March 2006

Recovering a Catholic Philosophy of Elementary Education.  By Curtis L. Hancock. Foreword by Peter A. Redpath. Newman House Press. 142 pages. $20.

It's a rare book that both entertains and enlightens. But it's an exceptional book that accurately criticizes Catholic elementary education and convincingly prescribes a remedy. With wisdom and resolve, Hancock helps us understand the immeasurable value of a Catholic education truly informed by faith and reason.

From Redpath's articulate Foreword, we learn that Catholic elementary education is in danger of losing the very underpinnings that once grounded it. The consequences? Ignorant of philosophical tradition, students and teachers are no longer able to reason to the absolutes which ground our Faith, let alone defend them from corrosive relativism. Thus challenged, it is incumbent upon Catholic educators, parents, and pastoral leaders to recover the Catholic philosophical tradition in education.

Of special interest is Hancock's accessible treatment of the history of Catholic education. From St. Clement's (A.D. 150-219) establishment of the first Catholic school in Alexandria, Egypt (its motto, "I Believe in Order to Understand"), the successes of French and Spanish missionaries, the achievements of the first American Bishop, John Carroll, and St. Elizabeth Ann Seton to the wide availability of Catholic education today, we come to appreciate the author's conviction that "the history of Catholic Education is an adventure in relating faith and reason."

Exercising faith and reason, Hancock perceptively critiques the relativist claim that all views are equally true. Relativism is especially worrisome for Catholic educators since, under the umbrella of political correctness, absolute truths and belief in God are deemed exclusivist, making the believer guilty of intolerance. Yet, if each of us is issued a separate truth, there is no truth. As Hancock says: "Relativists are clearly confused: on the one hand, they want to promote tolerance as an absolute value; on the other, they cannot promote it, because they do not believe in absolutes!" As G.K. Chesterton put it: "tolerance is the refuge of the person who does not believe anything."

Hancock's defense of the Faith is not limited to criticism. His last chapters provide an outline for a return to the Catholic tradition in the classroom. A commitment to habituate the student through an education in moral virtue is a necessary remedy. "Philosophy is everyone's business," wrote the philosopher Mortimer Adler. Hancock makes it so in an enjoyable and enlightening way.

- Tim Weldon



Art and Intellect in the Philosophy of Étienne Gilson.  By Francesca Aran Murphy. University of Missouri Press. 363 pages. $49.

Most NOR readers are aware of Modernism and its offspring; most Commonweal readers are aware of the Church's silencing of theologians who proved to be orthodox (e.g., Henri de Lubac) and complain that dissenters suffer the same fate. But, this reviewer wagers, most NOR and most Commonweal readers know very little about Étienne Gilson (1884-1978). He was, in a nutshell, the premier Catholic scholar of the history of philosophy in the last century and an important philosopher of art as well. He came of age, in France, during the struggle over Modernism, and spent his final years, still in France, discerning both the merit and mischief that was the legacy of Vatican II. For those who walk with the popes or, alternatively, gambol with and gamble on the Zeitgeist, not to have an appreciation for Gilson, the man and the thinker, is rather like being a politically engaged American who, say, recognizes the name Franklin Roosevelt and the term New Deal, but would be hard pressed to write 250 words about either.

Étienne Gilson was, and is, a superb tutor for those who care about the history of Catholic philosophers and the nature of Catholic philosophy. Murphy warmly invites us to explore the trials and triumphs of a thinker who sought to integrate St. Francis with St. Thomas and to do so in the full glare, and sometime brilliance, of the history of Western philosophy à la Sorbonne. There is such a thing as history, but despite an occasional nod in its direction, we're apt to forget about it. Worse, we're apt to be ignorant of it. And even when we solemnly conclude that those who forget the past must relive it, assuming as a premise that history repeats itself, we're wrong. History can't repeat itself, because everything is what it is and not another thing. Time is irreversible, so we can't relive the past. With respect to the above obiter dicta, Murphy does us a service. Gilson, of course, knew far too much to suppose today's tragedies are yesterday's lived again; he knew far too much to suppose that history can repeat itself. But he knew, as well, that history sets the stage for the here and now; he knew that actors who fail to survey the genesis of the stages on which they strut do so at their own peril.

Murphy's text is not an easy read. But it's worth the effort, and more.

- James G. Hanink





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