February 14, 2023 // Perspective
Why Catholic Schools Matter
At the beginning of February, the Church in the United States celebrated Catholic Schools Week. I would like to take this opportunity to sing the praises of Catholic schools and to invite everyone — Catholic and non-Catholic alike — to support them. I attended Church-affiliated educational institutions from first grade through graduate school, from Holy Name Elementary School in Birmingham, Michigan, to the Institut Catholique in Paris. That years-long immersion massively shaped my character, my sense of values, my entire way of looking at the world. I am convinced that, especially now, when a secularist, materialist philosophy largely holds sway in our culture, the Catholic ethos needs to be inculcated.
Certainly, distinctive marks of the Catholic schools I attended were the opportunity for Mass and other sacraments, religion classes, the presence of priests and nuns (a bit more common in the early years of my formation), and the prevalence of Catholic symbols and images of saints. But what was perhaps most important was the manner in which those schools showed the integration of faith and reason.
To be sure, there is no “Catholic” mathematics, but there is indeed a Catholic way to teach math. In his famous parable of the cave, Plato showed that the first step away from a purely materialist vision of the world is mathematics. When someone grasps the truth of even the simplest equation, or the nature of a number, or a complex arithmetical formula, he has, in a very real sense, left the realm of passing things and has entered a universe of spiritual reality. The theologian David Tracy has remarked that the commonest experience of the invisible today is through the understanding of the pure abstractions of mathematics and geometry. Properly taught, mathematics, therefore, opens the door to the higher spiritual experiences offered by religion, to the invisible realm of God.
Similarly, there is no peculiarly “Catholic” physics or biology, but there is indeed a Catholic approach to those sciences. No scientist could ever get her work off the ground unless she believed in the radical intelligibility of the world — that is to say, the fact that every aspect of physical reality is marked by an understandable pattern. This is true of any astronomer, chemist, astrophysicist, psychologist, or geologist. But this leads rather naturally to the question: Where did these intelligible patterns come from? Why should the world be so marked by order, harmony, and rational patterning? There is a marvelous article composed by the twentieth-century physicist Eugene Wigner entitled “The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences.” Wigner’s argument was that it cannot be mere chance that the most complex mathematics successfully describe the physical world. The answer of the great Catholic tradition is that this intelligibility comes, in fact, from a great creative intelligence that stands behind the world. People who practice the sciences, therefore, should have no problem believing that “in the beginning was the Word.”
There is no “Catholic” history either, though there is most certainly a Catholic way of looking at history. Typically, historians do not simply recount the events of the past. Rather, they look for certain overarching themes and trajectories within history. Most of us probably don’t even realize this because we came of age within a liberal democratic culture, but we rather naturally see the Enlightenment as the turning point of history, the time of the great revolutions in science and politics that defined the modern world. No one could doubt that the Enlightenment was a pivotal moment, but Catholics certainly don’t see it as the climax of history. Instead, we hold that the pivot point was on a squalid hill outside of Jerusalem around the year 30 AD, when a young rabbi was being tortured to death by the Romans. We interpret everything — politics, the arts, culture, etc. — from the standpoint of the sacrifice of the Son of God.
In his controversial Regensburg address from 2006, the late Pope Benedict argued that Christianity can enter into a vibrant conversation with the culture precisely because of the doctrine of the Incarnation. We Christians do not claim that Jesus was one interesting teacher among many, but rather the Logos, the mind or reason of God, made flesh. Accordingly, whatever is marked by logos or rationality is a natural cousin to Christianity. The sciences, philosophy, literature, history, psychology — all of it — find in the Christian faith, therefore, a natural dialogue (there is that word again!) partner. It is this basic idea, so dear to Papa Ratzinger, that informs Catholic schools at their best. And this is why the flourishing of those schools is important, not simply for the Church, but for our whole society.
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