The Vatican’s Congregation for Catholic Education may soon become a “silent partner” in the National Catholic Rural Life Conference.

Okay, not really. But it was still pleasing for this academic to read of their recent announcement1 to increase the amount of philosophical formation required of students receiving a degree in Ecclesiastical Studies of Philosophy from a Pontifical University. It’s not just an increase in philosophy generally, but an up-tick in the training specifically in the arenas of natural philosophy and metaphysics.

Seems that they are concerned that their priests (and a few laity) who seek ecclesiastical degrees receive a proper and thorough (read Thomistic) intellectual formation. An entire year has been added to the typical two-year cycle of study.

This is very good news.

In my earlier reflections about the upcoming anniversary of Mater et Magistra, I pointed to a surprising gap between our Catholic social teaching on the importance of agriculture and our educational practices in matters of higher education and argued that the problem is rooted in deeper issues of an intellectual sort: specifically, the loss of a theology of creation, a philosophy of nature, which lies at the heart of the Church’s social tradition concerning the meaning of man and the task of agriculture.

I also noted that others have openly wondered why agricultural issues seem to have failed to register within Catholic higher education despite concerted efforts among committed groups to address this gap. In particular, two historians have written about the history of NCRLC, its record of accomplishments, and its subsequent waning of influence in educational venues. They mention what I take to be one of the keys to a proper analysis of the overall situation, namely, that the social teachings concerning agricultural stewardship are not merely practical suggestions; rather they are rooted in the Church’s speculative tradition about the meaning of creation and the human person, a speculative tradition inspired by St. Thomas Aquinas.2  In other words, the Catholic social superstructure was built upon the much broader, more comprehensive, philosophical tradition of the Common Doctor. It was his philosophy of nature, a philosophy of creation and the human person, that provided the fundamental context out of which the principles of Catholic agrarian life had been formed. This was the “rural philosophy” that nurtured the social tradition for decades and established the intellectual climate in which its social doctrine was nurtured.

To the extent, then, that a Thomistic approach to the understanding of nature and the human person continues to be an influence in Catholic education, to that extent its social doctrine on matters of agriculture will be able to gain significant traction, for classical Thomism insists that the native habitat of the human person as an embodied, intellectual creature is our material cosmos of created beings, intelligently ordered by God and intelligibly grasped by man, a nexus of which constitutes the natural environment of the human person as such. The human person, whose dignity lies in his spiritual destiny, is nonetheless a creature of the earth, an embodied being among embodied beings, whose immortal soul by nature transcends material creation and yet by grace permeates it with eternal significance.

The Thomistic outlines of this philosophy of nature/person would have been familiar to many Catholic students in 1961, or the year in which Mater et Magistra was promulgated – the first magisterial document to address issues surrounding industrial agriculture. For in the typical undergraduate curriculum leading up to the 1960’s, the general subject of philosophy would have been divided into two distinct courses of cosmology and psychology, or the study of inanimate and animate nature.3  Together these courses would have provided, at least in theory, an account of both the uniquely deliberative actions of the human person, but also (and this was essential) an account of the native habitat of the human being – namely, the created world as intelligently ordered by God. In the realist landscape of Thomist thought, the human person is always set within the broader framework of an intelligible order of things, an order sustained by God as both First and Final cause.

In my own university, for example, in 1961, every student was required to have completed at least four courses in philosophy (and at least six in theology) as part of his general educational formation. The first course in the cycle, a general course entitled “Introductory Philosophy,” covered a range of subjects. But most importantly for our purposes, special attention was given to “the study of the material world within general experience, . . . [and] the place of man in the material world.”4

Over time, with the decreasing presence of philosophy in Catholic undergraduate formation in general, and the Thomistic tradition specifically, philosophical psychology and philosophical cosmology disappeared as specific courses of instruction from the intellectual tradition. The net result is something like we often find in our present circumstances. If there is a course at all that treats of the human person in an average Catholic curriculum, it is most likely the “philosophy of the human person,” and such a course deals with debates largely developed along modern lines, that is, post-Cartesian terms; specifically, extensive energy is spent defending certain aspects of the human person over and against reductive, materialist rivals.

To be sure, teaching Catholic students about the immaterial aspects of the human person is very much a worthy undertaking. But this can sometimes run the risk of supposing that the Church’s only interest in developing a proper understanding of the human person is to defend the immateriality exclusively. What can be lost in such a one-sided portrait are precisely the embodied dimensions of what it means to be a human being– and all that goes with embodiment, especially the vocation to steward the goods of the earth. In an attempt to defend a notion of the person against a reductive materialism, one also has to guard against an over emphasis on the spiritual aspects, thereby creating a kind of post-Cartesian angelism in Catholic guise.

The solution lies in promoting the conception of the human person as both spiritual and embodied, a substantial union of soul and body that was developed by St. Thomas and remains a vital philosophy of existence to this day.

The solution lies in supporting the kind of vision for intellectual formation that the Congregation of Catholic Education spells out in its most recent reflections on the matter. The most recent document focuses exclusively on Ecclesiastical Degrees, an important move to be sure but one that touches almost exclusively priestly formation.

Can the laity hope for another statement that would touch a broader audience? Or should we perhaps fulfill our role as laity and take up the charge ourselves and become the not-so-silent partner of NCRLC?

 

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