Are there answers for human life apart from science?

There are always students at the beginning of my Moral Theology course who wonder why the class matters. To them, “moral theology” is perhaps a pretentious way of getting immersed in a set of rules dictated by the Church. For a significant number of these students, science offers real knowledge and real answers about the world – definite, quantifiable and widely accepted. But is important for them to understand that science cannot provide all the answers necessary for human life.

Any science textbook worth reading will help the student to see this important point. In the biology text we use at our school, the authors explain that “Pure science does not include ethical or moral viewpoints” and “science can tell us how technology and scientific knowledge can be applied but not whether it should be applied in particular ways.” (Miller & Levine) The beginner of course can read these words without understanding their significance. Examples are necessary.

In 1939, speech researcher Wendell Johnson of the University of Iowa directed experiments on orphan children. Intrigued by the effect of social environment on the development of speech, eleven orphans with speech problems were treated with love and support, while another eleven with no speech problems was belittled and criticized until they stuttered. Science can tell you about the ways in which social environment affect speech development – it cannot tell you not to abuse orphans to obtain that knowledge.

Another example: over a period of four decades, researchers for the U. S.  Public Health Service in collaboration with Tuskegee Institute in Alabama studied the effects of syphilis on a group of infected blaTuskegee_syphilis_experiment_venipunctureck Americans. The researchers claimed to be providing free treatment to the subjects, when in fact the whole goal of the study was to identify the long term effects of untreated syphilis. Many of the men were never told they had syphilis. The study was only stopped after it was leaked to the press in 1972. Science can tell you the long term effects of syphilis – it cannot tell you that human subjects should not be deceived into providing that data.

A third example: one time head of the American Psychiatric Association Donald Cameron carried out a series of experiments on mental patients to “depattern” them, that is, break down their personalities and “rebuild” them. (It is the kind of treatment implied in Robert Ludlum’s Bourne Identity novels). These experiments involved electroSleep Room Collilns-shock therapy, sensory deprivation and hallucinogenic drugs such as LSD. Although the experiments took place in Canada in the early sixties, they were funded secretly by the CIA (In the Sleep Room: The Story of CIA Brainwashing Experiments in Canada by Anne Collins).

I use these three examples because they did not take place in Nazi Germany or Imperial Japan or Communist Russia. They did not happen during the 1700s or the 1800s. These experiments happened during the 20th century in America or with American government funding. Contemporary examples are also available. Witness the experiments of various kinds on human embryos, human persons in their earliest stages of development.

People are repulsed by harmful experiments on human subjects, especially when they belong to vulnerable populations such as orphans, impoverished blacks or mental patients. They take the moral treatment of these groups for granted. But the dogma that the only knowledge that counts is scientific knowledge undermines the very basis of these restrictions.  The principles that declare some forms of experimentation on human subjects as “moral” or “immoral” do not come from science.

The Second Vatican Council rightly expressed anxiety about the sufficiency many feel for science in human life: “today’s progress in science and technology can foster a certain exclusive emphasis on observable data, and an agnosticism about everything else. For the methods of investigation which these sciences use can be wrongly considered as the supreme rule of seeking the whole truth.” (57§5) This is evident in many of our young people. Unless a “fact” is a scientific fact, it is for them no fact at all. For a society that enthusiastically directs its best and brightest into STEM programs, it is a worrisome thing to realize that many of these students have no firmer basis for their moral beliefs than emotion or public opinion.

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John Jenkins qualifiedly reaffirms Land O’Lakes

In reflections on the Land O’Lakes document, Notre Dame President John Jenkins explains its vision of faithful Catholic education, which he thinks has been largely ignored, critiques its assumptions about the possibility of theological scholars providing integrating leadership, and suggests that Notre Dame has been a model of what the authors of the document hoped to achieve:

The document’s limitations left questions to be addressed, but the vision in broad outline is one that makes truly serious Catholic research universities possible for our time. It has the vision that has helped shape the University of Notre Dame for the past 50 years.

I am interested in what others think about his article. Perhaps if Catholic institutions had the commitment honored by this take on LO’L, it could have worked.

A common key to remaining faithful for both older and newer schools is hiring faculty who are not merely baptized Catholics, but who are also committed to their faith, letting it shine through their lives and their work.


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Cardinal Sarah explains the mutual enrichment between the two forms of the Roman rite hoped for by Pope Benedict. He points out the disaster of rejecting tradition and the promise that tradition offers for authentic development. Much of this is true of education as well.

But most of the time, this “reform” that replaced the genuine “restoration” intended by the Second Vatican Council was carried out in a superficial spirit and on the basis of only one criterion: to suppress at all costs a heritage that must be perceived as totally negative and outmoded so as to excavate a gulf between the time before and the time after the Council….The particular care that should be brought to the liturgy, the urgency of holding it in high esteem and working for its beauty, its sacral character and keeping the right balance between fidelity to Tradition and legitimate development, and therefore rejecting absolutely and radically any hermeneutic of discontinuity or rupture: these essential elements are the heart of all authentic Christian liturgy.

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How to Choose the Right Catholic High School for Your Children

My favorites:

5. The entire reading list is excellent. There is not a single work that students are compelled to read which is objectionable, senseless, or even simply mediocre.


8. The faculty appears to be educated with the same education that the school aims to impart.

9. After spending a day visiting classes a parent would himself like to attend the school.



Source: How to Choose the Right Catholic High School for Your Children

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Destroying Innocence

This disturbing article about Netflix’s new Anne of Green Gables series by AnnaAnne Mussmann hit me close to home. I did not discover Lucy Montgomery’s works until I was an adult on the verge of marriage, but as a romantic I was deeply moved by the 1985 miniseries. I read the entire series to my wife during my graduate school days in Toronto, and to my children when they were old enough to enjoy them. So I join many who will hate anyone who dares to smear this idyllic character.

Mussmann uses the opportunity to reflect upon the importance of idyllic literature for forming the young imagination:

The thing is, children imagine themselves capable of stupendously unlikely deeds….Children read books and see themselves among the heroes. In their hearts, most children are sure “I would have slain the monster.” “I would have freed the slaves.” “I would have defied the lions and died for my faith.” This is an excellent thing, because yearning after what is good plays a crucial role in developing the moral imagination that will shape their future lives and choices.

This also hits close to home.  When I was young, I was completely unsheltered. Drugs, gangs, pornography, swearing were daily fare. I loved to escape from it all through stories such as The Lord of the Rings and movies like Star Wars celebrated all the values I missed in real life. And they had a profound effect on me. I wanted to be someone who could meet Sam or Aragorn or Gandalf and live up to their expectations. So I refused to imitate the real life around me.

If Mussmann is right, Netflix joins a contemporary effort to eliminate hope for a more innocent world from the hearts of our young.

It almost seemmussmann-anna-cropped-300x300s as if they intend to destroy the power of old books and old stories to challenge a postmodern worldview by delivering diluted, re-imagined versions that function as an inoculation. It is almost as if they want to keep us from recognizing that not all beliefs, values, time periods, and stories are the same as ours, lest we begin to question what we have been taught.

I hope that they will realize the justice of Our Lord’s warning:

Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin,[a] it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened round his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.


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An Interesting Look at Authentic Catholic Education

In this recent post, Leonardo Franchi of the University of Glasgow presents his views on the way Catholic schools are and are not instruments of evangelization, drawing on the notions of communio and culture.

In brief, Catholic schools are not schools for Catholics: they are schools for all, rooted in a solid Catholic world view which informs a wider view of education. This is how a vision of Catholic truth (unity) is expressed in different contexts (diversity). The Church’s educational tradition is not, and cannot, be simply geared towards explicit evangelisation and catechesis of the school’s pupil population (of which more later) but is the ‘casting of nets’ in deep waters, an invitation to all to look at the mystery of life and therein to engage with what it means to be a human person.

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Discussions Often Surprise

One of the delightful aspects of having discussion classes on original works is how often I am completely surprised by what students uncover that I didn’t expect. Four brief examples from recent discussions:

1) A very simple one: In discussing the Amendments to the Constitution with students, I was pointing out the dates of ratification. One of them asked why Amendment XXVII had such a big difference between the dates of proposal by Congress (1789) and ratification by the states (1992). I thought it must have been a typo at first, but then discovered it was originally proposed by James Madison, but not ratified by the required number of states until over two hundred years later!

2) I have been reading through Dante’s Divine Comedy with high school students as part of their Moral Theology class. I planned in our first discussion on the Purgatorio to talk dante-in-purgatoryabout Dante and Virgil, but I started with a general question, “What is Purgatory like?” Some students early on noticed that Dante was casting a shadow, and that was because they were out on the surface of the earth, and had day and night. This led to a lovely discussion of the extent to which Purgatory (in Dante’s vision, and perhaps really) is very like our life on earth – a sphere of change ordered to our full development – while hell is “timeless” in the sense that it is going nowhere. It provided a wonderful point of view for thinking about Purgatory and our life’s journey.

3) “Original texts” need not always be Great Books; they often are just books that readers serious about learning would read. Even a real dictionary can provoke great discussions. My Latin class with college freshmen has been using a common pocket dictionary instead of a glossary written for students. One student translated “caritas” naturally as “charity”; another student who consulted the dictionary asked why it didn’t list “love” or “charity” as a translation, but instead listed “dearness, high price, high style of living; affection”. The discussion revealed that most students equated charity with giving money to the poor, while the Romans thought of “caritas” as the way you felt toward someone dear to you whom you value as worth a great price. The fact that “charity” is such an important Christian concept suggests that as Christians we are to feel about the poor as Romans felt about their most cherished friends.  Cool!

4) In our latest online webinar, I discussed the Rule of St. Benedict with several teachers. Among many wonderful aspects of the Rule that came up, I was most surprised by how inspiring participants found his instructions to abbots, in which he showed how real authority can be exercised with power, love, and the utmost concern for subordinates. One participant was so inspired she read the entire section to her family. I had never considered how the father of Western monasticism’s words might be profoundly helpful for parents and children today. (You can enjoy listening to the conversation through this link and this.)


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I was very struck by this reported conversation between a St. Augustine Academy (Ventura) parent and one of the students in his son’s class. The young man was homeschooled, but decided to attend the school after playing on the basketball team for a year. They were out surfing together, when:

The conversation turned and I asked him what he liked best about St. Augustine.  With a big smile on his face and dripping wet, he looked up at me with an ear-to-ear grin and said what he liked best about St. Augustine’s is how the faith is intertwined throughout all the subjects and our life at the school.  He continued to smile and intimated that being around good Catholics (teachers and students ) who knew their faith and lived it out was a tremendous inspiration and a model by which to live his life.   That’s what he liked best about St. Augustine’s.  His glowing words were truly inspiring to me.  We continued to surf, catching many happy waves.

That is success for any Catholic school.
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Fiat Mihi: The Gift of Teaching

Fiat mihi. Our parish’s celebration of Midnight Mass is always spiritually uplifting and deeply satisfying.  My wife, eldest daughter, and I sing in the choir. We have a lovely repertoire of Christmas carols, hymns, and instrumentals that we offer in honor of the birth of Our Savior, beginning well before Mass, well before many people have arrived. The usual favorites (Silent Night and O Little Town of Bethlehem) are intermingled with pieces reminiscent of older times and places (While By Our Sleeping Flocks, Puer Natus), Southern harmony (Star in the East), and a beautiful Bach cantata (“Break Forth”).The Mass is celebrated with as much pomp as we can muster – lavish incense and candles, several dozen altar boys, a young altar society girl bringing the Christ Child for the blessing of the crèche, Hassler’s Missa Secundam, Victoria’s O Magnum Mysterium. I love it more each year.

In the midst of this celebration, I was struck by how all of this, all of the Church’s wonderful history and traditions, the spiritual strength she has shown through the ages, began from one simple expression. “Fiat mihi, Let it be done to me.” This was how Mary, who was to become and now is, Our Lady, responded to Gabriel’s message inviting her to become the Mother of Jesus. How simple! And, I wondered whether this could be what we really want to embrace as teachers, and what we hope our students take away from their time in our Catholic schools.

theannunciation-frafilippolippi-1450black“Fiat mihi.” Humility and obedience first come to mind when I meditate on Our Lady’s words. She was willing to do whatever the Lord asked of her. She announces herself to be “The handmaid of the Lord,” a servant who knows she exists to obey her master’s commands. But  Gabriel’s message is not really a command; it is a gift offering. Through Gabriel, the Father invited Mary to become the Mother of Jesus. Gabriel reverences Mary as one being singled out for honor by God: “O highly favored one.” He tells her, “You have found favor with God.” He has the most special gift for you. You are to give birth to the long-awaited son of David! He will be the greatest gift ever, not just for you, but for all!

Humble obedience is the foundation of all virtue. It feels like and really is an acceptance of our status as servants, a renunciation of ourselves as the center of all our striving. But the reason the Lord wants this of us is so that we can receive all the amazing gifts He wishes to offer to us. The greatest gift is His love as we experience it through His Son, Our Lady, and the Church. We are not only blessed to receive this love, but we are also blessed to be invited to share it with others.

Education should make us more aware that all of our life is a gift, and that God, the great giver of gifts, has much more in store for us, if we will have the humility to ask for them, to receive them with joy, and share them with others. We learn this through the Scriptures, Theology, the Magisterium, Liturgy; through the beautiful virtues lived by the Saints; through the history of God’s care for the Church and mankind; through science and story, math and music and art; through the service hours we perform in His service to those most in need of love and generosity.

madonna-of-the-magnificatThis is a wonderful way to look at teaching. Teachers share the gifts of knowledge that we have received with the students the Lord has given us as gifts. If this is not unbelievable (how can my daily work in the classroom be all that important?) , it can be scary (my daily work in the classroom is tremendously important!). Zechariah found God’s gift unbelievable, and lost his ability to speak. Our Lady believed, but “was greatly troubled” when Gabriel addressed her with such honor. But in the end, she said, “Fiat mihi secundum verbum tuum.” Let us ask her, who received her gift through the overshadowing of the Holy Spirit, to beg Him to infuse our spirits with humble obedience in His service and our teaching with His gifts, so that we might come to share in her Fiat, and ultimately, in her Magnificat.



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Stoic Lies and Assisted Suicide

Frequently, I find immediate connections between readings and discussions of great authors and contemporary issues. In our last CIT webinar discussion, we considered St. Augustine’s analysis of all the views held by philosophers about happbzx4hchceae8xcdiness. St. Augustine points to one thing they have in common: they cannot accept that happiness is only possible in the next life. By and large the philosophers have to lie to themselves and others about the truth of the human condition. In fact (as the ancient poets saw), human happiness is extremely fragile. It is rarely achieved or maintained for any length of time, and it can never be secure.

The life, then, which is either subject to accidents, or environed with evils so considerable and grievous, could never have been called happy, if the men who give it this name had condescended to yield to the truth, and to be conquered by valid arguments, when they inquired after the happy life.

St. Augustine saved his strongest condemnation for the Stoics. They insisted that wisdom can make us securely happy in this life, yet at the same time hypocritically honored the wise man who, when faced by really terrible things like wasting sickness or torture, made a conscious decision to commit suicide . When the happy lie that happiness is ours for the choosing is overturned by the troubles that all human life is subject to, the Stoics held that the courageous man ends his own life and leaves its dishonorable miseries.

Earlier this week, a Washington Times article about assisted suicide revealed a strikingly similar dynamic. According to it, fear of pain is not the most common reason for requesting medication that will end life. Avoiding dependency on others is.

[The chair of medical ethics and health policy at the University of Pennsylvania’s medical school] noted that most of those who have used aid-in-dying laws are white, well insured and college-educated. “These are people who are used to controlling every aspect of their lives, and they want to control this aspect of their lives.”

In a strange way, this description connects today’s most successful with yesterday’s Stoics. Although they do not use philosophy to convince themselves that life has no real evils, the comforts of contemporary life have encouraged them to believe similarly that they have achieved happiness by their own powers. When they see that their powers will no longer be sufficient, that they will have to depend upon others to take care of them, they lack the courage to resign themselves to the reality of human life. Rather, they lie about courage itself and celebrate as courageous those who insist on controlling the manner and timing of their own death.

St. Augustineaugustine proposed a different view of happiness. There is a kind of happiness achievable in this life, but it is specifically Christian. Christians do not have to lie about this life. They know it is fraught with difficulties, sometimes terrible ones. But they also know that this life is not the only, nor the most fulfilling life. The heavenly happiness will come certainly for the faithful Christian. Resting in that knowledge, Christians can be happy also in this life:

As, therefore, we are saved, so we are made happy by hope. And as we do not as yet possess a present, but look for a future salvation, so is it with our happiness, and this with patience; for we are encompassed with evils, which we ought patiently to endure, until we come to the ineffable enjoyment of unmixed good; for there shall be no longer anything to endure. Salvation, such as it shall be in the world to come, shall itself be our final happiness. And this happiness these philosophers refuse to believe in, because they do not see it, and attempt to fabricate for themselves a happiness in this life, based upon a virtue which is as deceitful as it is proud.

Christians are unique in our ability to see this life for what it is — a life in which consolations are not missing but are not to be relied upon nor overvalued. Because of that, we can live authentic lives of virtue, marked by patience, courage and hope, even when faced with the terrible news of terminal illness.

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