Skip to Content

Dr. McLean’s Matriculation Address:
A Journey Powered by the Wings of
Faith and Reason

Posted: August 22, 2018

Audio

by Michael F. McLean, Ph.D.
President, Thomas Aquinas College
Convocation Day
August 20, 2018

 

In his vitally important 1998 encyclical, Fides et Ratio, St. John Paul II wrote that “faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth.”

He emphasized several ways in which faith uniquely aids reason to reach its full potential — that is, reach its full perfection in those areas which lie within reason’s proper sphere.

First, faith instructs reason that it must respect certain basic rules if it is to have any hope of attaining the deepest and most important truths. The pursuit of truth requires the cultivation of virtue: In the words of Pope John Paul, “Reason must be aware that the journey is not for the proud, but must acknowledge that the journey is grounded in the fear of God.”

Second, faith exhorts reason to realize that in pondering and analyzing nature, human beings can rise to God. You should be heartened by these words from the Book of Wisdom cited by Pope John Paul II: “From the greatness and beauty of created things comes a corresponding perception of their Creator” (13:5). These words are echoed by St. Paul in his Epistle to the Romans: “Ever since the creation of the world His invisible nature, namely, His eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made.” (1:20)

And, third, faith encourages perseverance in the difficult work of pursuing the truth. In those moments when you feel fatigued or discouraged, remember these words of John Paul II: “For the sacred author, the task of searching for the truth was not without the strain which comes once the limits of reason are reached … Yet, for all the toil involved, believers do not surrender … Leaning on God, they continue to reach out, always and everywhere, for all that is beautiful, good, and true.”

Not only does faith assist reason in matters within reason’s purview, faith takes reason beyond itself as well: “The wisdom of the wise is no longer enough for what God wants to accomplish; what is required is a decisive step towards welcoming something radically new … Man cannot grasp how death could be the source of life and love; yet, in the words of St. Paul, to reveal the mystery of His saving plan God has chosen precisely that which reason considers ‘foolishness’ and a ‘scandal’.”

Writing nearly 30 years before John Paul II, the founders of Thomas Aquinas College argued to the essential role of faith in liberal education in the College’s founding and governing document, A Proposal for the Fulfillment of Catholic Liberal Education. The fact that this document anticipated so much of what is contained in Fides et Ratio is a testament to the deep and well-formed Catholic faith of the College’s founders and a sure sign that Thomas Aquinas College comes straight “from the heart of the Church,” the title of John Paul II’s great document on Catholic higher education, Ex Corde Ecclesiae.

The College’s founders knew, and we believe today, that Catholic liberal education is best characterized as faith seeking understanding — that is, that the essential purpose of a Catholic college is to educate under the light of the Faith.

In their Proposal, the founders provided examples of the ways in which faith assists reason; or, as they put it, “how an adherence to Christian doctrine helps the believer as he thinks about the most serious and difficult questions.” One such question which, in the words of the founders, “has occupied the time and prompted the labors of the greatest thinkers concerns the origin and cause of moral rectitude.”

You freshmen will soon encounter Plato’s Protagoras in which Socrates argues that all wrong doing is the result of ignorance about good and evil and pleasure and pain. In other words, virtue is knowledge — the view that if one knows what is good, he will surely do what is good. This is a perennial view in moral philosophy — one has only to think of how much effort and resources are expended on the premise that people will surely change their behavior if only we provide them with more instruction and information.

If you follow the arguments of the Protagoras closely, which I know you will, you will not escape the perplexity aroused by Socrates’ arguments, and you will begin to formulate fundamental questions about the moral life in light of Socrates’ discussion. But if you are a Catholic who adheres to the Faith, and you have, or acquire as the result of your education here, an adequate understanding of that faith, in the words of the founders, “You will believe Ezekiel and St. Paul when they teach you that moral goodness and the good acts which follow upon it are the result of graces which illumine not only the mind, but which touch the heart as well.”

This example illustrates one way in which faith aids reason to reach its full potential — that, again in the words of the College’s founders, “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 the understanding is crippled radically when it refuses to stand in the higher light which is given it.”

As I mentioned earlier, St. John Paul II knew that faith takes reason beyond itself as well. Faith can take reason where it dares not go alone. This is why, in one of the concluding sections of the Proposal for the Fulfillment of Catholic Liberal Education, the founders write: “the Christian student, because of his faith, can be liberally educated in the most perfect and complete way … the religious college quite properly can claim to be the liberal educator par excellence, because through wisdom based on faith, the student’s natural appetite for the truth can be perfectly satisfied. He might see ‘through a glass darkly’ those highest things which the non-believer will not see at all.”

You freshmen are about to begin, and you returning students are about to continue, a journey powered by the wings of faith and reason. Working harmoniously together, faith and reason can help you ascend higher and higher on the route to wisdom, and with the help of God’s saving grace, ultimately help you to approach the vision of the living God Himself.

We look forward to journeying with you in your years at Thomas Aquinas College. We pray that your efforts are successful and rewarding, just as we ask you to pray that the College remains ever faithful to its mission of guiding and facilitating our common pursuit of the good, the true, and the beautiful.

Thank you.

AUDIO:


 

Receive Thomas Aquinas College
lectures and talks via podcast!

 

Get it on iTunes Available on Stitcher RSS
Dr. McLean delivers the Matriculation Address at Convocation 2018
Major Paul W. White

“The education teaches you how to think in a structured, ordered fashion. In modern medicine … that is very helpful.”

– Major Paul W. White (’95)

Vascular Surgeon, U.S. Army Medical Corps

“I am deeply touched by the quality of the intellectual and spiritual formation that you offer. The study of philosophy should lead to a conviction that truth can be known, articulated, and defended. Your college shows that this is possible, and on a high level!”

– Rev. Wojciech Giertych, O.P.

Theologian of the Papal Household