Catholicism and Liberal Education


Several critiques and defenses of the value of a liberal arts education have found their way to my desk and computer screen in recent days. First is the 2013 report composed by the Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences (“The Heart of the Matter”) concerning low enrollment in the humanities. This report came amid the increasingly vocal questioning of the value of a liberal arts education by public figures, our own president included. More recently, in an Inside Higher Ed book review of Michael Roth’s Beyond the University, Glenn Altschuler (Cornell) addresses many of the common criticisms one hears concerning the liberal arts.

In his analysis of Roth’s book, Altschuler states that “Roth does not specify how liberal learning might ‘pull different skills together in project-oriented classes.’ Nor does he adequately address ‘the new sort of criticism’ directed at liberal learning. A liberal arts education, many critics now claim, does not really prepare students to love virtue, be good citizens, or recognize competence in any field.  As Roth acknowledges, general education, distribution requirements, and free electives are not effective antidotes to specialization; they have failed to help establish common academic goals for students.  And, perhaps most disturbingly, doubt has now been cast on the proposition that the liberal arts are the best, and perhaps the only, pathway to ‘critical thinking’ (the disciplined practice of analyzing, synthesizing, applying, and evaluating information).”

Against this critique, a number of defenses of the liberal arts have also appeared recently. The NY Times’ David Brooks, a member of the aforementioned commission, has defended the value of the humanities in pieces which range from explicit advocacy (“The Humanist Vocation”) to subtle leitmotif (“Love Story”). Elizabeth Corey (Baylor) has also written an excellent piece in First Things (“Learning in Love”) which emphasizes the affective dimension of a liberal arts education both in relation to the material being studied and the guide (professor) one encounters. “I am convinced,” Corey writes, “that the personal element in liberal learning cannot be valued highly enough.”

Apropos of this debate, I am currently reading – in free time which I do not possess – a book which recounts a seasoned writer’s adventure of going back to school and re-reading the classic canon of Western Literature by taking two Humanities classes at Columbia University (David Denby’s Great Books). Almost immediately, in the first chapter of this book, the author senses a conflict, a conflict which emerges over how to read these texts. On the one hand, one can read them from an intellectualist perspective; i.e., these texts do indeed form an intellectual canon and in order to be an “educated person” one has to be familiar with the words and thoughts of these “wise men.” On the other hand, one can read these texts from a post-modern perspective; i.e., these texts form a canon because people with the power to establish a literary canon have said “let it be” and it has been so. There is no greater or lesser value to these texts written by dead white males than any other texts, but one should be familiar with them – if for no other reason – than they have shaped the culture in which we now live.

There is, however, a third way of understanding education, and liberal education in particular.

In a lecture originally delivered to the Buenos Aires-based Christian Association of Businesspeople (“Educating in the Context of Culture”), Pope Francis proposes a vision for education “in which the fundamentals remain, and which remains foundational. Truth, beauty, and goodness exist. The absolute exists. It can, or rather, it should be known and perceived.” In other words, at the heart of liberal education is the pursuit of transcendental realities. A truly liberal education strives to lead the student towards his/her fulfillment by fostering a desire and capacity to attain perfections which cannot be divorced from their source. The third way of liberal education, therefore, is an ordering of the human person towards the transcendent.

WIndowIt is increasingly apparent today that universities without fidelity to an expressly Christian mission simply cannot provide this foundation. They are caught up, as the above author demonstrates, with either an intellectualist or post-modern perspective towards liberal education. At Catholic colleges and universities we have the privilege of building upon the foundation about which Pope Francis speaks. Preparing students to pursue virtue, to seek wisdom, and to love beauty can only take place from within a context which acknowledges their existence. If virtue, wisdom and beauty are merely ideas, then they are no more inherently worthy of pursuit – and perhaps far less so – than an economically rewarding career, the esteem of one’s peers, and the immediate satisfaction of one’s appetites.

A ‘liberal education’ means, quite literally, ‘to lead out’ (educere) to ‘freedom’ (libertas); not a freedom which is simply the multiplication of choices, but a freedom which allows one to pursue excellence. Those of us who are fortunate to teach from within the context of a Catholic education ought to be mindful of this great gift. The gift of being able to share, with our students, this journey towards authentic freedom and the transcendent source of all virtues.

Anthony Coleman teaches theology for Saint Joseph’s College Online.


Joy and Suffering: Living with ALS

In January 2011 I was giving a presentation on bioethics at my parish, and just after the presentation started a man hobbled in on a cane. A few months later I was giving another presentation on the same topic, and a man entered the room in a motorized wheelchair. I puzzled for a few moments because it looked like the same man. As I continued with the presentation I realized that it was indeed the same man. It was rather unnerving to be able-bodied, in good health, and speaking about ethical issues so closely related to the suffering of the sick, while this man, who was clearly suffering from a debilitating disease, was there listening intensely. I couldn’t help wondering what it was like to be grappling with these issues “from the inside”—so to speak.

Marty and I met soon afterwards. We discussed our common interests and goals: we were both striving to be good husbands and fathers. Marty recounted stories of work and play around the horse farm where he and his family live. He spoke about arranging horse jumps for his daughter Cecilia, clearing brush from the woods behind the house, laying up firewood for the winter, cleaning out the horses’ stalls, and myriad other chores. In our discussions about bioethics he drew upon his medical expertise, built up over eleven years as a successful, interventional radiologist.

Marty was also interested in my literary and theological background. He asked me to read the rudiments of his spiritual autobiography. I asked questions that prompted him to think more deeply about the meaning of the joys and sufferings he was experiencing. At times I felt as though I was giving him “work” to replace the professional life lost to ALS. And what a “worker” he has been! His spiritual autobiography, Joy and Suffering: My Life with ALS, was dictated through an iPhone into emails, initially, and then into a document that was edited by Christian Tappe of St. Benedict Press.


Photo of D’Amore Family at Lou Gehrig’s Disease – ALS website

In many ways, Marty is a typical American guy, but there is definitely something special about him. He is inspired by the meaningful lives other people lead, for example, by the doctors who first showed him the beauty of a medical career and motivated him to pursue it. He has been given given plenty of natural intelligence and talent, and as a young man he struggled to discover and develop himself. He worked hard at his profession, marveled at the good he could do with it, and reaped its rewards. He has been wildly successful—by American standards—in his profession, family, and lifestyle.

More importantly, Marty demonstrates a kind of spiritual excellence. Not the spiritual excellence of the great ascetics of history, who master temptation with an iron will honed through self-denial. Rather the spiritual excellence of one who has prayed with a child’s trust for a good life, lost himself in the confusion of growing up, found the way his talents could lead to success, and finally, as he achieved success, recognized something missing even before detecting the first symptoms of ALS. ALS focused his heart and mind on another kind of success: developing spiritual maturity. By slowly eliminating his physical mobility, ALS forced Marty to find new ways to love his wife, children, and friends. His book offers Marty’s explanation of what he has learned in the hope that his family can discover, with him, some joy within the tragedy that has befallen them all.

Spiritual conversion is the stuff of great literature and epic poetry, but we are not usually given the privilege of a guided tour of this process unfolding in the lives of our neighbors and friends. We all change profoundly as we move through life, and know that our neighbors change in similar ways, but rarely do we get the opportunity to understand that change from the inside. In Joy and Suffering: My Life With ALS, Marty describes the experience of suffering with ALS, depicting not only the intricacies of the disease but also the hard-won meaning of the suffering it has brought him and his family.

This blog post was adapted from the Foreword to the book Joy and Suffering: My Life with ALS by Martin J. D’Amore.

Grattan Brown teaches Ministry with the Aging, Sick, and Dying for Saint Joseph’s College Online.

Update: Marty D’Amore died on January 28, 2015 surrounded by friends and family.  He was laid to rest in Belmont Abbey monastery cemetery, a few 100 yards from the chapel where he often prayed.



Saint Mary Magdalene, pray for us

I had a definite yet indefinable sense of calm when I opened the envelope and saw the date and time that I have been assigned for my Oral Comprehensive Exam for my Masters Degree. Now mind you this calm had nothing to do with how academically prepared I was or the hours of reading and research that had gotten me to that point. It was more like a comforting nod from the Communion of Saints that, with will and grace, I would not be alone and should not fear and go forward with confidence. The date meant one thing and one thing only to me. It was July 22nd, the Feast of Saint Mary Magdalene and in an instant I was transported to my youth and the Immaculate Heart of Mary Sisters who taught me in elementary school. I remembered the sisters who had a particular devotion to Saint Mary Magdalene.

St Mary Magdalene.jpgThe sisters recounted the beautiful story of Mary Magdalene that I later learned was a conflation of virtually every Mary/Miriam in the New Testament. The mistaken identity of Mary of Magdala made for a wonderful story of redemption, hope and the power the Gospel and of a personal relationship with the Lord Jesus. In the years that followed I began to read more about the biblical Mary Magdalene who is named by all four of the Evangelists as one of the women who went to the tomb at first light on Easter morning. I learned of the Mary who was the first to experience the reality of the risen Christ in a Post-Resurrection experience. I learned of the Mary who was commissioned by the risen Lord Himself to go to the Apostles and proclaim the joyful Easter kerygma, “He is alive!” I learned that for these reasons she had been called the Apostle to the Apostles.

After all these years I am devoted to her and continue to pray for her intercession for me and for my students. And I always remember to give her her proper title…Saint Mary Magdalene…pray for us.

Susan O’Hara teaches theology for Saint Joseph’s College Online.

Marriage: Total Self-Gift

“Wow, you got your hands full.”Trendowski

If you’re a parent, it’s possible that you have heard this statement thrown in your direction before. My wife and I, as we approach our seventh wedding anniversary, have three children. I find it amazing when people say “you got your hands full” when I am only holding one of my children. Imagine if they saw me when all three were climbing on me at the same time, or when they’re hungry and in a seemingly rehearsed chorus they ask for different foods in harmony.

With the Third Extraordinary Synod of Bishops set to meet this Fall, Pope Francis and bishops from around the world will be discussing issues related to marriage and family life. I believe that the Catholic Church’s vision for married life offers a fresh and engaging perspective for our contemporary world. St. John Paul II declares, “The communion of love between God and people, a fundamental part of the Revelation and faith experience of Israel, finds a meaningful expression in the marriage covenant which is established between a man and a woman” (Familiaris Consortio 12). The approaching synod has caused me to reflect on how I live my vocation to married life.

In his book Divine Likeness, Cardinal Marc Ouellet suggests that since Vatican II and St. John Paul II, “the theology of marriage has been developed in terms of ‘gift’…” (Ouellet 150-151). Men and women are created in the image of God (cf. Genesis 1:26-27). One of the great theological insights of Vatican II was the idea that “man, who is the only creature on earth which God willed for itself, cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself” (Gaudium et Spes 24). Only through a gift of self can people find their true purpose and meaning in life. This is because a total self gift both participates in and manifests the divine life to which we’re invited.

Many of us are familiar with St. John Paul II’s Wednesday audiences which have become what we call the “Theology of the Body.” The giving of oneself in marriage, including in the conjugal act, is discussed in terms of a total gift of oneself. In a marriage covenant, husband and wife can manifest Trinitarian love, and the communion to which all people are drawn. For a husband or wife to hold back anything would be a betrayal of the communion which they’re guided by the Holy Spirit to manifest.

Cardinal Angelo Scola in The Nuptial Mystery draws from St. John Paul II’s “Theology of the Body” and describes how the perichoresis of the Triune God is based on total self-giving. This is described beautifully in the following:

Communio personarum exists in its perfection in the Three in One, because the Father gives himself completely to the Son without keeping anything of his divine essence for himself… The Son himself gives back the same, perennial divine essence. This exchange of love between the two is so perfect as to be fruitful in a pure state: it gives rise to another person, the Holy Spirit (donum doni) (Scola, 131).

The Father completely gives everything He is to the Son; the Son completely gives Himself back in totality to the Father. Their self-giving love is so total and so perfect that it is fruitful and a third Person arises, the Holy Spirit.

Cardinal Scola makes the connection between this Trinitarian relationship and the relationship between husband and wife. A husband and wife can give a total gift of self, offering all that they are, and in the context of the conjugal act, it is possible that a new person can be created. But Cardinal Ouellet also mentions that whether or not a new child is conceived, the love of the spouses is fruitful in that they are manifesting the Trinitarian gift of self (cf. Ouellet 172).

There is an element of sacrifice involved here. The spouses freely commit to each other, accepting the new life if God should bless them with a child. However, if a couple experiences difficulty in conceiving, they also accept the sacrifice associated with not being able to bear children. In both cases, the spouses who completely give of themselves in love have the opportunity to offer themselves as a spiritual sacrifice to the Lord (cf. Romans 12:1) and to participate in the economy of salvation by manifesting Trinitarian love through a gift of self.

So my response to my interlocutors should be “Yes, I have my hands full: they’re full with my gift of self to the Lord. I give Him all that I am in loving surrender in an act of self-emptying gift-giving aimed at being drawn deeper into the mystery of the Trinitarian communio personarum, and this participation in the divine life penetrates who I am, giving me the grace and love to offer myself as a self gift to my wife.” Do you think that would get their attention?

Either way, what is essential to remember is that God invites us to participate in His very own divine life and we can experience true love through sincere acts of self gift.

Edward Trendowski is Coordinator for Catechetical Resources for the Diocese of Providence and teaches pastoral theology for Saint Joseph’s College Online.


Top Ten Lessons Learned on My Camino

Last week I introduced why, during the Year of Faith, I decided to take a pilgrimage on the Camino de Santiago. This week, I would like to share the lessons I learned. I chose to walk 130 kms during my time on the Camino. They say that the Camino is symbolic of the journey of life.

Day One: I saw people of every nation drawn to this pilgrimage and would, as my walk unfolded, find out many of the reasons why people made this journey. Most pilgrims that I met, like myself, were journeying alone and, like myself, wanted time to reflect and find solitude from a very busy life. The hours of quiet reflection, prayer, and the rhythm of walking opened a bigger space for God. On the journey, I deepened my understanding of perseverance, virtue, trust, confidence, community, belief, doubt, fear and hope.

Days One through Three were days that I walked on my own, at my own pace and taking2013-08-14 09.52.13 in the beautiful sights and sounds of pure, undeveloped countryside. I met very few pilgrims. Due to the physicality of these three days, doubts crept in, and I wondered about the possibility of finishing. I realized I had packed too much and kept divesting myself of needless items. So began my Top Ten Life Lessons:

10. Take time to enjoy the beauty and the richness of the moment.  It does not return to you.  Allow all the senses to be engaged in the journey of life.

9. Work hard but also along the way take the moment for a siesta or moments of rest and rejuvenation because it is truly renewing and gives a whole new perspective. Find rest for the soul, mind and body.

8. Pack only what is needed for the day, God does provide both the strength and the necessities. Often the necessities come from those whose path you cross. As pilgrims, we shared the little we had and at the end of the day somehow one’s provisions seemed to have increased rather than decreased.

Recall that I shared that I had brought several pounds of prayer intention envelopes.   I promised that I would bring the envelopes back, unopened, so that the intentions would remain private. I had asked however, that a Scripture verse or inspirational saying be written on the outside. The weight of these intentions bore down on me as body aches increased. I was, on more than one occasion, tempted to leave them behind. I felt responsible to fulfill the promise and to pray for these intentions entrusted to me.   These envelopes and the people they represented became for me a living word. The Scripture verses and the inspirational messages became my spiritual nourishment along the way (having left all my spiritual books behind on day two). High above the plains, watching the rolling hills become visible as the sun drove the morning fog away, I pulled out an envelope and read 46:11 ““Be still and know that I am God!” In the moments I thought I could go no further, Mother Theresa’s words were before me, “Be faithful in small things because it is in them that your strength lies.” My marching song became what my eye doctor wrote on his envelope, “Holy Spirit, live in me, possess my mind, my heart, and my soul.”

Day Four. I prayed for companions to walk with as it was going to be my longest day of 2013-08-17 12.54.45walking and a rather strenuous terrain. The prayer was no sooner out of my lips than four women said “buen camino”, which means “good way” and in Spanish asked if I would like to walk with them! The envelope that I read this day had this beautiful prayer: “Gracious God thank you for the gift of today. Refresh me! Invite me to discover your presence in each person that I meet, and in every event I encounter.” I continued learning lessons:

7. If walking is like virtue… the more it is practiced, the stronger we become and the easier it is for me to practice a particular virtue.

6. Like the walking staff, lean on God. Leaning not on my strength but on the staff (God) I kept my footing when I’d trip against a stone. In the pilgrimage of life, look to God to find guidance and help up the big hills along the path.

The final part of the Camino becomes much busier with pilgrims who are walking the minimum required for the “compostela,” a signed certificate of completion.   These last remaining days spoke to me about life’s journey, our destination, the joys and struggles of life. Somehow, this stage of the journey gave me pause to think of the last stages of life. More people, commercialization, and less silence began to edge into my solitude and take my focus off my purpose for this journey. The path markers which were so very clear and visible along the way seemed to become less so closer to the end of the pilgrimage.

5. It is work to maintain silence and solitude. Silence and solitude is necessary to hear God’s voice and to discern his will. Don’t get caught up with the stream of harried people without focus on the true meaning of the journey.

4. When one is older the challenges of life are more difficult, what was once easy to accomplish, due to fatigue and weakness, becomes harder. Every aspect of our journey matters and prepares and strengthens us for how we will finish the pilgrimage.

3. Like the markers along the path, we must be certain that we keep looking for the sign-posts of life, keeping always before our eyes what is needed for the journey: Christ, the Sacraments; the commandments and beatitudes, prayer, and community. Thus we can be assured that we are on the right path.

2013-08-22 12.52.11My last day of walking seemed endless, so often I thought I was there, and then I realized I still had miles to go. I yearned to see the sight of the Cathedral. It was so close yet it seemed so far, uncertainty and doubt crept in challenging my trust in God and my peace. Then suddenly there was the Cathedral in all her magnificence larger than life!

Exhaustion invading every fiber of my being, the sight was so radiant, so welcoming, so consoling. Doubt is cast out, hope restored. I run (permit me my delusion here,   I walked faster anyway) towards the Cathedral with sheer joy. I hear in my mind Isaiah 40:43 (written on front of one of the envelopes), “But those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles, they will run and not grow weary, and they will walk and not grow faint.” I entered the Cathedral and on the side altar, placed my many, many intentions on it and had an overwhelming sense of the living reality of the communion of saints. While I carried the intentions of many, the many who gave me their intentions carried me with their prayers and the words they had written for me to meditate upon. During my journey, I met eight people, who were significant to my journey. It was during my time in the Cathedral that I again, without any plan, saw these eight people in the Lord’s house. My final two lessons:

2. Let us go rejoicing to the house of the Lord. Because of my relatives and friends
I will say, “Peace be within you!” Because of the house of the LORD, our God,
I will pray for your good. (Psalm 122). Our destination is to the Lord’s house and we do not make the trip alone. We will be greeted by those who have gone before us.

And the number one lesson I learned…..

1. God is my true, everlasting Companion and He will not leave me orphaned.  

Lisa Gulino is Director for the Office of Evangelization and Faith Formation in the DIocese of Providence and teaches ministry for Saint Joseph’s College Online.