Semester Opening Ceremony: Academic lecture by Dr. Vincent DeMeo

The Good of Catholic Liberal Education

as Illuminated by the Gospel of John

by Vincent P. DeMeo

1.     Crisis of Western Education

At the very core of Jesus’ teaching in the Gospel of John is the fundamental theological truth that all things are from the Father (see 1:1-3). Although Jesus is the great “I AM” who is one with the Father (John 10:30), he too has his origin in the Father as one who is begotten by him (1:14, 18) and comes from him (13:3; 16:28).  Jesus says, “the Son can do nothing of his own, but only what he sees the Father doing; for whatever he does, the Son does likewise” (5:19; see also 5:30; 7:28; 8:28, 42). Because of this Jesus actually is this truth in his person: “I am the...truth” (14:6).

In sharp contradistinction to this foundational theological truth, the Gospel of John also clearly teaches about a fundamental falsehood. In chapter 12, John reports that although Jesus performed many miraculous signs before his people they did not believe in him because “they loved the glory of men more than the glory of God” (12:43). Jesus reprimands them for “not seek[ing] the glory that comes from the one who alone is God” (Jn 5:44). Now loving the glory of man more than the glory of God is a sign of their paternal origin for, as Jesus says, “you do what you have heard from your father” the Devil (John 8:38; cf. 8:44). For the Devil, Jesus tells us, “does not stand in the truth because the truth is not in him” (8:44). Jesus underlines one significant reason why there is no truth in him: because “when he lies, he speaks out of his own [evk tw/n ivdi,wn lalei/]” (John 8:44). The fact that the “ruler of this world” “speaks out of his own” signifies that he does not align himself to the fundamental theological truth so powerfully revealed in the Gospel of John that all things—even the Son of God—are out of the Father as their principal. Instead, the Devil stands alone considering himself to be the measure of all things and the source of his life and power, and, subsequently, appropriates all things to himself. He too, like man, prefers his own glory over and above the glory of God. As Jesus says, “he who speaks on his own seeks his own glory” (7:18).

However, Jesus is clear where such preferences lead; they lead to slavery. For the Devil’s obsession with “his own” is the root of the sin of his falsehood, lies and murders, and Jesus teaches that “everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin” (8:34).   

These theological truths from the Gospel of John shed much light on the current crisis of Western education in two significant ways. 

[1] For most contemporary Western academic institutions the principal which justifies their pursuits is, to use Johannine terms, “the glory of man.” Today man is considered to be the measure of all things and an end in himself, and therefore it is not surprising that he is the ordering principal from which all academic pursuits have their origin. Randomly review any educational organization and you will see that things of man dominate it: what he thinks, how he acts, what he produces all take center stage. Human wisdom and power are its pillars. This is clearly made manifest in several concrete ways. First, it is expressed in its curriculum where the study of “humanities” has a preeminent position. At the core of this discipline is, again, what is man-made: it includes the history of philosophers and their ideas (and not wisdom itself), study of different human societies, of the history of mankind, of his inner psychological life, and of his literary masterpieces. Here theology is replaced by ‘religious studies’ for religion is something man possesses. Its investigation into nature through the empirical sciences is primarily pursued in reference to man for the sake of furthering his technological domination of it. Secondly, a further expression of its origin from man is the widespread elective system where students themselves are the arbiters of the best manner of their intellectual development over and above any curricular tradition. Here the interests of the students, and their so-called ‘academic freedom,’ reign supreme. A third manifestation is the highly specialized vocational and practical professional training that has become the common place due to the preoccupation with human production and material progress.

 [2] What Jesus said about the slavery caused by fixation with “one’s own” is analogous to the crisis of Western education in a second way. The end pursued of most modern approaches to education is primarily directed to each individual’s good. Any interest in the truth is a private one; it is ordered primarily to oneself for the sake of one’s own advantages. The usual academic goal for most students today is to obtain a specialized degree in a particular profession which they hope will enable them to acquire a job. Once obtained, he utilizes his knowledge to accumulate as much money as possible. Here we have the quintessential academic pursuit (namely, to acquire a profession and a job) ordered to the quintessential private good, money. “One’s own” has never received so much glory.  

This educational system asks the same of its professors. Their main aims, like their students, are private ones. Completion of a doctoral dissertation is a useful means for obtaining a teaching position. He defines himself, not so much from serving in the classroom, but from his endless stream of articles and books which flow forth, not for the sake of furthering truth, but for the sake of manifesting the novelty of one’s own position so to be honorably accepted in peer-review circles and societies. The praise and prestige gained from other men, in turn, is ordered to promotion and tenured job security. As in the case of the student, the principle end is man and the glory of his private good.

The effects of fixation on “one’s own” in education are devastating. What develops is an academic climate where there a reduction in a shared life between students and professors due to the constraints of overt specialization. Moreover there is an increase in competition among individuals and subsequent contempt for others due to a preoccupation for personal success. This leads to divisions between “me” and “them”—between students, between professors, between students and professors. In short, this climate is too harsh for any honest intellectual life to thrive. Instead, enmity, strife, and falsehood are rulers of the cutthroat Western  academic world.  St. Augustine’s words are descriptive of our current state of academic affairs:

. . . [T]hey love their [view]—not because it is true but because it is theirs. Otherwise they could equally love another true view, as I love what they say when what they say is true—not because it is theirs but because it is true, and therefore not theirs but true. And if they love a view because it is true, it is already both theirs and mine, since it belongs in common to all lovers of the truth. . . . And therefore, O Lord, your judgments should be feared, because your truth is neither mine nor his nor anyone else’s, but it belongs to all of us whom you publicly call to its communion, warning us terribly not to have it in private, so as not to be deprived of it. For anyone who claims as proper to himself what you have given to all to enjoy, and wants to be his own what belongs to all, is driven away from what is common to his own—that is, from truth to the lie. For the one who speaks the lie speaks out of his own. (St. Augustine, Confessiones, 12.25.34; emphasis added; for another example see St. Thomas, De Virtutibus, 2.2 c)

It is clear then, that an educational system that originates and culminates out of that which is ‘man’s own’ is a misdirected and disorienting system that does not stand in the fullness of transcendent truth. Although hopefully falsehood is not the explicit intended end of any given contemporary academic institution, most today can only offer to its students a fragmented and impoverished participation in the truth. According to the Gospel of John this results in a reduced freedom and compromised personal fulfillment. Such education will, paradoxically, be less human, possessing, not unlike the devil, a resemblance of slavery (see John 8:34, 44). 

2.     The Good of Catholic Liberal Education

Before he made his remarks about the devil’s falsehood in speaking out of his own and its consequent slavery, Jesus spoke to the Jews who had believed in him saying, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples; you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31-32). We can glean four things from this text that illuminate the good pursued in Catholic liberal education. 

[1] Truth as Common Good

Jesus’ disciples must orient themselves towards his word and the truth. The reason for this ordering is that Jesus’ word is a transcendent one that has its origin not in man but in God: “I do nothing of my own but I speak these things as the Father taught me” (8:28). Moreover, Jesus’ word is for all in a universal manner. Because of its eminent communicability, it is a good that can be simultaneously shared in by all people without ever being split or lessened. Since his word is a good that is greater than man, if man be true and honest to himself, he ought to order himself primarily to it rather than appropriating it to himself.

For almost two millennia, the double tradition upon which Western education is founded, namely, the Greco-Roman liberal art and Christian traditions, sought truths greater than man himself which are in themselves worthwhile. In heeding Jesus’ command, Catholic liberal education subordinates the entire academic community (students, professors, and administrators) and all of its actions to the pursuit of the common good of truth, rather than to the consumer appropriation of things for one’s own. Such an ordering gives this education shape and definition, as well as clarity regarding its goal. For instance, the ordering to a objective good that transcends man helps to clarify a hierarchy of knowledge: servile and practical arts are ordered to the speculative and theoretical. More importantly, as reason is ordered to faith so too all natural realities are ultimately studied for the sake of better understanding supernatural realities, and in an order required by them. Lastly, such an ordering principle includes a classification of the intellectual tradition of thinkers who are considered masters because of their depth of insight, their clarity of thought, and their saintly lives. Such authors, and their respective texts, operate as sources from which greater understanding can spring.

[2] Ethos of Abiding

Believers are called by Jesus to “abide” in his word. Similarly, Catholic liberal education purses the good of truth— ultimately Christ himself—through an ‘ethos of abiding.’ For the truth is in itself an indivisible whole which encompasses all those who seek it. Being exceedingly communicable, it is not limited or reduced to any one of its adherents, but rather it gathers into itself all of its devotees and, subsequently, constitutes a community of its lovers. This common good is, therefore, not alien to one’s personal good, but on the contrary, each person personally shares in it because each one is himself a part of this constitutive whole. Therefore, where contemporary education breeds competition against and contempt for one’s fellow learners, the classical double tradition of Western education fosters a shared life united in the truth. Such a common life generates a deep, lasting friendship.

 [3] Content of the Truth of Faith and Reason

Jesus addresses his words to “believers.” Belief stands in the foreground of Jesus’ statement as it does for Catholic liberal education. It is the beginning and end of this education. At the beginning, the governing principal is “faith seeking understanding.” All inquiry is informed by Catholic faith; all disciplines are studied and taught within the heart of the Church in conformity with the deposit of faith passed on to her. At the end, the point of arrival is a deeper understanding of the Catholic faith, which together with reason, aims at the fullness of God (see Ephesians 3:18-19).

However, coming to knowledge of the truth includes all secondary truths precisely because in God, as John’s Gospel teaches us, “all things were made . . . and without him nothing was made” (1:3). Because of this fact, faith seeking understanding does not exclude the truths of the Greco-Roman liberal art tradition, but rather includes and builds upon them, all-the-while perfecting and ordering them into an organic, unified whole.

[4] Ultimate Goal: Freedom and the Fulfillment of the Human Person

The last manner in which the good pursued in Catholic liberal education can be illuminated by Jesus’ words in the Gospel of John is that the knowledge of the truth effects a free man. As we have already said, ordering oneself first and foremost to the truth is where man’s greatest good lies. Thus, in possessing this genuine good a person finds the fulfillment of his dignity and life before God as an adopted “son”: “the slave does not abide in the house forever; the son abides forever” (8:35). This fulfillment is the endpoint of human freedom.

Jesus’ statement “the truth will set you free” is certainly the chief tenet of Catholic liberal education. As in the Gospel, “liberal” does not mean release from some confinement, but rather refers to the ultimate goal which this education provides, namely, to generate a genuinely free person. Education is “liberal” and a person is deemed “free” when he may come to knowledge and love of goods which are not only higher than man himself, but are also intrinsically desirable. Here freedom and perfection of human understanding and affection meet. Therefore, a Catholic liberal education, which the International Theological Institute seeks to provide, has as its ultimate good and goal the perfection of all learners for the sake of generating personal happiness in communion with all those sharing in the truth. Such persons are the beneficiaries of Jesus’ promise: “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). They are indeed fully alive to the glory of God.