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"The Transcendent Dimensions of Study and Teaching": The Pope on the Purpose of Education | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | Ignatius Insight | September 21, 2010

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"This transcendent dimension of study and teaching was clearly grasped by the monks who contributed so much to the evangelization of these islands.... It was the monks' dedication to learning as the path on which to encounter the Incarnate Word of God that was to lay the foundations of our Western culture and civilization." — Benedict XVI, Address to the World of Catholic Education, St. Mary's University College.

"It is not often that a Pope ... has the opportunity to speak to the students of all the Catholic schools of England, Wales and Scotland at the same time. And since I have the chance now, there is something I very much want to say to you. I hope that among those of you listening to me today there are some of the future saints of the twenty-first century. What God wants most of all for each one of you is that you should become holy." — Benedict XVI, Address to Pupils at St. Mary's University College.

In his English visit, the Holy Father gave two brief talks to English teachers and students. He was at St. Mary's University College at Twickenham. The first talk was to the faculty. "The task of a teacher is not simply to impart information or to provide training in skills intended to deliver some economic benefit to society; education is not and must never be considered as purely utilitarian." Right away, Benedict associates himself with the great tradition of a "liberal," that is, "freeing" education. The important things are worth knowing for their own sakes, not simply because they are useful, even though they may be useful.

Education looks to the "whole person." It is about "wisdom." Wisdom, moreover, is "inseparable from knowledge of the Creator." Wisdom is about how all things fit together in their causes and relationships. Benedict makes this affirmation about the Creator in a nation in which leading scientists make headlines by claiming that they can explain everything without God. They cannot, of course. They inevitably end up with some variant of something coming from nothing. They think that because they can understand scientific and mathematical formulae, they do not need to explain how these formulae came to be or to be embedded in this cosmos prior to their knowing them.

Benedict recalls the great monastic tradition in English history, which includes Westminster Abbey itself. "It was only natural that the monastery should have a library and a school." One might add that libraries and schools were "natural" in a religion that searched for the reason of things, including divine things insofar as it could comprehend the ways and nature of God. In a remarkable sentence, the Pope adds: "It was the monks' dedication to learning as the path on which to encounter the Incarnate Word of God that was to lay the foundation of our Western culture and civilization." Along the path of learning we encounter words. We see that they refer to things that we identify. The what things are have their origins in word. This thing is called this, that thing is called that. What things are refers to a beginning Word in which all things are made.

Benedict acknowledges the missionary work of many religious orders. "Religious have a unique contribution to offer to this apostolate above all through lives consecrated to God and through faithful, loving witness to Christ, the supreme Teacher." Obviously, those who do not know need to be taught. God in His providence passes on to us what He has revealed of Himself through teaching, not by coercion or an ever-changing new revelation.

"The content of teaching should always be in conformity with Church doctrine." This conformity is stressed as a criterion and guarantee of truth. This is orthodoxy. "The life of faith needs to be the driving force behind every activity in the school, so that the Church's mission may be served effectively, and the young people may discover the joy of entering into Christ's 'being for others.'" We are persons who relate to others in our very being. We do this though truth and service.

In his talk to students, the Pope, rather strikingly, simply tells them that they should be "holy." Imagine that! We presume that these English students do not scratch their heads and ask themselves "What does it mean to be holy?" The pope does not talk of justice or of learning, but of holiness. The pope tells the students that God loves them, more than they could ever imagine. But the pope admits: "Perhaps some of you have never thought about this before." We can well imagine.

The pope explains what he means. All have had people they look up to: sports figures, entertainers, and so forth. "What are the qualities in others that you would most like to have yourselves? What kind of person would you really like to be?" The pope tells them not to be content with "second best." Many things are good, including having money, having a profession. Such things may make us famous but do they make us happy? Happiness is something we all want, but one of the great tragedies in this world is that so many people never find it." Why do they not find it? "Because they look for it in the wrong places. They key to it is very simple—true happiness is to be found in God."

It takes "courage" to place our hope in God above all others. Again, Benedict calls on everyday experience. We want our friends to reciprocate our interest in them. "God wants your friendship." But we have to control our habits that can prevent us from responding to Him. We need to become concerned with those who need us. "All the work you do is placed in the context of the growing friendship with God, and all that flows from that friendship."

Things fit together. "Always remember that every subject you study is part of a bigger picture. Never allow yourselves to become narrow. The world needs good scientists, but a scientific outlook becomes dangerously narrow if it ignores the religious or ethical dimension of life, just as religion becomes narrow if it rejects the legitimate contribution of science to our understanding of the world." A school should provide a rounded education and a Catholic school should "help all students become saints."

While sundry English protesters sought to identify the pope with every aberration known to man, the pope simply told students to become saints. There is a transcendent dimension to our lives. Learning leads to words, to their meaning. Words lead to the Word, their origin in the heart of the Godhead, the meaning of things. The foundation of our civilization is found in the learning that knows that man did not bring himself out of nothing. It lies in the wisdom that knows we are created in the Word.

We are images and likenesses of God. God is holy. We are simply asked, even in England, to be what we already are created to be.

Related Ignatius Insight Essays and Articles:

Reading Without Learning: On Not Missing "Sublime Passages" | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
Catholic Commencements: A Time for Truth to Be Honored | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
The Molochs of Modernity | Dr. Jose Yulo
Ratzinger and Regensburg: On What Is a University? | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
Ivory Comedy Clubs: The Tragedy of Modern Education | Dr. Jose Yulo
On Learning and Education | An Interview with Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
Reading Without Learning: On Not Missing "Sublime Passages" | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
The Inequalities of Equality, or All Things Being Equal, Not Everything Can Be Equal | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
On School and Things That Are Not Fair | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
On Teaching the Important Things | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
The Life of the Mind | An Interview with Roger Kimball

Fr. James V. Schall, S.J., is Professor of Political Philosophy at Georgetown University.

He is the author of numerous books on social issues, spirituality, culture, and literature including Another Sort of Learning, Idylls and Rambles, A Student's Guide to Liberal Learning, The Life of the Mind (ISI, 2006), The Sum Total of Human Happiness (St. Augustine's Press, 2007), The Regensburg Lecture (St. Augustine's Press, 2007), and The Mind That Is Catholic: Philosophical and Political Essays (CUA, 2008). His most recent book from Ignatius Press is The Order of Things (Ignatius Press, 2007). His new book, The Modern Age, is available from St. Augustine's Press. Read more of his essays on his website.

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