How to Study Theology (and not quit your day job)

When considering the possibility of taking some theology classes, or even pursuing a degree, it’s often the objections that hold sway rather than the movement of the Spirit. What can you do with that? Do you have a back-up plan?  Isn’t that a waste of money?

The pressure to do something practical that will lead to employment is immense.  And yet, our hearts are restless…The desire is there, but the justification is sometimes hard to come by.

Those who take the plunge give a wide variety of reasons for doing so – some quite specific, others barely communicable. Here are three reasons you might be considering the formal study of theology.

You work for the Church in some capacity and want professional development.

Whether you are a catechist in a parish, a permanent deacon, or a vice-chancellor of an archdiocese, continuing formation in the faith is crucial.  No ministry is minor. Though advanced study may or may not mean an increase in salary, it will bring an increase in confidence and a deeper relationship with Christ.

The beauty of theology is that its subject matter is infinite.

You’ve recently come to a greater appreciation of your Catholic faith and feel the need to know more.

Conversion is a powerful thing. When your faith is awakened, you crave a deeper relationship with the Lord and a greater knowledge of His revelation. Your desire to live your faith in your home and professional life is strong, but the know-how is lacking. Even twelve years of Catholic school is not enough!

The personal encounter with Jesus sparks a desire to learn everything possible about Him.

You feel God calling you to something, but you don’t know what it is.

When asked why they decided to study theology, so many students say that they really don’t know-they just felt that God wanted them to do it. Theology students range from traditional-age college students searching for their vocation to retirees looking to grow in the faith and serve in their parishes. The diversity among students is as great as within the Church herself.

So, you are feeling the call to study theology, but you can’t leave your employment. Or move to a new city. Or go into large debt. It is just too impractical. But wait – there’s more! It is, in fact, possible to study theology and not quit your day job! Here’s how.

The Saint Joseph’s College Online Theology program makes it convenient and affordable to earn a theology degree, or just take some classes. The program is completely online offered in a self-paced environment with monthly start dates and offers the lowest tuition of any online Catholic theology program.

The college offers an array of programming, including a Master of Divinity, Master of Arts degrees in Pastoral Theology, Sacred Theology, and Advanced Diaconal Studies, a Bachelor of Arts in Theological Studies, and a variety of certificates in Catholic theology at the undergraduate, graduate, and post-graduate levels. For the neophyte, a non-credit course on The Catechism for Catechists is a perfect beginning.

New certificate programs in Black Catholic and Latino Catholic communities prepare pastoral ministers serving those populations, both of which are changing as they grow. Once predominantly African-American, the Black Catholic population now includes many refugees from Africa, making the population very diverse. Likewise, the Latino community is representative of a number of Spanish-speaking countries, each with a unique culture.

Mindful of both the ecumenical and ecological mission of the Church, Saint Joseph’s College has recently partnered with Gratz College of Philadelphia, to offer a joint Graduate Certificate in Jewish-Christian Studies starting March 1, and with the Laudato Si Institute in Granada, Spain, to provide an International Certificate in Christianity and an Integral Ecology starting April 1.

The Saint Joseph’s College Online Theology Program is rooted in, and professes fidelity to, the teachings of Jesus Christ and the doctrines and heritage of the Roman Catholic Church, seeking to combine faith with reason in the pursuit of academic excellence. Its faculty exemplifies its philosophy that effective ministry requires a solid theological foundation, grounded in solid Catholic doctrine, with a deep spiritual and pastoral orientation.

Every faculty member has received the mandatum from the bishop of the local Diocese of Portland.

So here is the fourth reason to study theology-because you can!

The Gospel tells us to “be not afraid” to “go by another way!” Studying theology may be the road less traveled, but it is one that is spiritually enriching and has practical applications for our work, both in the Church and in the temporal world. Saint Joseph’s College is a guide on that road, and we’d like to invite you to walk with us.

The choice to study theology may not get the enthusiastic nod from family and friends. It will require humility, and even a small martyrdom. It is “another way,” and an often unexpected one. But it is a path you do not walk alone-the SJC community accompanies you.

Carmina Chapp and Ann Koshute teach theology for Saint Joseph’s College Online Theology Programs.
(Note: This article first appeared as sponsored content on Crux.

Love and Education

Worth Revisiting WednesdayThis post originally appeared on August 31, 2014. With a new school year beginning, it is worth a revisit!

On Father’s Day, I posted a piece on God’s paternal love for us, drawing from both the Hebrew Scriptures (Ex 34:6-8) and the New Testament (Lk 15:11-32). Recently, I read a presentation delivered by Pope Francis, then Cardinal Bergoglio, entitled “The Educational Process” which describes the relationship between teacher and student in similar terms. In this paper, Pope Francis describes the difficulties which teachers, especially college and university professors, can encounter that derive from the contemporary culture which we inhabit. These difficulties include facing special interests within the educational system which “are alien to education itself,” and the ever-increasing phenomenon of the participants in the educational process (i.e., students, teachers, and parents) becoming disengaged with their own formation and the formation of those in their charge. “We have become spectators,” Pope Francis writes, “and ceased to be protagonists of our personal history and our life.”

Supper at EmmausTo bridge these divisions, Pope Francis proposes a pedagogy of “encounter.” By this he means that the educational process ought to be characterized by a type of love. Drawing from the New Testament, and the Greek learning inherited by the early Church, Pope Francis distinguishes between three types of love. Eros is a type of love which seeks its own satisfaction. Naturally, it has come to be associated with romantic love but is certainly not limited to that sphere. Whenever we have a deep desire which seeks consummation – and many of the mystics speak of the transformation and sanctification of this desire for God – it is, so to speak, erotic. Agape, on the other hand, is a type of love which is self-sacrificing. It expects nothing in return, but wills the good of the other. Christ’s self-sacrifice on the cross is the example par excellence of agapic love; so much so that, in the early Church, the commemoration of Christ’s sacrifice in the Eucharist was referred to as the ‘love (agape) feast.’

School of AthensBut education is not built upon either of these senses of love. A third type of love, which is the foundation of a pedagogy of “encounter,” is philia. Derived from the Greek word for ‘friend,’ philia is a love which is neither totally self-seeking nor totally self-sacrificing. Rather, philial love is given with the expectation of reciprocity; thereby forming a communion of persons. “It is a love of relationship,” Pope Francis writes, “participation, communication, and friendship.” Pope Francis is not advocating, however, that professors become “BFF’s” with their students. Philial love in this context is characterized by a concern for the good of the student and a recognition of the good in the teacher. It is much closer to the relationship between a parent and a child than the relationship of peers to each other. It is, one might say, covenantal.

Pope Francis sees this love as the foundation of a pedagogy of “encounter” because it is only within this type of friendship that both teacher and student can “encounter” each other as persons. Within this friendship, the student is not simply ‘student x,’ but Joseph. The teacher is not simply ‘my professor for subject y,’ but Dr. Mary. Again, as Pope Francis writes: “For this educational encounter to happen, we teachers […] need affection. Trust in your affection. Love what you do and love your students.”

Christs Charge to PeterIn closing, the type of love which Pope Francis speaks of as the foundation of education is most uniquely illustrated at the end of St. John’s Gospel (21:15-19). After his glorious resurrection, Jesus asks Peter three times if he loves him. Naturally, and as one reads in every scriptural commentary on this passage, Jesus asks this question of Peter three times as a way of redeeming Peter’s three denials of him on Holy Thursday. But what is lost to the English reader is that Jesus asks Peter if he ‘loves’ (agapas) him twice. The final question to Peter is: “Do you love (phileis) me?” In other words, Jesus twice asks Peter if he would sacrifice himself for him, but on the third occasion he asks Peter: “But are we friends?” It is not enough for Peter to repent of his denials by offering himself for Jesus. No. In order to “tend Jesus’ sheep,” the two must have an active, living relationship: a friendship. In order to form others in Christ, one cannot simply view one’s ministry as a sacrifice. There must be present a friendship with Christ that one wishes to share with others. Similarly, a true education cannot be founded solely upon the idea of serving the other – let alone the simple communication of data – but upon a living and relational encounter: a friendship.

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

Mencius and Misericordia

Worth Revisiting Wednesday!

Mencius leaps right over the dichotomy of mind and heart: “all people have a mind and heart which cannot bear to see the suffering of others,” that is, misericordia.  Mencius thought with his heart and felt with his head.

“All people have the mind/heart that cannot bear to see the suffering of others, my meaning is this:  When people see a child falling into a well, they feel distress, not to gain friendship with the parents, nor to seek the praise of neighbors, nor because they dislike the reputation of in humanity if they did not rescue the child. A person without misericordia is not a person; a person without the feeling of shame is not a person; a person without the feeling of deference is not a person; and a person without a feeling of right and wrong is not a person.  The feeling of misericordia is the beginning of humanity; the feeling of shame is the beginning of righteousness; the feeling of deference is the beginning of propriety; and the feeling of right and wrong is the beginning of wisdom.  People have these four beginnings, feelings, just as they have four limbs. Having these four beginnings, but saying they cannot develop them is to destroy the people.  If anyone with these four beginnings, feelings, in them knows how to give them extension and development, the result will be like fire beginning to burn or a spring beginning to shoot forth. When developed, they will be sufficient to protect all the people.  If they are not developed, they will not be sufficient to serve even one’s parents.” 

The Book of Mencius,  2A:6

The four beginnings are innate moral qualities that bridge the dichotomy of head and heart. For Mencius, they are the core of humanity and the center of education.  Analogously, these four beginnings help us understand that our educational mission is essentially religious, but specifically intellectual.  Our educational mission should neglect no significant dimension of human possibility and experience.

The one thing necessary here is not to draw an unnecessary dichotomy.  Our merciful minds and hearts, fully engaged in education, seek to understand and encompass the full breadth of human experience. Our Sister of Mercy, Catherine McAuley, challenges us as educators to see higher education as a work of mercy, as an activity of a compassionate mind and heart, as misericordia.

Daniel Sheridan is Professor of Theology at Saint Joseph’s College and former Director of the Online Theology Program.

 

About Our Foundress: The Educational Vision of Catherine McAuley

The educational vision of Venerable Catherine McAuley, foundress of the Sisters of Mercy, Catherine McAuleyis rooted in Christian ideals and values. For Catherine, the ministry of education is, in essence, a work of Mercy, that is, a wholehearted, compassionate, and integral response to people’s learning needs. In her writings, Catherine views educational endeavors as a way to live out Jesus’ mandate to love others through enabling their personal and professional development, including attuning them to the importance of social responsibility.

Catherine grew up in an Irish society rampant with poverty, illiteracy, unemployment, and religious bigotry against Catholics. In response to the needs of her day, she developed educational opportunities ranging from pre-school to the adult level. Thus, she sought to provide others, especially poor young women and children, the chance to improve their human situation. Clearly, Catherine understood that education is essential to the process of the betterment of both individuals and society.

Catherine McAuley possessed various personal qualities that enabled her to become an excellent educator. She was a visionary woman of keen intellect who inherited a propensity for independent thinking from her mother, Elinor. Catherine was open-minded and flexible. She readily adapted to changing circumstances and possessed a remarkable ability to be practically oriented. Her very way of being reflected her profound commitment to Christian values.

Catherine was consummately human and in her humanness is found her holiness. She looked upon love as the cardinal virtue and reminded her Sisters that charity refreshes and enlivens and that love of one’s neighbor is living proof of the love of God.[2] Catherine’s loving nature was visible in the compassionate way in which she welcomed poor persons into her life. She literally spent herself, her time, energy, talents, and financial resources, to enable the poor to live dignified lives. Throughout cities and villages in Ireland and England, Catherine and her Sisters provided economically disadvantaged persons food, clothing, shelter, and educational experiences rooted in Christian principles.

Daily, Catherine spent substantial time in prayer. Oftentimes, she rose early in the morning to eke out a segment from her busy schedule to rest in God’s presence. Such experiences taught her to trust God completely. In a letter to Sister M. Angela Dunne, for example, Catherine queries and then advises: “Tell me all the news you have about your school, sick poor, and your little children. … Put your whole confidence in God. He will never let you want necessities for yourself or your children.”[4]

According to Catherine, to be genuine, the work of the Mercy educator needs to be rooted in an ever deepening communion with God, the source of one’s generosity and courage in carrying out the tasks of one’s profession. Catherine viewed teaching as an act of prayer and praise of God. For her, to teach is to express in word and deed that God is Love. In essence, according to Catherine, the work of the Mercy educator is meant to be a potent expression of the love of God and others.

Referring to the cross of trials or opposition in life, Catherine perceptively notes that “Some great things which God designs to accomplish would be too much joy without a dash of bitterness in the cup.”[5] This reflection is applicable to the educator who experiences diminishments such as misunderstandings, the inability to respond to the needs of some students, or overwork. The educator understands, with Catherine, that experiences like these can occasion the birthing of some form of new life – a spirit of patience and humility, prayerfulness, acceptance of the cross, an attitude of mercy and love, and enthusiasm for service.         

In and through her abiding respect, love, and concern for the neediest of her day, Catherine demonstrated her commitment to the social justice dimension of her educational vision. She understood that to be merciful is to act justly by being in solidarity with poor persons. She was convinced that to live mercy entails extending practical, active love to starving, homeless, sick, uneducated, and unemployed persons. Catherine’s statement: “The poor need help today, not next week,”[6] conveys the urgency she felt for the neediest. She insisted that loving poor persons means empowering them, especially through education, to become the architects and agents of their own future. While consistently responding to people’s immediate needs for food, shelter and clothing, Catherine sought to effect systemic change by establishing educational institutions. Integral to her strategy for fostering such change, she not only established schools for the economically disadvantaged, but also founded pension schools in which middle-class students learned the importance of social responsibility.

Present-day Mercy educators, like those of us at Saint Joseph’s College, are called to follow in the footsteps of Catherine and her Sisters, who wholeheartedly committed themselves to live out an ethic of social justice. Today, such educators extend Catherine’s legacy in this regard by means of creative, innovative responses to the signs of our times.

In 1993, the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas adopted the following statement concerning the mission of Mercy higher education

The Institute of the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas recognizes that higher education is integral to the mission of the Church and is an effective expression of the Mercy mission. The ministry expresses commitment to the pursuit of truth and knowledge and to the furtherance of the social, political, economic, and spiritual well-being of the human community.

Advancing this mission in the 21st century entails providing students rigorous, academically excellent liberal arts and professional preparation that promotes students’ holistic development within the context of the theological and ethical principles and values that Catherine embraced and embodied, including

  • The teachings of Jesus Christ and the heritage of the Catholic Church;
  • God’s Mercy and the call to live mercy;
  • Commitment to serving the needs of poor, sick, and uneducated persons;
  • A spirit of hospitality;
  • Reverence for each person and all other forms of creation;
  • Special sensitivity to the needs and status of women and children;
  • Active concern for and response to the needs of those who suffer material poverty;
  • Ecumenicity in embracing all persons who seek truth and moral values;
  • The primacy of life-impacting Christian learning and spiritual formation; and
  • An understanding of and response to local, national and global issues of social justice

Those of us who share in the ministry of Mercy higher education are called to uphold the values of mercy and justice that were uppermost in Catherine’s lived spirituality. In Catherine’s footsteps, we are commissioned to be heralds and agents of God’s good news of mercy and justice.

Sr. Marilyn Sunderman, R.S.M. teaches theology for Saint Joseph’s College.

[1] A Sister of Mercy of the Diocese of Oklahoma, The Spirit of M. Catherine McAuley (Oklahoma City: Sisters of Mercy – Mt. St. Mary’s Academy, 1922), 15.

[2] Ibid., 12.

[3] Ibid., 46, quoting Catherine McAuley.

[4] Roland Burke Savage, S.J., Catherine McAuley: The First Sister of Mercy (Dublin: M. H. Gill & Son, Ltd., 1949), 238, quoting Catherine McAuley.

[5] Familiar Instructions collected by first Sisters of Mercy (St. Louis: Vincentian Press, 192), 136.

[6] Bolster, 11, quoting Catherine McAuley.

Christmas Octave Saints, Liberal Arts, and the Problem of Suffering

St. StephenThe week after Christmas begins with the liturgical celebration of St. Stephen, martyred as a young man, and ends with the celebration of the long-lived Pope St. Sylvester. But St. Sylvester could very well have become a martyr, having begun his papacy just before the Emperor Diocletian’s widespread, horrific persecution of the Church. Both men braved the demands of leadership and the possibility of death for their faith and for those whom they led.

How might they have prepared themselves to confront suffering and death? The scant information about either man’s life makes it impossible to know much. As a theology professor, I wonder if education had a role. St. Stephen’s brilliant defense of the Gospel before the Sanhedrin leads some to think he might have studied under Gamaliel. St. Sylvester, a Roman, might have received a liberal arts education and in any case governed St. Sylvestera Church led by bishops like St. Athanasius and Eusebius of Caesarea, whose family background, work, and writings give telling signs of their liberal arts training.

Ancient Roman culture relied on the liberal arts education to prepare its leaders, but today we struggle to show its practical value or wonder if it should have any. To enlarge my own perspective, I have begun reading through The Liberal Arts Tradition: A Documentary History, edited by Bruce Kimball. In his introduction Kimball explains that some have held the liberal arts tradition to teach an ideal conception of the human person, others have held it to teach eloquence through the study of language, literature, and rhetoric, and still others have held it to pursue knowledge of the truth of things, especially of the human person.

While recognizing the value of each of these three approaches, Catholic theological and philosophical traditions lean upon the last one because it seeks to know perennial qualities of reality, often denoted by “nature,” as in human nature. Belief in God encourages this search for the perennial qualities of things, which are created “good” by God. What is this goodness?

Let us consider another of these “big questions”— “What follows this earthly life?”—to illustrate the kind of thinking that the liberal arts wedded to the Catholic tradition seeks to promote. A liberal arts approach will examine various responses to this question and their implications. We can compare two approaches to care for the dying, one recognizing a Christian vision of the afterlife, Midwife for Souls: Spiritual Care for the Dying by Kathy Kalina, and a secular vision that remains agnostic, Living at the End of Life: A Hospice Nurse Addresses the Most Common Questions by Karen Whitley Bell.

In a nutshell, here is the difference between these two views of dying. If one does not recognize any life after death, then dying is about finding and celebrating a new depth of meaning in the life one has lived, as Bell illustrates:

For now, what I’ve come to understand is that we live among people who understand, not what will be after the last breath, but what can be with this breath, for this life, this moment. They live with a clarity of purpose, with compassion, kindness, and grace.… From them I’ve learned that it’s possible to live that afterlife – that paradise, that heaven, that rebirth – to forge a better existence, now (202).

By contrast, if one recognizes an actual life beyond this one, then dying can be a preparation for that life, even if one’s last years or months also involve discerning and celebrating the meaning of one’s earthly life. It is the time when the person not only detaches from this life but attaches to the next.

The “spiritual tools” of the caregiver help the dying examine their lives, and therefore easily draw upon the liberal arts tradition of leading an “examined life.” I do not know whether Kalina or Bell ever pursued such an education, but I do know that the liberal arts tradition offers rich versions of the spiritual tools each offers.

Take narrative for example. Bell teaches spiritual lessons primarily by telling the stories of her patients. She then adds open questions, often suggested by the stories and designed to help people explore their deepest values. Kalina too encourages the practice of “life review, sorting out the events of life and finding meaning” (20).

Given her theological convictions, Kalina’s primary tool is prayer and her primary narrative is scripture. Only God overcomes sin and brings the person into union with Himself. The caregiver asks God to receive the dying person into heaven and to help her help the dying and their families perform the spiritual work of preparation. For example, Kalina observes that some patients begin to moan at the very end of the dying process. She does not assume that this moaning is caused by pain because she knows from scripture that it could be the work of the Holy Spirit within the person: “as St. Paul explains in the Romans 8:26, ‘when we do not know how to pray properly, then the Spirit personally makes our petitions for us in groans that cannot be put into words’” (35-36). When Kalina hears this groaning, she first looks for indications that it has caused by pain. But if there are no such indications, she does not try to quiet the moaning and instead prays with the Spirit in the dying person. It might do productive spiritual work.

Whether one encounters the dramatic martyrdom of St. Stephen or the many trials of St. Sylvester, one handles suffering and death better with some personal preparation and with the help of others. The liberal arts tradition remains well equipped with narratives expressing the meanings people have found in life, suffering, and death.

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

More Lessons from the First Grade

Love of learning can began in kindergarten and first grade.

Yes, some of us loved school from day one. In the spring 1952, I was in first grade at Saint Teresa of Avila school in an Irish and Italian American neighborhood in Brooklyn. My family had a television, one of the first in our apartment house. The Lone Ranger, Howdy Dooty, Kate Smith were among my favorites. The McCarthy hearings annoyingly interfered with my shows!

Alistair CookieOne Sunday I was watching Omnibus hosted by a young Alistair Cooke [Alistair Cookie to Sesame Street fans!]. I saw Australian aborigines dancing around a fire. The voiceover said this was how human beings lived 50,000 years ago. The next day I told Sr. Mary Charlotte that I had seen how people lived 50,000 years ago. She said it must have been an anti-Catholic show, since the world was created 5,000 years ago according to the Bible. On three counts, I knew that she was wrong (perhaps even then TV had more authority than a mere school teacher!). (1) The world was indeed older than 5,000 years [I had seen the dinosaurs at the Museum of Natural History[1]]. (2) The Bible did not teach that [my father, who I thought was the smartest man in the world, read me the first chapter of Genesis; we could not find any dates]. (3) The Catholic Church in which I was totally immersed could not be teaching something so intuitively wrong [years later in high school I found out that in 1952 the Church did not teach that the world was 5000 years old]! Thus I knew she was wrong on these three counts. However, I was polite and didn’t tell her. But I knew that it was an important “Catholic thing” to get it right. I think my vocation as a Catholic intellectual began right there.

My mother who did not finish the 9th grade always stressed that her six children get as much education as possible. She also tweaked her highly educated son by giving him a copy of All I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. I told her that I indeed learned all I needed to know in the Catholic kindergarten taught by the same Sr. Mary Charlotte who taught me first grade. The lesson I learned was that I needed to learn a whole lot more. Thus even from kindergarten and first grade one can have a vocation to life-long learning.

Here perhaps is an intimation of a solution for Catholic higher education’s failure of nerve. If only we would remember our first grade and the love of learning that it inspired!

Daniel Sheridan is Professor of Theology at Saint Joseph’s College of Maine and former Director of the Online Theology Program.

[1]In 1952, one of the great Catholic intellectuals of the 20th century, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, was working in the fossil warehouse of the Museum of Natural History, about six miles from where I was watching Omnibus.

Love and Education

On Father’s Day, I posted a piece on God’s paternal love for us, drawing from both the Hebrew Scriptures (Ex 34:6-8) and the New Testament (Lk 15:11-32). Recently, I read a presentation delivered by Pope Francis, then Cardinal Bergoglio, entitled “The Educational Process” which describes the relationship between teacher and student in similar terms. In this paper, Pope Francis describes the difficulties which teachers, especially college and university professors, can encounter that derive from the contemporary culture which we inhabit. These difficulties include facing special interests within the educational system which “are alien to education itself,” and the ever-increasing phenomenon of the participants in the educational process (i.e., students, teachers, and parents) becoming disengaged with their own formation and the formation of those in their charge. “We have become spectators,” Pope Francis writes, “and ceased to be protagonists of our personal history and our life.”

Supper at EmmausTo bridge these divisions, Pope Francis proposes a pedagogy of “encounter.” By this he means that the educational process ought to be characterized by a type of love. Drawing from the New Testament, and the Greek learning inherited by the early Church, Pope Francis distinguishes between three types of love. Eros is a type of love which seeks its own satisfaction. Naturally, it has come to be associated with romantic love but is certainly not limited to that sphere. Whenever we have a deep desire which seeks consummation – and many of the mystics speak of the transformation and sanctification of this desire for God – it is, so to speak, erotic. Agape, on the other hand, is a type of love which is self-sacrificing. It expects nothing in return, but wills the good of the other. Christ’s self-sacrifice on the cross is the example par excellence of agapic love; so much so that, in the early Church, the commemoration of Christ’s sacrifice in the Eucharist was referred to as the ‘love (agape) feast.’

School of AthensBut education is not built upon either of these senses of love. A third type of love, which is the foundation of a pedagogy of “encounter,” is philia. Derived from the Greek word for ‘friend,’ philia is a love which is neither totally self-seeking nor totally self-sacrificing. Rather, philial love is given with the expectation of reciprocity; thereby forming a communion of persons. “It is a love of relationship,” Pope Francis writes, “participation, communication, and friendship.” Pope Francis is not advocating, however, that professors become “BFF’s” with their students. Philial love in this context is characterized by a concern for the good of the student and a recognition of the good in the teacher. It is much closer to the relationship between a parent and a child than the relationship of peers to each other. It is, one might say, covenantal.

Pope Francis sees this love as the foundation of a pedagogy of “encounter” because it is only within this type of friendship that both teacher and student can “encounter” each other as persons. Within this friendship, the student is not simply ‘student x,’ but Joseph. The teacher is not simply ‘my professor for subject y,’ but Dr. Mary. Again, as Pope Francis writes: “For this educational encounter to happen, we teachers […] need affection. Trust in your affection. Love what you do and love your students.”

Christs Charge to PeterIn closing, the type of love which Pope Francis speaks of as the foundation of education is most uniquely illustrated at the end of St. John’s Gospel (21:15-19). After his glorious resurrection, Jesus asks Peter three times if he loves him. Naturally, and as one reads in every scriptural commentary on this passage, Jesus asks this question of Peter three times as a way of redeeming Peter’s three denials of him on Holy Thursday. But what is lost to the English reader is that Jesus asks Peter if he ‘loves’ (agapas) him twice. The final question to Peter is: “Do you love (phileis) me?” In other words, Jesus twice asks Peter if he would sacrifice himself for him, but on the third occasion he asks Peter: “But are we friends?” It is not enough for Peter to repent of his denials by offering himself for Jesus. No. In order to “tend Jesus’ sheep,” the two must have an active, living relationship: a friendship. In order to form others in Christ, one cannot simply view one’s ministry as a sacrifice. There must be present a friendship with Christ that one wishes to share with others. Similarly, a true education cannot be founded solely upon the idea of serving the other – let alone the simple communication of data – but upon a living and relational encounter: a friendship.

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

Integrity: An Uncommon Good in Service of the Common Good

A slide presentation by Daniel Sheridan.
(Note: Presentation will download to your computer for viewing.)

CrucifixIntegrity

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Daniel Sheridan is Professor of Theology at Saint Joseph’s College of Maine and former Director of the Online Theology Program.

 

 

 

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.

 

Everything to Gain

Related article on the SJC Theology Blog

“No one believes anything unless one first thought it believable . . . Everything that is believed is believed after being preceded by thought . . . Not everyone who thinks believes . . . but everyone who believes thinks, thinks in believing and believes in thinking.” — St. Augustine

Believing is a form of knowing where what is known is revealed by God, but then draws in all else that is known. Believing incorporates all human operations within itself. Believing involves seeing, hearing, touching, smelling, tasting, inquiring, imagining, understanding, conceiving, formulating, reflecting, marshalling and weighing evidence, judging, deliberating, evaluating, deciding, speaking, writing. This believing or Catholic faith attends to what God reveals, seeks to know what it means, reasons about wWIndowhat it implies, and is responsible for what must be done. Catholic faith co-inheres with reason, expresses itself through reason, reasons about itself, and reasons about all that is. Such an understanding of faith can help us overcome a culture of timidity. It can help us focus the study of theology at Saint Joseph’s College.

(1) Catholic faith co-inhering with reason defends the whole point of education by affirming the ability of human reason, and all of its operations, to discover and reach the truth. The reigning post-modern academic philosophies are critical of human ability to reach the truth. This hyper-criticism, methodical doubt turned back on itself, is hardly a solid ground for a community of learning. In John Paul II’s words,

The currents of thought which claim to be postmodern merit appropriate attention. According to some of them, the time of certainties is past, and the human being must learn to live in a horizon of total absence of meaning, where everything is provisional and ephemeral . . . and now at the end of this century one of our greatest threats is the temptation to despair.                                                   Fides et Ratio, #91

(2) Catholic faith co-inhering with reason is open to dialogue with all. Dialogue always involves a balance between conviction and a humble openness. Catholic faith respects the differing forms of faith that are found in the branches of Christianity, in the world religions, and among people of good will.

(3) Catholic faith co-inhering with reason provides a robust ground for academic freedom. Human dignity demands that human rights are respected, especially that freedom of conscience which is necessary for true Catholic faith.

(4) Catholic faith co-inhering with reason also provides a strong basis for a special, communal form of academic freedom, the academic freedom of the theology programs to have a unique Catholic identity of their own, and not to be a derived and weak clone of generic American colleges and universities in the midst of an endemic secularity. This communal academic freedom is why a religious community, our Sisters of Mercy, can sponsor a college “rooted in and professing fidelity to the teachings of Jesus Christ and the doctrines and heritage of the Roman Catholic Church.”

(5) Catholic faith co-inhering with reason is open to the entire range of reality. It stands in awe and wonder before the gifts of what is, the gifts of being. The faculty of Saint Joseph’s College’s undergraduate and graduate programs in theology founded on Catholic faith co-inhering with reason, can be confident in their ability to form a community of reflective intelligence, will understand the difference between a healthy diversity based on the riches of reality, discovered through a reason-informed faith, and a virulent diversity that lets everyone be anything because it has no criteria for telling difference between anything. The theology programs of Saint Joseph’s College have nothing to lose, and everything to gain, by being rooted in and professing fidelity to Catholic faith co-inhering in reason.

Daniel Sheridan is Professor of Theology at Saint Joseph’s College of Maine and former Director of the Online Theology Program