January 31 kicks off Catholic Schools Week, timed to coincide with the patron of Catholic education’s feast day, St. Thomas Aquinas, on January 27. In Catholic schools, we often ask the question: what is education for? Although it’s become too common to value education for its material benefits — academic achievement ordered toward career success — Catholic schools exist for a more fundamental purpose. They are called to help our young Catholics to reach the goal of life: true happiness in God.
Aquinas, in his great Summa Theologiae, reflects on the nature of happiness, pointing out that only an infinite good, God himself, could ever fully satisfy us: “It is impossible for any created good to constitute man’s happiness. For happiness is the perfect good, which lulls the appetite altogether; else it would not be the last end, if something yet remained to be desired” (I-II, question 2, article 8). If we aim at wealth, success and pleasure, these goods will pass away. We need a happiness that exceeds them, not only in intensity, but that can also last beyond death.
Happiness should be our litmus test for Catholic schools. If our students can come to know the truth and then actually live it, they will be on the path to happiness. True happiness is not a feeling or an accomplishment. It is the realization of our being, our potential as thinking and loving beings made in the image and likeness of God. God put us on this earth with a mission that is not focused simply on oneself. We realize our deepest longings through communion, moving outside of ourselves and into the life of God, sacrificing ourselves for the good others. This is what brings happiness.
We would never say that we do not want our students to do well in school and in their careers. Yes, our schools teach the skills, form the dispositions and impart the wisdom that our students need to live a good life and to do well in the world. Yet, especially within our secular culture, forming a deeper vocation, even in that success, is instrumental to real success. If we cannot see that our earthly goods are meant for serving others, we will be trapped in seeking a false happiness.
Pope Benedict XVI, while addressing Catholic educators in Washington, D.C., in 2008, challenged us to lead our students into the truth, although he urged us not to stop there. He said we have often neglected the will (or free choice) of our students, giving them information but not calling them into a life transformed by the good. He shows us teaching the truth should lead necessarily to the question of what it means to live a good life:
“These harmful developments point to the particular urgency of what we might call ‘intellectual charity.’ This aspect of charity calls the educator to recognize that the profound responsibility to lead the young to truth is nothing less than an act of love. Indeed, the dignity of education lies in fostering the true perfection and happiness of those to be educated. In practice, ‘intellectual charity’ upholds the essential unity of knowledge against the fragmentation which ensues when reason is detached from the pursuit of truth. It guides the young towards the deep satisfaction of exercising freedom in relation to truth, and it strives to articulate the relationship between faith and all aspects of family and civic life. Once their passion for the fullness and unity of truth has been awakened, young people will surely relish the discovery that the question of what they can know opens up the vast adventure of what they ought to do. Here they will experience ‘in what’ and ‘in whom’ it is possible to hope, and be inspired to contribute to society in a way that engenders hope in others.”
Forming students for their happiness is not an isolated task. When their minds are opened to the truth and their wills inflamed by the good, they will be able to give hope to others, giving our society what it needs most.
Education should teach us the art of living. Students who receive a genuinely Catholic education will know what matters most and how to order everything else to that ultimate goal. This gives deeper meaning to our lives, because every choice can be ordered to God, drawing us deeper into communion with him and others. For schools to point students toward this true goal, we will have to be willing to be countercultural, to go against the current that so often distorts the truth and our freedom. In the end, to achieve what matters most, we have to be willing to sacrifice everything else for the pearl of great price. And therein lies the irony: if we do this, only then will we be truly happy.