The Way of Beauty Religious liberty and the well-formed Catholic

In 1937, Robert M. Hutchins, then the president of the University of Chicago praised the Catholic Church as having “the longest intellectual tradition in any institution in the contemporary world.” In the same presentation however, he criticized Catholic institutions for “failing to emphasize that tradition in a way that would make it come alive in American intellectual circles.” He concluded on an encouraging note: “The best service Catholic education can perform for the nation and all education is to show that the intellectual tradition can again be made the heart of higher education.”

The Catholic Intellectual Tradition

In the Catholic Tradition, reason and faith are friends. The intellect seeks truth; faith seeks understanding. “Reason ambitions the world; faith gives it infinity,” writes A.D. Sertillanges, O.P. Prior to the years leading up to the Protestant Reformation, Christian scholars, many from the Christian East, were philosophers and theologians. The writings of Irenaeus, the Cappadocians, John Chrysostom, Augustine, the two “Greats,” Leo and Gregory for example, remain a thesaurus of wisdom.

Preserving the Greco-Roman heritage, the Catholic Church built western civilization. During the so-called Dark Middle Ages, European monasteries and universities, including those in Ireland and Britain, led the way and fostered education, broadly understood. The musical and visual arts, organ building and church architecture, literature, the sciences, farming and agriculture, and foundations of law and economics were part of this pursuit. Young men and women of noble families were educated by monks and nuns. This Tradition has given us luminaries such as Anselm, Bernard of Clairvaux, Aquinas and Bonaventure, Hildegard and Julian of Norwich, Dante, Ignatius, Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross, Matteo Ricci, Pascal, Soloviev, Hopkins, Peguy, LeMaître—to name a few. And what of Catholic artists? In some sectors of Catholic education, this vast treasury has been given short-shrift, only to be taken up and cultivated in secular academies. There is cause for encouragement however.

Purpose of Catholic Education

Though distinct, reason and faith are integrally developed. Catholic education forms the whole person for life—developing the mind, one’s abilities and attitudes, fostering insight and strengthening character. Secular learning is directed to discipleship in Christ and leadership in society. Not limited to formal studies, Catholic education fosters a love of learning throughout one’s life.

Education of the Intellect

The Jesuit phrase, cura personalis (care of the individual person), extends to all Catholic education. Every child is God’s masterpiece-in-formation and to this end, Catholic education pursues all possible avenues of the Liberal Arts tradition. The most eager and industrious students are pre-disposed to become Renaissance men and women, a distinction that is still noteworthy in the public square.

Catechesis, Prayer and the Moral Life

Religious education forms students in the full Tradition that accords with the Church’s Magisterium: dogma, biblical tradition, church history and patristics, liturgy and worship, the documents of Vatican II, personal prayer and the moral life, social justice, care of the earth and world religions.

Grace builds on nature. Personal and liturgical prayer energizes the inner life and prepares students for decision-making. The fully-formed Catholic is ennobled by sharing with others gifts received (noblesse oblige) for the common good. Catholic education is one’s moral compass that points the lifeboat in the right direction.


Arthur Schlesinger together with other non-Catholic scholars have rightly declared that bias against the Church is the most persistent, pervasive, and the most acceptable prejudice in the history of the American people. This fact gives greater impetus to educating well-formed Catholics and impels them to stand proud of this life-affirming Tradition.

Public defense of the Catholic faith is no longer a remote possibility in our United States. That time has arrived. Catholic Americans join other members of the Body of Christ suffering persecution because they are fully, firmly and simply Catholic.

The devout and informed Catholic is a confessional Catholic, ready and willing to defend the Church in a milieu largely hostile to it. However, before turning to apologetics in the face of unjust laws, verbal abuse and even violence, the confessional Catholic must learn the issues from all opposing viewpoints, get the principles, internalize them, anticipate the opposing argument and then defend them. Ignorance, mediocrity and apathy can only hurt defense of the faith. Catholic leaders bear the responsibility for conducting a symphony of truth that attracts rather than a cacophony of sound that repels.


The outstanding scholar and church historian, Monsignor John Tracy Ellis (d1992), insisted that “the inculcation of moral virtue never be permitted to overshadow the fact that the school at whatever level … must maintain a strong emphasis on the cultivation of intellectual excellence.” (“American Catholics and the Intellectual Life” Thought 30: Autumn 1955) Ellis was convinced that given superior minds, out of the striving for the intellectual virtues, there will flow, with its attendant religious instruction, the formation of a type of student who will not only be able to withstand the stress which life will inevitably force upon religious faith but one who will have been so intellectually fortified that he will reflect distinction upon the system of which he is a product.

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How prescient his words!

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