Raising kids Catholic: faith and reason together

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By Brett Salkeld

This is the last of a three-part series.

In this third of a series on raising kids Catholic I want to talk about some of the particular challenges our culture presents to us as Catholic parents trying to pass on the faith to our children. Can we identify with some precision certain cultural factors that are working against us, so as to effectively counter them?

It would be too easy to simply compile a list of complaints about contemporary culture. What I hope to do instead is to identify one key issue and show how it relates to several problems. I do not argue that it’s the only issue, but that it is a foundational one important for us to understand and address.

We live in a time of confusion about the relationship between faith and reason. For that reason we are seeing both a crisis of faith and a crisis of reason. The Catholic tradition has the best resources for addressing this. I believe our odds of raising our kids in the faith go up dramatically if we get this relationship right

Young people today face two challenges to their faith that look unrelated at first, but which can both be traced to a breakdown in the relationship between faith and reason. One the one hand, the new atheism proclaims that science has made religion obsolete and that faith itself is belief in something even over against the dictates of reason. On the other hand, a relativist culture doubts the capacity of reason to attain truth at all and insists that we have only our own experiences from which to derive our own truths — truths that cannot possibly be shared with others.

If the first imagines that reason contradicts faith, the second imagines that faith cannot be put to any objective standard outside the person, thus isolating faith from reason.

Catholicism insists that faith and reason can never be at odds. If they appear to be at odds, a Catholic takes this as an invitation to deeper reflection and understanding. We have faith in reason, i.e., we believe truth exists and human persons have access to that truth. And we believe that reason has an important role in clarifying and deepening what we know by faith. In fact, the whole tradition of Christian theology is predicated on the belief that both faith itself and the content of our Catholic faith are reasonable.

This is precisely the antidote our kids need when faced with the claim that religion is irrational and doomed to pass away as our scientific knowledge increases, or that religion is limited to personal, private experience and can neither be shared nor make any contribution to the wider culture.

How can we communicate this antidote?

In the first place, parents (teachers and pastors too) need to let kids know that Christian faith is not afraid of questions. When kids have questions or doubts, that should not worry us. We should certainly never shame a child for questioning or doubting. Rather, questions and doubts are opportunities to go deeper into the truths of our faith. Even if you don’t have the answer to your child’s question, congratulate them on such a good question and go searching for the answer together. This is immensely valuable preparation for life in the church.

In the second place, Catholic education has a key role to play here. Our schools need to communicate the compatibility, even the inseparability, of faith and reason. On the one hand, this needs to be done through a careful investigation of their relationship in philosophy or religion class. On the other hand, it needs to be modelled throughout the rest of the curriculum.

What is the relationship of faith and reason in math? Is math purely reasonable? Or are there presuppositions that we must take on faith that show themselves to be true in practice, but which could never be reasoned to from nowhere? (E.g., Euclid’s axioms.) How is this faith like Christian faith and how is it different?

What is the relationship of faith and reason in science? How does science actually work? What are its presuppositions? What cultural prerequisites were required for the development of modern science and the scientific method? Why were those prerequisites only ever found in a Christian culture? Why were so many priests (Copernicus in astronomy, Mendel in genetics, Le Maitre in modern physics) groundbreaking scientists?

What is the story we tell about faith and reason in history class? Are we repeating the new atheist mythology around the scientific revolution in our own Catholic schools? How does the Enlightenment’s understanding of reason compare with the Catholic view? What role has religion actually played in armed conflict? What role has religion, and Catholicism in particular, played in the development of higher education and health care in our culture?

What is the story we tell about faith and reason in literature and the arts? Do we read the great Catholic novelists and poets who explore the role of faith in human life, showing its compatibility with reason, even the degradation of reason when it is deprived of faith? (Walked Percy springs to mind.) Do we know about the Catholic artistic heritage in the fine arts and in music? Do we know how the Catholic tradition thinks about the relationship between beauty and truth?

The philosophical distinctions concerning the relationship between faith and reason that I have dealt with briefly risk seeming arid and irrelevant if we don’t also show the fruit of that relationship in a wide variety of contexts. When, on the other hand, it can be seen that the Catholic view of faith and reason underlies great achievements in science, culture and the arts, the exercise becomes more than merely academic.

One of the great challenges facing our Catholic schools, perhaps the great challenge facing our Catholic schools, is the fact that we cover them with posters and statues and crucifixes and fill them with prayer and religious activity and it all seems to have so little impact. Somehow the culture’s view that faith is irrelevant or, at best, OK for those so inclined, touches many students more deeply.

On a recent CBC Radio program asking whether Catholic and public schools should be amalgamated, the most vocal proponents of amalgamation were graduates of Catholic high schools who said there was no real difference between their education and that of their friends in public schools. The easiest fix, they suggested, would be to have one system that simply offers religion classes to those so inclined outside the main curriculum.

In other words, many graduates of Catholic high schools had absorbed the idea that faith is easily separated from reason and can be tacked on to a secular education as an afterthought, that faith itself does not have any impact on how any other subject is taught or learned.

Putting faith and reason back together, in theory and in practice, is an essential task if we are to pass the faith on to the next generation.

Salkeld lives in Regina with his family where he is scheduled to teach Principles of Catholic Education in Campion College’s Catholic Studies program this winter semester.