V. The Catholic Teacher

It follows that a school which defines itself by ignoring such distinctions will be at best a number of professors pursuing disparate or contrary purposes in the context of uneasy co-existence. Individual teachers may accomplish something with their students, and administrators of good character may supply their personal principles for the lack of institutional order, but they will do so in spite of the rationale of their school, which of itself tends to nihilism and tyranny. On the other hand, it does not follow that a school which does define itself in the context of those distinctions will be successful in realizing its true purposes. The condition is necessary but not sufficient. For even given that the importance of distinguishing the primary from the secondary — in all the ways mentioned above — is a matter of conviction, and given that the distinctions are actually seen in many cases, there still remain many ambiguities whose attempted resolution may ultimately defeat the intended purpose of the school. The cause of these ambiguities is that the principles which guide thought and action, whether they are received from experience or by faith, are understood somewhat indistinctly at first, even when their truth is certain. Hence it remains a primary necessity throughout the intellectual life to clarify the principles. But here arises the possibility of serious mistake, for an attempted clarification may depart from the original principle; thus, though secondary or even false, the seeming re-statement will take on the authority of the original, with the most destructive results. And if such failures arise concerning the principles, how much more must they arise concerning what is demonstrable or probable, the proper object of teaching and learning?

So it is that from the beginning men have sought teachers — other men who share the same principles but see them more clearly as well as seeing the order which results from them. Thus, among men, the relation of teacher and learner presupposes shared principles and yet an inequality in the understanding of those principles. But the need for a teacher at the same time poses a problem: how is the inferior to recognize the superior, since his inferiority consists precisely in the lack of that which would enable him to judge? Because this problem is unavoidable as well as difficult, sophists have always abounded and prospered.

The only secure resolution of this problem is that the shared principles themselves should unmistakably indicate the teacher. Now nature, insofar as it shapes our experience, is the guiding principle of the life of reason, but it fails to distinguish reliably between the teacher and the sophist. For nature instructs us through the external features of things, which often fail to correspond to what is internal. Divine Revelation, on the other hand, not only communicates the truth but also designates teachers to clarify, define and explain it. Thus, Our Lord told His apostles, “Anyone who listens to you listens to me” (Luke 10:16) and commissioned them to teach, promising to remain with them forever. On this account, the believer embraces at once Christ as the supreme teacher and the successors of St. Peter and the Apostles as altogether truthful and divinely appointed interpreters of His teachings. And further, insofar as many doctrines which pertain to human wisdom are of crucial importance for the Christian life, the teaching authority of the Apostles extends to them also; indeed, nearly every central philosophical issue is relevant in some way to divinely revealed truth. Thus it follows that the Catholic, in the very act of his belief, has also found the teachers who will define and explain what he believes, show him its consequences, and rectify his whole intellectual life as well. Here then grace perfects nature even with respect to what is strictly natural.

The Catholic school, therefore, if it is to be faithful to the teaching of Christ, will differ from its secular counterpart in two essential respects. First, it will not define itself by academic freedom, but by the divinely revealed truth, and second, that truth will be the chief object of study as well as the governing principle of the whole institution, giving order and purpose even to the teaching and learning of the secular disciplines.

A Proposal for the Fulfillment of Catholic Liberal Education

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“Thomas Aquinas College is a small college, but its reputation has spread far and wide. Because it lives off the masterpieces of thought and literature emanating from the Christian tradition of the Western world, it provides a first-rate education for a select body of talented undergraduates.”

– Avery Cardinal Dulles, S.J (†)