Saturday, August 06, 2005


The Catholic Church: Mother, Teacher...and Student

“THE Catholic Church has been established by Jesus Christ as MOTHER AND TEACHER of nations, so that all who in the course of centuries come to her loving embrace, may find salvation as well as the fullness of a more excellent life. To this Church, "the pillar and mainstay of the truth," her most holy Founder has entrusted the double task of begetting sons unto herself, and of educating and governing those whom she begets, guiding with maternal providence the life both of individuals and of peoples. The lofty dignity of this life, she has always held in the highest respect and guarded with watchful care.”

This introduction to the 1961 encyclical letter Mater et Magistra of Pope John XXIII beautifully states, in capsule form, the maternal solicitude of the Church’s teaching authority.

This “ salvation as well as the fullness of a more excellent life “, found in the bosom of Holy Mother Church, is not merely an abstract theory, but a most concrete reality that involves every aspect of human life.

By unceasingly nurturing her children with the light of divine revelation, the Church enables them to make use those things that are understandable. This is most strikingly evident in her contributions to the philosophical and scientific disciplines. For instance, the theological thought of such great thinkers as St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas have illustrated that the disciplines of philosophy and psychology have as their end something of real meaning, vice play toys of speculation and relativism.

Likewise, in the physical sciences, the idea of the heliocentric nature of our solar system (That of the solar system revolving around the sun.), first advanced by the Polish Catholic Nicholaus Copernicus in the sixteenth century, has undoubtedly been indispensable in advent of aerospace technology, not to mention the advancement of astronomy as a whole. Our ability to understand, and consequently control, the devastating mechanisms of disease would not have been possible without the pioneering work of the French Catholic chemist Louis Pasteur in the field of bacteriology.

Both Copernicus and Pasteur attributed their gift of scientific knowledge to their Catholic faith. In a letter to his children, Pasteur expressed the dependence of his knowledge on his faith this way: “The more I know, the more nearly is my faith that of a Breton peasant. Could I but know all I would have the faith of a Breton peasant woman. “

We also owe much of our advances in agriculture to the monks. They were able to devise ways to clear land that had been hitherto inaccessible by clearing forests to build roads, building bridges over rivers, and turning desert land into farmland and gardens through their cultivation efforts.

The monks also preserved the texts of ancient literature throughout the Dark Ages. They copied by hand not only the Scriptures, but ancient philosophical and other literary texts as well. In their contemplation of the truth and beauty of God’s revelation, they were able to see its manifestation in the tangible created world and that preserving it was worth the great effort and sacrifice they undertook.

Attentiveness to what her children say and do is a hallmark characteristic of any good mother. She not only lovingly corrects them when they err, she also learns from their discoveries and is fortified by their virtue. The same is true for Holy Mother Church. In fact, this is a major catalyst for the development of her doctrine and her growth in holiness. In recognition for their contributions and to serve as a means of inspiration for succeeding generations, the Church canonizes some of her children as saints, and in real special cases, doctors of the Church.

Here we see the Catholic Church not only as mother and teacher, but also as student. It is here we see that the infallibility the Church existing not only in her proclamation of the truth, but in the recognition of it as well.

With confidence that no truth exists anywhere that evades the ownership of her Lord, the Church can also recognize the truth even when it exists outside of her formal boundaries.

We see this with St. Paul, who in Acts 17:22&23 uses the altar of the unknown god in Athens as a vehicle to begin to preach Christ Jesus:

Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along, and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, 'To an unknown god.' What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.

Following St. Paul, saints such as Justin Martyr, Augustine, and Aquinas recognized in the thought of such Greek philosophers as Pythagoras, Plato, and Aristotle an understanding of absolute truth in human reason and material creation and often used it as a means to articulate Christian revelation.

It is this same confidence that has animated the Church’s missionary activity over the course of the centuries, not only as it regards truth found in modes of thought, but also in culture as a whole.

Pope John Paul II gives voice to this principle when he says: “From the moment when, through the Paschal Mystery, she received the gift of the ultimate truth about human life, the Church has made her pilgrim way along the paths of the world to proclaim that Jesus Christ is "the way, and the truth, and the life" (Jn 14:6). It is her duty to serve humanity in different ways, but one way in particular imposes a responsibility of a quite special kind: the diakonia of the truth. This mission ....makes the believing community a partner in humanity's shared struggle to arrive at truth;” (Encyclical Letter On the Understanding of the Relationship Between Faith and Reason Fides et Ratio)

Nothing brings more pain to the heart of a mother than when some of her children go astray. No one knows this better than Holy Mother Church. Throughout her history, the sword of countless heresies, schisms, and internal dissensions has pierced the heart of the Church. Just as the exemplary example of the saints and magnified the Church’s holiness, the scandalous behavior of some of her children have contributed to these divisions. In her decree on ecumenism, Vatican II acknowledges this:

For although the Catholic Church has been endowed with all divinely revealed truth and with all means of grace, yet its members fail to live by them with all the fervor that they should, so that the radiance of the Church's image is less clear in the eyes of our separated brethren and of the world at large, and the growth of God's kingdom is delayed. (Unitatis redintegratio #4)

Just as the infallible charism allows the Church to recognize the truth, regardless of where it may exist, it also demands that she recognize sin and falsehood, even when it is being spread by her own members. From the ashes of these failures have come some of Mother Church’s greatest successes. Responses to these betrayals have led to growth in her holiness and greater exposition in doctrine. The so-called counter reformation of the sixteenth century revivified the Church with a greater sense of mysticism, the Arian crisis of the fourth century led to a greater exposition of the doctrine Christ’s divinity, and some today’s problems of dissent and scandal will, as is already evidenced in the flourishing New Evangelization, give way to a new springtime in the Church.

These are the hallmarks of the Catholic Church—Mother, Teacher, and Student.


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