by The Most. Rev. Robert E. Barron
Auxiliary Bishop of Los Angeles
Remarks for the Commencement Exercises
Thomas Aquinas College
May 11, 2019
It is indeed a high honor for me to be speaking to the 2019 graduating class of Thomas Aquinas College, an institution that I have admired for decades and which is situated, I am proud to say, within the borders of my own Santa Barbara Pastoral Region. I am deeply grateful to President McLean, as well as to the Board and faculty of this wonderful college. I want to offer a word of sincere and hearty congratulation, of course, to the Class of 2019 but also to the parents of these gifted young people. It is your love that has sustained them over the years, and this day belongs to you as much as to them.
I distinctly remember my first visit to this beautiful campus five years ago. I had been invited to speak to the community and had brought a fairly serious academic paper. After the long plane trip from Chicago and the surprisingly arduous car journey from LAX to Santa Paula (I wasn’t yet accustomed to Southern California travel), I was fairly worn out, and I was convinced that my dense presentation would bore the students — and probably myself — to tears. With some trepidation, I made my way through the text and then, to my delighted surprise, entertained smart and challenging questions for the next hour and three quarters. As I remember, President McLean had to intervene to bring things to a close, even as dozens of hands remained in the air. In my wildest imagination, it would never have occurred to me that night that I would one day be the bishop presiding over this region, but I must say that one of the particular joys of my current assignment is that I can make frequent visits to this college and experience again the thrill of that initial encounter with the bright and delightfully feisty students here.
How could I not take as my point of orientation today some thoughts from the patron of this school? I would like to draw your attention to a fairly obscure section of St. Thomas’s Summa Theologiae, namely, question 129 of the secunda secundae, wherein the master considers the virtue of magnanimitas (magnanimity), which is to say, the quality of having a great soul. There is an intriguing etymological link, by the way, between the term magna anima in Latin and the Sanskrit title famously ascribed to Mohandas Gandhi: Mahatma, which means precisely the same thing, “great soul.”
So how does Thomas elaborate upon the notion? Here is the beginning of his respondeo to article one of question 129: “Magnanimity by its very name denotes stretching forth of the soul to great things (extensio animi ad magna).” And this has to do, primarily, with great moral acts, or acts for which one would expect to be honored. Thomas is quick to clarify that the magnanimous person is not interested in honors for their own sake, for such an obsession would amount to vana gloria or vainglory; rather, he or she is interested in doing those things that rightly deserve honor. Following Aristotle, Thomas further specifies that true magnanimity is ordered to high honor, which another way of saying to the performance of those moral acts that are particularly hard to perform. Here is part of the respondeo to article five of question 129: “Accordingly it is clear that magnanimity agrees with fortitude in confirming the mind about some difficult matter.” And this is from article six of the same question: “magnanimity is chiefly about the hope of something arduous” (magnanimitas proprie est circa spem alicuius ardui). But what is the ground for such hope? It is, says Thomas, in the moral and intellectual character of the one who knows himself capable of attaining to high, difficult, and great things. Were one not in possession of the capacity for greatness, it would be presumptuous and proud to strive toward excellence.
Some further light can be shed on our theme by considering the opposite of magnanimity, namely, pusillanimity (literally, small-souledness), and this Thomas does in question 133 of the secunda secundae. If presumption makes one strive beyond one’s capabilities, pusillanimity “makes a man fall short of what is proportionate to his power, by refusing to tend to that which is commensurate thereto.” In light of this clarification, we see why some translators choose to render pusillanimitas as “faintheartedness,” for it amounts to a fear of attempting the moral excellence of which a person is capable. In article two of question 133, Aquinas makes the contrast unmistakably clear: “For just as the magnanimous man tends to great things out of greatness of soul, so the pusillanimous man shrinks from great things out of littleness of soul” (ex animi parvitate). And what causes this shrinking of the soul? Thomas says, “on the part of the intellect, ignorance of one’s qualifications and on the part of the appetite the fear of failure in what one falsely deems to exceed one’s ability.”
I trust by now it has become plain why I chose to take us on this brief tour of a usually overlooked corner of Aquinas’s masterpiece. It seems to me that the entire purpose of the programs here at Thomas Aquinas College is to produce magnanimous people, young women and men of great souls, capable of high moral achievement, willing and able to undertake arduous tasks for which they will rightly merit great honor. Thomas Aquinas College has no interest in giving rise to pusillanimous graduates, men and women with small souls, who would shrink from the difficult moral challenge of the present time. Given what you have learned here through strenuous effort in the classroom, given how your souls have been shaped by steady exposure to people of exemplary virtue, given the formation that has inevitably come from the Mass and the sacraments, none of you graduates should feel unqualified, either intellectually or morally, to seek the most honorable course. God knows that the world is filled with moral mediocrities, not to mention the craven and the wicked, but you have been made of sterner stuff. Aquinas tells us that one of the principal marks of the magnanimous person is confidence; we send you forth today as confident men and women, ready for the high adventure of the spiritual life.
Now sufficient challenges certainly rise to meet the confidence of the magnanimous today, and many of those who have preceded me in this role of commencement speaker have articulated them: materialism, ideological secularism, moral relativism, and the fruit of these three, namely, a culture of self-invention, a Nietzschean voluntarism, which has emerged as the dominant philosophy of our time. But I would like, in the short compass of this speech, to focus on two particular challenges that call forth heroic moral excellence: corruption in the Church and the massive attrition of our own Catholic people, especially the young.
There is no need to rehearse the sickening details regarding the sexual abuse of young people by priests these last several decades. Suffice it to say that attacks on the bodies and souls of the most vulnerable members of the Catholic community precisely by those ordained by Christ to be their shepherds and guardians constitutes the gravest scandal in the history of the Church in the United States. Compounding the problem, of course, has been the tragic mismanagement of the crisis on the part of some bishops and religious superiors. Far more concerned with the reputation of the institution than with the safety of God’s people, too many ecclesial leaders allowed the rot to spread. If you seek distant historical mirrors of the present troubles, take a look at St. Peter Damian’s writings in the 11th century or the story of Eli and his wicked sons Hophni and Phineas from the first book of Samuel in the Old Testament. Wicked priests and clueless religious superiors are, sadly, nothing particularly new in the life of God’s people. Undermining the work of the Church in practically every way, the clerical sex abuse catastrophe has been the devil’s masterpiece, and I realize that, in the wake of these revelations, many Catholics are tempted to abandon ship. In fact, in a very recent poll, fully 37 percent of Catholics said that they are seriously considering leaving the Church because of its corruption.
But it is my conviction that this is not the time to leave; this is the time to fight. And here I call upon every magnanimous graduate sitting here before me today. Fight by entering the priesthood or religious life and live up to the dignity of your calling; fight by your very holiness of life, becoming the saint that God wants you to become; fight by doing a Holy Hour every day for the purification of the Church; fight by calling for real reform; fight by insisting that the guilty be held accountable; fight by doing the corporal and spiritual works of mercy; fight by evangelizing in your everyday life; fight by ordering your life according to the virtues; fight by playing your priestly role in the sacrifice of the Mass. And more to it, fight by sanctifying your family, your workplace, the market, the political arena, the world of high finance, the realms of sports and entertainment. In other words, be what the Church is supposed to be in the world. In the second book of Samuel, we hear that David’s corruption with Bathsheba commenced precisely when the King, instead of going on campaign as was his wont, lingered at home, indulging his private desires. As Pope Francis has often reminded us, when the Church fails to go on campaign, when it turns in on itself, corruption is never far behind. Don’t wait for other reformers to arise; this is your moment to meet this crucial moral challenge. And no pusillanimous people need apply.
The second great crisis to which I will draw your attention is the rise of the “nones” or the religiously unaffiliated. When I was a child, in the early 1970s, roughly 3 percent of our country identified as non-religious. By the early 1990s, that figure had doubled to 6 percent, but still, in terms of absolute numbers, the overwhelming majority of the nation was religious. However today, nearly 25 percent of Americans surveyed claim no religious affiliation, and the situation is direr still when we focus on young people. Among those under 30, fully 40 percent claim the status of “none,” and among Catholics under 30, the number rises to 50 percent. Any way one looks at these statistics, one must conclude that we are hemorrhaging young people from religion in general and Catholicism in particular. In point of fact, one of the most damning figures is the ratio between those who join the Catholic Church and those who are leaving. It stands at 1:6, that is to say, for every one person who enters our Church, six are going out the door.
I call on the magnanimous graduates sitting before me, rise to meet this challenge! And may I say that as alumni of Thomas Aquinas College, you will be uniquely positioned to do so.
Numerous studies have indicated that the principal reason that people are leaving the Church is that they no longer believe the doctrines put forward by classical Christianity. Though many commentators are tempted to say that the mass exodus is prompted largely by the scandals, this in fact is not true. When queried why they have left the practice of the faith, most people, especially the young, tell us that they have done so because faith and science are implacable enemies, because God is an unnecessary hypothesis, because Jesus is one questionable mythic character among many, because the Bible is a collection of pre-scientific, bronze-age fairy tales. In a word, they find Christianity intellectually untenable.
You who have had the incomparable privilege these past four years carefully and critically to read Aristotle, Plato, Cicero, Newton, Aquinas, Descartes, Kant, Hegel, and Bertrand Russell are specially qualified for the arduous task of engaging the army of skeptics who have wandered from the Church. The contemplation of the great intellectuals is indeed an intrinsic good, but may I stress that especially at this moment in the Church’s life, such contemplation can and should give rise to active evangelization and compelling apologetics. So, become university professors of theology, college and high school teachers of religion, catechists at the parish level, online evangelists — and know that the moment you exit any Catholic church in America you have entered mission territory. And may I suggest to those who have a particular interest in the physical sciences that you are in the front lines of this battle for souls. In survey after survey, young people report that the supposed conflict of faith and science is the chief intellectual obstacle to remaining a believer.
For many years, I lived and worked at Mundelein Seminary outside of Chicago. A blend of extraordinary natural beauty and extremely fine Georgian architecture, the Seminary is one of the most striking places in the American Catholic world. Cardinal Mundelein, who actively presided over its design and construction, said that he wanted the splendor of the seminary to give the future priests an idea of heaven, so that they would never lose sight of the ultimate goal of their pastoral work among the people. This place, with its own distinctive blend of natural and man-made beauty, has always reminded me a bit of Mundelein. And indeed, this campus, where liturgy, prayer, fellowship, deep communion with the saints and geniuses of the Catholic tradition are on steady offer, is something of a Catholic heaven on earth, an anticipation even now of the splendor of life on high with God and the saints. But just as the students at Mundelein were not meant to stay on the grounds of the seminary, so you are not meant to stay at this lovely place. Rather, you are meant to go forth, carrying what you have received and cultivated here, in order to sanctify our suffering world.
Is this an arduous task? Yes! But magnanimous people like arduous tasks, for they are ordered to the moral work that will give the highest honor. Are these choppy seas? Yes! But only pusillanimous people are afraid of choppy seas. Your four years here have given you great souls. Let them be unleashed! God bless you all.
Receive Thomas Aquinas College
lectures and talks via podcast!