Today I was torn between two topics—observances, actually—that seem apropos to the discussion of professional development: today is the feast of the “Angelic Doctor,” St. Thomas Aquinas, and this week is the observance in the United States of Catholic Schools week.
Aquinas is the thirteenth century Dominican friar/philosopher/ theologian whose writings and teachings have shaped Catholic teaching and thinking more than any other non-Biblical writer. (Many would argue the same could be said of St. Augustine, but we’ll debate that on his feast day.) For our purposes here, it is helpful to look at his academic world, the high Middle Ages. This was the golden age of the university: Paris, Oxford, Bologna, Cambridge, Salamanca, Padua, Siena, and Pisa among others. The key point about medieval universities in these times before the Reformation is the curriculum. European universities were the seat of Catholic thought; popes, bishops and kings turned to universities for answers to thorny matters of faith and morals.
What is remarkable about Aquinas, aside from his personal holiness (and battle with weight), is his creation of the “ultimate curriculum” or Church lesson plan. His most famous work is his Summa Theologica, an outstanding attempt to both organize and identify what we would call today natural and divine truth. The inspiration for this type of synthesis came, surprisingly, from Aristotle, a fact that caused Aquinas considerable grief in his own day. It was not bad enough that Aristotle was a pagan philosopher several centuries before Christ; the very copies of Aristotle, Plato and the other pagan Greek philosophers were preserved and passed to Aquinas and his peers by Islamic scholars. Double trouble for St. Thomas!
But within a few decades of his death St. Thomas’s structure and content of natural and revealed knowledge was the acknowledged structure of Catholic education and research. In fact, in his 1879 encyclical Aeterni Patris Pope Leo XIII designated St. Thomas Aquinas’s thought and works as the “official” philosophy and theology of The Church. Aquinas and the medieval universities he invigorated are the model of every interdisciplinary Catholic teaching institution today—university, high school, elementary school. What is precious about Catholic schools is not just the quality of faith formation, indispensible as this is. The added component is the integration of all the arts and sciences into the creation and plan of God. Catholic schools do not exist to turn out good little engineers; they exist to turn out engineers with the Gospel vision of enhancing the quality of human life, the alleviation of suffering, and wonder at the mechanical world of God’s ordering.
Having said all this, we are faced with the catechetical challenge that in the U.S., according to the NCEA, only 2,000,000 minors are in Catholic schools and learn their faith in Aquinas’s interdisciplinary setting. While I have no hard data, my impression is that most post-secondary school Catholics study in state colleges or private non-Catholic institutions, nor do I know what percentage of adult Catholics participate in college-level adult faith formation programs in their home parishes or dioceses.
I know from experience that Catholic Schools Week can grate on the nerves of parish faith formation staff, who rightly and wrongly feel like the ugly ducklings in the parish formational thrust. The relationship between parish school and religious education program is complex, and trust me, will be discussed time and time again here. But one principle will endure down the road: the need for strong interdisciplinary academic excellence in all formative ventures. It is interesting to me that barely twenty years after Christ’s death the Church was in desperate need of a thinker who could interpret the Jesus experience—thank God for St. Paul, and later the evangelists. With the death of the Apostle John and the end of the Revelation Era, the Spirit has given birth to great minds—the Augustines and the Aquinases—and the institutions to perpetuate them: monasteries, universities, seminaries, parish schools, CCD and its successors. Aquinas, were he alive today, would hold all institutions of faith formation to the same standard of excellence and the same project: faith seeking understanding.
A Housekeeping note: I have awakened my webmaster to add more pages to this site so that I can install “Uncle Tom’s Book Nook” as a guided summary for your personal reading and development.