Catholic Academic Integration: Science, Literature, History

We will begin with a question: What is a Catholic secondary education? If you ask many Catholic secondary educators, they will tell you that it has something to do with campus ministry, with good religion classes and social outreaches, and that is the end of it. The rest of education is about getting jobs, high test scores, college scholarships, and stuff like that. As for this definition, I have nothing but approval. Academic achievement and career success are great; helping young people get good jobs is a fine goal to have. Even in the universities of the Middle Ages, most students studied only for as long as they needed to become a professional, perhaps in law or medicine.

Catholic education should be about getting jobs, but should also be about more than that. The Church has actually defined what a Catholic education ought to be in our times – first in 1977 in a document entitled “The Catholic School,” and once again in a 2007 document entitled “Educating Together in Catholic Schools.” Here is how the Church defines Catholic education: “[A] synthesis between faith, culture and life . . . reached by integrating all the different aspects of human knowledge through the subjects taught, in the light of the Gospel," [in] "an atmosphere characterized by the search for truth.”[1]

Let’s now break that down. The subject noun in this definition is the word synthesis. In any synthesis we are trying to bring many elements into a well-ordered whole, an interlocking system. A Catholic school is an attempt to create a synthesis between many elements.

According to this definition, what are the two components that are being brought together into a well-ordered whole? Faith and Culture. Faith refers to the personal but also corporate (not private!) act of faith in which we cling to God by assenting to the truth he reveals to us as members of the Church. It also refers to the objective faith we profess, what we call “the Catholic Faith.” As for culture–this word is the subject of entire books, and definitions vary from author to author; in fact, the word “culture” now even has a fruitful meaning in evolutionary biology, which refers to gene-culture coevolution in animals, even earthworms. However, unlike among earthworms, all scholars agree that in regard to the human species, culture includes arts and sciences. In other words, academics is an essential part of what we mean by culture; in fact, it is the largest part of what we mean by culture when we are talking about a school.

How is such a synthesis created? How is it formed? Through what activity? The answer comes in the last part of the definition, with the words “reached by”: “reached by integrating all the different aspects of human knowledge through the subjects taught, in the light of the Gospel,” “an atmosphere characterized by the search for truth.” Before we explore what this means, let’s give this activity its own name. Let’s call it “Catholic Academic Integration,”[2] CAI for short, understood as occurring in the light of the Gospel and as being characterized by the search for truth. The prepositional phrase “in the light of the Gospel” and the adverbial phrase “characterized by the search for truth” tell us what is meant by CAI.  

Let us try to taste, to actually savor, the paradox created by the two phrases that end our definition: in the light of the Gospel, characterized by the search for truth. This should befuddle us. The light of the Gospel is not a truth we have found through searching, but the Truth that has found us, has claimed us for his own, Jesus Christ, “the Way, the Truth and the Life.” But in claiming us, the Truth has called us to search for truth. In claiming us for his own, God has not taken away from us the adventure of discovery. He has done the exact opposite—he has bestowed that adventure on us, and he holds us responsible for undertaking it. God’s ownership of my life is a freedom for the truth and a responsibility for the truth.

Now we can dwell a bit on the last phrase: “an atmosphere characterized by the search for truth.” I once asked a fellow theologian to describe to a group of teachers why he is a Catholic. He said there are many reasons, but one of the most important is this: “Never have I seen some feature of the real world that is obviously true, that makes sense, that can’t be denied without being absurd, and been told by the Church ‘NO, you must not accept that.’ Never have I been told to close my mind to the truth that I find.”[3] This statement captures what is meant by our definition of a Catholic school as “an atmosphere characterized by the search for truth.” The Catholic school is a place where all truths must be welcome.

So, what makes a Catholic school different from any other place where people look for truth? The difference is not in what truths are allowed to be seen. The difference is the supernatural light in which all truths are seen, the light of God that illuminates them. God’s light is not a light that changes the truth seen but a light that shows it to us in its fullest magnitude, shows us how to make sense of it, how to relate ourselves to it. When I see the reality of biological evolution in a Catholic school, I see what any other biology student sees and I see all that they see. But in a Catholic school I see more—I see that this natural process is God sharing his goodness with creatures, letting creatures in on the act of creation in their own unique ways. Even when I see the unsettling things—velociraptor claws, brain-destroying amoebas, and deadly viruses—in the light of the Gospel I do not fail to see that God is so good that he not only causes creatures to be, but he causes them to be causes of one another, creating a cosmos, which means an “orderly arrangement.” This is the truth about evolution that is seen when the light of the Gospel is allowed to shine on it. And the fact that the cosmos is itself a synthesis justifies our definition of Catholic education as a synthesis—the academic synthesis we are trying to stimulate, to engender, in the souls of our students is a reflection of the synthesis that God has created in the cosmos.

Let us consider an example of an atmosphere characterized by the search for truth—a translation of this part of our definition from the general to the particular, the integration of the study of the natural sciences into a Catholic education. With regard to “an atmosphere characterized by the search for truth” it means “an atmosphere characterized by sound principles of scientific investigation.” Period. It means doing good science first without reference to anything but the methods and scope proper to the natural sciences, to the study of the natural world. This is the Catholic view; it comes from an important distinction between the way God the Creator is and acts and the way that God’s creatures are and act. When St. Thomas Aquinas wrote about the creation narrative in the Book of Genesis he made reference to trying to understand the temporal beginnings of our universe and said: “in the first founding of the order of nature we must not look for miracles, but for what is in accordance with nature.” (Summa Theologiae I.67.4 ad 3) In another place he uses the analogy of a shipbuilder and a ship: “It is as if a shipbuilder were able to give to timbers that by which they would move themselves to take the form of a ship.” (In Physicorum, II.8.14, no. 268) Therefore the cosmos has laws and patterns, cause and effect relationships and systems of its own that are proper to it and are by no means governed by divine micromanagement. According to the Catholic Faith, this legitimate autonomy of the cosmos is willed by God and so the legitimate autonomy of the natural and human sciences which study the cosmos is taught by the Church. Consider this quote from Vatican II:

The Church does not forbid that “the human arts and disciplines use their own principles and their proper method, each in its own domain”; therefore “acknowledging this just liberty,” this Sacred Synod affirms the legitimate autonomy of human culture and especially of the sciences [emphasis mine]. (Gaudium et spes §36, 59)

The Catholic Church embraces scientific investigation and sees it as indispensable for understanding the cosmos. If a Catholic school is an atmosphere characterized by the search for truth, then it must include bold scientific investigation. This means, among other things, that creationism and “God of the Gaps” thinking have no place within a Catholic school, whereas evolutionary biology has a central one.

We have been focused on the last phrase in our definition, now we turn to the second to last; that the integration of the subjects taught with their various searches for truth occurs “in the light of the Gospel.” The Catechism defines the Gospel as follows: “The Gospel is the revelation in Jesus Christ of God's mercy to sinners.” (CCC §1846) By the Gospel we also mean “the good news of the Kingdom of God.” My favorite definition of the Kingdom of God comes from my great theological mentor, a Cistercian monk named Fr. Roch Kereszty and his excellent book on Christology: it is “the hidden but powerful presence of God in Jesus restoring wholeness of life to all those who accept him in faith.”[4]

How do we know that this is what the Gospel is, what the Kingdom of God is? If these were empirically verifiable truths then every reasonable person would be Catholic. If they were common, easily established facts accepted by the consensus of scientists, every reasonable scientist would be Catholic. But they are neither empirically nor historically verifiable, they cannot be squeezed onto a slide or dug out of the ground. They can only be known through faith. Their proofs are modest and few. The proofs of the truth of the Gospel and the Kingdom do not force the intellect to accept them. Force, intellectual or otherwise, comes from the impatience of men and the world is destroyed by it. The Gospel is the announcement of the patience of God and the world is saved by it. The freest thing we will ever do is believe the Gospel. In the face of empirical evidence we have only virtual freedom—we must accept what it shows or be insane or a liar. But those who accept the Gospel have every earthly reason not to do so, and to accept it is to accept the “foolishness of God,” St Paul says. But that is not all he says. He adds that the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom.

With this refresher on what we mean by “the Gospel” we can now understand what we mean by “academic integration in the light of the Gospel.” There are a number of things being claimed by this short phrase. The first is the most challenging. It is that the adjective “Catholic” should never be reduced to one subject. In the light of the Gospel means that the Gospel is a way of seeing that is capable of containing all of the disciplines. In the words of C.S. Lewis, “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”[5] This is a light that shines from behind the eye as we see, not one that shines on the eye from outside.

This means that in a Catholic school we must bring our students to ask the question: what do these things we study, taken together as a whole, mean? And this is where the Catholic faith shines its powerful light on the pictures of reality developed in our various disciplines. If a Catholic school were simply to say “we’re Catholic because we have religion classes,” then it would not be living up to this rule of life.

Lest this all sound too abstract, a picture paints a thousand words. What is this a picture of? Depending on how you process the visual cues, you see either the profile of a rather haggard-looking old woman or the image of a beautiful young woman looking away from the field of the picture. Notice that you cannot reduce the young woman to the old woman or the old woman to the young woman. Notice that the same visual data belongs to both visions of the picture known as “My Wife and My Mother-in-Law.” People who use this image love to say that what you see depends on interpretation, but this does not say enough. Notice that the issue cannot be settled without referencing the details of the picture. Those remain the same whether you want to argue that you see an old woman or a young woman in the picture. Everybody sees a bonnet, everybody sees hair, everybody sees a female.

Some details are disputable—is that an eye or an ear? But you cannot answer that until you have decided whether it is an old woman or a young woman. So ultimately, the decision that this is an old woman or that this is a young woman is an interpretation that must happen outside of the picture in a way that transcends the picture. If I argue that the picture is of a horse, then the details within the picture defeat my argument. But if I argue that it is an old woman, then no details defeat me. Rather, in this kind of interpretation I am not determining what the details are, but rather I am determining myself in regard to the picture. And this is analogous to what we mean by integrating subjects “in the light of the Gospel,” or integrating faith across the curriculum. We see these objects of study in the light of God, who is not a detail of the curriculum or a topic of one course but the light shining on all courses, and in each case these objects of study bring us to see the human person anew within that light.

Does this mean that every class should become a religion class? No! Is it successfully accomplished by making sure we have a crucifix in the English classroom or by making sure we begin every physics class with a prayer? We certainly should have and do, but no! It means teaching our subjects in ways and with attention to the Big Questions that the Gospel answers: “Who am I? What is the meaning of life, the universe and everything? Why is this object of study good, beautiful and true?” It means creating a faculty that engages in interdisciplinary dialogue behind the scenes and in front of students, so that students can see how all the things they learn relate to these big questions and to their Christian Faith. Focusing on these questions in the light of faith not merely serve some abstract goal of strengthening a school’s Catholic identity. It will do something much more important: it will help students understand the specific value of the disciplines being taught: biology, mathematics, literature—any and all disciplines.

Allow me to illustrate this with an example as we now move on to specific examples regarding science, history and literature, starting with science. Integrating faith and science is the area to which I have devoted the majority of my research and teaching since 2007, and so I can report that openness to the Big Questions and to faith is actually a better way to teach science than to teach it without integration. From 2014-2016 worked with the faculty of Dominican High School in New Orleans. Before I started the science department had ingeniously decided to cover and recover the scientific method at the beginning of each of the final three years of the curriculum—sophomore, junior, and senior years. For one week the teachers go back over the scientific method with the students and then conclude by explaining how it applies to the specific course, be it biology, chemistry or physics.

On the basis of the faculty science and religion seminars we did in 2014, at least one teacher decided to add 10-15 minutes to each of these weeks to explaining the difference between the scientific method and the methods of discovery used in philosophy and theology. 15 minutes! So here is one point they starting making: “Science takes things apart to tell us how they work; religion brings things together to tell us what they mean.”[6] In the meantime, the religion department decided to do the same in reverse, covering theological method and then contrasting it with the scientific method. In both departments the value and goodness of the other discipline was thoroughly affirmed as part of this activity: “Science can't tell you why the universe exists, but religion can. Religion can't tell you about the process by which the various forms of life developed, but biology can.”

The result was amazing. Simply distinguishing these helped students see better what they were doing in each class, and why they needed both religion and science to understand the world fully. The conflict model of science and religion, which recent studies tell us is embraced by as many as 70% of young Catholics today, was radically challenged and put to rest right from the start. But it had another great result—through distinguishing science from religion and religion from science, the specific object of each discipline became clearer, to the betterment of both. To riff on the words of Our Savior, “He who would save his discipline to the detriment of others will lose it, and he who loses his discipline briefly for the sake of academic integration will find it.” Thanks to this attention to integration, Dominican girls stopped expecting conflict between science and religion, naively assuming the doctrine of creation to be a rival explanation to the Big Bang Theory to be rival explanations for the physical universe. They felt freer to study and embrace both.

What about history? History has many goals, and all of them belong in a Catholic school. But history in the light of the Gospel. should also be about creating a Catholic memory for the sake of a greater future. This means that events of the Church’s past must be brought under theological evaluation, both doctrinal and ethical evaluation, from a Catholic way of seeing. History in a Catholic school will not simply be the adoption of content quotas or performance standards, but will rise to a judgment of the past enlightened by faith. It will see the past with the eyes of the Church, including seeing the Church’s own past with the eyes of the Church, for those eyes are enlightened by the Gospel.

To do this, we must believe that the Church is the seed and the beginning of the Kingdom of God thanks to her union with Christ, but also that only the eyes of faith can see this while looking at her visible reality. We are not to approach the details of her history with the expectation of always finding clear, untroubled confirmation of her spiritual reality. If we do that, then we will ultimately ruin our search for truth. We will either cease to be Catholic because we did not find the perfect holiness and virtue we foolishly expected to find, or we will engage in dumb apologetics in which we try to justify things in the name of the faith that should never be justified, leaving ourselves and our students ashamed before the world.

Instead, we should examine the history of the Church with the same dedication and lack of rationalization with which we should examine our own consciences. The Catholic Church is a living society spanning twenty centuries. She has a memory, and in this memory stand out incredible models to imitate, incredible movements for good, but this good wheat always remains inextricably mixed with weeds; holiness stands side by side with infidelity and sin. When we evaluate the past and see great things done in the Church like hospitals, care for the poor, and marvelous love in the lives of the saints, we see the work of God and the holiness of the Church. When we see religious violence, anti-Semitism, forced conversions, etc., we see the work of men closing themselves to the work of God in his holy Church. It is not that we have to see one or the other. We have to see both, for if we are honest we will admit that our own lives are a mixture of both goodness and sinfulness at every moment.

When we look at the Church’s past we must do so with unshakable faith in the holiness of the Church and its power to be the sacrament of salvation for us. A history class that leaves any doubt about this is not fit for a Catholic school. But this does not mean pretending that the sanctification process happens immediately, or that it is proved by pretending that the Church’s members do the right thing every time, all of the time.

In this regard, I offer you a series of primary readings entitled “Catholicism and Slavery.” Let me give you two facts about the Church and slavery:

  1. From 1629-1788 popes actually purchased slaves for use in the Pontifical squadron, known as galley slaves, most of whom were Muslims.
  2. In 1866, just one year after the end of the Civil War and after Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural, to my mind the greatest speech in American history, in which he condemned slavery as “an offense God’s providence has now removed,” the Holy Office (renamed at Vatican II as the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith), declared “it is not contrary to the natural and divine law for a slave to be sold, bought, exchanged or donated.”

Taken by themselves, and out of any historical context, one might take these two instances to conclude that the Church is, and always has been, a pro-slavery institution. Nothing could be further from the truth. I don’t have time to explain why that is a false judgment, which is why I provided  you with the compilation of primary sources, which makes a great research project for an American, European or Church history course. I’ll simply end this section by quoting an article by my colleague Cory Hayes: “holiness in the Church has not and does not always correspond to the holiness of the Church, and this state of affairs is a sin and a scandal . . . But the entrance of God into human history accomplished in the Incarnation offers hope that real human progress can end the sad poetry of the ages.”[7]

Finally, I have intentionally saved what I believe to be the most important for last: literature. I honestly believe that literature has the capacity to bring a student closer to God than theology, because within great literature a student is brought to direct contemplation of beauty, of good and evil, of the transcendent, of the sacred and the profane. I am a theologian, and so I am insulting my own discipline here. But theology reflects on divine and human mysteries in the abstract; in great literature they are experienced directly. A Catholic imagination is more important to forming the young than a perfect memorization and recall of the Church’s doctrines. Jesus told many more stories than he ever made doctrinal pronouncements.

Before I continue, let’s do a thought experiment. Imagine a Jewish high school with an English Department. You have a chance to review the books included in their curriculum, and when you read through it, you notice that not one of the modern masterpieces of Jewish literature has been included. No The Chosen by Chaim Potok. No short stories from The Periodic Table by Primo Levi, the Jewish Italian chemist and Holocaust survivor. Not even Silence by Elie Wiesel has been included. If I were in your shoes, I would feel an immense sense of loss, and even anger at what seems like a complete lack of respect for the religious heritage of the school and most of its students. Well, that is precisely what I have seen at countless American Catholic high schools. No Flannery O’Connor, no Graham Greene, no Czeslaw Milosz, no Sigrid Undset, no Shusaku Endo, no Claude McKay, no Evelyn Waugh. Shoot a military cannon through the literary canon of the school, and you will not kill a single Catholic author.

What else can be said? I am about to say something that might seem as if I am being insulting: Go through your Catholic high school curriculum and purge it of prescriptive fiction. Prescriptive fiction can be defined as any fiction written like an ABC Afterschool Special from the 80s. You know, a “novel” about the senior basketball team captain who drinks and drives and kills his friend in an accident, and then ultimately kills himself out of despair. Or the novel that sentimentally delivers the sweet poison that, ultimately, if you follow your heart you will always be fulfilled and happy, just as long as you do what feels right. Or the novel that glorifies adolescence as a special window into everything true that older people will never understand. Prescriptive fiction of any kind—the moralizing, religious kind, or the immoralizing profane kind, or the secular moralizing “all things will go well with you if you designate a driver” kind—is simply false. These bad novels are badly disguised safety pamphlets masquerading as literature that leave young people incapable of understanding the tragic mystery of human existence.

Well, then, what about this kind of literature, the (un?)holy trinity of Catholic secondary education, or at least was when I was in Catholic high school? Consider this quote: “Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher. “Utterly meaningless. Everything is meaningless . . . the fate of men and beasts are the same; the same fate awaits both: As one dies, so dies the other. All have the same breath; man has no advantage over the animal” (Ecclesiastes 1:2; 3:19). If these verses can be the word of the Lord in Sacred Scripture, divinely inspired, then the great existential fiction of Camus, or the Freudian vision of Golding, or Salinger’s angsty critique of societal superficiality can all have a place in Catholic education as well. The problem is when they have pride of place, when they become the final word, when they are not surrounded by books which invite readers to look beyond death and tragedy, to hope with a realism that yes, life will make you suffer, but also that suffering lovingly for another or for what is right is a more beautiful and meaningful life than one of despair.

Sure, keep Camus, Golding, and Salinger, but do not keep them alone. Have students read a recent masterpiece like The Road by Cormac McCarthy. Listen to this bit from the beginning of about a father and his young son trying to go forward with hope after the end of the civilized world and the destruction of everything:

When he woke in the woods in the dark and the cold of the night, he’d reach out to touch the child sleeping beside him. Nights dark beyond darkness and the days more gray each one than what had gone before . . . His hand rose and fell softly with each precious breath . . . With the first gray light he rose and left the boy sleeping and walked out to the road and squatted and studied the country to the south. Barren, silent, godless . . . He knew only that the child was his warrant. He said, “If he’s not the word of God, God never spoke.”

The question of God, of the meaning of life, of childhood innocence, of sacrifice for the sake of love, is raised throughout. It is a question in suspense, and the novel does not answer the question-it does better, it leaves the reader trying to answer it.

The one I recommend above all is by another agnostic, Thornton Wilder, his Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Bridge of San Luis Rey. If you want to encounter the Absolute Mystery of Divine Providence and the primacy of Christian love in fiction, you will not find it anywhere if you cannot find it here. Wilder said that the central idea of the book stemmed from arguments with his father, a strict Calvinist of the Puritan variety. He said, “My father was a man of religious conviction. [My religion] was gone before I missed it, like a coat left in some railway station.” I point this out because by no means does integrating Christian anthropology across the literature curriculum require that we rely strictly upon the work of confirmed believers. Here is a rule of thumb, once again from Wilder, “The business of literature is not to answer questions, but to state them fairly.” The Bridge is the fairest statement of the ultimate questions I have ever encountered, and a piece of utterly brilliant prose. Wilder peered deeply into reality, and what he saw was the Catholic understanding of love, though perhaps he knew it not.

I have not mentioned some obvious candidates, but I am running out of space. To conclude, I would like to share a poem that I think was inspired by the same kind of supernatural vision as the vision of Catholic education I have been sharing today. It is the poem “South Coast” by William Everson, a Sacramento-born Beat poet of the San Francisco Renaissance who converted to Catholicism in 1951 and entered the Dominican order the same year, to then be known as Br. Antoninus, the Beat Friar. He is buried in the Dominican cemetery in Benicia. He shows what it means to view the world, your world, through eyes filled with faith, and that is what CAI is all about:

Salt creek mouths unflushed by the sea
And the long day shuts down.
Whose hand stacks rock, cairn-posted,
Churched to the folded sole of this hill,
And Whose mind conceives? Three herons
Gig their necks in the tule brake
And the prying mud hen plies.
Long down, far south to Sur, the wind lags,
Slosh-washes his slow heel,
Lays off our coast, rump of the domed
Mountain, woman-backed, bedded
Under his lee. Salt grasses here,
Fringes, twigging the crevice slips,
And the gagging cypress
Wracked away from the sea.
God makes. On earth, in us, most instantly,
On the very now,
His own means conceives.
How many strengths break out unchoked
Where He, Whom all declares,
Delights to make be!

[1] Sacred Congregation for Catholic Education, “Educating Together in Catholic Schools: A Shared Mission Between Consecrated Persons and the Lay Faithful,” no. 24 (9/08/07); cf. Idem., “The Catholic School,” no. 37 (3/19/77).

[2] Many thanks to Clare Kilbane, Ph.D., for introducing me to this term which she coined.

[3] Many thanks to Cory Hayes, Ph.D., for this brilliant interjection.

[4] Roch Kereszty, Jesus Christ; Fundamentals of Christology 3rd ed. (Staten Island: St. Paul’s, 2011), 118.

[5] C.S Lewis, “Is Theology Poetry?” in The Weight of Glory: And Other Addresses (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), 140.

[6] Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, The Great Partnership: Science, Religion and the Search for Meaning (New York: Schocken Books, 2011), 2.

[7] Cory J. Hayes, “Sins of the Past and Judgments of the Present: Historiography and Theological Reflection according to Memory and Reconciliation,” unpublished.

Featured Image: Photo by Julia Koblitz on Unsplash.


Christopher Baglow

Christopher Baglow is Director of the Science & Religion Initiative of the McGrath Institute for Church Life at the University of Notre Dame. He is the author of Faith, Science and Reason: Theology on the Cutting Edge and is the co-recipient of the 2018 Expanded Reason Award in the Teaching category.

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