It struck me afresh how important Catholic liberal education is to the very life of the Church. Think about how heartening the sight would be to our 84 year old Holy Father, if he could see young people learning Latin, Gregorian Chant and sacred polyphony. If he could see daily recitations of the Psalms of David, and the reading and discussion of the Great Books.
You, like I, have celebrated Pope Benedict’s eloquent denunciation of the “dictatorship of relativism.” I have pointed out that a classical curriculum is in fact the antidote to this dictatorship, and I never tire of explaining how a genuine liberal education disposes the mind of students towards the love of objective truth.
Now in the seventh year of his reign, a reign prominently characterized by liturgical reform, our Holy Father has presented a striking opportunity for us to appreciate another aspect of the benefits of a Catholic classical education. Let us not even dwell on the mere fact that it is only by a classical education that a person can even read and understand the very words penned in Latin by Benedict (say for example in his famous and even signature document Summorum Pontificum or the follow up instruction Universae Ecclesiae) not to mention understanding the words, their context, and the theological and philosophical reasonings that support them. It is by a classical education that one can know for oneself and communicate effectively to others what the spirit and the letter of his motu proprio actually enjoin. In other words let us not dwell on the obvious intellectual benefits that a classical education bestows on the mind of the student, but let us rather contemplate another transformation that a classical education offers.
To be precise, a Classical education offers a formation of the heart, a formation of the imagination, and a formation of the emotions without which a proper response to any of the Church’s pronouncements is impossible. In his Summum Pontificorum, our Holy Father himself seems to allude to this, at least in part, when, in his letter accompanying the Motu Proprio, he quotes St. Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians:
“Our mouth is open to you, Corinthians; our heart is wide. You are not restricted by us, but you are restricted in your own affections. In return… widen your hearts also!” (2 Cor 6:11-13).
And Pope Benedict adds : “Paul was certainly speaking in another context, but his exhortation can and must touch us too, precisely on this subject. Let us generously open our hearts and make room for everything that the faith itself allows.”
How, indeed, should we try to do what Benedict exhorts? How can we widen our hearts so that our affections are not restricted? The answer is obvious to me because liberal education is defined by the freedom that it bestows. Liberal education frees a person from the very things that restrict not only his mind, but his heart and his affections, so that he can freely choose to live in the fullest manner possible– in as human a manner as possible– as a free creation and not as a slave to passion, custom, error and fashion. A genuine liberal education is largely a matter of disposing the affections of the student, and a process of widening the hearts of the young so that they are able to respond with an appropriate human response. Endowing himself with all natural moral and intellectual virtues, the person, in turn, becomes a fitting vehicle for God’s grace. Gratia supponit naturam (Grace builds on nature). By using well the “talent” of human nature that God has given us, we become apt vessels of grace able to return fitting praise back to the Creator. Accordingly, a liberal education enables us to participate fittingly in the praise of the Creator, especially in those most important actions through which man himself is given a share in his own redemption. I mean the liturgical actions of the Church and especially Holy Mass.
Is this going too far? Is it too much to claim for liberal education that it is the education that prepares a man to worship his creator? If this is true it would appear to me that everyone who is educable ought to pursue a liberal education. In other words, I am claiming that a liberal education aside from teaching students how to think, aside from exposing students to the glory of Euclid’s geometry and the wonders of natural science, aside from exposing student to the beauty of Virgil’s Aeneid or Homer’s Iliad, aside from the pursuit of wisdom– I say aside from these things, a liberal education gives a student the ability to appreciate the entire liturgical action of the church. One might say that a liberal education endows a student with a “liturgical aesthetic” that enables him to take delight in the perennial liturgical action of the church. “Widen your hearts,” exhorts Paul. There is a particular formation of the heart, of the imagination, and of the emotions that makes the “Catholic heart” wider and sympathetic towards the kinds of things that Pope Benedict is encouraging. This formation is called Catholic classical education.