The study of Sacred Scripture, which you freshmen will undertake this year, is an integral and very important part of Catholic liberal education, and this for a number of reasons.
Scripture and the Church’s tradition provide the principles for the study of theology, the science toward which our program is ordered. These principles will be important as your study of theology continues in the Sophomore Year, when you will read some of the magisterial works of the principal Fathers of the Church, and in the Junior and Senior Years, when you will undertake the truly scientific study of theology by carefully reading and discussing the Summa Theologiae of the Church’s Universal Doctor, and the College’s patron, St. Thomas Aquinas.
The study of Scripture will help you become more familiar with its contents and with the unity and coherence of the Old and New Testaments. It will help you see, too, the myriad ways in which what is contained in the Old Testament prefigures and is fulfilled by what is contained in the New. Commenting on the importance of this, then-Cardinal Ratzinger noted in 1986 that this unified way of looking at Scripture is a far cry from “the new historical thinking [which] wants to read every text in itself, in its bare literalness. Such thinking is interested only in the exact explanation of particulars, but forgets the Bible as a whole and tends to no longer read the texts forward but backward — that is, with a view not to Christ but to the probable origins of those texts.”
A close reading of Scripture will help you cultivate a sense of wonder about theological matters, a sense which is a precondition for the successful pursuit of Catholic liberal education. It will encourage you to piously question and examine the Biblical text in the way that the greatest commentators, like St. Augustine and St. Thomas, do.
Finally, and most importantly, the study of Scripture will deepen your knowledge and love of God and strengthen your personal relationship with Christ. This will bear fruit in your sacramental and prayer life, which is the ultimate goal of your education and the best preparation for the evangelical work to which you will be called after your graduation.
A discussion of Scripture should make reference to its contents, and countless examples could be given of the timeliness and profundity of Scripture’s teachings. Consider just a few from the Book of Genesis, which you freshmen will soon read. For a variety of philosophical, scientific, and cultural reasons, we live in a time where the idea of the dependence of nature on Another is considered outdated and passé. Nature is thought to be an eternal, self-sustaining system — its processes may have begun with a “big bang,” but any question about the origin and materials of the “big bang” itself are off the table since they are beyond the reach of modern science.
Genesis steps in precisely where science leaves off and provides an account of the ultimate origin and fundamental order of the natural world. It is an account, however, which in its own way greatly respects the presence and integrity of natural processes themselves — e.g., “let the waters bring forth,” “let the earth bring forth,” “God formed man of dust from the ground” — leaving room for science to provide details about those processes; perhaps divinely guided evolution, perhaps something else.
Of particular relevance to the moral relativism of our time, Genesis reminds us of the existence of moral standards and principles. Certain things ought not be done because doing them is contrary to our well-being and to the common good — “you shall not eat of it lest you die.” Violations of these moral standards and principles occur — sin is real — and, although we might blame others — “she gave me fruit,” “the serpent beguiled me” — we bear responsibility: “I ate.” In Cardinal Ratzinger’s words, there is a “relational” character to human sin which Scripture makes evident — our actions affect others: “she gave some to her husband,” and as St. Thomas’s commentary on the Scriptural account of the fall reminds us, sin has its origin in the inward motions of the soul, and one sin leads to another.
This is a cautionary tale, indeed, but one that reminds us in no uncertain terms about the human condition. Hope, thank goodness, is offered — “I will put enmity between you and the woman,” and knowing the arc of Scripture as we do, we know the tale is ordered to our redemption — “O happy fault, O necessary sin of Adam.” We must know we are sick before we can accept a cure.
In citing these examples, I in no way mean to preempt the conversations you will soon have on these texts or prejudge the conclusions you will reach. Your conversations might very well go in different directions. Indeed, when contemplating Scripture it is important to imitate not only the great humility with which St. Augustine and St. Thomas approach the texts but also the trust they have that in the text itself they can find the makings of the answers to their many questions. An attitude of respect is evident in St. Augustine’s Unfinished Literal Commentary on Genesis, when he says “the obscure mysteries of the natural order, which we perceive to have been made by God the almighty craftsman, should rather be discussed by asking questions than by making affirmations … because the rash assertion of one’s uncertain and dubious opinions in dealing with them can scarcely avoid the charge of sacrilege.”
As you embark on the study of theology with your own humble and confident reading of Holy Scripture, you will come to see for yourselves one of the great principles of Catholic liberal education — viz., that faith really does seek understanding. While the mysteries revealed in Scripture do exceed reason and are in many ways incomprehensible to us, St. Thomas is right when he says that belief in these mysteries is supported by fitting arguments and evidence, that it is useful for human reason to exercise itself in arguments about things which exceed reason (“gathering likenesses” about them, as he says), and that, in the final analysis, there can be no opposition between faith and reason because God, Who cannot contradict Himself, is Truth and the author of all truth, whether of faith or reason. This is why we can trust St. Thomas when he says that all arguments against the faith are incorrect and can be answered.
Developing confidence in the harmony between faith and reason, and cultivating a robust sense of the reasons for the hope that is within us, are vitally important for Catholics in the aggressively secular world in which we find ourselves today. We hope that for you sophomores, juniors, and seniors this is gradually becoming second nature. For you freshmen, this is one of the great storylines of the adventure you are about to begin.