John Garvey 150 circleOn the feast of the Immaculate Conception, Pope Francis inaugurated a Holy Year of Mercy — a special time for the church to celebrate and experience God’s mercy.

It’s not just a time for receiving mercy. In the bull of indiction proclaiming the Jubilee Year, “Misericordiae Vultus,” the pope encouraged us to show mercy as well, in imitation of our heavenly Father.

What does this mean for us at Catholic universities? The practices that first spring to mind are ready forgiveness and the corporal works of mercy.

But one of the seven spiritual works of mercy traditionally commended by the church is “instructing the ignorant.” The Jubilee Year is a good time to think about how and what we teach our students.

In the contemporary academy, there is a popular idea that teaching means instructing students “that” they are ignorant. Students are challenged to examine critically the first principles and beliefs that anchor their judgments of true and false, right and wrong.

Postmodernist theory tells us that all disciplines (not just theology) assume their principles on faith. It rejects the possibility of verifying or judging objectively between opposing first premises or essential axioms. You have your truth, I have mine.

Critical thinking is certainly an important step on the road to truth. In Plato’s account of the trial of Socrates, the philosopher explains that his wisdom consisted in knowing the limit of his own knowledge.

He spent his life challenging others to consider what they really knew about virtue, beauty and truth. But he also did much more than that.

It is no work of mercy to leave students at the stage where they are convinced they know nothing.

In the “Phaedo,” Socrates sits with his disciples in a jail cell in Athens, where he has been condemned to death. They spend his last hours discussing the immortality of the soul.

Socrates puts forward one argument and then another. His followers are easily convinced that the soul is immortal, until two of them, Simmias and Cebes, point out possible weaknesses in Socrates’ arguments.

When they heard these objections, the disciples got depressed. Socrates’ critics “upset our convictions and destroyed our confidence not only in what had been said already, but also in anything that was to follow later.”

But Socrates did not leave his followers in this state. The point is not that there is no truth. The fault lies in our own inability to grasp it. “We must not let it enter our minds that there may be no validity in argument,” he says. “On the contrary, we should recognize that we ourselves are still intellectual invalids, but that we must brace ourselves and do our best to become healthy.”

Instructing the ignorant is an act of mercy because it relieves intellectual poverty, much as almsgiving relieves the material want of the poor. The ignorant (that’s all of us) want not only to be disabused of error, but to know the truth. The merciful teacher, like Socrates, guides and encourages them in their search.

When he visited The Catholic University of America in 2008, Pope Benedict XVI reminded us that to lead the young to truth is “nothing less than an act of love.” It is a task for which Catholic universities are especially well equipped.

Because we have met the fullness of truth in the person of Jesus Christ, we are confident that truth can be found.

Christ’s good news, Pope Benedict said, “is set to work, guiding both teacher and student toward the objective truth which, in transcending the particular and the subjective, points to the universal and absolute that enables us to proclaim with confidence the hope which does not disappoint.”


Garvey is president of The Catholic University of America in Washington.