Over the Labor Day weekend I got a note from a friendly Catholic scholar who’s an expert in the history of religions. She teaches at one of Europe’s large secular universities. And while she doesn’t publicize her faith, neither does she hide it – a fact which does not always help her academic career.
Speaking of her relations with colleagues and students, and the difficult atmosphere in which she works, she wrote:
“Today’s moral conflicts [in the classroom and beyond it] are fundamentally about the structure of reality. In other words, is there an objective world with a stable, accessible nature or not? The two camps seem to be that of disorder (chaos, fluidity, partial relative truths, moral permissiveness, radical equality) and that of order (hierarchical structure, objective natures, clear moral goodness accessible to humans, etc.). To the first camp, the second camp seems rigid and deadening, that is, not in harmony with ‘reality,’ which for the first camp is a great mass of shifting grays, instead of blacks and whites, good and bad.
“The spirit of the first camp is ultimately self-destructive and cannot last, but in the meantime we need to live and navigate through this cosmic fight. I’m troubled by seeing so many of the students I teach choosing fluid darkness instead of the stable and clear light.”
Which brings us to the purpose of this column.
Across the Archdiocese this week, Catholic high schools and parish schools are welcoming students back to class. As most Philadelphia Catholics know, the American parish school system began in our city. And thanks to our hundreds of dedicated teachers, administrators and staff — and equally dedicated parents — Catholic schools in Greater Philadelphia remain among the nation’s best.
But what does that word “best” really mean in a Christian context? Most of our schools do a great job of providing an excellent academic education in a safe environment. And they do it with very limited resources. This can have deeply positive results, especially for students from fractured homes or in the inner city.
But the why behind Catholic education – the reason it exists – can sometimes be overlooked. Catholic schools and catechetical programs like PREP are not finally about teaching young people to work hard, contribute to society, and be honest and kind to others. Clearly those virtues are important. But they aren’t ends in themselves. They flow from the larger mission of our schools and programs.
The goal of all Catholic education is to form young people in a strong Catholic faith, a faith rooted in the truth about God and humanity, a faith that can guide them to a fruitful life in this world, and home to the joy of eternal life with their Creator.
Catholic education starts with a simple principle: Facts and achievements are empty, or worse, unless they’re embedded in a pattern of meaning. The deepest hunger of the human heart isn’t for knowledge but for purpose. This is why Jesus’s words in the Gospel of John (8:32) have always had such power: “You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” Truth organizes reality. It gives meaning and direction to life, and in doing so, it sustains hope.
Thus it’s no surprise that in cultures that refuse to accept the existence of permanent, objective truths, or a commonly shared higher purpose to life, suicide rates rise along with a general callousness expressed in barbarisms like abortion and euthanasia. Differing cultures can account for the differing attitudes toward suicide in some countries. But even adjusting for that, the data are striking. Of the 25 nations with the highest suicide rates in the world, eight of them are in Europe. Wealth offers no immunity: South Korea and Japan also rank high on the list, despite their advanced economies. The exceptionally high suicide rate in nations like North Korea probably needs no explanation.
Here’s the point. The belief that truth exists, is permanent and knowable, and is worth pursuing and fighting for because it makes us free, is an affirmation of the goodness of life and the world’s loving Creator.
This enduring passion for truth is the fire at the heart of all Catholic education, from the first day of First Grade forward throughout life. So as another school year begins, it’s a good time to remember what we need to be teaching, learning and doing in our classrooms — and even more importantly, why.
Editor’s note: Next year, 2018, marks the 25th anniversary of the release of St. John Paul II’s great encyclical, Veritatis Splendor (The Splendor of Truth). Archbishop Chaput offers an extended reflection on the encyclical and its importance in the October issue of First Things magazine. See “The Splendor of Truth in 2017,” online at www.firstthings.com, beginning Tuesday, September 12.