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The True Education of Catholics: Absolute Truth, Personal Holiness, and Communal Charity


Education, from the Latin ex-ducere, means “to lead out”—so the logical question is, lead out from what? From ignorance, error, and sin, into knowledge, truth, and holiness. It is a reflection of the journey of Israel, led from slavery in Egypt to freedom in Canaan. True education presupposes the Christian revelation of man’s fallen plight and of the wisdom from above that can heal him and elevate him.

Admittedly, there is no merely human teacher who is altogether free from ignorance, error, and sin. But as we know, some sins are qualitatively worse than others; some errors are more massive and pernicious than others; and some kinds of ignorance are far more terrible than others. Teachers do not have to be already perfect to be effective guides to the Eternal and Incarnate Wisdom that stands beyond all of us. As long as they are tethered to the truth that sets us free, as long as they hint at the beauty of holiness, as long as they exemplify a hunger and thirst for reality, their students will be blessed indeed. Their students will catch a glimpse of what it means to be fully alive in Christ.

The point of Catholic education is not to form perfect beings on the model of already perfect beings but to initiate a lifetime of apprenticeship to the one true Master, Jesus Christ, freeing the mind from the debris of a collapsing culture and freeing the heart from the shackles of self-centered desire. Students who receive such an education are granted the opportunity to find a spiritual freedom that is more precious than all the riches of this world. And when they go out into the world after graduation, they will prove over time to be the leaven that lifts the loaves, the salt that flavors the food.

In an address to educators in Madrid in August 2011, Pope Benedict XVI made these penetrating remarks:

At times one has the idea that the mission of a university professor nowadays is exclusively that of forming competent and efficient professionals capable of satisfying the demand for labor at any given time. One also hears it said that the only thing that matters at the present moment is pure technical ability. This sort of utilitarian approach to education is in fact becoming more widespread, even at the university level, promoted especially by sectors outside the University. All the same, you who, like myself, have had an experience of the University, and now are members of the teaching staff, surely are looking for something more lofty and capable of embracing the full measure of what it is to be human. We know that when mere utility and pure pragmatism become the principal criteria, much is lost and the results can be tragic: from the abuses associated with a science which acknowledges no limits beyond itself, to the political totalitarianism which easily arises when one eliminates any higher reference than the mere calculus of power. The authentic idea of the University, on the other hand, is precisely what saves us from this reductionist and curtailed vision of humanity.

Jacques Maritain affirmed that “young people expect more: Their hearts do not invoke evil in life; on the contrary, they look and aspire beyond with the innate hope that the adventure of life will be promising and full of sun, rich in meaning, worthy of being lived.”

We live in an age peculiarly bent on running away from truth, veritas—be it the truth about God and Jesus Christ and the Church, the truth about oneself, friendship, marriage, and family, the truth about society and the political order. The human heart does not, it cannot, cease to long for the truth, but there is no guarantee that its desires will remain uncorrupt. There is incorruptibility only in God and the blessed.

“For this I have come into the world, to bear witness to the truth. Every one who is of the truth hears my voice” (Jn 18:37), said our Master, the Lord Jesus, making Himself our model. “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (Jn 8:31-32). What do we see in the life of Jesus? A witness to truth, indeed the embodiment of divine truth, who meets with scorn, rejection, torture, and death, who lets Himself be buried like a seed in the soil, and bursts forth in the glory of an inexhaustible fruitfulness, yielding across the ages a harvest beyond all human reckoning.

“Truth is fire, and to speak the truth means to illumine and to burn.”[1] When Jesus spoke, His words were kindling; when He acted, His deeds were light; when He looked into men’s hearts, His gaze was a sword that cut the sincere from the false, the pious friend from the pious fraud. What is the sign that our studies are bringing us a growing intimacy with incarnate Truth? We hear His words echoing in our hearts when the book is away. We notice how, without being able to say when it came or where it came from, suddenly His light is cast on our problems or the problems of others with whom we live and work. We are caught by His gaze, only for a moment it seems, yet layer after layer of elaborately crafted thoughts are simplified and unified, or a dense tangle of feelings is loosened into calm. And, of course, we are being carried by our studies, we know not how exactly it happens except that grace is surely the better part of it, into a more profound understanding of the mystery of Jesus Himself—the mysteries of His life, death, resurrection, ascension, all the mysteries of His humiliation and glory. As this is taking place in us, through us it will begin to happen in others touched by our words or deeds. Fire, even just embers or sparks, gets around. The good fire of sound doctrine, nourished by a devout life, will not be without offspring. If fragmentation is the problem, fire is the answer, for it belongs to fire to melt what is hardened, to purify the dross and unify the precious.

The first and most important step in bringing life to the world is an unceasing quest for personal holiness. Superficial activism has always been and always will be a great temptation for fallen human beings, inveterate do-gooders that we are. If there is a problem, the first suggestion is to hold a conference, interview professors, create a new government office, or raise taxes. Nobody suggests that we should stump off to our local church for prayer or undertake penance. The thought that the quickest path to sanity might be sanctity (if I may borrow a phrase of Frank Sheed’s) occurs to very few. And yet this is the secret of secrets. I should cultivate the one vineyard that is surely mine to cultivate, and in doing this, I will begin to make a lasting difference in the world—lasting because it occurs at the deep level of the spirit. Saint Catherine of Siena puts it well: “Any soul, in cultivating its vineyard, cultivates that of his neighbor as well. The two are so closely united that no one can do good or evil to himself without doing good or evil to his neighbor at the same time. Together, you form but one single, universal vineyard.”[2] When my vineyard begins to bear fruit, it bears an abundance of fruit that can be shared with our hungry neighbors. If I have nothing within me, I shall have nothing to give—as the old saying recalls: nobody can give what he doesn’t have.

This being said, however, there can also be a subtle temptation to “go it alone,” to create a little private getaway where one can indulge one’s selfish desires rather than submit to the school of charity, which is the common life. Only there is one perfected, like stones tossed in the waves until they are smoothed. Living with other people is the safest and surest route to perfection if one perseveres in it, just as refusing to make the sacrifices demanded by a common life can lead to egoism and sterility.

These dynamics are vividly displayed in marriage.[3] Only a fool could promise young lovers that their married life together will be paradise on earth. In reality, it is a hard path of reciprocal sacrifice, and the joys are not sufficient to carry the day. It takes the kind of love Saint Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 13, which is a realistic, energetic, patient, even stubborn love that can say: “I don’t feel like doing this or that, or suffering this or that, but I will do it, for the love of God and for my spouse to whom I promised my fidelity.” It is at moments like this that the sacrament—or for religious, the vow—tests the reality of one’s desire to become a saint. And it is in and through moments like this that God really sanctifies us. Once again, it is the gradual smoothing of a rough stone by the waves and weather, the circumstances of our life, with their companionate graces.

Once again, Benedict XVI offers perceptive remarks that seem perfectly suited to Christians in the modern world:

No one can be a Christian alone; being a Christian means a communion of wayfarers. Even a hermit belongs to a wayfaring community and is sustained by it. For this reason it must be the Church’s concern to create pilgrim communities. The social culture of Europe and America no longer offers these wayfaring communities. This brings us back to the previous question about how the Church will live in this increasingly dechristianized society. It will have to form new ways of pilgrim fellowship; communities will have to shape each other more intensely by supporting each other and living in the faith.

The mere social environment is no longer sufficient today; we can no longer take for granted a universal Christian atmosphere. Christians must therefore really support one another. . . . Close association with monastic communities will certainly be one way to have an experience of the Christian reality. In other words, if society in its totality is no longer a Christian environment, just as it was not in the first four or five centuries, the Church herself must form cells in which mutual support and a common journey, and thus the great vital milieu of the Church in miniature, can be experienced and put into practice.[4]

In the pilgrim Church on earth, too, life together is in crisis: a widespread crisis of authority and obedience, of poor catechesis and sectarian seductions, of horizontalized liturgy and shabby theology, of depleted religious houses and scant religious vocations, of marriage and family fragmented and unsupported. All of these problems have a definite social face; they are not problems of isolated laymen or clerics, they concern the entire body of the faithful, spread throughout the world in local churches. Yet here, too, the Lord is trying to teach us a hard lesson about trust, unconditional trust in His providence over times and seasons. It is crucial to get beyond the facile opposition of optimism (“Things are rocky, to be sure, but basically sound and strong”) and pessimism (“The Church is being torn apart before our very eyes and there’s nothing we can do to stop it”) and to come through to the Gospel perspective gained by meditating on the mysteries of the life of Jesus. The Church has always been and will always be living again the life of her Lord, not merely once and in one small part of the world, as He lived His life, but many times, in as many places as the seed of the Gospel is planted. For her some ages will predominantly be ages of obscurity and poverty; others, of betrayal, agony, and death; still others, of resurrection, triumph, glory. And these experiences of advance, decline, and new birth or breakthrough will be mixed together—in individual hearts, within communities, families, dioceses. Again, Ratzinger’s remarks are apropos:

Maybe we are facing a new and different kind of epoch in the Church’s history, where Christianity will again be characterized more by the mustard seed, where it will exist in small, seemingly insignificant groups that nonetheless live an intensive struggle against evil and bring the good into the world—that let God in.[5]

“Small, seemingly insignificant groups”—doesn’t that sound like us? It is the story of David and Goliath all over again, on a cosmic scale. Later in the same interview, he returns to the same theme: Christianity, he said, “finds itself again and again in the position of the mustard seed, but that is also precisely what constantly rejuvenates it. . . . I am quite certain that it will continue to be present anew and in new ways—also as a vital presence in history—once again forming places of survival for mankind.”[6] A poignant thought: places of survival for mankind. And we might add, places of revival and rediscovery, of rejuvenation and resurrection. In Ratzinger’s realistic view, what we find in the world today are not Christian societies, faint echoes of Christendom, but simply scattered seeds of faith and hope, seeds surviving in hostile conditions, carried by the wind of the Spirit to every corner of the world, quietly taking root. “Amen, amen, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (Jn. 12:24). We are not alone, though we may often feel quite alone, even abandoned. Jesus here, as in everything else, is our model, our shepherd, and our consolation. He was the lonely grain of wheat that had to die, if His immaculate bride was to be born from His pierced heart. We enter into His loneliness just as we enter into His intimate communion of love with the Father in the Holy Spirit. His love, which ever embodies itself in the Church and her life, is the guarantee of our ultimate victory.

What does the modern world find it most difficult to believe in? I would not say God or Jesus Christ or the Church. These can be accepted—at a certain distance, with an idiosyncratic interpretation and a generous dash of criticism. What I think people are tempted to doubt is the possibility, much less the reality, of true interpersonal love, unselfish, ungrasping, open-handed, loyal; the reality (and this amounts to the same thing) of a true community that welcomes each member for the person he is, that achieves a genuine, though fragile, peace and joy in the very fact of togetherness. People can become so accustomed to viewing relationships as commercial transactions, instinctual tangles, or implicit rivalries of power that they easily grow jaded about “love.” International affairs seem to teach us that the tried and true solution for serious problems is violence and lots of it. In all these ways and more, the very notion of a “common good” becomes, to many, quaint at best, sinister at worst. This is because nothing, or very little, in their range of experience has borne convincing witness to goods worth living for, worth dying for. Above all, they have not seen the beauty of a life—the beauty of many lives—working and resting in harmony, devoted to the supreme and unqualified common good, the ever-blessed Trinity. That is a witness we can always and everywhere give in the world, just by being faithful in the work entrusted to us, peace-loving and peace-making, “loving the brethren” whom God has given us, the spouse or children or relatives or friends God has placed in our lives, to be welcomed as Christ.

In this sense, when it comes to community life, we can learn something from all the great religious founders. We can, for example, learn from Saint Benedict the lessons of warm hospitality, mutual upbuilding, and even more, persevering communal prayer, that tremendous symbol of the passionate love that unites the bridal Church to her divine Bridegroom. And we can learn from the example of St. Francis of Assisi one of the simplest and most helpful ways of building up fellowship:

We recall how the gentle and charitable Francis was wont to reprimand any friar whom he saw with a gloomy countenance, reminding him that dour looks were the marks of the devil’s disciples, whereas God’s troubadours, who were called upon the life the hearts of men to spiritual joy, ought to wear serene and smiling faces.[7]

One of our very greatest saints is Thomas Aquinas, a thirteenth-century Dominican, who was a towering intellectual even among the great intellectuals of his age. Although he wrote dense works of theology bristling with arguments and distinctions, at the end of his life, at the request of the Pope, he composed lyrical, stirring poetry for the Feast of Corpus Christi. He had been a poet in his heart long before the verses came from his mind. Maritain was right to say of the saint’s vast body of work: “The achievement which dominates the flux of the ages … overflowed entirely from the fulness of contemplation in a heart united to eternity.” Thomas had been a poet because of the Cross he loved, for in the Cross is the beauty of a love that spills itself out in radiant waves of mercy—the kind of mercy Saint Francis imitated in his abandonment to Lady Poverty, who taught him how to sing with delight of every creature of God.

Even if, in comparison with Franciscans, Dominicans are not as likely to be spoken of as “God’s troubadours,” the underlying lesson is the same for all of us who strive to be poor in spirit and, perhaps, penniless in pocket. In our world there is abundance of misery, a flurry of privations, from dour looks to devilish deeds. God wants to touch the world through us, through the many gifts He bestows on us. Yes, God is already in all things by His presence, essence, and power, as Saint Thomas teaches, but what He wants most of all is to be present in souls in a more special and exalted manner by the gift of sanctifying grace, which allows for the mysterious indwelling of the divine Persons. Catholics should be the preachers of this presence: Emmanuel, “God with us.” When Jesus walked on the earth, power went forth from Him to destroy the devil’s works and to draw souls into divine friendship. The same Lord dwells among us until the end of time, in His mystical body, in His Eucharistic body, in the good works His Spirit inspires in us. Always He is seeking the many, the scattered, and striving to make them one, gathered together in His name, for their happiness, for His glory. Let us cling to Him, that His grace and truth may find a home in us and a ready channel into the world.


[Parts of this article appeared in The Dominican Torch in the Spring and Summer of 2005.]



[1] L. Schefer, quoted in Carl Schorske, Fin-de-siècle Vienna: Politics and Culture (New York: Vintage, 1981), 217.

[2] The Dialogue, ch. 24, cited in Henri de Lubac, Catholicism: Christ and the Common Destiny of Man, trans. Lancelot C. Sheppard and Sr. Elizabeth Englund, O.C.D. (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1988), 77. This is the antithesis of the attitude we find placed in the mouths of sinners by the prophet Isaiah: “Keep to yourself, do not come near me, for I am set apart from you” (Is. 65:5).

[3] See “Marriage: Cross and Crown,”

[4] Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Salt of the Earth: Christianity and the Catholic Church at the End of the Millennium, trans. Adrian Walker (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1997), 264–65.

[5] Salt of the Earth, 16.

[6] Salt of the Earth, 16 and 122, emphasis added.

[7] Liam Brophy, “Antithesis of Franciscanism,” Franciscan Studies 18.2 (1958).

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