Integral Catholic Education, The Anchor, May 29, 2009

Fr. Roger J. Landry
The Anchor
May 29, 2009

Ever since Jesus’ brief valedictory address when he said, “Go … and teach all nations” (Mt 28:18), education has always been among the Church’s highest priorities and greatest glories. Christian monks painstakingly preserved the learning of antiquity from barbarian destruction and neglect. Cathedral choir schools developed into the first universities. Religious orders were the first systematically to try to educate boys whose families were incapable of affording tutors and girls who previously had been culturally prevented from receiving an education.

But the Church’s system of education has always been distinguished in at least two ways from the secular models that eventually developed in imitation and competition with it. First, the Church’s educational system took place in the context of the overall teaching mission of the Church. “Only one is your teacher,” Christ once said (Mt 23:8), and in all subjects Catholic education tried to help people seek the truth knowing that all truth comes from that one Teacher. Second, the Church’s educational system sought not just to train the mind but to form the entire person to come fully alive in the image and likeness of God in which the person was formed.

In those times and places where Catholic education has lost its way, it has generally not been through the weakening its intellectual standards, but rather through isolating the pursuit of academic excellence from its connection to the fullness of truth taught by Christ through the Church or from its mission to form the whole person in accordance with the truth.

During his visit to the United States last year, Pope Benedict suggested to Catholic educators that some of our country’s Catholic institutions, which have “sought diligently to engage the intellect of our young, perhaps … have neglected the will.” Young people have the need to be trained to use their free will to seek, find, love and live by the fullness of truth. “The exercise of freedom in pursuit of the truth is very much a part of integral education,” the Pope said. “If a Catholic College or University does not help in this way, should we not say that it has failed in one of its important roles?”

The importance of the integral education of students in Catholic educational institutions was the subject of a very candid May 10 commencement address by Francis Cardinal Arinze, the Nigerian Prefect Emeritus of the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship, at Thomas More College in Merrimack, NH. His words took on added significance in the wake of the symbolism of the University of Notre Dame’s actions in doubly exalting before graduating seniors a president who believes that free will may be legitimately exercised to take the life of unborn human beings.

“A serious and authentic Catholic College or University,” Cardinal Arinze stressed, “has to strive to provide its students rigorous education on relations between faith and reason, on specialization and orientation, and on science and ethics. Students need a realistic and dynamic philosophy of life that shows them how to make a synthesis between religion and daily life. There will thus result an acceptable integral development of the human person and the Catholic College or University will have succeeded in forming and turning out model Christians who are good citizens.”

Helping students achieve this synthesis between religion and daily life, between academic excellence and moral excellence, between rendering to God the things that are God’s, to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to the world what is truly at its service, is what should set Catholics educational institutions apart. Catholic institutions are called to remember that “before being a neurosurgeon or a legal luminary, a person is first of all brother, sister, spouse, parent, citizen or colleague. A basic orientation of the human being to human love and life, to family, to citizenship, to work, to solidarity and interdependence, and indeed to life on earth in general, is necessary. It is not optional.”

In some places, though, this integral formation is done poorly, mainly because of a failure on the part of institutions adequately to form students to make a coherent synthesis between learning and life. Citing the strong teaching of the Second Vatican Council’s “Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World,” Cardinal Arinze described one of the causes and most important consequences of such a failure: “The split between the faith that many profess and their daily lives deserves to be counted among the more serious errors of our age… Therefore, let there be no false opposition between professional and social activities on the one part, and religious life on the other. The Christian who neglects his temporal duties neglects his duties towards his neighbor and even God, and jeopardizes his eternal salvation.”

Cardinal Arinze illustrated the Council Fathers’ point about integral unity between faith and daily life by referencing a memorable Irish jingle. “Paddy Smyth always went to Mass; he never missed a Sunday. But Paddy Smyth went to hell, for what he did on Monday.” The Cardinal commented, “For Paddy Smyth, religion was an affair of one hour in church on Sunday. But on Monday where he was in parliament or Congress, or in the trade union meeting, or in the medical unit, he did not allow his religion to influence his action. He had not learned to make a vital synthesis between religion and life.”

He then brought home the duty Catholic colleges and universities have toward their students to not form future Paddy Smyths. “In the complicated world of today, where all kinds of ideas are struggling for the right of citizenship, a university student needs a clear and viable orientation on the relationship between religion and life. The Catholic College or University is ideally positioned to help him see the light and equip himself for a significant contribution in society. Too often people equate education with certificates, or with what can be tested in written or oral examinations. No doubt, we absolutely need intellectual development. But what does it profit us if a student is an intellectual giant but a moral baby? If he or she knows the year of the Battle of Waterloo and the amount of rainfall in Brazil, if he or she can shoot out mathematical or historical facts like a computer, but is unfortunately a problem for the parents, corrosive acid among companions in the College, a drug addict and sexual pervert, a disgrace to the school, a waste-pipe in the place of work and Case number 23 for the Criminal Police? It is clear that intellectual development is not enough.”

A Catholic college or university has the “vocation,” Cardinal Arinze said, to “be educating, forming and releasing into society model citizens who will be a credit to their families, their College, the Church and the State. It will prepare for us members of Congress or the Senate who will not say ‘I am a Catholic, but…’; but rather those who will say, ‘I am a Catholic, and therefore…’ They will be coherent both as Catholics and as citizens. Their religion will not be just a matter of an hour or two on Sunday, but will also provide a vital synthesis for their activities on Monday through Saturday, and from January to December.”

Integral Catholic education is meant to form coherent Catholics, those who do not compartmentalize their faith, but are equipped to be the salt, light and leaven needed to transform culture to be compatible with the integral good of man. Integral Catholic education is supposed to form not just the brain to know the truth but the heart to desire and choose the good. It is meant to form people to pass the final exam of life summa cum laude.