Beyond the three ‘Rs: Catholic teachers have special calling

| Todd Flanders | September 12, 2013 | 0 Comments

PencilCup_schoolA student waited after class to talk. It was day one of my senior course, “Reason and Revelation.”  He said, “I want to believe what the Church teaches, but I don’t want to be fooled by anything that’s not true!” I said, “Good for you! The only reason to believe anything is because you’re convinced of its truth.”

In that class, students learn there are some things knowable by faith alone, many by reason alone and often, especially in moral matters, by both faith and reason. In a world increasingly confused about truth, it’s important that Catholic educators see “faith and reason as two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth” (Blessed John Paul II). To achieve this, Catholic educators should make a special commitment, and undergo special formation.

First, a commitment. Catholic faith is not something we fashion for ourselves, but rather “the faith of your Church.” Because much truth is revealed in Christ, anyone serving in Catholic school leadership, or teaching faith and morals, should freely pledge fidelity to the teachings of the Church. These are reliably found in the big green catechism. If we don’t believe parts of it are true, we shouldn’t present ourselves for service. Pledging fidelity isn’t a claim we know everything, never encounter difficulties or are holier than thou. It means that we commit to learn, live and teach the faith faithfully to the best of our ability, given our limitations.

Second, a special formation. Our schools are often called “faith-based” institutions. Nice-sounding, but this subtly implies that we are irrational. We need to be able to say more than, “It’s what the Church says, so I teach it.” That can never persuade, nor refute, any who say our moral principles are crazy and perhaps bigoted.

Catholic teachers need to understand that most of our positions are knowable by reason as well as by faith. Put differently, most Catholic moral teachings aren’t true because the Church says so. She says so because they are true.

Our schools, flying with the two wings of faith and reason, are actually “reality-based.” To better appreciate this, we Catholic educators need renewed formation in natural law. At our school, the renewal begins at a yearly summer workshop for new faculty, pre-K through grade 12. Natural law is a fancy term for a straightforward idea: There are objective, knowable principles of right and wrong. People’s ability to know them is, in St. Paul’s words, “written on their hearts.”

A key part of education has customarily been to help children develop those principles and to make a habit of applying them in all kinds of situations.

All education is something like this. We teach piano scales so children will eventually make music. We run football drills so players are ready for the game.  Sure, there are principles of music and rules of football.  Nobody doubts that kids should commit these to heart, because there’s no possibility of playing well otherwise. Natural law is like rules of the game of life to know and live by heart.

The threat of relativism

What if educators started pretending there aren’t real rules in the game of life?

Yet, that’s what’s been going on for a long time, according to C.S. Lewis in his masterpiece on education, “The Abolition of Man” — the book we study in our faculty workshop. Lewis defends natural moral principles, with illustrations from many historical cultures, and identifies a disturbing tendency in modern education to “debunk” these principles. The old values may have been fine in times past, so the new thinking goes, but newer times demand different, “progressive” values.

To be fair, the movement called progressive education, still dominant in the West, brought real improvements in pedagogy and more. But, Lewis argues, when applied to morality, it results in relativism and the consequences following from it. Here’s John Dewey, the movement’s great philosopher, in 1897: “Through education society can formulate its own purposes, can organize its own means and resources, and thus shape itself in the direction in which it wishes to move.”

“Society” becomes its own standard in this view, and educators become agents and indoctrinators of whatever contemporary society happens to value. “Progress” comes through pursuing our “own purposes,” our collective “wishes.” Dewey and most progressive educators after him, thankfully, prefer democratic society. But why? Without natural principles or standards to guide judgment, why should one kind of society be valued over another?

Lewis saw prophetically where moral relativism in education leads. It ends up treating young persons as bundles of desires with a calculator on top. Think of the widespread replacement today of public school abstinence programs with “comprehensive sex ed” that takes unchastity for granted.

Or, think of the cheating epidemic. “Once upon a time, being an honorable person included the notion that your word was your bond,” reports the Los Angeles Times. But “lying and cheating are seen by a lot of kids today as a crucial part of any path to success. The only shame is in getting caught.” If education really is about our own purposes or wishes, to use Dewey’s words, young people can take the hint.

In the end, we either accept that there is a moral law, or else someone or something — ”society,” celebrity fashion, my autonomous self — makes values up.

The principled approach to moral education offers an alternative. In it, teacher and student alike see themselves as governed by a moral law, which stands outside and above. It humanizes and, yes, judges, our thoughts and actions. It “deals with its pupils as grown birds deal with young birds when they teach them to fly,” says Lewis. Through history, literature and the arts, it prepares young people to love what they ought, so they can think and act accordingly.  The goal is wisdom. Wisdom then guides the young’s use of all the important practical knowledge they also get at school.

We Catholic educators must embrace and hand on this approach. Through it, we can be “progressive” in the true sense. It alone enables personal and social improvement “that squares with the moral law or the law of God,” as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. put it.

How can a child become a better friend? How can he prepare to be faithful in the vocation he’s called to? How can she be more honest in her work and dealings with others?  It’s no good pretending that friendship, fidelity, honesty or any other objective moral values are just preferences.

My student was right. No one should be fooled into believing something that’s not true. That’s why, with gentleness and respect, Catholic educators should be committed and equipped to offer reasons for the hope that is within us.

Flanders is headmaster of Providence Academy in Plymouth and an instructor in the Archbishop Harry J. Flynn Catechetical Institute.

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Category: This Catholic Life