Genuine Catholic Education
and its Power to Transform Our Culture
By His Eminence Raymond Cardinal Burke
Patron of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta
Thomas Aquinas College
January 16, 2016
Thank you very much. I am deeply moved, and thank you, Dr. McLean, for your most gracious introduction. It really pleases me greatly to address you this evening as a means of manifesting once again my profound esteem for the Catholic higher education which is imparted at Thomas Aquinas College. It has been my privilege to know the work of the College for many years now and to witness how it remains ever faithful to its Catholic identity.
I speak of Catholic education as a complete education, that is, the development of reason through the competent imparting of knowledge and skills within the context of the Faith, that is within the context of the study of God and of His plan for us in our world as He has revealed Himself and His plan to us — and therefore the development of faith. Pope Pius XI, in his encyclical letter Divini Illius Magistri, described a Catholic or Christian education with these words:
The proper and immediate end of Christian education is to cooperate with divine grace in forming the true and perfect Christian, that is, to form Christ Himself in those regenerated by Baptism, according to the emphatic expression of the Apostle: “My little children, of whom I am in labor again, until Christ be formed in you.” For the true Christian must live a supernatural life in Christ: “Christ who is your life,” and display it in all his actions: “That the life also of Jesus may be made manifest in our mortal flesh.”
For precisely this reason, Christian education 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 it, in accordance with the example and teaching of Christ.
Hence the true Christian, product of Christian education, is the supernatural man who thinks, judges and acts constantly and consistently in accordance with right reason illumined by the supernatural light of the example and teaching of Christ; in other words, to use the current term, the true and finished man of character. For, it is not every kind of consistency and firmness of conduct based on subjective principles that makes true character, but only constancy in following the eternal principles of justice, as is admitted even by the pagan poet when he praises as one and the same “the man who is just and firm of purpose.” And on the other hand, there cannot be full justice except in giving to God what is due to God, as the true Christian does.
In my regular contact with Thomas Aquinas College I have always been most deeply impressed by the tireless effort to impart just such a complete education. It is only such a complete education which can transform our culture. I have been witness to how graduates of Thomas Aquinas College are effective, joyous, and courageous agents of the transformation of culture in their homes and in their various areas of endeavor.
Addressing you this evening I wish to express my deepest esteem for Dr. Michael McLean, the president; for the tutors, the administrative staff; the Board of Governors; the benefactors; and for all who are dedicated to the work of Thomas Aquinas College. It is my hope that my presence and words may in some small way contribute to the continued and increased inspiration and strength of a work which is essential to the transformation of our culture.
First I will set the context of education today, the situation of the world in our time, and the Christian response to it. Second I will address the family as the first place of education and its relationship with the school. Finally I will address the irreplaceable service of education for the transformation of our culture through the development of a listening heart in students.
The Christian in the World Today
As Christians today we find ourselves in a completely secularized society. Pope St. John Paul II in his teaching on the mission of the lay faithful in the world reminded us, in an unmistakable manner, that many today, even in what were once Christian countries, live as though they have no relationship with God and no knowledge of His plan for us and for our world. To remedy the situation, the saintly pontiff observed, “a mending of the Christian fabric of society is urgently needed in all parts of the world.” He hastened to add that if the remedy is to be achieved, the Church herself must be evangelized anew.
Fundamental to understanding the radical secularization of our culture is to understand also how much the secularization has also entered into the life of the Church. In the words of Pope John Paul II, “But for this mending of the Christian fabric of society to come about, what is needed is to first remake the Christian fabric of the ecclesial community itself present in these countries and nations.”
In a similar vein, Pope Benedict XVI in his 2010 Christmas Address to the Roman curia, reflecting on the grave evils which are destroying us as individuals and as a society, and which have generated a culture deeply marred by violence and death, described a relativism in contemporary moral theology called proportionalism or consequentialism, which has generated profound confusion and outright errors regarding the most fundamental truths of the moral law. It has led to a situation which, in his words, “morality is replaced by a calculus of consequences, and in the process, it ceases to exist.”
If, therefore, the irreplaceable moral order, which is the way of our freedom and happiness, is to be restored, we must address with clarity and steadfastness the error of moral relativism, proportionalism, and consequentialism, which permeates our culture and has also entered, as Pope Benedict XVI reminded us, into the Church.
To confront this ideology, Pope Benedict XVI urged a new study to he teaching of Pope John Paul II, his predecessor, in his encyclical letter Veritatis Splendor, on the fundamentals of the Church’s moral teaching. In Veritatis Splendor, Pope John Paul II, in the words of Pope Benedict XVI, “indicated with prophetic force, in the great rational tradition of Christian ethos, the essential and permanent of foundations of moral action.” Reminding Catholics of the need of man to form his conscience in accord with the moral teaching of the Church, he also reminded them of our responsibility to make these criteria — the essential and permanent foundation of moral action — audible and intelligible once more for people today as paths of true humanity in the context of our paramount concern for mankind.
The Christian life, if lived with integrity today, is necessarily countercultural. As Pope John Paul II so frequently reminded us, Christians today are called to a new evangelization of culture. The situation can thus be described: The Gospel has been proclaimed and taken deep root in Christian countries, but then has been forgotten and abandoned, The forgetfulness leads to a hostile reaction when the truth of the Gospel is once again proclaimed. The Faith no longer has deep roots in the lives of the successive generations. What is needed, then, is a new evangelization of society and culture which, in fact, can no longer be considered Christian. The Christian faith in its practice must be imparted anew as if for the first time, as it was during the first Christian centuries and at the time of the evangelization of our native land. The Christian character of the culture is no longer a given, even though it may have been so for centuries.
We must respond today with ever greater enthusiasm and engagement to Our Lord’s command at His Ascension, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations.” Before the challenges of living the Faith in our time, Pope John Paul II recalled to our minds the urgency of Christ’s mandate given to the first disciples and given no less to missionaries down the Christian centuries and to us today. He declared, “Certainly the command of Jesus: ‘Go and preach the Gospel’ always maintains its vital value and its ever-pressing obligation. Nevertheless, the present situation, not only of the world but also of many parts of the Church, absolutely demands that the word of Christ receive a more ready and generous obedience. Every disciple is personally called by name; no disciple can withhold making a response: ‘Woe to me, if I do not preach the gospel’ (1 Cor. 9:16).”
The obedience which is fundamental and essential to a new evangelization, the obedience to the Word of Christ, is also a virtue acquired with great difficulty in a culture which exalts individualism and questions all authority except the self. Yet it is indispensable if the Gospel is to be taught and lived in our time. We take example from the first disciples, from the first missionaries to our native places, and from the host of saintly brethren who have given themselves completely to Christ through the Christian centuries, calling upon the help and guidance of the Holy Spirit to purify themselves of any rebellion before God’s will, and to strengthen them to do God’s will in all things. Before the great challenge of living the Christian faith today, we with them draw courage from the promise with which Our Lord concluded His missionary mandate, “Lo I am with you always, until the close of the age.”
The Fundamental Service of the Family in the Transformation of Culture
The great challenge which confronts the whole church confronts in particular the Church in the first cell of her life, the family. It is the challenge which Pope John Paul II described in his apostolic letter Novo Millennio Ineunte at the close of the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000. He described it as “the high standard of ordinary Christian living.” Pope John Paul II taught us the extraordinary nature of our ordinary life because it is lived in Christ and therefore produces in us the incomparable beauty of holiness. He declared, “The ways of holiness are many, according to the vocation of each individual. I thank the Lord that in these years he has enabled me to beatify and canonize a large number of Christians, and among them many lay people who attained holiness in the most ordinary circumstances of life. The time has come to re-propose wholeheartedly to everyone this high standard of ordinary Christian living: the whole life of the Christian community and of Christian families must lead in this direction.”
Seeing in Christian families the fruit of the daily conversion of life to Christ, by which the family members strive to meet the high standard of ordinary Christian living, the culture will discover the great mystery of ordinary life upon which God daily showers His ceaseless and immeasurable love. Clearly the mending of the Christian fabric of society can only come about by the remaking of the Christian fabric of the ecclesial community, beginning with the individual in his family at home.
Pope John Paul II taught us clearly that the way to meet the challenge of the high standard of ordinary Christian living is found in the Gospel and in the living tradition. He reminded us that it is the same program of Christian living as it has always been in the Church, the program of holiness of life.
Regarding Christian marriage and the family and the call to evangelization, in his 1981 post-synodal apostolic exhortation on the family, Familiaris Consortio, he declared that “the Christian family, in fact, is the first community called to announce the Gospel to the human person during growth and to bring him or her, through a progressive education and catechesis, to full human and Christian maturity.” Christian education, in the family and in the school, introduces children and young people in an ever-more profound way into the tradition, into the great gift of our life in Christ and the Church, handed down to us faithfully in an unbroken line by the Apostles and their successors.
Education, if it is to be sound — that is for the good of the individual and society — must be especially attentive to arm itself against the errors of secularism and relativism, lest it fail to communicate to the succeeding generations the truth, beauty, and goodness of our life and our world as they are expressed in the unchanging teaching of the Faith in its highest expression by means of prayer, devotion, and divine worship, and in the holiness of life of those who profess the Faith and worship God in spirit and truth.
Noting the multiple and grievous attacks on marriage and the family in our time, Pope John Paul II stressed the importance of witnessing to the truth about marriage and the family so that the family may evangelize the whole of society. He declared, “At a moment of history in which the family is the object of numerous forces that seek to destroy it or in some way to deform it, and aware that the well-being of society and her own good are intimately tied to the good of the family, the Church perceives in a more urgent and compelling way her mission of proclaiming to all people the plan of God for marriage and the family, ensuring their full vitality and human and Christian development, and thus contributing to the renewal of society and of the People of God.”
Recognizing the irreplaceable, evangelizing power of society and the whole of society, the Church is even more impelled to devote herself to safeguarding and fostering the truth of married and family life. In our Christian witness and apostolate, we must give special attention to the sanctity of marriage, to the fidelity, indissolubility, and procreativity of the marital union. A truly Christian home is necessarily a sign of contradiction in today’s society. We must, therefore, inspire courage in Christian couples to give the witness to the truth about marriage and family, which our culture so sorely needs. We must help Christian homes to be the domestic church according to the ancient description, “the first place in which the Catholic faith is taught, celebrated, and lived.”
The whole Church must help parents to live generously and faithfully their vocation to the married life. We must be especially attentive to families who are in trouble, so that even in their suffering, they may enjoy the graces of unity and peace of the Holy Family of Nazareth. We see, in fact, in an unmistakable way, the evangelizing power of marriage and the family and the primary duty of parents — to educating their children, helping them to know their vocation in life, and to embrace it with an undivided heart. The fundamental evangelizing power of parents, in what pertains to the vocation to the married life, is particularly evident.
The fundamental locus of the proclamation of the Gospel of Life is the family, in which the children witness the Gospel in the relationship of their parents with one another and in the relationship of the parents with them. Such witness pertains not only to the beginning of human life — and the correct understanding of human sexuality — but also to the end of life and the acceptance of human suffering as the way of unconditional love of others, in accord with the teaching of the lord, which St. Paul articulated in the Letter to the Colossians.
The Gospel of Life is integral to the spiritual worship at the heart of the family. Lifting up their hearts to the heart of God, parents and children are purified and strengthened to live their relationships with each other in pure and selfless love. Pope John Paul II made this clear in his encyclical letter on the Gospel of Life, Evangelium Vitae, declaring, “As part of the spiritual worship acceptable to God (cf. Rom 12:1), the Gospel of life is to be celebrated above all in daily living, which should be filled with self-giving love for others. In this way, our lives will become a genuine and responsible acceptance of the gift of life and a heartfelt song of praise and gratitude to God who has given us this gift.”
This is already happening in the many difficult acts of selfless generosity, often humble and hidden, carried out by men and women, children and adults, the young and the old, the healthy and the sick. In this regard it is important to make clear the relationship between the New Evangelization regarding human life and the practice of the virtues of purity, chastity, and modesty — those virtues which permit us to love in a pure and selfless manner. Respect for human life is related essentially to respect for the integrity of marriage and the family. The restoration of respect for the integrity of the conjugal act is essential to the future of Western culture, the advancement of a culture of life. In the words of Benedict XVI, “It is thus becoming a social and even economic necessity once more to hold up to future generations the beauty of marriage and the family, and the fact that these institutions correspond to the deepest needs and dignity of the person.”
In our society, there is a confusion about the meaning of human sexuality which is reaping a harvest of profound personal unhappiness, often to the point of the breakdown of the family, of the corruption of children and young people, and ultimately of self-destruction. Disordered sexual activity, sexual activity outside of marriage, and the constant and potent false messages about who we are as man and woman — served up by the communications media — are the signs of a desperate need for a new evangelization. We must witness to the distinct gifts of man and woman, to be placed at the service of God and His holy people through a chaste life.
Christian marriage is the primary locus of that critical witness. Through sound family life our society will be transformed. Without sound family life it will never be transformed.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us that the so-called moral permissiveness rests on an erroneous conception of human freedom, and that the necessary precondition for the development of true freedom is to let oneself be educated in the moral law. As is clear from the above considerations, individual freedom and the freedom of society in general depend upon a fundamental education in the truth about human sexuality and the exercise of that truth in a pure and chaste life.
The Catechism of the Church goes on to observe, “Those in charge of education can reasonably be expected to give young people instruction respectful of the truth, the qualities of the heart, and the moral and spiritual dignity of man.” For the Christian this entails education and holiness of life and in the respect owed to the inviolable dignity of self, body and soul, and of others as oneself. Such education must first take place in the family and then be sustained in the institutions which work with parents for the Christian education of their children.
I must observe here that I am constantly impressed and really deeply moved to meet so many families that are close to this college, where the parents were educated here, and then they have had numerous children educated here, all seeking this formation in Christ, this coming to maturity in Christ, which then permits us to give a true service of the family and then the whole of society.
The Irreplaceable Place of Education in Forming a “Listening Heart”
For the sake of our young people, we must give particular attention to the fundamental expression of our culture, which is education. Good parents and good citizens must be attentive to the curriculum which schools are following and to the life in the schools, in order to assure that our children and young people are being formed in the human and Christian virtues, and are not being deformed by indoctrination and the confusion and error concerning the most fundamental truths of human life and of the family, which will lead to their slavery to sin and, therefore, profound unhappiness, and to the destruction of culture.
Today, for example, we sadly find the need to speak about “traditional marriage,” as if there were another kind of marriage. There is only one kind of marriage, Yes, it is “traditional.” It’s marriage as God has given it to us, a great gift to us, at the Creation, and as Christ has redeemed it by His saving passion and death. Tomorrow we will hear in the Gospel for the second Sunday of the year an account of the Wedding Feats at Cana, a particular sign of Christ of the blessing of the married life at His coming into the world.
At the heart of a solid curriculum is both respect for the dignity of the human person and for the tradition of beauty, truth, and goodness in the arts and the sciences. So often today, a notion of tolerance of ways of thinking and acting, contrary to the moral law, seems to be the interpretative key for many Christians. According to this approach, one can no longer distinguish between the beautiful and the ugly, the true and the false, the good and the evil. The approach is not securely grounded in the moral tradition, yet it tends to dominate our approach to the extent that we end up claiming to be Christian while tolerating ways of thinking and acting which are diametrically opposed to the moral law revealed to us in nature and in the Church’s teaching, especially the Sacred Scriptures.
The approach at times at time becomes so relativistic and subjective that we do not even observe the fundamental logical principle of non-contradiction, that is, that a thing cannot both be and not be at the same time,. In other words, certain actions cannot at the same time be both true to the moral law and not true to it. In fact, charity alone must be the interpretative key to our thoughts and actions. In the context of charity, tolerance means unconditional love of the person who is involved in evil, but firm abhorrence of the evil into which the person has fallen. All education should be directed to forming the students in the charity by which the mind and heart respond to the beautiful, the true, and the good as God has created us to do.
Fundamental to the Catholic life of virtue is the understanding of human nature and conscience. At the heart of the deplorable cultural situation in which we find ourselves is the loss of the sense of nature and of conscience. Pope Benedict XVI addressed the question with respect to the foundations of law in his address to the Bundestag during his pastoral visit to Germany in September 2011. Taking leave from the story of the young King Solomon on his succession to the throne, he recalled to political leaders the teaching of the Holy Scriptures regarding the work of politics. God asked King Solomon what request he wished to make as he began to rule God’s holy people. The Holy Father commented, “What will the young ruler ask for at this important moment? Success – wealth – long life – destruction of his enemies? He chooses none of these things. Instead, he asks for a listening heart so that he may govern God’s people, and discern between good and evil (cf. 1 Kings 3:9).”
The story of King Solomon as, Pope Benedict XVI observed, teaches what must be the end of political activity and therefore of government. He declared, “Politics must be a striving for justice, and hence it has to establish the fundamental preconditions for peace.… To serve right and to fight against the dominion of wrong is and remains the fundamental task of the politician.”
Pope Benedict XVI then asked how we know the good and right, which the political order, and specifically the law, are to safeguard and promote. While he acknowledged that, in many matters, the support of the majority can serve as a sufficient criterion, he observed that such a principle is not sufficient for the fundamental issues of law, in which the dignity of man and of humanity is at stake. Regarding the very foundations of the life of society, positive civil law must respect nature and reason as the true sources of law. In other words, one must have recourse to the natural moral law which God has inscribed upon every human heart.
Referring to a text of St. Paul’s letter to the Romans regarding the natural moral law and its primary witness, the conscience, Pope Benedict XVI declared, “Here we see the two fundamental concepts of nature and conscience, where conscience is nothing other than Solomon’s listening heart, reason that is open to the language of being.”
Further illustrating the sources of law in nature and reason by making reference to the popular interest in ecology as a means of respecting nature, he observed, “Yet I would like to underline a point that seems to me to be neglected, today as in the past: there is also an ecology of man. Man too has a nature that he must respect and that he cannot manipulate at will. Man is not merely self-creating freedom. Man does not create himself. He is intellect and will, but he is also nature, and his will is rightly ordered if he respects his nature, listens to it and accepts himself for who he is, as one who did not create himself. In this way, and in no other, is true human freedom fulfilled.”
Reflecting upon European culture, which developed from the encounter of Jerusalem, Athens, and Rome — from Israel’s faith in God, from the philosophical reason of the Greeks, and from Roman legal thought — he concluded, “In the awareness of man’s responsibility before God and in the acknowledgment of the inviolable dignity of every single human person, [European culture] has established criteria of law: it is these criteria that we are called to defend at this moment in our history.”
While Pope Benedict XVI’s reflection is inspired by a concern for the state of law in the European culture, his conclusions regarding the foundations of law — and therefore of order in society — are clearly universal in application. What Pope Benedict XVI observed regarding the foundations of law and the concepts of nature and conscience points to the fundamental work of education, namely to develop in students a listening heart, which strives to know the law of God and to respect it by development in the life of the virtues. The arts and the sciences are most fully taught to students within the context of the divine order, in which the same arts and sciences ponder and express.
Essentially connected with the discussion of the natural moral law is the correct understanding of conscience. It is the conscience, the voice of God speaking to souls, which is, in the words of Bl. John Henry Cardinal Newman, “the aboriginal vicar of Christ.” As such the conscience is ever attuned to Christ Himself, who instructs and informs it through His vicar, the Roman Pontiff, and the bishops in communion with the Roman Pontiff. Bl. Cardinal Newman observed that conscience “is a messenger of Him, who, both in nature and in grace, speaks to us behind a veil, and teaches and rules us by His representatives.”
Today one must be attentive to a false notion of conscience which would actually use the conscience to justify gravely sinful acts. In his 2010 Christmas Address to the Roman curia, Pope Benedict XVI reflected at some length on the notion of conscience in the writings of Bl. John Henry Cardinal Newman, contrasting it with a false notion of conscience which is pervasive in our time. He described the Church’s fundamental understanding of conscience as faithfully and brilliant taught by the Blessed Carinal Newman, with these words:
In modern thinking, the word “conscience” signifies that for moral and religious questions, it is the subjective dimension, the individual, that constitutes the final authority for decision. The world is divided into the realms of the objective and the subjective. To the objective realm belong things that can be calculated and verified by experiment. Religion and morals fall outside the scope of these methods and are therefore considered to lie within the subjective realm. Here, it is said, there are in the final analysis no objective criteria. The ultimate instance that can decide here is therefore the subject alone, and precisely this is what the word “conscience” expresses: in this realm only the individual, with his intuitions and experiences, can decide.
That is the understanding of conscience in modern thinking:
Newman’s understanding of conscience is diametrically opposed to this. For him, “conscience” means man’s capacity for truth: the capacity to recognize precisely in the decision-making areas of his life — religion and morals — a truth, the truth. At the same time, conscience — man’s capacity to recognize truth – thereby imposes on him the obligation to set out along the path towards truth, to seek it and to submit to it wherever he finds it. Conscience is both capacity for truth and obedience to the truth which manifests itself to anyone who seeks it with an open heart.
Conscience, therefore, does not set individuals apart from one another as arbiters of what is right and good, but in fact unites them in the pursuit of the one truth — ultimately, Our Lord Jesus Christ, Who is the only arbiter of the right and good — so that their thoughts, words, and actions, put that truth into practice.
Education — which takes place first in the home and is enriched and supplemented by truly Catholic institutions of education, Catholic schools — is directed fundamentally to the formation of good citizens and good members of the Church. Ultimately it is directed to the happiness of the individual, which is found in right relationships and has its fulfillment in eternal life. It presupposes the objective nature of things, to which the human heart is directed, if it is trained to be a listening heart. It seeks an ever-deeper knowledge of the true, the good, and the beautiful. It forms the individual to this fundamental pursuit throughout his or her lifetime.
In proposing these reflections tonight, I have wanted to honor what I know to be the truly Catholic education imparted at Thomas Aquinas College. At the same time, I have wanted to encourage, as much as I am able, all who are committed to the educational mission of the College, and thus to the transformation of our culture. May God inspire and strengthen all at Thomas Aquinas College in the work of forming listening hearts in the students who are the hope of our future.
Thank you for you kind attention. May God bless you all, and please, in your kindness, remember me in your prayers.