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Books blog: Catholic schools must instil in young people a renewed understanding of marriage

Newly married couples kneel as Pope Francis celebrates the marriage rite for 20 couples during a Mass in St Peter's Basilica (CNS)

The synod on the family has begun in Rome and everyone who loves the Church and longs for her renewal is wondering how it will play out. No one doubts that traditional marriage and traditional families are in crisis; the question is, where and how to begin the “counter-Reformation”: does it lie in better marriage preparation, better liturgy, better general catechesis or better Catholic schools? The answer is probably that we need to tackle every aspect of the life of the Church; they all depend on each other.

These questions have come into my mind as I just read a very hopeful article from the US, in Catholic Education Daily, the online publication of the Cardinal Newman Society.

It reminded me that America is not just a country where someone like Donald Trump is a contender for the Republication nomination in the next presidential election, or where everyone, seemingly, is allowed to amass an arsenal of guns in their own home with no question asked. It is also a place where there are a small number of Catholic liberal arts colleges where students do not just learn about their faith as a discrete subject but where it underpins all aspects of college life.

In other words, if we want to see a renewed understanding of Catholic marriage we have to start with school and college as well as with couples or parents in the home. As the article by Kimberly Scharfenberger points out, a faithful Catholic college’s influence on its students can yield extraordinary fruits. Two religious Sisters, one from the Catholic University of America (CUA) and the other from the Franciscan University at Steubenville, both testify to how their college experience “helped form their spiritual lives and nourish their religious vocations.”

Sister Agnus Dei testified that her time at CUA was “pivotal in establishing me in my Catholic identity”. She mentioned other graduates who had become priests and sisters, while others had embraced “beautiful marriages” and large families. Sister Mary Louise, related how the many religious and priests around the campus at Steubenville helped her to understand “that such persons were normal and their lives could be attractive to average persons.”

These liberal arts colleges remind one how different it is in the UK, where almost all universities, including those in the Russell Group, are entirely secular and where it is only through a Catholic chaplaincy that Catholic students might be given the help to navigate their studies, their peer group and their milieu. The idea of a liberal arts college is to educate the whole person and, as the article explains, “to put one in touch with the deepest truths of the human person through philosophy, humanities, theology and the arts.”

This flourishing of Catholic life on the campus in the US would have gladdened the heart of Cardinal Newman whose own views on education lie behind the Society bearing his name that provides American would-be students with information regarding the faithful Catholic life of a so-called Catholic college. Paul Shrimpton’s excellent book, The Making of Men, which I blogged about last year, shows how Newman regarded Catholic higher education as a comprehensive undertaking: the faith underpinning and illuminating each faculty.

In all the years of my own Catholic education – convent schools from the age of five to eighteen – I had never come across this way of looking at faith. The subjects we studied were never shown in relation to each other and never presented as different aspects of educating “the whole person”. No wonder so many young Catholics today are ill-equipped by the time they reach university, unable to relate their faith to their lives or to their studies.

Ryan NS Topping, an influential American Catholic writer on education and a fellow of Thomas More College of Liberal Arts, in his book, The Case for Catholic Education, presents another aspect, focusing on lower down the educational ladder: at primary and secondary school. He suggests that “what has been lost from view even within Catholic schools is a sense of the unifying vision of a liberal education” ie. helping pupils to define what it means to lead “a good life”. He is highly critical of much modern Catholic education in the US, which is “soft on doctrine, rich in psychology and high on tolerance.”

Topping’s book, published by Angelico Press and well worth reflecting on, reminds one that part of the reason Pope Francis has called this synod is because so many young couples are poorly instructed in the seriousness of the sacrament of marriage. And this, as Topping would suggest, is because “we have failed to teach the faith to children in school” – and to tell them that there is objective moral truth rather than mere “opinion”.