Knowledge and faith balanced in Catholic education

This September, as Alberta students head back to their classrooms, I am intrigued by the survival — no, the thriving — of Catholic education in Central Alberta, especially when I consider that many of the people who send their children to us to be educated are non-Catholic. Indeed, Catholic education seems to be respected and embraced by Albertans in general.

This September, as Alberta students head back to their classrooms, I am intrigued by the survival — no, the thriving — of Catholic education in Central Alberta, especially when I consider that many of the people who send their children to us to be educated are non-Catholic. Indeed, Catholic education seems to be respected and embraced by Albertans in general.

Despite widespread publicity, David King’s (a former education minister of the Lougheed government) petition calling for the abolition of Catholic education has, since early November of last year, garnered a meagre 900 online “signatures” some of them clearly bogus (see separateschooleducation.ca/petition).

What is it about Catholic education that makes it such an attractive choice for so many Albertans? Alberta Education reports that just over 23 per cent of all Alberta students are in Catholic education — just under one in four students.

I believe that the ongoing popularity of Catholic education can be attributed, to a large degree, on the sense of societal malaise that has gripped the world in modern times.

We are, quite clearly, a society in crisis: rampant materialism — what we have called a global marketplace — has not only induced an ecological exploitation that threatens civilization, but has also created western democracies with debt burdens that are poised to topple our entire economic structure. Despite incredible advances in communication and information technology, we have not been able to eradicate the scourges of poverty and war.

The profound social problems in our own culture — addictions, crimes, family breakdown, polarizing politics, the threat of terrorism etc. — have found us searching for solutions that seem impossible to grasp.

As the late Pope John Paul II so eloquently expressed in his 1998 encyclical Fides et Ratio (Faith and Reason), there is an international “sense of being adrift.”

Roman Catholic educational philosophy has always named the importance of balancing faith and reason, and teaches us that these profound modern problems are the direct result of an intellectual climate that focuses exclusively on reason.

With its origin in the 18th century Enlightenment, the modern world has removed faith from the public forum, and has come to believe that knowledge alone has the power to reform society and advance our ideals.

But this is a philosophy that stands radically opposite not only to the Christian worldview, but also to the worldview of any historical culture that we can examine.

As the current Pope stated in an essay in 1995, there was a reason why the setting for Plato’s Academy was the temple precinct. It had to be rooted in the depths of the Greek religion, thereby giving it a metaphysical basis, a connection to ultimate meaning, and a link to created order.

This is exactly what public education lacks, and exactly what Catholic education offers.

Knowledge divorced from the preternatural breeds materialism and exploitation, while knowledge rooted in a cosmology promotes the belief in an objective order that venerates truth, beauty, and love.

Catholic education calls for the clear delineation between knowledge used to achieve utilitarian ends, and knowledge that celebrates the unique place of humanity within the natural ethos.

Imagine an education system where mathematics, for example, is embraced more for its qualitative nature than its quantitative.

Mathematics is certainly a useful tool, but it also has an intrinsic beauty that modern classrooms can easily miss. It is woven, in a profound way, into reality itself — in the workings of the solar system, in the seasons and the years, and even hides itself in music. The philosopher Leibnitz famously said that music, governed by beats within measures, is math without realizing you’re doing math!

Similarly, language can also be exploited as only the primary device of communication, but when it is celebrated for its poetical and artistic forms, it links itself to an imaginative universe. Science also should be celebrated for the beauty and order it reveals, instead of just for what it can do. The reductionist view of science led C.S. Lewis, in 1947, to call for a more holistic approach to science teaching. “The regenerate science I have in mind,” he said, “would not do even to minerals and vegetables what modern science threatens to do to man himself.”

Catholic education beckons society to return to a more humane way of educating — a way that acknowledges the glory of God and calls us to see the divine in the universe and in each other. It sets the beauty of knowledge ahead of its functional or practical attributes.

It calls us to return to a cosmological view of the world, and proposes that our modern worldview has become narrow, sterile, clinical, and meaningless.

It is rooted more deeply in the community than the individual, which is reflected in its focus on the meaning of the universe, not function. It is a stark alternative to the dominant societal opinion that knowledge should be divorced from faith.

In my years as a Catholic educator, I have witnessed some incredible acts of both faith and community. Having departed the public school system to join the Catholic, I can see why the separate school system is a treasure for so many in our community.

I have seen how Catholic education is so fundamentally different than any other educational endeavour.

I am happy to be here, and proud that Albertans so value the existence of a counter-cultural influence in their midst.

Alger J.C. Libby is principal of St. Matthew Catholic School in Rocky Mountain House.