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President McLean’s 2020 Matriculation Address: <br>On the Purposes of Catholic Liberal Education

President McLean’s 2020 Matriculation Address:
On the Purposes of Catholic Liberal Education

Posted: August 24, 2020


by Michael F. McLean, Ph.D.
President, Thomas Aquinas College
Convocation 2020


How wonderful it is to gather together to pursue the great work of Catholic liberal education. We welcome you, we thank you for joining us, and we thank your parents for entrusting us with your care, safety, and moral and intellectual formation.

We are in the midst of challenging times. Having to suspend in-person education last spring was painful for faculty and students alike; especially so for our graduating seniors  who had to sacrifice most of the pomp, circumstance, and celebration that normally accompany Commencement, things they had certainly earned and richly deserved.

We move ahead now under various restrictions and protocols, implementing a carefully designed plan which has been reviewed by our faculty, board, medical advisory team, and local health officials. Uppermost in our minds is the health and safety of you students, our faculty and staff, and our friends and neighbors.

These things are obviously important and will be well attended to. But they are for the sake of the real work of Thomas Aquinas College — the formation of your minds, hearts, and souls in imitation of Christ and in accordance with the teaching authority of the Catholic Church.

I know that over the last months we have all, to one degree or other, missed the sacramental life and the life of genuine Catholic worship. This absence has reminded me of something Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in his great work, Democracy in America — a work you will consider here in Senior Seminar.

Among many other things, Tocqueville is concerned with religion and its essential role in American democracy. In a remarkable passage, he says that “religion is the first of America’s political institutions.”

“Religion’s principal advantage,” he continues, “is to provide clear answers to fundamental questions” — he means questions of the sort you will pursue here about God’s existence, human nature, man’s ordination to a supernatural life, and the nature of justice and human goodness. Religion also provides a counterweight, he says, to some of democracy’s most dangerous tendencies: “its tendency to isolate citizens from one another, leading them to be concerned only with themselves alone and its tendency to open their souls excessively to the love of material pleasures.”

It is good for us to be reminded of the essential role religion plays in public life and, as a consequence, to reflect on the vital role that Catholic liberal education — the education you freshmen are about to undertake — plays in public life as well. Where religion is to be robust, faith must be robust. For without faith, there is no religion, and without Catholic education, whatever faith there is is liable to be feeble, uninformed, and difficult to explain and defend.

I say, without hesitation, that the education you will pursue at Thomas Aquinas College will nourish and strengthen your faith. The education here is not undertaken from outside the Faith; it is not structured to criticize or challenge the Faith. Rather, it is undertaken from within the Catholic faith — in the words of our founding document and the College’s motto, it is faith seeking understanding. Our starting points in the study of theology are the principles, mysteries, and doctrines of our Catholic faith; our goal is to increase our understanding of these starting points to the extent we can and to deepen our knowledge and love of God.

Beginning with the study of sacred Scripture and culminating in the study of some of the most important parts of the Summa Theologiae — on the nature of sacred doctrine, on God’s existence and attributes, on the eternal, natural, and human laws, on the Trinity, on the Incarnation, and on the sacraments —  your study of theology leads to the contemplation of these central mysteries and doctrines of the Catholic faith. Assuming that this study has been enriched by the sacramental and devotional life provided by the College, it will bring you closer to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and deepen your faith, hope, and charity.

These are the ultimate ends of Catholic liberal education and are what make this education worthy of pursuing for its own sake. In pursuing this education we hearken to Our Lord’s command to “be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” If Tocqueville is right, however, in pursuing this education we are also preparing to assume our responsibilities as members of a democratic society.

It is good to reflect on the purposes of Catholic liberal education at any time. It is especially good to do so as we begin a new academic year, an academic year which poses its own particular challenges; an academic year which also happens to be a presidential election year where so much is at stake for our country, which is facing its own particular social, political, and moral challenges as well as growing threats to freedom of religion and freedom of well-formed conscience.

I wish you Godspeed as you set out on, or resume, your journey at Thomas Aquinas College. Let us all pray for the wellbeing and prosperity of our country, for a successful conclusion to our battle with this pandemic, and that we all may continue to grow in age and wisdom and grace before God and men.

Thank you.



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Pete Colarelli

“Thomas Aquinas College’s best asset is its ability to make faith part of everything. It permeates the social life and the academic life.”

– Pete Colarelli (’92)

First Ward Alderman, Lockport, Ill.

“This is truly a Catholic center of learning because it reverberates with the ecclesial life of faith, a faith which unfolds the richness of reason and is given fervent expression liturgically, sacramentally, and through prayer, acts of charity, and a passion for justice.”

– The Most Rev. J. Michael Miller

Archbishop of Vancouver

Former Secretary, Congregation for Catholic Education