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Resisting the Reduction of Catholic Higher Education

In a previous post, we considered how we might fruitfully read the Church’s magisterial documents on education. This post is a first attempt to apply some of the principles outlined there.

It would seem that Catholic education—including Catholic higher education—is always about more than we think it is.  And it is good to have both contemporary voices and voices from the past to remind us of this.

One such voice, that of Pius XI, was heard around the world in 1929 (and especially by Mussolini), when he issued his encyclical, “On Christian Education.” 

But in light of the transformations through which our society has passed in the last one hundred years, what could the University of St. Thomas reasonably expect to learn from a pope who lived almost a century ago? 

But what if that pope were drawing upon two thousand years of wisdom about human nature, education, and human flourishing?  In that light, against a temporal horizon of that length, a document written a mere ninety-two years ago seems much closer to us in time.

Six insights (among many) from Pius XI’s encyclical, speak to us from across the century and challenge us to resist the ever-present temptation to reduce what UST is called to achieve, here and now, in the twenty-first century.

Pius’ vision is bracingly comprehensive, and this manifests itself in three ways.

First, Catholic education aims to form the complete person.  Second, it forms the complete person for a complete life (both earthly and heavenly), and third, Catholic education comprehends and integrates all knowledge and wisdom, including the arts and the sciences.

Regarding the formation of the complete person, Pius XI reminds us that “the subject of Christian education is man whole and entire, soul united to body in unity of nature, with all his faculties natural and supernatural.” It “takes in the whole aggregate of human life, physical and spiritual, intellectual and moral, individual, domestic and social, not with a view of reducing it in any way, but in order to elevate, regulate and perfect, in accordance with the example and teaching of Christ.”

A question for us to consider: Is the University of St. Thomas educating the whole person for an integrated life?

In educating for a complete life (the second way in which Catholic education is comprehensive), Pius XI extends our temporal horizon beyond time and into eternity.  Catholic “education consists essentially in preparing man for what he must be and for what he must do here below, in order to attain the sublime end for which he was created […] it is clear that there can be no true education which is not wholly directed to man’s last end.”  Thus, Catholic education “aims at securing the Supreme Good, that is, God, for the souls of those who are being educated, and the maximum of well-being possible here below for human society.”

A second question for us to consider: Are all of UST’s activities—academic and co-curricular—ordered to helping our students move toward the ultimate end for which they were created?

Pius XI also emphasizes a third manifestation of Catholic education’s comprehensive nature: it unites within itself all aspects of human knowledge and wisdom, including the arts and sciences.  Why?  “[B]ecause every form of instruction, no less than every human action, has a necessary connection with man’s last end […]”

A third and final question: Do we have a comprehensive vision of human knowing, in which we can place our own disciplines, recognizing the ultimate orientation of this knowledge?

Thus, we hear Pius XI affirming a surprisingly broad understanding of Catholic education, including Catholic higher education.  First, it aims to form the whole person.  Second, its frame of temporal reference runs from conception to the beatific vision (and everything in between).  Third, it integrates all human knowing and gives wisdom, knowledge, and professional skills an ordered orientation to that ultimate end of fulfillment and highest happiness for which human beings were created.

This is not a reductive vision.

Pius XI offers three additional perspectives that give depth to these larger observations.

He gives us a more complete vision of the “subject” of education whom we seek to serve, i.e., the student.  If we are called to educate the whole person, we should resist the temptation to reduce students to “information receivers” whose primary obstacles to success are social, political, and historical barriers.  Instead we should allow the truth that our students have been “created by God in his image and likeness and [are] destined for Him Who is infinite perfection” remain the most important truth we can know about our students and should be the lens through which we understand all other aspects. Other obstacles–social, historical, etc.,–must be understood in the context of this primary truth. While avoiding the reduction of Catholic education, we must avoid reducing our students to secondary categories.

But while our students’ origin and destiny with God is the most important truth we can know about them, it does not constitute the complete story and Pius does not stop there. Each of our students is wounded by the effects of the Fall and these effects will inform their experience as students within and beyond the classroom.  Pius XI affirms that “in young people” their failures “are not [so] much [from] ignorance of intellect as of weakness of a will” that “is unsupported by the means of grace.” 

In light of the effects of the Fall, a Catholic university that offers a comprehensive education will seek to serve its students realistically by addressing not only the darkness of the intellect but also the weakness of the will—i.e., helping each student to form his or her character through the virtues—a process that  must be animated by the means of grace enlivening nature. While the practical dimension of this process, the process of becoming a virtuous person animated by faith and oriented to flourishing properly understood, will largely take place outside the classroom, it can be proposed as a from of life within the appropriate academic context.  But even the practical dimension of this process will require that the university to provide to its students the opportunities for them to shape their lives at the deepest levels by the sacraments, prayer, and Sacred Scripture.  Thinking of these dimensions turns the spotlight to the university’s broader culture, its animating principles, higher purposes, and the integrating mission of the institution.

And Pius XI also elaborates on the comprehensive nature of knowledge at a Catholic institution and how it achieves this through the integration of faith and reason: “Not only is it impossible for faith and reason to be at variance with each other, they are on the contrary of mutual help. […] The Church, therefore, far from hindering the pursuit of the arts and sciences fosters and promotes them in many ways.” And here, Cardinal Newman and St. Thomas can be our guides.

Finally, among the many observations that are rich in their depth, Pius reminds us of the relation of Catholic education to the three necessary societies:  the family, the Church, and the polity.  Notice that the university is not one of these three.  Rather, a Catholic university serves all three and is an extension of primarily the first two.

Informed by Pius XI’s vision, the University of St. Thomas is called to integrate the life of the classroom with life outside it to form the men and women it serves to be better sons and daughters within their families, better citizens—”for the lasting benefit of individuals and of nations”—and ultimately better children of God. 

Let us resist the reduction of our calling and our mission.

About the Author — Dr. George Harne

Dr. George HarneAs Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences, Harne brings a vision of Catholic education to his work that is animated by the thought of Plato, Cardinal Newman, Josef Pieper, John Paul II, and Benedict XVI. In his role as Dean, Harne cultivates the treasures of the School—its faculty, students, and programs—ensuring that it flourishes in light of the greater mission of the University and draws ever more deeply on the sources of that mission: particularly the great Catholic intellectual and spiritual traditions. He also champions the School within Houston, regionally, and in the nation at large.

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