Solutions to These Challenges
In response to these issues, a faithful Catholic theological education then needs:
to be serious intellectually,
to actually transmit the faith and a coherent worldview that goes along with it,[i] and
to include spiritual formation – in other words, it should include an introduction to the spiritual life and training in a life of personal prayer (among other basic but important practices that aid in developing holiness).
In other words, serious intellectual formation and serious spiritual formation (with prayer and mortification and a deep dive into the saints) are the two most under-appreciated and helpful things to persevere in the faith and to prevent such faith from being over-taken by the culture.
[i] Fr. Thomas Joseph White, O.P., “Toward a Post-Secular, Post-Conciliar Thomistic Philosophy: Wisdom in the Face of Modernity and the Challenge of Contemporary Natural Theology,” Nova et Vetera, Spring 2012 (Vol. 10, No. 2), 527: “The pressing question the present context raises is far different from that of our Vatican II – generation forebears…. For the real challenge of contemporary Catholic life is to possess and transmit integrally any coherent account of classical philosophical and theological doctrine at all.” With a free account you can read the article here: https://stpaulcenter.com/10-nv-10-2-white-1/
(1) The Need that Theology is Serious Intellectually
An objection: One might ask: haven’t Catholics survived for centuries without such serious intellectual training? So why do we need it now?
The simple answer: because the culture that we live in is vigorously anti-Catholic and anti-reality our children need to be able to think seriously about many things so that their faith is not destroyed. Young people can be swallowed whole by the culture without the proper intellectual and spiritual resources, and since most young people have not been given these resources, they are leaving the faith in droves.
Sadly, many Catholic places do not provide the rigorous training for real and serious thought about the most important things. Orthodoxy is not sufficient. And the good work that faithful Catholic colleges do can be too late for some young people because many are leaving the faith so young (and many young people will not end up at these faithful Catholic colleges anyway).
Moreover, we all know that many students lose their faith at college and that it does not take long. We even know this happens to (what we think are) very well-formed homeschoolers and children from Catholic schools and/or from good families.
Contrary to the general practice, teens need someone who can answer their questions in ways that are compelling and satisfying - not some pat answer that should not even be given to a 7-year-old. They have serious questions, and they should be shown the respect they deserve and their questions should be taken seriously. When they do not receive real and deep answers to their questions, they begin to think such answers do not exist. High schoolers are capable of serious discussion about serious things; instead, they typically get more grade-school level “catechism” answers about things that do not seem to pertain to their life.
This serious thinking provides a bulwark against the onslaught of the culture, but it also allows for well-formed people to evangelize the culture (that is, after they are well-formed) since the task of the laity is to be in the world and to bring people into the Church.
The Way Thinking Provides a Bulwark Against the Onslaught of the Culture
We have all had the experience where we thought we knew something, but it turned out we were wrong. And that experience leads us to wonder whether this is one of those times. So we have to not only know the truth but we have to know that we know it.[i] It is very easy to succumb to the pressures of the culture; we are naturally social animals and it is easy to go along with whatever culture or sub-culture we live in.
We can even succumb to such pressure when we know the reason that something is true. So how much easier it is to succumb to the social pressure when we were just told that it is true but have little to no reason for it?
Students not only need to think deeply about the reasons or about the evidence that certain things are true, but they also need to know why we get a very different answer than the dominant culture; they need to know why what the culture holds as true is attractive for people in the culture. When you see both the reason for the truth and the reason for why someone would hold to the opposite of the truth (and why it is ultimately not a good reason) you can be confident in your holding fast to the truth. It is then that we do not worry we are missing out on something else because we see why they hold the false judgment and why it is false.
[i] Michael Augros, The Immortal in You (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2017), c. 13.
(2) What is Needed to Transmit the Faith and a Coherent Worldview, and for Serious Thinking
A. The Need for Philosophy
The world today is truth starved and lacking in knowledge of basic principles and ultimate perspectives. To transmit a coherent and compelling worldview, one needs these basic principles and ultimate perspectives (wisdom). And so one needs philosophy (a natural reflection/thinking about natural things), theology (a reflection/thinking about divine revelation which requires supernatural faith), and how these two fit harmoniously together. We need to be able to see the order among things (both natural and supernatural). Narrative (or stories) is not sufficient to do this; we need reasons and theoretical (not just practical) thinking.[i] At some point, we cannot just tell stories or rehearse opinions, we have to answer the question. As Fr. Thomas Joseph White, O.P. has said:
So for a serious understanding of the faith, philosophy is simply necessary.
An objection: Why not just focus on what revelation says about important questions and so just stick to theology rather than philosophy? Why would Catholics want philosophy in addition to theology?
Answer: For one, it is impossible to understand revelation without an understanding of natural or created things. In other words, philosophy is necessary for understanding revelation. So even when we receive divine revelation, it must fit into a conceptual and metaphysical form of thinking in us that is philosophical. Revelation does not short-circuit, as it were, our natural thinking process. Rather, revelation provides new, additional, light, principles, and object that presuppose the same basic thinking power with the same kind of conceptual thinking.
In other words, one cannot simply just focus on what revelation says about these questions because as soon as you try to understand what Scripture means it will include some philosophizing.
A few examples will make this clear.
God reveals in Scripture that there are three persons in God. - What is a person?
God reveals that Christ has two natures. - What is a nature?
Transubstantiation means that the substance of the bread changes into Jesus Christ but the accidents stay the same. - What are substance and accidents?
All of these questions (about person, nature, substance, and accidents) are natural or philosophical in nature. Revelation does not give us the answer to them.
And if all this seems too intellectual or too heady then we ought to reflect on a few things:
God commands us to think. The greatest commandment says to love God, with all our mind! (Matthew 22:37) So you cannot be committed to following Jesus and refuse to think about what that means and requires. And in fact it often causes us harm when we believe errors because “bad theology [inevitably] leads to difficulties in one’s spiritual life.”[iii]
Traditionally, the Church teaches that we are made to know, love, and serve God (and so we must do these things to save our soul). Knowledge is an essential part of the Christian life.
We cannot love what we do not know:
So the point is that this knowledge of divine things ought to stem from a deep love of God. We love Him and so we desire to know Him whom our heart loves. It does not mean that we all need to be scholars (though for some this is a vocation – a means of becoming holy). However, it does mean that we ought to be generous in our efforts to come to know God.
Whatever its intentions, a … theology that would like to forgo appeal to distinctly philosophical formation will inevitably doom itself not only to cultural irrelevance but even to internal incoherence. For without recourse to the explicit practice of philosophical study in its own right, Christians are unable to receive from the tradition they espouse its own classical practices of thought. Ignorance of philosophy sterilizes the intellectual reception of the Christian tradition.[ii]
Thomas Aquinas affirms that we cannot love what we do not know, and that when we grow in understanding of God, we can also grow in love for Him, precisely because we begin to understand more deeply who God is. There is no opposition between intellectual understanding and our emotions or intuitions, but we need intellectual analysis to test our initial intuitions, and to give structure to our emotional life. In fact, over time, it is the search for the truth that does the most to steady the internal development of the human person, and this search is most noble in the person.… Seeking the truth in the right way, however, is not only not opposed to being loving or just but something they presuppose. Growth in spiritual love perfects or completes the human person but it presumes and is aided by truth. As we become more realistic we are able to love more realistically.[iv]
As Aquinas notes, the study of theology can also be genuinely ‘meritorious’: it can stem from charity, and can also intensify love, as we draw closer to what we know. In fact, when we begin to love others, we seek to get to know them better, and even ‘study them in love’ in a certain way. This is true not only in our natural experience, but also in the domain of supernatural life. Intellectual engagement with the Christian faith is essential to our personal relationship with Christ.[v]
[i] Fr. Thomas Joseph White, O.P., “Toward a Post-Secular, Post-Conciliar Thomistic Philosophy: Wisdom in the Face of Modernity and the Challenge of Contemporary Natural Theology,” Nova et Vetera, Spring 2012 (Vol. 10, No. 2), 530: “Without [a distinctly philosophical, scientifically ordered thinking], theology as a science breaks down into a mere narrative of profound intuitions, devoid of internal order and incapable of coherent transmission to a younger generation.”
[iii] Michael Barber, Salvation: What Every Catholic Should Know (Augustine Institute, 2019), 4.
[v] Fr. Thomas Joseph White, The Light of Christ (Washington DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2017), 46.
B. The Wisdom of St. Thomas Aquinas
However, it is not sufficient for the study of revealed truths to use just any philosophy, but the philosophy needs to be true. Not every philosophy is equally true and so equally helpful in understanding revelation.
St. Thomas Aquinas and the Thomistic tradition offer a profound and coherent approach to the Christian intellectual tradition that enable us to understand the nature of things and to have an ultimate perspective of things (wisdom). We need a guide in being educated, and the Church teaches, continually and without reservation, that St. Thomas is the great master of the intellectual life.
Pope John XXII, speaking about St. Thomas, said before his canonization that “his life was saintly and his doctrine could only be miraculous … because he enlightened the church more than all the other doctors. By the use of his works a man could profit more in one year than if he studies the doctrine of others for his whole life.”
For more see this sampling: https://www.thomasaquinas.edu/about/our-patron/popes-st-thomas
C. The Need for Teachers with an Intellectual Life
To have teachers with a serious intellectual life there needs to be teachers in place that are properly trained. A curriculum alone cannot fix this problem because it is not simply about the content (though the problem does include a kind of content problem). There is a need for teachers who have themselves been trained to think and know the reasons for things, and for this to happen on both a natural (philosophy) and supernatural (theology) level. And this is very rare: most theology teachers, at least in elementary and secondary schooling, simply do not have the training to do this; they are unable to think through these questions in a serious way themselves, let alone to do so with the students. They have not developed, through their own education, an intellectual life themselves that they can pass on.
The point is not that teachers have to have all the answers, but rather they need to understand the principles and be able to think through new things with students. In part, then, teachers need to realize that not knowing things is normal (we cannot know everything). So teachers also need to respect that students are asking good and reasonable questions and teachers do not need to be defensive about not knowing something.
This is a very deep and wide-ranging problem since the reason why teachers do not have this training is that most universities or graduate schools of theology are not giving them the necessary training. Most undergraduate and even graduate programs do not require serious thinking since they do not require much philosophical education.
(3) The Need for Serious Spiritual Formation
We become saints through persevering in the faith and development of supernatural charity (holiness). But this cannot happen by chance (anymore than professional athletes become the best by chance). We need to have a plan. The Church and her saints have deep wisdom concerning what the life of holiness consists in and how to attain it, avoiding common pitfalls along the way and so we need to become enmeshed with the thought of the saints.
Basic practices for the development of holiness include, but are not limited to:
Prayer (St. Alphonsus has emphasized the practical necessity of prayer for attaining salvation.)
The practice of the virtues and how to avoid vices.
Discovering our root sin and focusing on the relevant virtues to overcome it.
The practice of penance and mortification (including picking up our cross and following Jesus).
Plan or program for the spiritual life.
Like it is for any serious athlete, some significant coaching is extremely helpful in reaching these goals.