II. Can Faith Illumine Understanding?
The first and most pressing duty, therefore, if there is to be Catholic education, calls for reestablishing in our minds the central role the teaching Church should play in the intellectual life of Catholic teachers and students. Since the Faith liberates the believer from error in his submission to its teachings, it both guides and strengthens his intelligence in the performance of those activities which constitute his very life as a thinker; and man, since he is distinguished by rationality, lives above all through the living activity of thinking. We should not be surprised, therefore, that we are promised such help by Our Lord Himself when He says, “I have come that they may have life and have it more abundantly.” ( John 10:10)
The following examples show, by way of illustration, how an adherence to Christian doctrine helps the believer as he thinks about the most serious and difficult questions: 1) One of the most persistent questions which has occupied the time and prompted the labors of the greatest thinkers concerns the origin and cause of moral rectitude. It is not surprising, therefore, that Socrates, one of the greatest and most influential thinkers, should have given so much of his attention to it. He examines, in the Protagoras, the common opinion that man can, even when he knows the good, be mastered by pleasure, and that he can as a consequence act against his knowledge and commit an evil act. But upon examining the basis of the opinion, he rejects it, and holds rather that all wrong doing is the result of an ignorance of the knowledge of weights and measures as it applies to the various pleasures and pains. If, therefore, we were taught which are the greater pleasures and which are the lesser, and which pains are to be endured in the light of future pleasures, we would, according to him, possess the sufficient requirements for moral rectitude. This means, when we sum it up, that virtue is knowledge and that it can be taught — a view which has become one of the most persistent and far-reaching positions about ethics in our civilization.
No reader, if he follows the Protagoras closely, can escape the perplexity which Socrates’ arguments arouse in him; he will, as a consequence, begin to formulate the fundamental questions about the moral life in the light of Socrates’ discussion. But suppose the reader is a Catholic, and that he both adheres to his Faith and has an appropriate understanding of it; he will believe Ezekiel and St. Paul when they teach him that moral goodness and the good acts which follow upon it are the result of graces which not only illumine the mind, but which touch the heart as well. God, in speaking to Ezekiel, tells him:
I will gather you together from the peoples, I will bring
you all back from the countries where you have been
scattered, and I will give you the land of Israel. They will
come and will purge it of all the horrors and the filthy
practices. I will give them a single heart, and I will put
new spirit in them; I will remove the heart of stone from
their bodies and give them a heart of flesh instead, so
that they will keep my laws and repeat my observances
and put them into practice. Then they shall be my people and I will be their God.
And St. Paul teaches:
We would have been justified by the Law if the Law
we were given had been capable of giving life, but it is
not: scripture makes no exception when it says that sin
is master everywhere. In this way the promise can only
be given through faith in Jesus Christ and can only be
given to those who have faith.
We are taught here that in order to obey God, He Himself must remove “the heart of stone” from our bodies and give us a “heart of flesh.” Hence God tells Ezekiel, “I will give them a single heart, and I will put a new spirit in them; I will remove the heart of stone from their bodies and give them a heart of flesh instead, so that they will keep my laws. . .” St. Paul extends this doctrine further when he teaches that the knowledge of the Law condemns us and that it leads us to grasp our own incapacity to fulfill it. If, therefore, we are to act rightly, we must be given the graces which change us from desiring evil to desiring good, and which help us to pursue our legitimate desires.
On the one hand, therefore, we have the Socratic position that the knowledge of the right order amongst the goods we seek will render us impeccable, while on the other hand we are taught by our inspired teachers that such knowledge of itself does nothing but condemn us. Resting, therefore, in the truth of his Faith, our reader will believe that Socrates must be wrong, whether he himself can see the error or not. But should he, as a serious thinker, pursue the question, he would be aided greatly by his adherence to the truth, for that very adherence would aid him to search for the roots of the Socratic error. Should he so pursue the question he could be led to distinguish the various kinds of ignorance, and to see as a consequence that Socrates has advanced the discussion by teaching that every sin involves ignorance, but that he is fundamentally wrong in thinking it to be an ignorance of the general knowledge of morals. Our reader could, in other words, follow the procedure which led Aristotle to both learn from Socrates and to reject the position while saving all the truth it possesses; in this way he is aided by the Faith to come even to those truths which reason can discover. Christian faith, therefore, enables us to see better the partial truth of Socrates’ position from a vantage point which saves us from adopting his errors, an achievement which, though possible to reason, is hardly possible to any but the greatest thinkers after arduous labor.
St. Augustine shows us the stance of the believer as he faces these same questions. He says that grace is given “not only that we discover what ought to be done, but also that we do what we have discovered — not only that we believe what ought to be loved, but also that we love what we have believed,” and he says further:
If this grace is to be called a ‘teaching,’let it at any rate
be so called in such wise that God may be believed to
infuse it, along with an ineffable sweetness,more deeply
and more internally, not only by their agency who plant
and water from without, but likewise by His own too
who ministers in secret His own increase — in such
way, that He not only exhibits truth,but likewise imparts
love. For it is thus that God teaches those who
have been called according to His purpose, giving them
simultaneously both to know what they ought to do,
and to do what they know.
(On the Grace of Christ, cc. 13 & 14)
2) One of our indubitable experiences is of the recurring opposition of our higher aspirations and our lower passions. So much is this opposition a part of our lives, a part which is absent from the lives of the brutes, that it has affected the formulation of various views of human nature. Socrates teaches, in several of the dialogues, that the individual man is a soul, and that the body is attached to it in this life as a punishment for the misdeeds of a previous existence. In order to escape further punishment and gain the happiness of which it is capable, the soul must, by living a philosophic life, turn its attention to eternal things, so that it may prepare itself to exist forever without the body, which existence is its final beatitude. So plausible is this view, based as it is upon our internal experience of the conflict within us, that many Christians have thought that their own lives were bifurcated into a lower or animal existence which is concerned with this world, and a spiritual life of the soul alone which is begun here, but which is real only in the after-life.
If we reflect, nevertheless, on the teachings of the Christian Faith, we can see that this position cannot be true; St. Paul insists on our believing in the resurrection of Christ as well as in our own which is to take place in imitation of His. So important does he think it is to believe in the resurrection that he says that if Christ be not resurrected, our whole Faith is vain, for it is through our resurrection that death, the punishment for sin, is conquered, whereby we become human persons again. Accordingly, Christians believe that the Blessed Virgin, by her assumption, exists as a human person with Christ, while the other saints await their final state. The Socratic position, on the other hand, would rob death of its sting, for it would mean the actual separation of two already separate things, and not the cleavage which divides the human soul from the body it had informed to make a man.
As in the previous example, Socrates’ position arises from the consideration of important truths, and he does explore with remarkable intensity the life lived for the sake of the truth as compared with the life of passion and animal appetite, and shows their incompatibility — which suggests to him that the body and the soul are conjoined as opposites which war with each other. The Christian, however, by the doctrine of original sin as well as by the other doctrines of his Faith, can both see how Socrates could hold such a position, and yet understand in a way closed to him the cause of that seemingly essential opposition which leads him to deny the substantial unity of soul and body, and finally to deny the importance of the body except as a punishment for sin.
3) Both theologians and philosophers have always wondered whether or how Divine foreknowledge is consistent with free choice. Most of those who have considered this matter have concluded that they are logically incompatible, and have either upheld Divine foreknowledge at the expense of free choice or maintained free choice by denying Divine foreknowledge. Martin Luther, for example, in his Bondage of the Will, argues that since everything in God is necessary His foreknowledge must be necessary, and since (he says) necessary knowledge must be of necessary things, the human actions which God foreknows are as a consequence necessary and not free. Spinoza argues a similar position in Part I of his Ethics. Cicero, on the other hand, in his Nature of the Gods, holding to freedom of choice as a fact of experience, feels constrained to deny that God foreknows all things, despite the evident impiety of such a view.
By contrast, St. Augustine in The City of God and in On Grace and Free Will shows unmistakably that Sacred Scripture teaches both the infallible foreknowledge of God and the freedom of the will. This indicates to St. Augustine and to his Christian readers that the contradiction is only apparent, and that their understanding of both Divine foreknowledge and the nature of the human will is inadequate. Thus, in Book V of The City of God, he says that “against the sacrilegious and impious darings of reason, we assert both that God knows all things before they come to pass, and that we do by our free will whatsoever we know and feel to be done by us only because we will it.” He then proceeds to consider the arguments of Cicero and others in detail, and begins to develop a more profound doctrine of Divine foreknowledge and human freedom, a doctrine which is completed and perfected by St. Thomas Aquinas. Instructed by faith, then, St. Augustine is aware of his ignorance where many wrongly presume their knowledge, is encouraged to undertake a difficult inquiry by knowing beforehand that a solution is possible, and is guided throughout by a knowledge of where his investigation is heading/p>
These few examples illustrate, as could many more, that the Catholic Faith is a guide in the intellectual life as well as in the moral life for those who subject themselves to it, and that the understanding is crippled radically when it refuses to stand in the higher light which is given it. The acceptance, however, of that higher light as a guide demands that one restate and clarify in principle the whole of Catholic education, and show it to be fundamentally superior to and different from any education which is deprived, or which deprives itself, of the strength conferred upon it by the teaching Church. This view demands that the intellectual life be conformed to the teachings of the Christian Faith, which stand as the beginning of one’s endeavors because they guide the intelligence in its activities, and as the end (which we will see later) because those endeavors are undertaken so that the Divine teachings themselves may be more profoundly understood.
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“Thomas Aquinas is already the preeminent Catholic college in the country.”
– John Cardinal O’Connor (†)
Archbishop of New York