jesuit priests in Latin America have stayed steady since the 1980s.” In fact, CARA’s study of Jesuit membership finds a 33 percent decline in Latin America and a 13 percent decline in East Asia during the period 1988-2013.

CWR also exaggerates its case for stability in the Society of Jesus with this statement: “Although Jesuit priests in Europe and United States declined in number, there was an increase in the number of Jesuit priests in South Asia (including India, Nepal and Sri Lanka) and Africa.” The implication is that the membership decline in Europe and the United States (7,057 Jesuits from 1988 to 2013) was somehow offset by the much smaller increases in South Asia and Africa (880 Jesuits during the same period).

Instead, the huge declines in Europe and America — together with the significant declines in Latin America and East Asia — have driven a worldwide decline in Jesuit membership since 1965. Over the prior 425 years, the order had grown to its largest number of 36,038 priests and brothers, as reported in the Vatican’s Annuario Pontificio. But from 1965 to 2015, membership dropped precipitously to 16,740. That’s a fall of more than 50 percent in just 50 years.

I’ve been told by the spokeswoman for the North American provinces that this year’s membership is 16,376 worldwide. That makes perfect sense; it’s consistent with the trends. By contrast, recent news reports claim “more than 17,000” and “just over 18,000,” but they cite no sources for their data. Those numbers couldn’t possibly be correct.

So there was a sharp decline over the last 50 years — but perhaps most of the drop occurred during the late 1960s and the 1970s, that tumultuous period following Vatican II, when there was widespread dissent from Humanae Vitae? Surprisingly, that’s not the case. The decline in Jesuit membership was indeed steepest (19.5 percent) during that first decade (1965-1975), when many priests and religious abandoned their vows. But the most recent decade (2005-2015) has also seen a sharp decline of 15.7 percent. Over the last three decades, the loss as a percentage of members has been getting worse, from a decline of 10.4 percent in 1984-1995 (no numbers are available for 1985), to 13.3 percent in the next decade and 15.7 percent most recently.

How about raw numbers? The Vatican reports that from 2005 to 2015, the Jesuits declined by 3,110 priests and brothers, which is less than half the actual decline (7,020) in the troubled decade of 1965-1975. But still, there were twice as many Jesuits in the first decade as the last. And the membership decline has worsened over the last three decades: from a drop of 2,665 in 1984-1995, to 3,035 in 1995-2005, to 3,110 this past decade. Again, that’s no sign of revival; the loss of members has been getting worse.

Moreover, those losses are not sporadic. Jesuit membership has declined every year since 1965, except for a brief uptick from 1984 to 1986.

Facts are facts. Maybe there are glimmers of hope in recent numbers, but overall the Society of Jesus is losing ground. Instead of counting on a bump in numbers thanks to Pope Francis, Jesuits might do better to consider whether these numbers reflect a greater instability in the order and a loss of reputation in the Church. While there are a number of exceptional Jesuits, the Society suffers from repeated controversy and moral confusion among others in its ranks. The reputation of the Jesuits as the “foot soldiers” for Christ is repeatedly undermined by many of their Jesuit universities, which are rapidly losing their Catholic identity and fidelity.

Normally we would celebrate the Memorial of St. Ignatius of Loyola on July 31, but this year it yields to the Sunday feast. This Sunday might be an opportunity for wayward Jesuits — instead of the usual celebration of the great Saint and his Company — to focus attention on the Eucharist and the unity of all the Faithful with the Magisterium of the Church, which should be the foundation for Jesuit education and spirituality. I bet that St. Ignatius would approve.

This article was originally published by The National Catholic Register.

The Land O’ Lakes Statement Has Caused Devastation For 49 Years

In hindsight, what they did was appalling.

But when several Catholic university leaders gathered in the summer of 1967 at a remote retreat in Land O’ Lakes, Wisconsin, did they fully anticipate the consequences of their vision for “modern” Catholic education? Hopefully not.

It was 49 years ago, on July 20-23, when Notre Dame’s Father Theodore Hesburgh, C.S.C., gathered his peers to draft and sign the “Land O’ Lakes Statement,” a declaration of the independence of Catholic universities from “authority of whatever kind, lay or clerical, external to the academic community itself.”

Over the course of just a few years following the statement, most Catholic colleges and universities in America shed their legal ties to the Church and handed their institutions over to independent boards of trustees. In the quest for secular prestige and government funding, many went so far as to remove the crucifixes from their classroom walls and to represent their Catholic identity in historical terms (such as, “in the Jesuit tradition”).

The wound of secularization deepened over the next few decades: many Catholic colleges and universities weakened their core curricula in favor of the Harvard model of electives and specialization, adopted a radical notion of academic freedom, embraced relativism and political correctness, and largely abandoned the project of forming young people for Christ outside the classroom.

It wasn’t until 1990 that the “Land O’ Lakes Statement” was soundly repudiated by Saint Pope John Paul II in Ex corde Ecclesiae, the apostolic constitution for Catholic universities. Although not yet accepted in its entirety, Ex corde Ecclesiae turned the tide toward renewal of Catholic identity and gave prominence to those faithful institutions that never accepted the Land O’ Lakes mentality. In the meantime, however, Fr. Hesburgh’s declaration did much damage.

It’s for good reason, then, that the “Land O’ Lakes Statement” has become a focal point in American Church history. It’s sometimes described as an explosive, revolutionary act that changed the trajectory of Catholic higher education, which may be an exaggeration. But it certainly was a watershed moment, evidenced by the rapid changes that followed the statement. It was also the culmination of years of unrest in Catholic universities — in many respects, a moral struggle with the temptation to pride and prestige at the expense of Catholic identity.

With the “Land O’ Lakes Statement,” that struggle was momentarily lost. It represented a public, deliberate choice for opportunity over mission, resulting in a voluntary exile from the once-lush gardens of truth and wisdom that had distinguished the world’s Catholic universities.

The Allure of Prestige

For most Catholic university graduates and educators before the late 1960s, alma mater was still as much Mother Church as her academic institutions. But more than a decade before the “Land O’ Lakes Statement,” influential academics were already expressing disappointment with the public status of Catholic universities in the United States.

This was argued forcefully by Monsignor John Tracy Ellis, a Church history professor at the Catholic University of America, whose lament was published and disseminated by Fordham University:

“…in no western society is the intellectual prestige of Catholicism lower than in the country where, in such respects as wealth, numbers, and strength of organization, it is so powerful. …Admittedly, the weakest aspect of the Church in this country lies in its failure to produce national leaders and to exercise commanding influence in intellectual circles, and this at a time when the numbers of Catholics in the United States… and their material resources are incomparably superior to those of any other branch of the universal Church.”

Note that Msgr. Ellis did not claim that Catholics were intellectually lacking, but only that they lacked academic “influence” and “prestige.” The prior claim would have been astonishing, given that Ellis’ university colleagues included (until 1950) then-Bishop Fulton Sheen — who not only was known for his radio and television preaching, but also was described as a highly gifted philosopher.

The Thomas Reeves biography of the Venerable Sheen reveals a much earlier battle, in which the saintly professor testified to Catholic University’s board of trustees against attempts to make the institution a “Catholic Harvard,” with emphasis on secular prestige. At a 1935 trustees meeting, Sheen called for the “primacy of the spiritual” in Catholic education:

“The task of integrating the supernatural with the natural, of infusing human knowledge with the divine, of complementing our knowledge of things with our knowledge of God, of making all things Theocentric, is the business of a Catholic university.”

He added that the bishops’ national university:

“…is to education what the Catholic Church is to religion, namely, the leaven in the mass. The Church is not one of the sects, it is the unique life of Christ; the Catholic University is not one of the American Universities, it is their soul.”

The Deck is Stacked

It would be wrong, then, to assume that Catholic identity was suddenly under assault by the participants in the 1967 retreat at Land O’ Lakes. It had endured through many trials. The appeal for academic independence from “all authority” had perhaps found its time, when society itself seemed to have turned against tradition and values.

Two other false notions about the Land O’ Lakes meeting deserve to be corrected. For one thing, the retreat was not an isolated gathering of independent reformers; it was surprisingly “official,” one of several regional meetings around the world to help draft a statement by the Vatican-affiliated International Federation of Catholic Universities (IFCU), of which Fr. Hesburgh was then president. The final Vatican-influenced document, “The Catholic University in the Modern World,” was far more traditional in its understanding of Catholic education, and in fact it is quoted in Ex corde Ecclesiae.

Second, although the Land O’ Lakes meeting was identified as the North American regional delegation to the IFCU, it was never truly intended to represent all of the region’s Catholic colleges and universities. Subsequent histories and Notre Dame’s own description indicate that the participants were focused on large, research institutions — an odd emphasis, since none of the represented universities had truly attained that status, but perhaps they aspired to it.

Moreover, it seems the deck was stacked with Fr. Hesburgh’s allies: only 10 universities were represented, including six from the U.S.: Boston College, Catholic University of America, Fordham, Georgetown, Notre Dame and Saint Louis. (The rector of the Catholic University of America was alone in publicly criticizing the resulting statement.) Of the 26 signers, seven were from Notre Dame and its sponsoring Holy Cross Fathers, and ten were Jesuits or leaders of Jesuit institutions.

Some of the signers were especially notable: Archbishop Paul Hallinan of Atlanta, Father Theodore McCarrick (then president of the Pontifical University of Puerto Rico and later Archbishop of Washington) and Father Vincent O’Keefe, S.J. (later Vicar General of the Society of Jesus).

Also intriguing is the signature by John Cogley, a leftist scholar representing the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions. It’s not clear what he was doing at Land O’ Lakes, except that he was a celebrated intellectual in certain circles. He had been religion editor of the New York Times and a principal writer of John F. Kennedy’s 1960 speech advocating the separation of church and state. He later dissented from Humanae Vitae and became an Episcopalian.

For a Few Coins

I leave it to the reader to explore more of the statement itself, but I’ll make one more claim about the motivations behind it. Above I accused the signers of succumbing to the temptation for worldly prestige. But closely tied to secular prestige is the desire for money, which seems also to have been a related factor.

In 1987, Sister Brigid Driscoll, former president of Marymount College in New York, offered a defense of the “Land O’ Lakes” mentality:

“In the 1960s and early 1970s, most Catholic colleges severed even tenuous ties to the Church…

“We became independent and named lay trustees because of accreditation, the increased sophistication of higher education as a major enterprise and because of the demands of growth…

“Those decisions meant a windfall for the schools a few years later when the federal government offered financial aid to independent colleges…

“Any indication that these schools were under ecclesiastical authority could cast doubt on their independence and thus jeopardize that aid…”

The same year, in the New York Times (Jan. 16, 1987), Fr. Hesburgh made a similar claim:

“Catholic colleges and universities receive a large amount of financial help in different forms from the public monies of the state.

“…if there were no academic freedom and institutional autonomy for Catholic higher education, it might very well be that the [U.S. Supreme] Court would rule that public funding for Catholic institutions of higher learning is unconstitutional.”

In fact, however, the Supreme Court has ruled quite differently in support of religious institutions. Today some of the most faithful Catholic colleges like Franciscan University of Steubenville and Thomas Aquinas College participate freely in federal student aid programs, as does the “ecclesiastical” Catholic University of America.

It’s sadly true that, for the Catholic universities that embraced Land O’ Lakes, secularization has been rewarded with large endowments and state aid. But it’s simply not true that federal aid would have been unavailable to universities that maintained formal ties to the Church. Ironically, Notre Dame still is under some legal control by the Holy Cross Fathers; its students receive grants and loans, and it has received numerous federal grants from the Obama administration (albeit after giving the President an honorary degree).

For many smaller Catholic colleges, secularization has not benefited them financially. They struggle to distinguish themselves from state universities that provide the same job training at less cost.

Marymount College in New York is a case in point. Recall that Sr. Driscoll seemed proud of her institution’s choice to sever “tenuous ties to the Church,” bringing a “windfall” of taxpayer funds. The College closed its doors in 2007 for financial reasons.

This article was originally published by The National Catholic Register.

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California Dreams Up Nightmare for Catholic Education

A nightmare scenario has further developed in California, threatening to severely harm Catholic colleges as legislators pursue a radical “gender ideology” and the dismantling of religious freedom.

New amendments to an anti-religious education bill working its way through the California legislature clearly impact Catholic colleges’ employment practices, effectively forcing them to drop out of the state’s financial aid programs for students.

Previous versions of Senate Bill (SB) 1146 made religious colleges, except for seminaries and similar programs, subject to the nondiscrimination clause in California’s Equity in Higher Education Act. That clause forbids discrimination against students with regard to “sexual orientation,” and its prohibition against sex discrimination has been interpreted to include self-declared “gender identity.”

The bill also punishes religious colleges that have legally obtained exemptions from the federal Title IX law, which bans sex discrimination in education but has been interpreted by the Obama administration to require accommodations for “transgender” students. It requires those colleges to publicly declare their exemption in a variety of ways to a variety of audiences, including prospective students and employees.

It is, in effect, a modern “Scarlet Letter” for faithful Christian educators.

These provisions apply only to colleges accepting state funds. But nearly all religious colleges in California participate in the Cal Grant program, which provides students up to $9,084 if they attend a private four-year college. Exclusion from the program would make attendance at a Catholic college unaffordable for many, and Catholic colleges would be at a severe disadvantage in competing for students.

All of these terrible elements remain in the new version of the bill. But according to the legal experts at Alliance Defending Freedom, recent amendments added by the state Assembly Judiciary Committee make the situation worse.

The bill now amends not only the Equity in Higher Education Act, but also the state’s Government Code 11135, which clearly concerns discrimination in employment as well as student policies. There was some ambiguity as to whether prior versions of the bill applied only to student policies, but the Government Code clearly references employment practices including hiring, firing, faculty expectations and health benefits.

This is unacceptable for a faithful Catholic institution, which must ensure that its professors uphold Catholic teaching in the classroom and by their personal example.

With regard to students, there has been some helpful clarification in the new version of the bill. A religious college is explicitly permitted to enforce moral codes, mandatory religious practices and housing policies that are applied universally without consideration of a student’s claim to gender or sexuality. Also, a religious college may refuse the use of its facilities for purposes that violate its religious mission — presumably including same-sex weddings.

However, the new bill is explicit in its requirement that religious colleges make single-sex facilities and residences available to “transgender” students, regardless of their biological sex. And if a college offers housing for married students, it must include legally married same-sex couples.

Should this bill become law, I see no option for faithful Catholic colleges but to withdraw from the Cal Grants program. The campaign to force a radical “gender ideology” and sexual immorality on religious colleges could shove them into second-class status. And the campaign likely will not end here; we can expect efforts in California and elsewhere to pass even more draconian laws against religious schools and charities.

Worse — and this is what I fear most — the persecution will tempt California’s less faithful Catholic colleges to capitulate and further erode the foundations of Catholic education.

The precedent for capitulation has already been set. Although Loyola Marymount University and Santa Clara University waged brief but noble battles to remove abortion coverage from their employee health insurance, they fell silent in the face of new state rules forcing that coverage even on religious institutions. And only Thomas Aquinas College and John Paul the Great University have been strong in opposing the Obama administration’s HHS Mandate.

The campaign to rid California of religious education must be fought vigorously. But the future looks bleak: encroachment on Catholic education at both the state and federal level may soon require faithful Catholic schools and colleges to withdraw from government aid programs.

This should be quite possible for Catholic schools, but I don’t know how many of the Catholic colleges can survive financially, unless the forced corruption of moral standards at other colleges will have the happy effect of driving donors and paying students to the few remaining bastions of moral education. How many Catholic colleges choose to compromise their Catholic beliefs rather than give up taxpayer funds is a question of great importance to Catholic families.

What they do in response to this bill, now and if it becomes law, will have lasting consequences for their institutions and for Catholic families. I believe that capitulation might give up the project of Catholic education altogether for all but a few colleges. The time is very late to oppose California’s campaign against religious education, but Catholic college leaders should be fighting it with all the effort they can muster.

This article first appeared at The National Catholic Register.

Books in classroom

The Incredible Shrinking Case for Common Core

Recent statements by Common Core co-author David Coleman about Catholic education have led to a lot of confusion. What’s this about a Common Core advocate urging Catholic educators to have the “moxie” to preserve their incredible heritage and not to worry about changes to standardized tests?

I’ll try to explain. Despite Coleman’s support for the Common Core — which I firmly believe to be inadequate and even harmful to Catholic schools — what he said is good for Catholic families.

Last month, my colleagues and I were dismayed to learn that Coleman, a chief author of the Common Core State Standards, will keynote the National Catholic Educational Association (NCEA) convention in March. The Cardinal Newman Society has raised serious concerns about the Common Core’s impact on Catholic identity and related changes that detract from Catholic schools’ time-proven curricula and methods. The choice of Coleman as keynote speaker suggests support for the Common Core, when what we most need is a frank conversation among Catholic educators and parents about the Common Core and its unsuitability to Catholic education.

In addition, Coleman is president of The College Board, the nonprofit testing company that sponsors the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) and Advanced Placement (AP) tests — and is currently revising them to align to the Common Core. That has caused angst among Catholic families and educators, who wonder if students in non-Common Core schools and homeschools will do poorly on the SAT and have difficulty getting accepted to good colleges.

But when we looked closely at Coleman’s record, we saw some interesting things. For instance, he has a fondness for good literature — precisely what we fear the Common Core might diminish in Catholic school reading curricula — and he studied “classical educational philosophy” at Cambridge University, according to his online biography.

Moreover, last year he penned an outstanding piece for National Review Online, defending the religious freedom of Wheaton College, an evangelical Christian college, and extolling the benefits of a religious liberal arts education. The non-Christian scholar noted that he had been to Wheaton to participate in a conference on the great Christian apologist, C.S. Lewis, and his methods of literary criticism.

This was intriguing. What if the co-author of the Common Core, which was designed for low-performing public schools, would go on record praising the benefits of a truly Catholic, liberal arts education — and even the movement toward more classical education? Could an advocate for the Common Core in public schools appreciate the differences and even the superiority of a Catholic education that rejects the Common Core’s utilitarian emphasis and holds steadfast to its Catholic identity and traditional curricula and teaching methods?

And furthermore, what if the College Board president could assure Catholics that students will continue to do well on the revised SAT and AP exams, even if they have a traditional Catholic education, focused on the liberal arts and not in any way compromised or caught up in the race to become more like public schools? This would, in effect, dispel one of the key arguments for adopting the Common Core simply so that students can “keep up” with the changes to standardized tests.

In essence, Coleman said exactly what we anticipated in his interview released Monday. On the one hand, he still clearly supports the Common Core, which we believe would compromise the traditional methods, curricula and mission of Catholic schools. He argued that the Standards had been misinterpreted and do not necessarily conflict with Catholic education: “The vulgar implementation of anything can have a reductive and destructive effect,” he said. With regard to the Standards’ push for more reading of “informational texts,” Coleman didn’t think that the emphasis necessarily means that schools will assign fewer classics of literature — a point on which we continue to disagree

But what Coleman did say is this, quite emphatically: don’t compromise what Catholic schools do well. On that bedrock principle, we seem to agree entirely. If anything — whether the Common Core or another “reform,” changing social mores, threats against religious freedom or another influence — pressures Catholic schools to compromise their mission and abandon the core liberal arts focus of traditional Catholic education, then we should simply refuse to do so. 

“My desire to celebrate, and name and specify some of the beauties and distinctive values of a religious education are precisely to avoid a leveling quality where you forget that there are special gifts that can be lost without attention,” Coleman said. 

He urged educators in the classical and Catholic liberal arts tradition to “have more moxie” and “be proud” of their approach to education. 

“Don’t be in a defensive crouch. I say that to every group I talk to of religious educators,” he said. “I say, share what you do that is beautiful and distinctive. Don’t just defend your right to exist. Be proud of what you have to offer, which is different.” 

Regarding the College Board’s exams, Coleman doesn’t think that students getting a traditional, Catholic liberal arts education — or even a classical-style education focused on the Trivium of grammar, logic and rhetoric — need to be worried about getting lower scores on the SAT and AP tests. He said that Catholic families should “rest assured” that students will continue to do very well on the tests. 

“As president of The College Board, it is my conviction that a child excellently trained in traditional liberal arts will do superbly on relevant sections of the SAT and other aspects of Advanced Placement work,” he told us. We’ll know in time whether that’s true, but I guessed it to be true even before Coleman said it. A student who has a good, non-Common Core education should be able to think through these tests. Some extra preparation may be helpful to get used to the Common Core-style questions, but hasn’t SAT prep always been a boost to students’ scores? 

Ultimately, Coleman’s interview suggests just one more reason why Catholic educators should not be so eager to rush into the Common Core madness. Many parents, teacher unions and state leaders have turned against the Common Core after just a few years in the public schools. There’s been no boost to national test scores. Catholic educators who may be inclined toward the Common Core should acknowledge the warning signs and take their time, observe how the Common Core plays out, and then decide whether there are certain elements in the Standards that may be worth preserving — and in the meantime, protect what we already have. 

Catholic education is good. In earlier times, it was better. The renewal of Catholic education doesn’t need the Common Core — we just need some “more moxie” to defend and celebrate what makes our schools strong. 

This article was originally published by National Catholic Register and is reprinted with permission.

Pope Francis

Did Pope Francis Say ‘Don’t Proselytize’?

Catholic education, done rightly, is a special and important means of evangelization, the mission of the Church. It brings young people to Christ and provides for the integral formation of mind, body and soul.

And so, judging from the reaction that I have been hearing from some parents and educators, there is a bit of consternation over Pope Francis’ strong words last week against “proselytism” in Catholic schools. My colleagues from The Cardinal Newman Society who were present for the Holy Father’s conversation with educators—part of the World Congress on Education, a Vatican conference to address the “educational emergency” that leaves young people ignorant of Christ—also noted the Holy Father’s words with some concern.

The fear is that the Pope’s words could be misused, as his words have been abused in the past, to take Catholic education in a more secular direction. That would be a tragic reversal of the renewal of Catholic identity that is taking hold at all levels of Catholic education, and it would be contrary to the Vatican’s stated goals for Catholic school and colleges.

So what did the Holy Father actually say?

Speaking at the Congress, Pope Francis urged educators “to lead young people, children, in human values in the whole of reality, and one of these realities is transcendence.” What is authentic in this world can increase our awareness of God, His creation and His presence, but Pope Francis lamented that education today is exclusively focused on “immanent things” without introducing students to “the total reality.”

So far, so good. But this statement raised eyebrows:

One cannot speak of Catholic education without speaking of humanity, because, precisely, the Catholic identity is God who became man. To go forward in attitudes, in full human values, opens the door to the Christian seed. Then faith comes. To educate in a Christian way is not only to engage in catechesis: this is one part. It is not only engaging in proselytism—never proselytize in schools! Never!

A couple years ago in an interview, Pope Francis also said that “proselytism is solemn nonsense, it makes no sense.” And in an address to catechists, he cited Pope Benedict’s own concerns about proselytism in a 2007 address to the bishops of Latin America and the Caribbean:

The Church does not engage in proselytism. Instead, she grows by “attraction“—just as Christ “draws all to himself” by the power of his love, culminating in the sacrifice of the Cross, so the Church fulfills her mission to the extent that, in union with Christ, she accomplishes every one of her works in spiritual and practical imitation of the love of her Lord.

These admonitions against proselytizing can seem confusing for American Catholics, who are beneficiaries of the great missionary work of the Church in the New World. The zeal and courage of the early Catholics in America were recently celebrated by the Pope’s nuncio in his address to the U.S. bishops this month—especially in the context of their contributions to Catholic education—and they were celebrated by the Holy Father himself with the canonization of Father Junípero Serra, O.F.M.

Certainly, therefore, Pope Francis could not be condemning catechesis (which he takes care to explicitly reaffirm) or strong Catholic identity in schools—yet even so, problems arise with the term “proselytism,” which can be ambiguous. There’s a negative connotation to proselytizing that’s difficult to pin down, which allows it to be confused with healthy forms of evangelization. As Lawrence Uzzell wrote a decade ago in First Things, “Today’s Christian missionaries often contrast ‘proselytism’ with ‘evangelism’; the former is what they accuse rival denominations of doing, while the latter is what they claim to do themselves.”

In a footnote to its 2007 statement on evangelization, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith acknowledged the term’s ambiguity but settled on the most negative connotation:

The term proselytism originated in the context of Judaism, in which the term proselyte referred to someone who, coming from the gentiles, had passed into the Chosen People. So too, in the Christian context, the term proselytism was often used as a synonym for missionary activity. More recently, however, the term has taken on a negative connotation, to mean the promotion of a religion by using means, and for motives, contrary to the spirit of the Gospel; that is, which do not safeguard the freedom and dignity of the human person.

So proselytism is seen today by the Church as an abuse of religious freedom, and in the context of education, it is a means of teaching the faith that denies the free use of reason and appeal to conscience. It is nothing that a good catechist or evangelist would do.

Very well. But then we have to ask the questions that my colleague Dr. Dan Guernsey asked, soon after hearing Pope Francis condemn proselytism, “How significantly is this a source of the educational emergency facing Catholic schools? How many universities and high schools seem to be coercing their students with unworthy Catholic propaganda?” It would seem that fidelity and Catholic identity should be greater concerns today.

I suspect the answer is that abusive proselytism is not, in fact, a priority concern for the Holy Father. The point about proselytizing was made off the cuff and was not central to his comments to the Congress.

Taken as a whole, his statements centered on rebuilding a more “human” education—relax the “rigidity” of schools, reach out to the margins of society, decrease the emphasis on intellectual “selectivity” that tends to exclude rather than invite participation, and open young hearts and minds to God:

For me, the greatest crisis of education, in the Christian perspective, is being closed to transcendence. We are closed to transcendence. It is necessary to prepare hearts for the Lord to manifest Himself, but totally, namely, in the totality of humanity, which also has this dimension of transcendence. To educate humanly but with open horizons. Any sort of closure is no good for education.

This closure to transcendence is precisely the educational emergency that has befallen secular education and even many Catholic schools and colleges. The focus on “immanent things” and worldly gain is what concerns so many American Catholics about the Common Core in Catholic schools.

Taken as a whole, the comments by Pope Francis to the Vatican Congress should not be construed as pulling the reins on evangelization in schools. Instead, we should celebrate Catholic education as the Church’s key means of evangelization, in human formation that invites the student to know, love and serve God.

This article first appeared at The National Catholic Register.

St. Peters Square

Vatican Envoy to Jesuits and Bishops: Reform Education

The Vatican ambassador’s message, delivered during Monday’s gathering of U.S. bishops in Baltimore, was crystal clear: place priority on the renewal of Catholic identity in Catholic education and restore the great legacy of Jesuit institutions.

It’s an appeal that should make every Catholic parent stand up and cheer!

When Pope Francis was elected, I openly wondered whether our Jesuit pope would acknowledge the elephant in the room: the crisis of Catholic identity at many of America’s Jesuit colleges, especially the disregard for papal authority and doctrinal fidelity by some professors.

We now seem to have an answer.  While it’s not clear to what extent, if at all, Pope Francis contributed to his envoy’s message to the U.S. bishops, it’s hard to imagine that the apostolic nuncio would make such a forceful and direct appeal without the Holy Father’s consent.

Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò delivered an address to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops that was at times both personal and emotionally stirring.  He urged attention to two concerns:

One – the need to give particular attention and care to our Catholic educational institutions so that they would regain the luster of their true identity that has shown forth from them in the past.

Two – that Catholic colleges and universities, renowned for the professional formation of their students, should be encouraged to be faithful to the title of “Catholic” that they bear. …While each college or university has its own particular mission, together they ultimately have the solemn obligation to teach the same doctrine of the universal Church and to define the moral obligations that mark us all as Catholic Christians.

This is as close as the Vatican has come to publicly confronting the crisis of Catholic identity at many American Catholic colleges. Even in elementary and secondary education, Archbishop Viganò indicated that the “true identity” of Catholic schools is not so clear today, as it once was.

Lamenting today’s “secularized and increasingly pagan civilization,” Viganò appealed for “renewed strength” in the New Evangelization—a strength that is “solid and unwavering in its commitment to Truth.”  And this strength, “which should be found in the family and in the schools, will exist only in proportion to its Catholic identity.”

He challenged the bishops to “watch over and protect families, and parishes and schools,” citing Pope St. Gregory the Great: “Imprudent silence may leave in error those who could have been taught. Pastors who lack foresight hesitate to say openly what is right because they fear losing the favor of men.”

But the most striking portion of Cardinal Viganò’s address was his reminiscence about his own years in a Jesuit secondary school and at the Gregorian University in Rome, and the heroic role of the Jesuits in bringing the Faith to the New World. It was a detour that imparted a special challenge:

No doubt that this Order has been the leader of evangelization in North America. …The Society of Jesus has had a long and proud tradition of imparting a rich Catholic faith and a deep love for Christ, which in great part is carried on through their mission of education. It is my hope that, with respect to their great tradition, after the example of our Holy Father, they would take again the lead in re-affirming the Catholic identity of their educational institutions.

The call to “take again the lead” was an acknowledgement that the Jesuits have lost their place of honor at the forefront of Catholic education. Restoring the Jesuits’ “great tradition” of education means reaffirming Catholic identity.

Cardinal Viganò’s recounting of the Church’s history in the United States, which he did at much greater length, was inspiring. He reminded the bishops that their predecessors in the early American Church had also gathered in Baltimore to decide “upon a strategy that would shape the growth and development of the Catholic Church.”

The main tool of this strategy was education, which was accomplished through the building of parishes with their own schools, together with the dedicated support of women religious. A prime example of this is St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, the great pioneer of American Catholic schools.

In the Cardinal’s prepared text, the only words underlined are these: “Education was primary in the Bishops’ minds; it was an essential means for the Gospel message to be woven into the very fabric of our people’s existence. In so doing, they were following the consistent path of evangelization traced centuries before by the monastic orders” and “the Holy See.”

Today, faithful Catholic education remains essential—Pope Francis said it is “key, key, key”—to the New Evangelization. Not only our bishops, but all of our clergy, religious, educators and especially parents need to believe that. Taking up Archbishop Viganò’s timely challenge, we must make it a priority to build and support authentic, formational Catholic education that brings young people to Christ.

Our Church and society depend on it.

This article first appeared at The National Catholic Register.

newspapers

Fire Theologians, Not Columnists

There is more than irony in the recent attempt by several theologians to discredit New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, because he dared to write about the tragic confusion surrounding the Synod on the Family without having a theologian’s “professional qualifications.”

There is great desperation in the move — and hypocrisy.

The hypocrisy lies in the demand for credentials, when the field of theology is itself seriously lacking in that regard.

About half of Douthat’s critics are professors of theology at Catholic colleges and universities. Under canon law, they must have the mandatum, a recognition from their local bishop that they pledge to teach in fidelity to Catholic doctrine. But do they? At least a few seem to be headed in the opposite direction.

Under current policy in the United States, it’s difficult to know whether a theology professor has the mandatum, because most theologians won’t say — and neither will their college employers or their bishops. The mandatum is deemed a private matter between the theologian and the bishop, and even many Catholic colleges do not require the mandatum for employment. Students who need to know whether or not a professor has complied with canon law are in the dark.

In James Caridi’s 2011 survey of U.S. Catholic college and university leaders, 36 percent said they did not know whether their theology professors have received the mandatum, 10 percent said some but not all of their theologians have received it, and another 6 percent said no professors have it. When The Cardinal Newman Society followed in 2012 with a request to America’s 10 largest Catholic universities to disclose which of their theology professors have the mandatum, the few that responded admitted that they do not collect such information.

Pope Benedict XVI pressed the issue in May 2012 during the ad limina visit of several American bishops. Urging “compliance” with Canon 812, which requires the mandatum for teachers of theology, the Holy Father said:

The importance of this canonical norm as a tangible expression of ecclesial communion and solidarity in the Church’s educational apostolate becomes all the more evident when we consider the confusion created by instances of apparent dissidence between some representatives of Catholic institutions and the Church’s pastoral leadership: such discord harms the Church’s witness and, as experience has shown, can easily be exploited to compromise her authority and her freedom.

Cardinal Raymond Burke, when he was prefect of the Apostolic Signatura and Rome’s chief expert on canon law, told the Newman Society that “tangible” means the mandatum should be publicly acknowledged:

It’s tangible in the sense that it’s a public declaration, in writing, on the part of the ecclesiastical authority that a theologian is teaching in communion with the Church, and people have a right to know that so that if you, for instance, are at a Catholic university or parents are sending their children to the Catholic university, they know that the professors who are teaching theological disciplines at the university are teaching in communion with the Church.

There is, of course, no similar requirement in canon law that a New York Times columnist be properly credentialed by the Church to opine on Church matters. So it is preposterous that theologians would demand “professional qualifications” from a journalist, while their own profession apparently lacks compliance with the Church’s canon law.

So why attack Douthat? The answer may lie in the theologians’ second charge, that Douthat favors a “politically partisan narrative that has very little to do with what Catholicism really is.” This seems to be another case of the pot calling the kettle black; the driving motivation behind today’s “progressive” Catholics seems to be quite political and secular, and not rooted in faith. The loosening of Catholic mores with regard to sexuality and marriage for “pastoral” reasons has been a key objective of both political and religious progressives since the 1960s.

That’s where I see desperation in the theologians’ move against Douthat. He has challenged the apparent scheming by some parties to control the outcome of the Synod, which centered on this loosening of attitudes toward marital and sexual sin. Pope Francis had opened the doors wide to frank discussion and debate. The progressives saw the opportunity to bum-rush the Church.

But that largely failed. And now that Douthat is issuing warnings that could help thwart anything they hoped to gain, the ivory-tower theologians have lashed out in despair.

The response of many Catholic pundits has been to rush to Douthat’s defense, and rightly so. But I propose something more:

It’s time for Catholics to demand that those who teach theology in Catholic institutions commit to complete fidelity to Catholic teaching, make that commitment publicly known, and refrain from using their academic prowess to oppose those who faithfully seek the good of the Church.

And if theologians can’t abide by those expectations, they should at least find an ivory tower that doesn’t bear the label “Catholic.” Or become columnists.

This article was originally published by National Catholic Register and is reprinted with permission.

Cardinal Burke Urges Genuine Catholic Education to Renew Culture

Cardinal Raymond Burke last week gave us yet another trove of wisdom to contemplate, just as the Synod on the Family came to a close. This time, it was about Catholic education, and it came with a stern warning.

In prepared remarks last week given to representatives of Voice of the Family, Cardinal Raymond Burke, patron of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, warned parents about the threats to their children from wayward Catholic schools while arguing that faithful Catholic education at home and in schools is needed to transform the culture. 

“Today, parents must be especially vigilant, for sadly, in some places, schools have become the tools of a secular agenda inimical to the Christian life,” he said. Corrupted Catholic institutions can lead young people “to their slavery to sin … profound unhappiness, and to the destruction of culture.” 

Cardinal Burke has received a lot of attention for his courageous opposition to those who sought to hijack the Synod in support of Communion for remarried, divorced Catholics. So it may seem odd that he chose to focus on Catholic education during the Synod’s last week. The topic of education got surprisingly little attention at the Synod, even after scholars Theresa Farnan and Mary Hasson publicly urged the Synod fathers to devote more time to it. 

But education and the good of the Catholic family are essentially linked, and Catholic education is a key solution to the challenge of secularism. In a lecture last week at the Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio — which is a model of faithful education — I expressed my concern that we not limit the New Evangelization to strategies that excite young people about the Faith, but also focus more attention to the renewal of Catholic education. It is in Catholic education that young people experience the deeper formation that prepares them for sainthood in a difficult and often hostile culture. 

The timing of Cardinal Burke’s comments also are relevant to today’s 50th anniversary of the Vatican II declaration on Christian education, Gravissimum Educationis. Next month, the Vatican will celebrate the documents while addressing the “crisis of education” in the modern world, meaning the modern failures to truly bring young people to know, love and serve Jesus Christ. The result is a deep despair and aimlessness in today’s societies — what Cardinal Burke calls a “profound unhappiness.” 

And ultimately, happiness in God is the promise of a genuine Catholic formation. 

It is important that “children know happiness both during the days of their earthly pilgrimage and eternally at the goal of their pilgrimage which is Heaven,” said Cardinal Burke. And it is no contradiction that such happiness means preparing for the Cross. 

“Education, if it is to be sound, that is, for the good of the individual and society, must be especially attentive to arm itself against the errors of secularism and relativism,” Cardinal Burke stated, “lest it fail to communicate to the succeeding generations the truth, beauty and goodness of our life and of our world, as they are expressed in the unchanging teaching of the faith.” 

He addressed particularly the modern confusion in sexuality, including the “so-called ‘gender education’ in some schools, which is a direct attack on marriage at its foundation and, therefore, on the family.” 

“Good parents and good citizens,” said Cardinal Burke, “must be attentive to the curriculum which schools are following and to the life in the schools, in order to assure that our children are being formed in the human and Christian virtues and are not being deformed by indoctrination …Today, for example, we sadly find the need to speak about ‘traditional marriage,’ as if there were another kind of marriage.” 

He referred to Gravissimum Educationis in support of parent-directed education: “As it is the parents who have given life to their children, on them lies the gravest obligation of educating their family.They must therefore be recognized as being primarily and principally responsible for their education.” 

And most profoundly, he reminded his audience of the encyclical by Pope Pius XI, Divini Illius Magistri, and the task of Catholic education to form “the supernatural man who thinks, judges and acts constantly and consistently in accordance with right reason illumined by the supernatual light of the example and teaching of Christ; in other words, to use the current term, the true and finished man of character.”

In light of the confusion surrounding the Synod and the greater confusion in the world about marriage, family and even the value of human life, we are in great need of Catholics with this sort of formation. Renewing Catholic education should be among our highest priorities. 

This article was originally published by National Catholic Register and is reprinted with permission.

It’s About Navigating Life: The Importance of Philosophy & Theology

Here is one of the clearest criteria for choosing or judging a college: you can be almost certain that any college that has dropped philosophy and theology from its core curriculum is not serious about a liberal arts education. And in my experience I find that this is true of many of the colleges in America.

This raises two questions: (1) What are philosophy and theology, and why are they crucial to a young person’s education today? (2) Aren’t they outdated, impractical, abstract, irrelevant, elitist, superfluous and even dangerous to faith and sanity?

Some Definitions

“Philosophy” means “the love of wisdom.” Wisdom is the knowledge of ultimate causes, explanations and principles. It includes knowledge of values, not just facts. It gives you a “big picture,” a “world-view” and a “life-view.” It explores such questions as these: What is the essence of a human being? What is the meaning (value, goal, purpose) of human life? What is a good life? What is a good society? Are there higher laws than man’s laws? Are we here by chance or design? Are we fated or free? How do we know what is good or evil? How do we know anything? Is anything certain? Can reason prove (or disprove) the existence of God? Why do we suffer? Why do we die? Is there life after death?

Anyone who is simply not interested in these questions is less than fully human, less than fully reasonable. Reasonable persons, even if skeptical about the possibility of answering them, will not dismiss them as unanswerable without looking (that is not reason but prejudice) but will examine the claims of philosophers to have given reasonable answers to these questions before settling into a comfortable, fashionable skepticism.

Theology comes in two forms, philosophical and religious. Philosophical theology (“natural theology”) is a subdivision of philosophy. It uses natural human reason to explore the greatest of all questions, the questions about God. Religious theology (or “revealed theology”) is a rational exploration of the meaning and consequences of faith in a revealed religion—in our case, the “deposit of faith” or “Sacred Tradition” of the Catholic Church which comes from Christ and His apostles, and the scriptures they wrote.

In most Catholic universities today, Sacred Tradition is no longer sacred. It is treated as something to be “dissented” from (“diss” is the first part of “dissent”), as an enemy to enlightenment, progress, maturity and liberation, or at least as an embarrassment to be “tweaked,” “nuanced” or “massaged” rather than as a gift to be gratefully, faithfully and lovingly explored.

Most Catholic universities today have philosophy departments that are excellent spiritually as well as academically, but have deeply compromised theology departments. Their effect on students is much more often to weaken their faith than to strengthen it, not only in controversial moral issues such as abortion, contraception, cloning, euthanasia and sexual morality, but even in fundamental doctrines such as Christ’s divinity and resurrection and the historical truth of the Gospels.

We badly need good philosophy and theology. But why? To answer this question, look at where they are taught. They are taught in colleges and universities. So to find the “why” of philosophy and theology, we must find the “why” of colleges and universities.

The Goal of Education

Considering the trillions of dollars spent on universities by parents, governments and foundations, it is amazing that most of the people who go there (the students) and most of the people who pay for them (the parents and the government) never even ask, much less answer, this question: What is the purpose of the university? It is the most influential institution in Western civilization, and most of us don’t really know exactly why we entrust our children to them.

The commonest answer is probably to train them for a career. A B.A. looks good on your resume to prospective employers. That is not only a crass, materialistic answer, but also an illogical one. Consider what it means. It means that the reason students should study in universities is so that they can get high grade-point averages and thus get better jobs when they graduate.

What does “better jobs” mean? It means first of all, to most of them, better-paying jobs. But why do they need better paying jobs? For the money, of course. Silly question. But why do they need money? That is an even sillier question. Life has expenses. What life? Most of them hope to marry and raise families, and it takes a lot of money to do that. Why does a family need a lot of money? The two most expensive things a family needs money for are a house and a college education for the kids.

Ah, so a student should study to get high grades to get an impressive resume to get a good job, to finance his family when it sends his kids to college to study, to get high grades, et cetera, et cetera.

This is arguing in a circle. It is like a tiger pacing round and round his cage in a zoo. Is there a better answer? There is if you know some philosophy. Let’s look.

Probably the most commonsensical and influential philosopher of all time was Aristotle. Aristotle says that there are three “whys,” three purposes, ends or reasons for anyone ever to study and learn anything, in school or out of it. Thus there are three kinds of “sciences,” which he called “productive,” “practical” and “theoretical.” (Aristotle used “science” in a much broader way than we do, meaning any ordered body of knowledge through causes and reasons.)

The purpose of the “productive sciences” (which we today call technology) is to produce things, to make, improve or repair material things in the world, and thus to improve our world. Farming, surgery, shipbuilding, carpentry, writing and tailoring were examples in Aristotle’s era as well as ours, while ours also includes many new ones like cybernetics, aviation and electrical engineering.

The purpose of the “practical sciences” (which meant learning how to do or practice anything, how to act) is to improve your own behavior in some area of your own life. The two most important of these areas, Aristotle said, were ethics and politics. (Aristotle saw politics not as a pragmatic, bureaucratic business of running a state’s economy, but as social ethics, the science of the good life for a community.) Other examples of “practical sciences” include economics, athletics, rhetoric and military science.

The third kind of sciences is the “theoretical” or “speculative” (contemplative), i.e., those that seek the truth for its own sake, that seek to know just for the sake of knowing rather than for the sake of action or production (though, of course, they will have important practical application). These sciences include theology, philosophy, physics, astronomy, biology, psychology and math.

Theoretical sciences are more important than practical sciences for the very same reason practical sciences are more important than productive sciences: because their end and goal is more intimate to us. Productive sciences perfect some external thing in the material world that we use; practical sciences perfect our own action, our own lives; and theoretical sciences perfect our very selves, our souls, our minds. They make us bigger persons.

And that is the reason for going to college in the first place: not to make money, or things, or even to live better, but to be better, to be more, to grow your mind as you grow your body.

The Big Picture

What we have been doing for the last several paragraphs is philosophy. We need philosophy because we need to explore such reasons, reasons for studying, reasons for universities’ existence, even (especially) reasons for your own existence. For one of the primary questions all great philosophers ask is: What is the meaning of life, the reason for being, the point and purpose and end of human existence in this world?  If you don’t know that, you don’t know anything because you don’t know the point of everything. If you don’t know that, you may get all A’s in all your subjects, but you flunk Life.

The answer to that question for any intelligent, honest and serious Christian, Jew or Muslim is God. Supreme wisdom is about knowing God. And philosophy is the pursuit of wisdom. So philosophy is ultimately the pursuit of God, using the tools of natural human reason and theology by faith in supernatural divine revelation.

The “wisdom” philosophy pursues is not a factual knowledge like physics or history; but a knowledge, and understanding, and appreciation, of values, of what ought to be rather than merely what is. For instance, we need to know whether career (work) or family is more important, because most of us will invest enormous emotional and physical energy in both, and they will always compete and conflict to some extent.

We want to know the meaning of falling in love and romance and sex. What is its meaning, its purpose? For two generations now we have been asking every conceivable question (and many inconceivable questions, too), but not this one, not the very first and most basic one.

You see? Philosophy and theology raise the mind’s eyes to The Big Picture. If we can’t see that, we miss the forest and see only the trees; we count the syllables in the book of life but don’t know what kind of a story we are in.

Good Philosophy, Good Theology

One philosopher tells this story. (I paraphrase.) I was raised in a New York City slum. There were no books in my house. No one in my high school cared about education. I found an escape in the great 42nd Street library, where I devoured books indiscriminately. One day, I happened to read the famous “allegory of the cave” from Plato’s Republic. It changed my life. I found my identity. My life was that cave, and philosophy was the way out into another, bigger world. My mind was born that day. For the rest of my life I have explored the world outside the cave, the world of ideas, and taught others to do so. The biggest thrill in my life is finding among my students someone like me whom I can show that there is a way out of the cave, and that there is a bigger world outside.

That is why we all need to study philosophy (and, even more obviously, theology): because it is the discovery of another world, another kind of world, another kind of reality than the material world: the discovery that ideas are real, and that (in the words of a great book title) “ideas have consequences.”

The only alternative to good philosophy is bad philosophy. “I hate philosophy” is bad philosophy, but it is a philosophy: egotism. “Philosophy isn’t practical” is a philosophy: pragmatism. “Philosophy doesn’t turn me on” is a philosophy: hedonism.

Everyone has a philosophy, just as everyone has an emotional temperament and a moral character. Your only choice is between “knowing yourself” and thinking about your philosophy, or hiding from it and from yourself. But what you do not think about will still be there, and will still motivate you, and have consequences, and those consequences will affect all the people in your life up to the day of your death and far beyond it.

Your philosophy can quite likely and quite literally make the difference between heaven and hell. Saint Francis of Assisi and Adolf Hitler were not professional philosophers, but both had philosophies, and lived them, and went to heaven or hell according to their philosophies. That is how much of a difference thought can make: “Sow a thought, reap an act; sow an act, reap a habit; sow a habit, reap a character; sow a character, reap a destiny.” Buddha said, “All that we are is determined by our thoughts: it begins where our thoughts begin, it moves where our thoughts move, and it rests where our thoughts rest.”

Philosophy can lead you to God, and theology can lead you further into God (or away from Him). And God is the source of all truth, all goodness and all beauty; that is, of everything we value. (If that is not true, then God is not God.) All truth is God’s truth; when an atheist discovers some scientific truth, he is reading the mind of God, the Logos. All goodness is God’s goodness; when an agnostic secularist loves his neighbor, he is responding to divine grace. All beauty is God’s beauty; when a dissipated, confused and immoral artist creates a thing of beauty, he is using the image of God in his soul, being inspired by the Holy Spirit, however anonymously, and participating in God’s creative power.

Philosophy is a necessity if you want to understand our world. Bad philosophy is the source of most of the great errors in our world today. Errors in philosophy are devastating because they affect everything, as an error of an inch in surveying the angle of a property line will become an error of ten yards a mile down the line.

Most of the controversies in our world today can be understood and solved only by good philosophy and theology; for instance, the relation between world religions, especially Islam and Christianity; human life issues such as abortion, euthanasia and cloning; the justice of wars; the meaning of human sexuality and of the “sexual revolution”; the relation between mind and brain, and between human intelligence and “artificial intelligence”; the relation between creation and evolution; how far we are free and responsible and how far we are determined by biological heredity and social environment; the relation between morality and religion, and between religion and politics; and whether morality is socially relative or universal, unchanging and absolute.

Revealed theology claims to have the answers, or at least the principles that should govern the answers, to many of these questions. So theology is even more important than philosophy, if answers are more important than questions. And of course they are, for the whole point of asking a question, if you are honest, is the hope of finding an answer. It is nonsense to believe that “it is better to travel hopefully than to arrive,” and good philosophy refutes that self-contradiction. If it’s not better to arrive at your goal of truth than to strain after it, then truth is not really your goal at all, and the straining after it is a sham.

That is not, of course, to say that it is easy to arrive at the goal of truth, or that all we need is a set of answers we believe on the Church’s authority but do not understand. The truly respectful attitude toward the authority of the Church—which is an extension of the authority of Christ—is to let revealed truth permeate our minds and our lives like light, not simply to preserve that light by hiding it under a bushel basket. All “ideas have consequences,” especially divinely revealed ideas; and it is our job to lovingly draw out those consequences, like philosophers, and not to fear them, like heresy hunters, or to claim them as our own in a spirit of superiority to our divine teacher, like heretics.

Answering Objections

But there are objections to philosophy and theology out there. If this were not so, the teaching of these subjects would not have declined so precipitously. Let us briefly consider and answer some of them.

What can you do with philosophy and theology anyway? We have already answered that question by noting that it is the wrong question. The right question is what they can do with you.

But they’re so abstract! Yes, and that is their glory. To be incapable of abstraction is to be less than human, or a less than fully developed human. Animals and small children, for instance, are incapable of abstraction. They do not talk about Fate and Freedom, or Good and Evil, or Divinity and Humanity, or Life and Death (all abstractions). They talk only about hamburgers and French fries, boo boos and bandages, malls and cartoons. These things are not “the real world.” They are the shadows on the walls of Plato’s cave. Philosophy and theology are not fantasy. They are the escape from fantasy.

But philosophy is a dinosaur—it isn’t up to date, modern, popular, etc. No. Neither is wisdom, virtue, happiness, piety, fidelity, courage, peace or contentment.

What does philosophy have to do with real life? Everything. It is more important to know the philosophy of a prospective employee or employer, landlord or renter, friend or enemy, husband or wife, than their income, social class or politics.

Philosophy is elitist. It speaks of “Great Books” and “Great Ideas” and “Great Minds.” Yes, it does. At least good philosophy does. If you prefer crummy books, stupid ideas and tiny minds, you should not waste your money on college. If you believe that all ideas are equal, rather than all persons, you are confused and need a philosophy course. (Is the idea that all ideas are equal equal to the idea that they are not?)

“Philosophy bakes no bread.” It does not make you rich.  It is contemplative, like monasticism.  True. But why do we make money and bread? Is money our means (of exchange) to our end? Money is for bread, and bread is for man, and man is for truth. The ultimate end of human life is contemplative: knowing and appreciating the truth. We will not be baking bread or making money in Heaven, but we will be philosophizing.

Religion makes philosophy superfluous. If you have faith, you don’t need reason.  Yes, you do: you need reason to understand your faith. And you need reason to know whether your faith is the true faith. There are many fakes. And how do you know that unless you think about it? And if you don’t want to think about your faith, then either you aren’t really very interested in it, or you are afraid it is so weak that it will not endure the light. In that case you need a faith-lift.

But philosophy can be a danger to faith. Many have lost their faith through philosophy. Yes, and many have gained it, too. Of course, philosophy is dangerous. So is love, and trust, technology and money. Bad things are always misuses of good things. Wherever great harm is done, great help could have been done.

Final Things

This is especially true in theology. I know a chaplain who was ministering at the bedside of an old, dying man who had “lost his faith” and left the Church decades ago. The chaplain asked him what he believed about life after death, and the man replied that he had no idea where he was going and he didn’t think anyone else did either, because no one had any idea where they came from in the first place or why they are here.

The chaplain disagreed. He said, “You know the answers to those questions. You learned them as a little boy. You forgot them. But you can remember them now. It’s not too late. You learned the Baltimore Catechism, didn’t you? Yes, you did. Do you remember how it begins?”

The man wrinkled his brow, retrieving an old memory. “Yeah. It went like this: ‘Who made you? God made me. Why did God make you? God made me to know Him, to love Him and to serve Him in this world, and to be happy with Him forever in the next.” The man paused, lifted his eyes, and said, “You’re right. That’s true!” And a smile appeared on his face. And then he died.

You need philosophy and theology now because you will need it on your deathbed later.