By Msgr. Anthony R. Frontiero, who is an IHE Fellow and a faculty member of the new MA in Human Rights. He is a former Diplomatic Attaché to the Holy See Mission to the United Nations and currently serves as Vice Rector and Director of Human Formation at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, Maryland.
In his book Leading a Worthy Life: Finding Meaning in Modern Times (2017), Leon R. Kass asserts that, when it comes to education:
“It would seem to require, at the very least, that we understand not merely our individual peculiarities but also our shared nature as human beings; not only who, but what are we human beings? It means asking questions about the relation between our nature and our culture—not only in its variety as the plurality of cultures, but also in its universality, everywhere shaping human life with rituals and customs governing birth and death, language and song, marriage and education, justice and duty, and beliefs about the divine…The charge to self-knowledge is admittedly a tall order. Nevertheless, thoughtfulness about what we are includes thoughtfulness about what we can and should become. The quest for self-knowledge, for an answer to the question, “What is man?” embraces further questions: “What is a good person? What is a good life for human beings? What is a good community and a good citizen?” 1.
In an age of identity politics and amidst the confusions and divisions that abound, the ongoing conversation around on the purpose of education and formation, particularly in the Catholic tradition, seems to be ever more important. Pope Francis has said, “Education cannot be neutral. It is either positive or negative; either it enriches or it impoverishes; either it enables a person to grow or it lessens, even corrupts him. The mission of schools is to develop a sense of truth, of what is good and beautiful.” 2.
Some years ago, Monika Hellwig articulated an apt description of the Catholic intellectual tradition which I find to be quite helpful. She said that it is “a 2000 year old conversation between the Church and the world, a dialogue between the Christian community of believers and the culture in which it finds itself.” 3. To be sure, the Catholic intellectual tradition is broader and older than the university; but clearly that the university, and primary and secondary institutions, serve as stewards of this “conversation,” preserving, transmitting and developing it by engaging the questions and challenges of its own time and place.
According to Hellwig, included in this conversation is both the content and the way of doing things; the content, of course, being Sacred Scripture, the treasure of Church teachings, Apostolic tradition, formulations of the faith elaborated in theology, philosophy, catechesis, the natural sciences which integrate faith claims with human knowledge, spirituality, devotions, and rituals and ceremonies, etc.. The way of doing things can be said to be the concrete responses to the content that we treasure—the promotion of values and principles that are “characteristically Catholic,” for example; but at the same time are shared by many religious traditions—so that what and how we teach and live is not something we embrace and endeavor to promote so that we can somehow live in isolation. As the famous Jesuit preacher Walter Burghardt said of the celebration of Sunday Mass…It’s not a private party where all the good guys huddle together for one hour of blessed forgetfulness.
Indeed, the way of dealing with our experience as Catholics, and our knowledge and tradition, in order to acquire true wisdom, to live well, to honor God, and to build good societies, involves embracing and sharing certain values and principles, such as: (1) Human life has meaning, a meaning which can be known; (2) The basic principles of right and wrong are given and not humanly invented; (3) The deliberately fostered yearning for communion with God is in some way connected with the way we relate to one another; and (4) In the person of Jesus Christ we have an utterly trustworthy interpretation of the meaning and destiny of human life, of human relationship with God, and of what constitutes a good life. 4.
In his unique style, the late Monsignor Luigi Giussani, in his work entitled The Risk of Education: Discovering our Ultimate Destiny (1995), wrote that, when it comes to education, “The issue [we are discussing] is an entirely personal matter…unless we are educated to become assimilated by the merciful mystery that created us and saved us, and unless we have a personal dimension rooted in our faith in the mystery, we will neither create a reality that can be a witness to it, nor shall we inhabit that reality.”5.
The “2000 year old conversation between the Church and the world” has always borne witness to the truth of that experience, and I submit that the human condition, known in its truest nature by faith and reason, by virtue of our creation and redemption, has something singular to say on every subject in every curriculum.
Monsignor Anthony Frontiero is an IHE Fellow and Vice Rector and Director of Human Formation at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, Maryland.