Traditional Catholic liberal arts education faces two major challenges right now: 1) the massive redirection of higher education per se away from any serious consideration of God; and 2) the corruption in the Church. The former challenge has been with us for a long time, with some recent twists, and so has the latter—but it’s been a rough few weeks.
The issues with education are manifold, but the major one is the practical bent that colleges had already begun to take by the end of the nineteenth century. The great American convert Orestes Brownson said in a speech in 1853 that, before his conversion, he worked with Frances Wright, “the favorite pupil of Jeremy Bentham” (an early utilitarian), on a deliberate program to remove the mention of God from education:
The plan was not to make open attacks on religion, although we might belabor the clergy and bring them into contempt where we could; but to establish a system of state, we said, national schools, from which all religion was to be excluded, in which nothing was to be taught but such knowledge as is verifiable by the senses, and to which all parents were to be compelled by law to send their children.
The plan was in place in 1829, and its success over the past two centuries can hardly be questioned. Professional tracks or STEM courses (science, technology, engineering, and math) avoid deeper questions of meaning and purpose, yet they seem now more useful than (in the case of Wyoming Catholic College) learning theology, literature, history, philosophy, Latin, art, music, and outdoor leadership, as well as math and science. The schools that eschew traditional liberal arts are likely to provide an environment that fashionably encourages sexual self-expression and perhaps “liberates” students from their faith. But to many people, it is enough that practical training seems more likely to pay off financially: a good job, a good salary, a comfortable future.
This is the older part of the educational challenge. Let’s let Russell Kirk answer it: “If all schools, colleges, and universities were abolished tomorrow, still most young people would find lucrative employment, and means would exist, or would be developed, for training them for their particular types of work. Rather, I believe it to be the conservative mission of liberal learning to develop right reason among young people.” Yes, and to develop right reason, WCC employs an innovative, integrated curriculum to draw upon the tradition of the self-questioning Western world. Without a reasoned experience of this tradition, our graduates would be ill-prepared to make informed criticisms of the prevailing culture at large. How, for example, could they bring a needed perspective to the newer problems in education, such as the utopian and coercive “social justice” fad, unless they were steeped in the Bible and Greek philosophy, St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas, Dante, and Shakespeare?
It is already difficult to persuade conscientious, worldly-minded students (they want jobs, success, and security as much as their parents) that they need to pursue knowledge for its own sake. And why would they come to a Catholic college with curfews and rules and separate dorms for men and women, especially when the Church that gives both traditional education and moral expectations their credibility itself seems rife with abuses?
Indeed, the question needs an answer. The revelations of corruption in the Church (now centering on Cardinal McCarrick and the bishops in Pennsylvania) sound uncannily familiar to anyone who remembers the Rudy Kos case in Dallas a generation ago. Bishop Charles Grahmann, under whose tenure the Kos affair exploded into a public trial and a national disgrace, died this past weekend. Corruption in the Church is nothing new, as readers of Dante and Chaucer—including our students—know well. Chaucer’s Pardoner, with his enthralling rhetoric and his appeal to the gullibility of the people who trust the Church, casts suspicion even upon good priests and bishops. Dante saw that the cynical careerists within the Church (circa 1300) were far more damaging to faith than the overt atheists outside it; Cardinal Sarah saw the same thing in God or Nothing (2015). Dante did not scruple to depict a pope in Hell.
It is no wonder that young lay Catholics across the country are applauding the exposure of abuses and calling for reform. If the nineteenth-century utilitarians worked to “belabor the clergy and bring them into contempt where [they] could,” the corrupt clergy of our day have now taken over the job themselves. They have transformed offices of spiritual trust into privileged opportunities for depravity, which is a sacrilege. They have undercut the credibility of the Catholic Church, the institution that the world most needs. Not a single truth of the Faith has changed, but as someone in the last few days put it, the Church itself needs better men. That very fact increases our responsibility at WCC. We need to help form a nobler generation, some of whom will surely become seminarians, a generation steeped in tradition and not bedeviled by news of the sexual depredations of priests or the excusing self-preservation of their superiors.
Republished with gracious permission from the Wyoming Catholic College Weekly Bulletin (August 2018).