The Challenges Our Children Face
We know well that Catholic education is more needed today in our culture than at any other time. Our young people are facing challenges of secularism, materialism, and relativism as never before. A recent study (the PEW Forum’s Religious Landscape) has shown that the rate of unbelief among our young people is increasing at one percent per year – having moved from 25% to 35% declared unbelievers in only 10 years. If we continue at this rate, we will have more unbelievers than believers among our young people in just 15 years.
As St John Paul II and Pope Benedict affirmed, a decline of religion and belief leads to an increase in materialism and ethical relativism. This will have significant negative consequences for the next generation of students – and the culture they will create. Though our young people are very good-willed and have a desire to help others and to be of service, their good hearts need ideas and ideals that will help guide and affirm them in the faith, ethics, justice, service, and leadership. Catholic educators can see the challenges their students face, and the greater challenges awaiting them in collegiate and professional environments beyond secondary school. Catholic educators are aware of the power of ideas, and how a materialistic view of human beings can lead to a gross underestimation of our individual and collective dignity and destiny. The decline of the idea of transcendence can lead to a view of others as mere atoms or molecules, and how this materialistic perspective can cause us to underestimate the dignity of every human being. You can see how this minimalistic view of the human person can cause us to under-live our lives, underreach our potential, and undervalue one another. When our transcendent dignity disappears, we are no longer mysteries, but mere problems – mere units of production or consumption or behavior instead of uniquely good and lovable beings made in the image and likeness of God. History is filled with examples of how such materialistic perspectives lead to bias, marginalization, abuse, and even genocide.
It is not my intention here to emphasize the negative or to exaggerate the challenges that educators face. I point to the cultural situation of our young people only because they are so influenced by it – not only in traditional media, but also in new media and instant communication. If Catholic schools and catechism programs do not play a major role in stemming the tide of these negative developments, our children will face even greater significant challenges to maintain their faith, morals, and ideals.
This past 13 February the Holy Father addressed the Congregation for Catholic Education. He said: “Catholic education is one of the most important challenges for the Church, currently committed to new evangelization in an historical and cultural context that is undergoing constant transformation”. Pope Francis proposed three aspects for consideration by the participants: first, the value of dialogue in education; second, the qualified preparation of formators; and third, the responsibility of educational institutions to express the living presence of the Gospel in the fields of education, science and culture. In light of all this, I am now asking educators to come together to discuss creative solutions to help students face five significant challenges from today’s culture:
1. The challenge of the false dichotomy between faith and reason, particularly the false dichotomy between faith and science.
The Church has always provided a remarkable synthesis between faith, reason, and the natural sciences. Nicolaus Copernicus, the founder of heliocentrism, was a minor cleric in the Church. Gregor Mendel, the founder of genetics, was an Augustinian monk and abbot; Nicholas Steno, the father of contemporary stratigraphy and geology, was a Catholic bishop; and Georges Lemaitre, who formulated the Big Bang theory, was a Belgian priest and well acquainted with Albert Einstein.
When I was in Rome I followed with great interest the activities of the Vatican Observatory in Castel Gondolfo, and very recently I was a witness of how the Jesuit scientists at the University of Arizona dedicated themselves to the study of astronomy at the Mount Graham Observatory. They brought me to visit the Vatican telescope and the mirror laboratory of the University of Arizona. I was very much impressed by the scientific work of the Jesuit Fathers and the high regard in which they are held within the milieu of the scientists and students of the University.
It should also be mentioned that since 1603 there was established by the popes the Pontifical Academy of the Sciences, which started under the name of Linceorum Academia.
Many of our students labor under the assumption that since faith and science are contradictory, and science is truth, then faith must be a fantasy. There is considerable evidence today from the world’s leading physicists and biologists that shows precisely the opposite. On this particular subject I just recently had the opportunity to participate in a Conference at Notre Dame University where distinguished professors especially competent in the history of science made very evident the great contributions of Churchmen to the progress of the sciences. In view of this relation of faith and science I ask you to find resources that give this evidence to students in an accessible and interesting way.
2. The challenge of moral relativism, particularly the loss of virtue and principles within our culture.
Since the time of St Augustine, the Church provided a remarkable synthesis of virtue, principles, and the natural law, which formed the basis of contemporary individual and social ethics. Unfortunately, these great foundations of ethics – conscience, virtue, and principles – have been summarily ignored, and replaced with a harms-benefits calculus of utilitarianism, and because of this, our young people are left without an interior foundation for ethics.
3. The challenge of suffering and evil.
So many of our young people today are sensitized to suffering not only in their own lives, but in the lives of their friends and even the world. Like every other generation, they ask themselves, “Why would a good and loving God allow this suffering? Why did He create us in an imperfect world?”. The Church has provided throughout the centuries, a response to this question, by integrating the themes of human freedom and love. It reveals how love requires freedom, and how freedom opens the possibility of unloving and evil actions. It has used the teachings of St Paul to show how humility, compassion, virtue, and interdependence can arise out of suffering, and how these four qualities form the pathway to love. Yet these profound answers are being covered over by a culture of immediate gratification, entitlement, and hyperindulgence. Our children are frequently surprised and even shocked by suffering, because they do not expect it and they are not prepared to find the good in it.
4. The challenge of the culture of death.
St John Paul II articulated this challenge within the context of abortion, active euthanasia, and capital punishment. But the Church has been concerned with it throughout its existence, particularly to defend the life and liberty of every human being – particularly the weak, marginalized, vulnerable, and defenseless. St John Paul II did not do anything unusual – he simply took the principles of intrinsic dignity, inalienable rights formulated by the Church throughout its history, and in particular, those regarding universal natural rights, which formed the basis for the international codes of human rights that led ultimately to the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and applied them to the unborn, the elderly, the disabled, and capital criminals. He realized that if these principles are ignored in the life issues, they are likely to be ignored in every other issue, leading ultimately to the culture of death – which is blind to the inherent goodness, lovability, and mystery of every human being.
5. The challenge of social injustice and Globalization
St Augustine established the fundamental principle of social justice in his work, Free Choice of the Will, by showing that justice is higher than the positive law, and when the positive law contradicts the dictates of justice, it is unjust, and no unjust law need be obeyed. This principle has been quoted by virtually every major political thinker, including Thomas Jefferson, Martin Luther King, and Gandhi, and has inspired the major social encyclicals from Rerum Novarum of Pope Leo XIII (1891), even to the present day in the Apostolic Letter of Pope Francis’ The Joy of the Gospel.
Today our young people face increasing economic disparity both nationally and internationally, and must fight a cultural elitism and privilege that makes them indifferent to the plight of the poor.
I do not have the answer on how to address these five major cultural challenges in our educational institutions, the traditional media, the new media, or even the public square. I do know, however, that there are scholars within the Catholic Church who are responding to these challenges, and there are new movements which are trying to make these contemporary responses accessible and available to educators. I know how much these educators already give of themselves to meet the many needs of our young people, and so I ask that they in all humility to come together around the theme of the New Evangelization to respond to these cultural challenges. Let us investigate the resources that are available, share those resources with one another, help one another to implement them, and use our collective creativity to make them interesting so that our young people can be transformed into the men and women Christ called them to be. This will enable them to become effective leaders within the culture and light for the world.
© Libreria Editrice Vaticana 2014
This item 10576 digitally provided courtesy of CatholicCulture.org