The Philosophical Apprentice

“Only one who devotes himself to a cause with his whole strength and soul can be a true master. For this reason mastery demands all of a person.” Albert Einstein

On the Difficulties of Being a Catechist

This is text of a short paper I recently wrote for a Catechetical class I recently took

Being a catechist is a tough job. You have to have a working knowledge in a lot of subjects and by being a catechist you have in one fell swoop become a bible scholar, a philosopher, a liturgist, a church historian, an amateur archaeologist, and perhaps most challenging task of all, an armchair theologian. But what worries me most about being a catechist is not the challenge so much of having to learn a vast amount of material but the fear that when we catechists are called upon to demonstrate the reasonableness of the faith we profess, the modern truncated view of reason and the widespread defects in our educational system may render that faith incomprehensible. To be clear, I do not want to insinuate that people today are any less intelligent than in times past and in many ways people today know more than any other generation in human history.  People today are adept at using computers and personal electronic devices; they are comfortable denizens of the information age.  But I worry, to paraphrase T.S. Eliot, that what we have gained in information we have lost in wisdom. The task before us it seems is to recover the shape and scope of a life of reason the exercise of which, I remain confident, can only lead us to its author who is reason itself.

So if we have suffered, for the sake of argument, a decline in our ability to use reason what exactly have we lost? I am not here to point fingers at society or at the schools but in the main it is undeniable that there has been a precipitous decline in reading and critical thinking skills throughout society, not to mention a widespread deterioration in historical knowledge. In just one example, the Wall Street Journal recently reported that “SAT scores for the high-school graduating class of 2012 fell in two of the test’s three sections, with reading dropping to the lowest level in four decades on the college-entrance test”[1]. Getting in to college doesn’t seem to help much either since one major study recently found “that large numbers didn’t learn the critical thinking, complex reasoning and written communication skills that are widely assumed to be at the core of a college education”.[2] Further examples could be multiplied ad infinitum indeed one need look no further than the internet, particularly the comments section. The question to ask at this point is whether this decline in literacy and critical thinking skills could have an effect on our catechesis and our propagation of the faith? Since people today “feel” rather than think can we expect any other that people would place less emphasis on whether a given teaching was objectively true than whether it “works for me”? And just how do we determine whether something is objectively true anyway? Isn’t everything relative anyway? The answer I am sad to say is yes, there has been a major decline of basic reasoning skills throughout society and this decline in reason among Catholics has led to the decrease in our ability to think critically about the faith, created confusion about church teaching, weakened our catechesis and will continue to do so until we stand up and do something about it.

So what went wrong and how are catechists to fulfill one of the core duties of adult catechesis –the development of the rational foundations of the faith – when many of our own intellectual foundations (myself included) are so shaky? Explanations abound for this educational malaise. For my part, I believe one of the main culprits was the gradual decline of the classical model of education, particularly in Catholic schools. The classical model was the educational model that lay at the heart of the Western World for over 2, ooo years. Classical education sought to cultivate

 Wisdom, eloquence and virtue ….The purpose of education was to transform, to elevate, and to refine the mind and the soul… At the center of classical education is an emphasis on the Good, the True, and the Beautiful. Because these universal values serve as the building blocks of classical learning, the classical arts are timeless and proven, and have been known to produce many eloquent confessors and wise leaders. Our communities today are in dire need of just these sorts of men and women. In an endless pursuit of the latest educational dogma, many schools no longer have the capacity to judge what is Good, True and Beautiful, much less teach it. [3]

At the heart of the tradition in classical education was the Trivium – the three subjects of grammar, rhetoric, and logic – all rigorously purveyed through an intense grounding in the Latin language.  The genius of this approach was not the use of Latin language per se but the fact that it afforded pupils a glimpse through the medium of a foreign language into the nature  and usage of language itself (difficult to do with our own native language). The end result was the formation of students who knew how to use language correctly, who knew that the right word mattered, and that the right word meant something.

The decline in classical education also meant a declining emphasis on the study of logic. For most people today logic, if they have any experience of it all, comes across as a bizarre, esoteric art performed with mathematical hieroglyphs, useful for science perhaps but not something particularly suited for everyday speech and thought. In contrast, traditional Aristotelian logic, the kind taught to students for over 20 centuries, was always a logic of ordinary speech. Unfortunately, traditional logic has virtually disappeared. Peter Kreeft, a prominent Catholic philosopher, noted that 40 years after he began teaching logic to incoming freshman there were “only two full-length texts of traditional Aristotelian logic in print”. [4] Kreeft went on to point out that the transition from traditional logic to modern symbolic logic (essentially an artificial mathematical language used to express relations among quantities) had, in his opinion, destroyed his student’s ability to understand analogies. [5] The proof of this Kreeft believes is the recent decision by the Board of the Scholastic Aptitude Test to abolish the section on analogies because, in Kreeft’s  words, “ upcoming students would no longer be able to understand them”.[6]

Beyond the inability of first year freshman to understand analogies, Kreeft sees an even more baleful, if not sinister, impact in the widespread loss of Aristotelian logic. The reason being is that Aristotelian logic and by extension the tradition of classical education supported epistemological and metaphysical realism. This meant that there were such things as universals or essences which were objectively real and existed in things which could then be known through concepts and terms. In other words our intellects allowed us to grasp what it was that made an apple an apple or what made one moral act virtuous and another a vice. In this scheme it was the intellect through the use of Aristotelian logic that told us what a thing was. On the other hand, the decline of traditional logic and the rise of symbolic logic meant that the latter, due to its quantitative nature in Kreeft’s view, supported the development of nominalism which is the view that universals did not exist but were only names we gave to things which we believed shared certain appearances or commonalities. Thus things like trees and apples and snakes and our fellow human beings no longer shared a common nature nor any inherent meaning in themselves. The biggest problem with nominalism however is that it is wrong, spectacularly so. For a classic refutation look no further than G.K. Chesterton who pointed out that “If, as the nominalist says, ‘all chairs are different’ how can he call them all ‘chairs’?”[7] In the end, the rise of nominalism has led to a crisis in meaning, for if our concepts have no inherent meaning then they can have any meaning we assign to them. The worst part is that nominalism has made all knowledge, most especially moral knowledge, problematic.

We can begin to see now why this has had such an impact on western thought not to mention our catechetical efforts, particularly as they related to moral issues. For today, as Kreeft puts it, “most

people find the traditional language about “unnatural acts” not only politically incorrect and offensive, but literally incomprehensible. This is because they no longer accept the legitimacy of the very question of the “nature” of a human act—the thing symbolic logic disallows.” [8] For a concrete example look no further than the raging debates over abortion. In our nominalist culture there is no such thing as ‘human nature’ by virtue of which a fetus would be entitled to all the protections of the law afforded to persons. And increasingly who counts as a person is becoming more and more elastic. We have become more willing as a culture to countenance calls for outright infanticide. Such beliefs as in the case of Peter Singer will even garner you the prestigious Ira W. DeCamp Professorship of Bioethics.

So what do we do? Well the first thing we can do as catechists is to present the Catholic faith as an eminently reasonable faith and to do so we’ll have to embody reason and restore its rightful role in  discerning the good, the true and the beautiful. And what a wonderful thing that is because we Catholics believe and, better yet, can prove, that we can know things about the world and God! We are a religion of philosophers and we should be shouting that fact from the rooftops. We will also, most of us anyway, have to remedy the gaps in our own education. That means in my opinion getting a good grounding in the traditional liberal arts particularly philosophy and traditional logic. This will be difficult no doubt since the kind of education I am advocating has become rare even in catholic schools and colleges. But it can be done. In this endeavor, I maintain,  we would profit greatly were we to return to and make greater use of the Neo-Scholastic resources which emerged in the wake Pope Leo XIII’s proclamation Aeterni Patris which called for the restoration of Christian philosophy. I for one would like to see resurgence in the use of the old scholastic manuals in philosophy and theology. Sadly neglected in our day the old manuals were the stalwart of a seminary education in the past and charged with the task of imparting a lot of information (often very abstract) in a short amount of time they were for the most part wonderfully written and succinct. In other words they were perfect for self-study for today’s busy catechist and their use would improve both our store of knowledge about the faith as well as our ability to think clearly and logically.

Yet nonetheless these will likely seem strange and unfamiliar concerns to most of our fellow parishioners many of whom do not believe there is an appalling lack of knowledge of the faith and of the Bible among Catholics or that there is an ongoing crisis in catechesis. It may be a daunting task that awaits us but I believe there are many signs for hope. First of all there is of course the assurance that the gates of hell will not prevail against the Church. But secondly, the idea of a return to a classical education is making a strong comeback in Catholic education circles especially among Catholics homeschoolers. Going forward we catechists will have to play our part as the Apostles of Reason. It will be a lonely path for sure but we can be sure Catholic culture will catch up with us. The Truth that we proclaim is that God is the author of reason itself and that Truth is written into our very hearts.




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