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Thomism and Friday fish


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There are lessons in fish. Consider: Do you, as a Catholic, abstain from meat on Fridays? If not, you would probably tell me that practice was abandoned by Vatican II. Indeed, but I would say that your reply is a half truth. Before Vatican II, Catholics abstained from meat, and ate fish instead, as a very slight penance, to remember the day of the Lord's Passion. After Vatican II, Catholics are still supposed to do penance on Friday and remember the Passion, only the specific penance need not be fish.

So, I rephrase my question: Do you, as a Catholic, observe on Friday a penance which is at least as significant as eating fish instead of meat? If not, then, alas, you are faithful to neither pre- nor post-Vatican Catholicism.

Actually, the norm for Catholics in the U.S. is even stronger than I have implied: "Among the works of voluntary self-denial and personal penance which we especially commend to our people for the future observance of Friday ...," the U.S. bishops teach, "we give first place to abstinence from flesh meat. We do so in the hope that the Catholic community will ordinarily continue to abstain from meat by free choice as formerly we did in obedience to Church law."

But I think we all know the bishops' hope has so far been a flop -- which may be ascribed to a continuing legalistic mentality among Catholics: as the practice is no longer strictly required by law, so it is no longer observed. The remedy, of course, is not to reinstitute a law, but for Catholics to do from love what they used to do from obedience.

Now take Friday fish as a paradigm for a general situation in the Church, and apply it to higher education in particular. Here too, we Catholics do not do freely, when we can, the equivalent of what used to be prescribed by law.

I have been told (I don't know if it is true) that there was a time that a Catholic who could send his children to a Catholic school needed a letter from his bishop permitting him to send them to a secular school. When Pius XI, quoting Nicolas Tommaseo, wrote in his 1939 encyclical ("On Christian Education") that, "The school, if not a temple, is a den," he had no idea how thoroughly those words would later be verified by American public schools -- yet the spirit of that pope's teaching has never been so widely ignored as today.

In higher education, the requirements of "law" took the form of a required plan of studies in college, such as the famous "Ratio Studiorum" of the Jesuits. The linchpin of those requirements was the study of Thomism, the teaching of St. Thomas Aquinas. All college students would take the equivalent of one course in philosophy and one in theology every semester. Thomism was the basis of those courses, mainly because of the efficiency of it. Those who know the "Summa" of St. Thomas recognize it as a masterful synthesis of all prior learning: not simply Scripture and the Fathers (both East and West), but also Platonism and Aristotelianism; the Stoics; Greek and Roman literature; and Jewish and Arabic philosophical predecessors. You might study everything written during the two millennia between Moses and Maimonides, and try to put it all together even better on your own, or -- more realistically -- you might simply study St. Thomas.

Now Thomism is the fish in my analogy. The Ratio Studiorum has disappeared; only a handful of colleges, even Catholic ones, have any kind of substantial core curriculum. But do we Catholics seek, from love and freely -- as a precious good -- what used to be imposed and accepted, perhaps grudgingly, in obedience? Do we look for, and attain, the equivalent of what can be attained through the comprehensive study of St. Thomas?

If you neglect this "substance" of Thomism, then you neglect all learning before 1300. That is, your starting point for fundamental thought and reflection becomes the nominalism of Ockham. And then you, and any society constituted by those who are educated in the same way as you, will need no further encouragement to travel down the path of violent disintegration and cultural decline which is traced so masterfully in Richard Weaver's prophetic book, "Ideas Have Consequences."

But what do we do instead? We do not eat that analogical fish. We send our children to public schools where at best they get a training in quantitative science -- a dubious practice, because so many expert scientists, paradoxically, seem incapable of thinking clearly about any truly important subject. Then we send them to universities where they will get no sound higher education in philosophy and theology at all! We do not even make a provision for it, maybe spouting such nonsense as "he has a good foundation already" (that is: a high school level education in the most important matters is enough).

And then we are surprised when Catholics in their thought and practice are indistinguishable from the "culture of death" surrounding them. And we are surprised, too, that the New Evangelization seems to be going nowhere. Because here's another lesson in fish: just as you catch a fish by its head, so you will have little success in being a fisher of college-educated men, if you yourself have only a high-school level understanding of your faith.

Michael Pakaluk, Professor of Philosophy and Chairman at Ave Maria University, teaches professional ethics during the summer in the Boston Tax Institute. His blog may be found at MichaelPakaluk.com.

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