"Creation of Adam" (detail) by Michelangelo

“Creation of Adam” (detail) by Michelangelo

Pope Benedict’s 2010 Christmas Greeting to the Roman Curia, a Catholic version of the American “State of the Union Address,” was notable for the emphasis placed upon human reason. His Holiness did not so much focus on the loss of Faith occurring in Western Democracies as he did the loss of Reason. At one point in his address he stated:

“To resist this eclipse of reason and to preserve its capacity for seeing the essential, for seeing God and man, for seeing what is good and what is true, is the common interest that must unite all people of good will. The very future of the world is at stake.”

A frequent lament I hear on talk radio is that “common sense” is not as common as it should be. We should not be surprised, however, because no one is teaching “common sense.” Now you would think that “common sense” would not be something that has to be taught, that it is something that arises from simple experience, but in our relativistic and pluralistic culture very little is “common.” This is the point Pope Benedict attempted to make.

Over the last five hundred years, a shift from a common worldview has gradually eroded the foundational “common sense” that everyone shared and learned through cultural osmosis. What replaces it is a nebulous relativism where all opinions are held to be equally true and valid, and where there are no universal truths, just different preferences. In short, there is no true/false, good/bad, moral/immoral, but rather an all encompassing and ever changing legal/illegal framework that determines what is permissible.

When it comes to teaching religion and philosophy, this poses a dual problem. Since the faith is not practiced weekly by a majority of students, they lack the experiential commonality needed for any coherent transmission of the elements of the faith. Simultaneously, since all non-empirical statements are processed by the students as being mere “opinion,” they lack a rational foundation for any body of truth to be conveyed. This state of affairs undermines the attempt in high school to convey a nuanced and mature understanding of the Catholic faith and results in students concluding that it is all myth and thus not “true.”

As mentioned above, it is a sad reality that most of my junior students are non-practicing Catholics for the simple reason that their parents, like the vast majority of Catholics in North America, don’t practice. This does not change as they become seniors; in fact, most seniors work on Sunday. In spite of this lack of religious practice, many students say they believe in God when they start high school in Grade 9. The story changes dramatically starting in Grade 10. Most of my students went to a Catholic elementary school and received the Sacrament of Confirmation in Grade 8. Granted, many of them did so because it was the expected thing to do and their parents “made” them; they are still at the age where their “faith” is that of their parents. In short, they possess a childish faith that is vague and unreflective. This “childish faith” does not survive high school adolescence. If students do manage to preserve their faith by the time they graduate high school, they most likely won’t survive University.

One student who recently finished a semester of philosophy with the highest mark in the class expressed this reality in a presentation to the class. With her permission I share her insights here.

“As the years of high school have gone by, my faith has gone down a steep slope. Despite being raised in a strongly Catholic family, I came into this course as a non-believer. Being a logical person, the answers that my parents would give me about my faith were never enough to satisfy me. … Eventually, I stopped asking questions. … With biology being my favourite subject I had come to accept Charles Darwin as a prophet who had brought forth the good word of Evolution.” 

She continued to attend Mass weekly out of respect for her parents. When she went off to University she probably would have stopped attending Mass. Religion had become merely a course necessary for graduation; and what it taught was mere opinion to be accepted or rejected as it suited. Like so many of my students, she took Philosophy because she was tired of “taking religion”. Her story is unique only in that she came from a practicing family. For students who do not practice their faith, this switch is almost instantaneous after the first year of high school. The current scandals and oft-repeated “sins” of the medieval church—such as the Inquisition or the Crusades—merely solidify their distrust of the Church.

I learned early on in my career that my real dilemma as a religion teacher was in finding a way to overcome this situation so that what my students learned was not just an academic necessity for graduation, but a life changing reality. I came to realize that it wasn’t so much a lack of faith I was dealing with, it was a lack of reason.

Ideas have consequences…

The first year of my teaching philosophy (the third in my career) was a learning process for both my students and me. The way I taught the subject that first year rendered it too abstract, disjointed and not engaging. One student described it as worse than watching golf and watching paint dry, simultaneously. Sadly, I only contributed more to the sentiment that there is no right or wrong answer outside of the hard sciences.

While mulling over this dilemma during the summer break I came across the phrase “ideas have consequences.” I had heard this phrase long before, but now the lights went on upstairs. I immediately adopted this phrase as the theme of the philosophy course and set about making a few structural and thematic changes. Remaining faithful to the mandated curriculum and the provincial expectations, I started to tie the ideas and philosophies we were studying to the consequences that result from these ideas. Human Nature was replaced by Metaphysics as the beginning unit, with Aquinas’ warning in mind that a small error in the beginning leads to a large error in the end. Human Nature follows, then ethics and political/social philosophy. A unit on the Holocaust, which is a curriculum requirement, closes up the semester. Providentially, I came across an article by Ray Cotton entitled “The Holocaust: Ideas and their Consequences.” It was a perfect way to tie it all together.

As I started to teach using this framework, I started to notice a small transformation. We spoke of “God” only in a philosophical sense, as the first uncaused Cause, or the first unmoved Mover, or we would examine the argument from Design. I would link philosophy to Catholicism only where reason supported a Catholic doctrine or dogma, such as the Eucharist and Aristotle’s Categories. I would not allow my students to answer any question or dilemma with an appeal to the Commandments, the Bible or Church teaching—it had to be resolved by reason, and reason alone.

Many students came alive with this approach with debates based on substance rather than “feelings.” Several would come up to me and tell me that they started going to Mass, some radically changed their lives for the better.  My yearbooks contain statements from students like:

“You drove me crazy! I’d go home ranting to myself, having deep conversations with my sisters like never before!”

“Philosophy is actually more important than I originally thought!”

“Taking philosophy has been honestly life changing. I truly loved every part of it because it taught me a lot about life and myself.”

These kids are hungry!

Over the years I found the more focus that is placed on the consequences of ideas, the more confident students become with the possibility of there being universal, objective and eternal truths. As the student above put it:

“Classical metaphysics gave me a strong, reasonable foundation to base my reality on. After all, what can I believe in if I don’t believe in common sense? … What I never realized was how Darwin’s logic was flawed and what consequences had come of it … The unit that provoked the most thought in me was that of social philosophy. Here I really saw what “ideas have consequences” meant … In conclusion, philosophy has taught me to think outside the limits that have been set for me. … I have been dragged out of Plato’s cave and into the sunlight to see both the beauty of truth and how damaged our world has become.  … It is up to us to stand up for truth and not fall victim to the “-isms” that have led the world to where it is today. Philosophy is not just another high school course.” 

Admittedly, not all of my students were as enthusiastic about philosophy as those quoted above, but it appears that the more comfortable they become with universal truths as grasped by reason, the more confident they become in accepting the proclamation of the Gospel. Good, solid, objective philosophy is not the only solution to the current crisis of faith—nothing replaces good catechesis and personal witness, but it is a necessary component if we are to equip our children to survive this crisis with their faith intact.

Editor’s Note: This article is the first of an ongoing series, Ideas Have Consequences by Dennis Buonafede. Check back next Wednesday for the next article on The Need for Universals.

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