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Pope to Catholic Educators: Moral Formation

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Apr 18, 2008

My title for this summary and analysis of the Pope’s address to American educators deliberately mimics the title I used for my review of his address to the U.S. bishops. Though the title carries a slight risk of oversimplification, it is true that if you understood the Pope’s emphasis on moral formation to the assembled bishops on Wednesday, you will pretty much know what he said to the four hundred Catholic educators at Catholic University of America on Thursday. Once again, Benedict wants to reforge the links between learning and life, faith and action, truth and the good.

The Holy Father’s emphasis on integral Christian formation was very clear in his address to the bishops (see Pope to American Bishops: Moral Formation). That theme was continued in his address to educators as he reflected on what is particular to Catholic educational institutions. He began his reflection with a central assertion: “All the Church’s activities stem from her awareness that she is the bearer of a message which has its origin in God Himself: in his goodness and wisdom, God chose to reveal Himself and to make known the hidden purpose of His will.” Note the immediate moral dimension in this connection between wisdom and will, truth and goodness. Benedict explained:

A university or school’s Catholic identity is not simply a question of the number of Catholic students. It is a question of conviction—do we really believe that only in the mystery of the Word made flesh does the mystery of man truly become clear? Are we ready to commit our entire self—intellect and will, mind and heart—to God? Do we accept the truth Christ reveals? Is the faith tangible in our universities and schools? Is it given fervent expression liturgically, sacramentally, through prayer, acts of charity, a concern for justice, and respect for God’s creation? Only in this way do we really bear witness to the meaning of who we are and what we uphold.

Having raised this question of conviction, Benedict turned his attention to what he sees as the chief deficiency of contemporary Catholic education:

While we have sought diligently to engage the intellect of our young, perhaps we have neglected the will. Subsequently we observe, with distress, the notion of freedom being distorted. Freedom is not an opting out. It is an opting in—a participation in Being itself. Hence authentic freedom can never be attained by turning away from God. Such a choice would ultimately disregard the very truth we need in order to understand ourselves.

The solution proposed by the Holy Father is for Catholic educators to insist on the unity of faith and truth in the face of secularism, which separates the two. As a result of this separation, truth is equated with knowledge, metaphysics is rejected, the foundations of faith are denied, and the need for a moral vision is rejected. To correct this, a Catholic educational institution must understand that “truth means more than knowledge: knowing the truth leads us to discover the good.” Unfortunately, Benedict noted, “we observe today a timidity in the face of the category of the good and an aimless pursuit of novelty parading as the realization of freedom.”

Instead, Christian educators need to respond with what the Pope calls “intellectual charity”:

The dignity of education lies in fostering the true perfection and happiness of those to be educated. In practice, “intellectual charity” upholds the essential unity of knowledge against the fragmentation which ensues when reason is detached from the pursuit of truth. It guides the young towards the deep satisfaction of exercising freedom in relation to truth, and it strives to articulate the relationship between faith and all aspects of family and civic life. Once their passion for the fullness and unity of truth has been awakened, young people will surely relish the discovery that the question of what they can know opens up the vast adventure of what they ought to do.

The Pope concluded his remarks by insisting that as part of this mission of uniting truth and freedom, teachers and administrators have the specific duty of ensuring that students receive instruction in Catholic doctrine and practice. But this goes beyond mere academic exercises. He insisted that public witness to Christ, “as found in the Gospel and upheld by the Church’s Magisterium”, must shape the entirety of institutional life, both inside and outside the classroom. He emphasized that “divergence from this vision weakens Catholic identity and, far from advancing freedom, inevitably leads to confusion, whether moral, intellectual or spiritual.”

Thus does Benedict XVI contemplate the Humpty Dumpty of American Catholic higher education. The key to putting it back together again—just as he told our bishops—is to recognize the inescapable unity of truth and goodness which lies at the heart of authentic Catholic intellectual life.

[For the Holy Father’s complete address, see Freedom Is Not an Opting Out, it Is an Opting In.]

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