Clarity and Depth From Aquinas Needed in Catholic Education Today
Jesus taught, “[L]ife is more than food, and the body more than clothing” (Lk 12:23). Likewise, education is more than jobs; catechesis is more than shared experience. What happened to the Socratic axiom, “The unexamined life is not worth living”? On a higher plane, God created the human mind for the pursuit and attainment of truth.
We are a society that has a great deal of knowledge but which lacks wisdom. St. Thomas Aquinas defines wisdom as the virtue which “consider[s] the highest cause” (Summa Theologica II-II, 45, 1), and that is just what modern education rails against. This attitude even finds its way into Catholic education.
Fundamental questions about God and the meaning of life, however, are part of being human. But often nowadays, a framework for finding the answers is not there, or is not adequate. People look elsewhere than the Catholic Church for answers. Or if simple answers are taken on faith alone, it may be difficult to maintain when challenged by the flow of the world and the culture. That’s why St. John Paul II exhorted in Fides et Ratio that Christian education should draw from the heritage of sound philosophy while also dialoguing with modern thought (no. 60). He lifted up St. Thomas Aquinas as a champion of the unity of faith and reason and as a philosopher consistent with the Catholic faith whose thought has been found very fruitful in the life of the Church (no. 43).
The teachings of St. Thomas Aquinas provided a foundation for catechisms and theological manuals in seminary for generations. But many were glad to see the dominance of Aquinas in Catholic education wane in the 1960s. In much of the Catholic world, while St. Thomas Aquinas remains recognizable as a saint and scholar, his teachings seem forgotten except by a few. But now more than ever, we need both the framework and the sound answers he provides. Furthermore, most of the criticisms leveled against those textbooks, which were generally successful in their purpose and in their day, do not touch St. Thomas himself. Much of what was lost from abandoning them has not been fully replaced.
Many who study philosophy — especially the history of modern philosophy — are frustrated in their quest for truth, finding only contradictions and dead ends. The same is not true for the student of St. Thomas Aquinas. St. Thomas’ framework is an ordered world in which God exists and has created all things in wisdom and with purpose. He has likewise created the human intellect, giving it the power to come in various ways to the knowledge of truth. All created being comes from God and is intelligible — it is knowable, and “waiting” to be known and understood.
Faith is not merely opinion, but along with reason and superior to it, is another mode of knowing. Faith is needed for salvation and also raises and illuminates that which is known by reason. The two, if properly followed, can never contradict. God himself can be known by reason in a limited way through His effects in creation. The principles of morality, too, can be discovered by the wise through natural reason, though faith reveals them more clearly and perfectly. Thus it becomes possible for the believer to speak of God and morality without directly referencing Scripture. St. Thomas himself is known for articulating his opponents’ views better than they themselves could, and then refuting them through sound reasoning.
Some few Catholic high schools introduce their students in meaningful ways to the philosophical tradition, sometimes by way of the Socratic method, in order to actively engage the mind. But most do not. Objections to philosophy in schools include the maze that philosophy has become, the dangers that it potentially brings, questions concerning developmental appropriateness for the students and even its lack of practicality. Furthermore, philosophy does not correspond with the education standards set by bureaucrats at the state level or in Washington, D.C.
But as we have seen, the philosophy of St. Thomas is refreshingly free of the maze that has become of modern philosophy, though it can certainly dialogue with modernity. As far as developmental appropriateness, the Baltimore Catechism, in its day, was able to effectively transmit important lessons from St. Thomas Aquinas even to children who had not yet reached the formal operational stage of development needed for abstract thought in philosophy.
While philosophy does have practical implications, it is primarily the pursuit of truth about the most important matters, and it not only sharpens the intellect but also betters the person. And regarding education standards, balancing or adapting the standards with the needs of the students is a decision that needs to be made at a level as close as possible to the students and parents.
I believe that in appropriate ways and levels, from the older elementary years through higher education, the teachings of St. Thomas Aquinas can be disseminated fruitfully. In fact, I have personally drawn from them while teaching at both levels and everywhere in between.
For example, teaching classes on Christian Ministry and Popes in the Modern World at Niagara University, I often look to Aquinas for depth and meaning for the terms and concepts used. Based on Aquinas, I explain virtue as a morally-good habit in which the person does the good cheerfully, easily and consistently; likewise it makes the person morally-good and is essential to their flourishing. In a similar way, drawing from Aquinas helps in facilitating adult Bible study at the parish where I work. It shows the direction in which the church took various texts of Scripture. Aquinas’ metaphysics shows the profundity of the seemingly simple name God gave for Himself to Moses to revere: “I Am Who Am.” For Aquinas, God is the Necessary Being whose very essence is to exist; without this Necessary Being, our ever-changing world would not exist now.
For middle and high school faith formation, the idea of the Necessary Being comes up as an answer to their questions. I have them do some geometry, as in school, to try to draw a right triangle where the hypotenuse is shorter than the sides. It’s impossible. It is a necessary rule that the hypotenuse is longer than the sides. In like manner, God is the Necessary Being — He just is and couldn’t not be. In fact, the rules of math are grounded in Him.
Over the past several years, I have been working on a very unique book, Who Created God? A Teacher’s Guidebook for Answering Children’s Tough Questions about God. It places core teachings from St. Thomas Aquinas into a format easily accessible and adaptable for teachers, catechists, parents, and others responsible for educating children and young people, 4th through the 9th grade, in the faith. It introduces key insights from Aquinas on God and humanity in a manner familiar in many classrooms for those perhaps not yet at the point of fully entering into Socratic dialogue or a more serious study of philosophy. It is meant to be a flexible tool for bridging the gap between Aquinas and today’s educational venues, including school, parish and home.
In fact, the book lends itself especially well to a homeschool setting and gives homeschool and other teachers the tools they need for conveying these truths to the children. The book also corresponds to the aspirations of Catholic homeschoolers to raise their children, against the grain of the culture when need be, to appreciate the good, the true and the beautiful. It can help put Aquinas back into the mainstream in a new way and into the language and thought patterns of this generation.
When I started work several years ago as a parish director of faith formation, I would go into the various classrooms and have Q & A sessions with a variety of students. I came in with a strong background in Thomistic philosophy and theology and saw connections everywhere between their questions and wonder and that of St. Thomas Aquinas. Spontaneously, I would bridge the gap by packing some of his insights on God and creation into their language in symbolic hands-on ways.
St. Thomas’ thought sees spiritual realities as expressed in physical ways, and the concept of analogy is also important for him. So I taught his concepts analogously in ways children could grasp and with concrete illustrations and examples which showed them that wise and holy men had pondered their very questions.
There are many ways to reintroduce the clarity and depth of Aquinas’ teachings into Catholic education: the use of the Socratic method in appropriate classes, grounding catechetical texts in his thought, training teachers to think with Aquinas when they teach, assigning and discussing some of the clearer source texts from classical or Scholastic philosophy, and promoting the teaching of classical or Scholastic philosophy in Catholic higher education for all students as an intellectual and personal formation. Doing so can help to fill a gap that exists today in much of Catholic education and catechesis.
Michael J. Ruszala is the author of several religious books, including Who Created God? A Teacher’s Guidebook for Answering Children’s Tough Questions about God. He holds an MA in Theology & Christian Ministry and a BA in philosophy and theology from Franciscan University of Steubenville and has severed for a number of years as director of lifelong faith formation at St. Pius X RC Church in Getzville, NY, and adjunct lecturer in religious studies at Niagara University in Lewiston, NY. For more information, visit www.michaeljruszala.com.