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Thomism and Friday fish


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.

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