“The Edge of Civilization”
From the Summer 2009 edition of the Thomas Aquinas College Newsletter
Q: You are known for your courageous defense of marriage and of the unborn. What advice do you have for those who would like to defend marriage
— and other matters of the natural law — in the public square, where Christians are often marginalized?
A: My first idea is to have strong and healthy families — and to promote strong and healthy families. That is the best presence we can have in the public square: build on the sacrament of marriage. The basic things have to be reaffirmed in the public square so that people will see families built on God's grace, and see that they work better. They have more substance and faithfulness. They serve and help to resolve conflicts. They have children. They are happier! And so, that's the first point, to re-cultivate good and happy families.
And then, second, for the political impact, I would say a family should join an association of families, or a movement. There are many, and they offer events for networking and associations. We had one such event on the Parliament Hill, a pro-life manifestation, where we brought 10,000 people together — it's rather seldom in Canada that you move so many people. But we are trying to sort of broaden the basis and to include more explicitly the family. You know, it is great to promote life, and to intervene on behalf of life and against abortion, and so on, but if you include family, you broaden the basis, and I think you can have more impact on politicians.
Now, at the intellectual level, I think that it is important to address the question of life from human reason. From the point of view of human rights, the most basic human right is the right to live. All the others are built upon this one. You do not deserve to live because you are beautiful, because you are useful, because you arrive at the exact moment I expected you. You deserve to live because you are a human being, and that is a sacred reality.
Nobody has the right to take the life of another human being. If I am allowed to take your life, or you to take mine, or to take a human life in the womb, that means that you are on the edge of barbarianism — the edge of civilization — because the basic principle of respect for the other is negated in that act of abortion. So this has completely disappeared from the awareness in our culture.
So I think on the level of reason we need to continue the reflection and the argument in the public square. In Canada we have lost so much ground that any struggle on the small things will be a victory. But we continue the fight with the simple motivation that it is the right thing to do — not because we calculate that we will have success. Success is secondary.
Q: We at the College share with you a love for St. Thomas Aquinas and his works in theology. Would you talk a little about him?
A: Oh yes. I have a debt with Aquinas from my early formation. When I studied in St. Thomas Aquinas University in Rome, I remember my greatest intellectual endeavors and joys were from him. Yes, he shaped my mind. The best I received philosophically was from Aquinas, because his is rational argument.
In studying Aquinas, you learn methodology. His is a mind that is full of wisdom; he is able to order things. He has a sense of the order of things, a capacity, an unbelievable genius. But more than that, he had also a charism, a gift from God. So in him, all qualities met. You are studying quality by studying Aquinas.
I appreciated also the way that he would rely on Tradition. He is thinking with others always. He is not just starting from scratch, from himself. He recaptures the sense of the Tradition, and he brings the thing to today, and with new philosophical instruments, like Aristotle in philosophy. With his capacity for making distinctions, and so on, St. Thomas brings things further.
So I would say in summing up, St. Thomas is the master and model of a Catholic mind.
Q: Would you comment about why it is important to study his work?
A: Modernity has made a sort of rupture with Tradition. That's the definition of modernity; you start with the cogito (I think) — not from reality and what was said by the authorities. There is a questioning of authority. But with Aquinas you have a sense of thinking with others before, and you build upon their assessments and contributions, the sense of Tradition. St. Thomas' impact, then, is to restore objectivity to the intellectual life. His work is an affirmation of reality. If you study Aquinas now, you contribute to restoring objectivity in thought. That is one of the good points of Aquinas. He helps to restore objectivity and to overcome rationalism or agnosticism.
We are in this age of rationalism and agnosticism, in which all of the elements of faith are seen as without grounds, just sort of subjectivism, and opinions, or emotion, or whatever. But in Aquinas, you find the balance between faith and reason — you have an integration of both. In Aquinas, as with St. Albert, you have the whole range of rationality from natural sciences to philosophy. So there is integration between faith and reason, and there is a harmony there. That is very important today, very important! In the public square, we have to discuss things in human reason terms, to have the same language, and to address the same realities. And so I think St. Thomas is very useful for that. I hope that in this college when you study philosophy, you see that your knowledge is based on reality. That is basic for the intellectual life.
Q: It's axiomatic here! Throughout the program, we're always asking ourselves, "Does this explanation fit with my experience of real things?" "Is that really what I have experienced?" We are not just in our own heads.
A: Good! Yes, St. Thomas is a master of intellectual discernment. The way he speaks of Aristotle, of Augustine, of Averroes, and so on. He picks and chooses. And he died at only 49. Can you imagine? He was 30 years old, you know, doing this commentary on St. Augustine, who was a giant. But St. Thomas was a master, a master of intellectual discernment.
Q: What is the condition of Catholic education in Canada?
A: We are in a big crisis in our country, more than in the United States, even though the crisis is in both countries, and in the Western world as a whole. Yet when you see an institution like this college, you say gosh, this is possible! I mean it's good news. It's really good news!
After the Second Vatican Council, many people lost direction, and also faithfulness to the Church's Magisterium. And so now there is a crisis among our faculties and the Church's Magisterium. There is a tension there.
Now the government is mandating a course on religion, taught from a cultural point of view, that, structurally, teaches relativism. Maybe they do not say anything about all religions being equal, but they are saying it just by the system. It is for primary and secondary education, even in private Catholic schools. Parents are asking the tribunal for exemption, only to exempt their children from the course, because they currently do not have that freedom. This is now before the judge, and there will be a decision within weeks or months about that. It is only a sort of first step, but it could challenge the whole thing.
Q: Would you tell us about your efforts to restore a devotion to Our Lady of Schools?
A: In 1948, Pope Pius XII declared Our Lady of Schools the patroness of all students in Quebec and in Canada — and so there was a nice image of her made, and a strong devotion was developed by the Notre Dame Congregation. It was very alive, but it disappeared completely in the 1970s.
In 2007, we realized that it was 60 years since this declaration of the pope, so I decided to found an association of Our Lady of Schools to promote Catholic education.
To restore the devotion to Our Lady of Schools is to open up also a possibility for more actions, supernatural actions, and I tell you I've seen so many signs — it's amazing. From August 15, 2007, which was the first act of blessing the statue, it's amazing how people are standing up to affirm their freedom in education and challenging the state course I was talking about earlier.
Now we are before the court, and we are trying, and we are sort of optimistic that we would win the case, and that maybe the state course will be declared unconstitutional. When I get desperate, I say, "OK, Mother, now it's in your hands."
Promoting strong and healthy families: Cardinal Ouellet confers a blessing on graduates Theresa Frassrand and Christopher Bissex, who would go on to marry two months after graduation on July 25, 2009.
“The culture at the College, the community was very formative for me. I saw joyful people living their Catholic faith, doing it to the best of their ability, and not being ashamed of it.”
– Rev. John Marie Bingham, O.P. (’00)
Parochial Vicar, Saint Dominic’s Parish, Benicia, Calif