October 12, 2006
The Roman playwright Seneca lived right about the time of the birth of Christ. When he wanted to read, he had to place a glass globe filled with water over the parchment to magnify the writing. He didn’t have eyeglasses. The Romans didn’t have them. Nor the Greeks. Nor the ancient Egyptians. Eyeglasses: they just didn’t exist in the ancient world. And what a difference that made in peoples’ lives. Without eyeglasses, workers were finished by forty.
Then, somewhere around the year 1268, Salvino D'Armate of Pisa invented eyeglasses. And the time for work and learning increased. Age was no longer a factor. No surprise that eyeglasses caught on so fast. Workshops in Venice and Florence began producing tens of thousands of eyeglasses. By the time Columbus set sail in 1492, people were wearing eyeglasses. But only in Europe.
In so many areas, Europe after the collapse of the Roman Empire moved far ahead of ancient Greece and Rome and ahead of the rest of the civilized world. Waterwheels and wind mills provided the work force once done by slaves. Farm life became easier as horses replaced oxen and wheelbarrows were invented. Universities appeared in Paris and Bologna; and, Copernicus proposed the heliocentric model of the solar system.
Why were there so many discoveries and inventions improving human life after the fall of pagan Rome? The answer is one word: Faith. After the fall of Rome, the culture was dominated by Catholicism. Thought was permeated with faith. This played no small part in the many advances that took place (cf Rodney Stark,
The Victory of Reason. New York: Random House, 2005 pg 35-68).
Faith teaches that God created the world with a design and purpose. Faith also teaches that God gives us intelligence and free will. With these, we can discover the laws of nature and use them for our advantage to invent. These truths of the Catholic faith gave the impetus to progress, to improvement and to social well-being. The great medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas taught “A man can direct and govern his own actions…The rational creature participates in the divine providence not only in being governed but also in governing” (
Summa contra Gentiles, Book III, chapter 113).
Faith and reason belong together. The light of reason and the light of faith come from God; hence there can be no contradiction between them (St. Thomas Aquinas,
Summa contra Gentiles, I, 7). The Church respects the autonomy of reason within the sciences. In Catholic education, students are taught to use reason in the search for an understanding of creation. They are encouraged to enter into dialogue with the sciences. Catholic education refused to divorce reason from faith.
Science and technology give ample witness to the human capacity of reason at work. But, in all human achievement, there is always a desire for more. “In the depths of [man’s] heart there always remains a yearning for absolute truth and a thirst to attain full knowledge of it. This is eloquently proved by man's tireless search for knowledge in all fields. It is proved even more by his search for
the meaning of life” (
Veritatis Splendor, 1).
Here is the goal of Catholic education: to offer the meaning of life. Catholic education does more than providing students with the knowledge needed in our scientific and technical age. It forms students to find in Christ the meaning of life itself. Catholic education is an essential part of the Church’s διακονια of truth. It offers a unified view of the world. The knowledge that reason attains through empirical sciences is set within the context of faith.
In Catholic schools, time for learning is not separated from time for formation. At the center of all learning, faith and reason are brought together. This “makes for unity, articulation and coordination, bringing forth within what is learnt in school a Christian vision of the world, of life, of culture and of history” (The Congregation for Catholic Education,
The Catholic School on the Threshold on the Third Millennium, 14).
Because of the interplay of faith and reason, Catholic education is permeated with optimism. It rests on the firm foundation that God not only gifts us with a mind to think, a will to act and a heart to love, but he has chosen to reveal himself in Christ as the origin and end of our life. Thus, our search for meaning is not in vain. In the words of Pope John Paul II, “Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth; and God has placed in the human heart a desire to know the truth—in a word, to know himself—so that, by knowing and loving God, men and women may also come to the fullness of truth about themselves” (
Fides et Ratio, the blessing). Faith and reason together always improve the human condition.