Back to school

Pop quiz:

Why is it permissible to kill in self-defense, but it is always wrong to kill an innocent non-aggressor?

Give three reasons why it is intrinsically wrong to use artificial contraception.

What principles of Catholic social teaching should a small business owner aim especially to put into practice?

Why would a law outlawing abortion not be a violation of the legitimate separation of church and state?

How frequently should a Catholic aim to go to confession, even if he or she is not conscious of having committed a mortal sin?

Is there a right to private property, and, if so, what is its justification?

You who are reading this are, most likely, a mature Catholic. How many questions are you able to answer? (And there are answers to these questions. That’s the beauty of the Catholic faith.)

Now consider the difference between these two extreme scenarios: (1) all graduates of Catholic schools and colleges know the answers to these questions and can express those answers articulately; (2) no graduates of Catholic schools and colleges know the answers to these questions, and they entertain either muddled views or views that contradict the true answers to these questions.

Under the first scenario, the faith is passed on successfully to the next generation, and Catholics make an invaluable contribution to their nation and its culture -- indeed, they perhaps end up being its salvation. Under the second scenario, the transmission of the faith risks being completely interrupted, and Catholics become part of the problems of our culture, not engineers of any solutions.

Undoubtedly, the second scenario is very close to what has happened in the United States over the last 40 years. I assure you from my experience that very few graduates of Catholic colleges could pass this test -- and these would do so in spite of, not because of, the efforts of those institutions.

So what are we to do? We should heed the sayings, “Think globally. Act locally.” And also: “Change begins with me.” The first thing that “we” can do, is something that you and I can do individually, namely, learn the Catholic faith ourselves. Before I get all worried about whether someone else has learned it, I should learn it myself.

So for us it is “back to school.” But where? How? I suggest that we begin with the recently published “Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.” This gives a good outline, and then we can proceed to the full Catechism, or to some other instructive overview of Catholic belief, such as Leo Trese’s “The Faith Explained,” or Frank Sheed’s “Theology and Sanity.”

What next? Well, here in Boston lives perhaps the most gifted expositor of the Catholic faith in our time, Peter Kreeft. Is it possible that you live in the same city as he, but have not read a single one of his many books? To sample Kreeft, begin with “Heaven: The Heart’s Deepest Longing,” which is a modern masterpiece, or his profound reflections on the problem of evil, “Making Sense of Suffering,” or his lucid “Handbook of Christian Apologetics” (written with Father Ron Tacelli).

After reading these more popular books, one might actually read the documents of Vatican II and judge for oneself whether the fabled “spirit of Vatican II” corresponds to what the Holy Spirit taught through that council.

And did you perhaps manage to live through the third-longest pontificate in the history of the Church, that of John Paul “the Great,” without reading anything written by this stupendous saint? Why not get a copy of his encyclical “Evangelium Vitae,” on the “Gospel of life” (easily downloaded from the Vatican Web site) or study his early lectures on love and marriage, translated as “Love and Responsibility”?

“Charity begins at home” is another good saying. As we are learning the faith ourselves, we might turn first to those whose education we are responsible for -- since there can be no doubt that, when we die, we shall be held accountable, before the throne of God, for whether we took prudent steps to pass on the faith to those under our care.

At the beginning of the school year, then, it is good for parents to confer about the religious education of their children. Have your children learned the basic prayers of the faith? Have they committed key facts and lists to memory? I mean such things as: the two commandments of love; the beatitudes; the mysteries of the rosary; the four cardinal virtues and three theological virtues; and the seven capital sins?

Have your children read the New Testament from start to finish? Is the Bible familiar to them? Have they memorized useful and consoling Scripture? (You can be sure their Protestant friends have.) Have they prayed the Psalms (as Jesus and Mary did)? Can they sing some hymns from memory?

Do they know the lives of saints? Can they puncture, or put in proportion, commonly accepted misrepresentations about the history of the Church (such as Galileo, the Crusades, the Inquisition)? Have they read serious books about Marian apparitions or purported miracles (such as Fatima, or the Shroud of Turin)?

Exactly what will they be learning about their faith this year? You should know the answer to that question. Of this you can be sure: unless you act with decisiveness, fulfilling your responsibilities, they will learn little to nothing at all.

Michael Pakaluk, a professor of philosophy, lives in Cambridge, Mass., with his family.