Faith Matters: The role of faith in a Catholic college education

  • Michael F. McLean, President, Thomas Aquinas College, New England Contributed photo

President, Thomas Aquinas College, New England
Published: 1/4/2019 3:57:29 PM

(Each Saturday, a faith leader in Franklin County offers a personal perspective in this space. To become part of this series, email religion@recorder.com)

Too often, colleges emphasize the apparent conflict between faith and knowledge, diminishing or removing any trace of faith from the curriculum and from the student experience.

This is not the case with Thomas Aquinas College, which, pending approval from its California accreditor, will open a branch campus in Northfield in August. TAC heeds the words of John Paul II, who wrote that “faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth…”

John Paul II advised that faith teaches that the pursuit of truth requires the cultivation of virtue — “reason must be aware that the journey is not for the proud, but must acknowledge that the journey is grounded in the fear of the Lord.” (Proverbs 9:10)

In addition, faith exhorts reason to realize that pondering and analyzing all that science can teach about the wonders of the natural world opens a way to the knowledge of the God Who is the source and summit of everything around us: “…from the greatness and beauty of created things comes a corresponding perception of their Creator.” (Wisdom 13:5)

Writing nearly 30 years before John Paul II, the founders of Thomas Aquinas College argued in the College’s founding and governing document, “A Proposal for the Fulfillment of Catholic Liberal Education,” that faith plays an essential role in Catholic liberal education. They knew, and we who lead the College today believe, that Catholic undergraduate education is best characterized as faith seeking understanding — that is, that the essential purpose of a Catholic college is not to ignore, denigrate, or set aside faith, but rather to educate under the light of faith. In other words, to reflect upon, analyze and more deeply understand the things the Christian faith proposes for belief.

Such reflection and analysis can be of great assistance as students consider the most serious and difficult questions — for example, the question of the origin and cause of moral rectitude.

Early in their education, our freshmen encounter Plato’s Protagoras in which Socrates argues that all wrongdoing is the result of ignorance about good and evil and pleasure and pain. In other words, virtue is knowledge — the view that if one knows what is good, one will surely do what is good. This is a perennial view in moral philosophy — we have only to consider how much effort and resources are expended on the premise that people will surely change their behavior if only we provide them with more instruction and information.

Our students are encouraged to study the Protagoras carefully. In so doing, they do not escape the perplexity aroused by Socrates’ arguments and they begin to formulate fundamental questions about the moral life in light of Socrates’ discussion. As Catholics, however, who adhere to their faith and acquire as the result of their education an adequate understanding of that faith, they come to appreciate more deeply the words of Ezekiel and St. Paul when they teach that moral goodness and the good acts which follow upon it are the result of graces which not only illumine the mind, but which touch the heart as well. This is an appreciation that likely would not come were it not for the profound challenge posed by a non-Christian philosopher.

This is but one example of faith aiding reason to reach its full potential. Through wisdom based on faith, a student’s natural appetite for knowledge can be more perfectly satisfied. The believing student might see “through a glass darkly” those things which the non-believer will not see at all.

At Thomas Aquinas College, we promise students a journey powered by the wings of faith and reason. Required courses in Catholic theology, philosophy and Scripture are supplemented by required courses in natural science, mathematics, literature and the study of modern and contemporary philosophy. Students grow in knowledge by studying the great books in small classes marked by vigorous discussion.

Working harmoniously together, faith and reason will help our students acquire the beginnings of wisdom and, we hope, help them to one day see God face to face. (1 Cor. 13:12)


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