Cardinal O’Brien’s TAC Commencement Address

Was thinking this address deserved more attention (and Marcel agrees). It was refreshing, if not unexpected, to hear a commencement address that wasn’t all ‘the world is your oyster’, ‘seize the day!’ ‘you can do anything’  claptrap. Instead, Cardinal O’Brien laid out what was expected of students who might be viewed as hot house flowers – special cases, specially trained in beauty and truth, in a physical and spiritual place isolated from the ‘real’ world – or might be viewed as special ops forces.

In being formed by the unique education offered here at Thomas Aquinas College, you have been formed for a mission: and that mission is nothing less than the rescue of the civilizational project of the West.

“Go, and save Western Civilization” – now, there’s a project worth commencing. Much more inspiring than “Go, follow your butterfly dreams.”

The Armed Forces does in fact have Special Ops chaplains. For the time being, at least.

For Thomas Aquinas College, which seeks to train young minds in the classics of Western civilization and does so in an authentically Catholic spirit, is a school which appreciates that Jerusalem, Athens, and Rome are the three pillars of Western civilization — the civilizational heritage of which you, the class of 2014 are the heirs and trustees.

Thus His Eminence lays out the subject of his talk, the unity of faith and reason in a civilization governed by laws.  The whole speech is short – I only cherry pick here to entice you to read the whole thing. Of Jerusalem, Cardinal O’Brien says:

Jerusalem: From biblical religion, the West learned the crucial lesson that our lives are not cyclical repetition or chaotic happenstance. Rather, the Bible taught the West that our lives arein via, “on the way,” a journey, a pilgrimage, with an origin, a design, and a destination. The origin is God, creator of heaven and earth, and the destination is the Kingdom of God, in the wedding feast of the Lamb, of which St. John wrote in the 21st chapter of the Book of Revelation.

This notion of life as journey or pilgrimage has been crucial to the forward thrust of Western civilization, its orientation toward the future, and its striving to improve the human condition. Life as journey and pilgrimage is never dull and never boring; life as journey and pilgrimage is always an adventure. And if so many of our contemporaries seem, today, dazed and bored, perhaps that’s because they have paid insufficient attention to Jerusalem — to the biblical foundations of our civilization.

And perhaps, in your families and professional lives, you can do something to remind the world that biblical religion liberates human beings in the deepest meaning of human liberation.

This notion of human liberation as the (intended) fruit of a belief in One God, Father All Mighty, Creator of Heaven and Earth is reflected in the ancient and noble understanding of freedom, an understanding that the modern world has cut in two. For we have disposed of the larger and more primary piece for the sake of the easier, ephemeral, lesser piece. Freedom is first of all freedom from your passions. If we do only what we desire with no understanding, we are already slaves, indeed, animals, no matter how much ‘freedom’ our society gives us in which to be slaves. But we hold this truth to be self-evident: that the highest, indeed the only, freedom is to do whatever we want whenever we want.

As an aside, this view also removes any possibility of dignified labor, of freedom through working for an end. Why should a father work to support a family if he’d rather be playing video games? It ultimately destroys any possibility of a true and deep relationship with any other human being, as it would be tyranny to have to love someone when we didn’t feel like it.

The section on Athens referred to here covers the notion of One Truth accessible to human reason. Revisiting the final paragraph of this section:

And in a culture that is increasingly confused about the truth of things, be, like John Paul II, witnesses to the truth: the truth that there is more than “your truth” and “my truth,” the truth that there is something properly called “the truth,” and we have access to it by our reason. There are other avenues to truth, of course: but it will be the task of your generation, tutored by the Pope and saint who wrote the encyclical Fides et Ratio, to remind the West that reason is part of our civilizational heritage, and that the Catholic Church is the great institutional safe-deposit box of reason in the 21st century West.

Discovering, as, for example Chesterton and John C. Wright discovered, that the Church really is the ‘safe-deposit box of reason’ is mind-blowing in the extreme, too much so to have much of a chance of getting through to many people. His Eminence didn’t go there, but I will: how about we, the educated Catholics of the world, go down to the bank and take Reason *out* of the safe-deposit box and use it on the world? The metaphor breaks down, of course, in that Reason can be both used and kept safe – perhaps it is only kept safe by being used?

Finally, the section on Rome, expressing a connection perhaps, oddly enough, least familiar to educated Catholics:

Rome: From Rome, and from great figures like Cicero, who through your studies have become your traveling companions on the pilgrimage of life, Western civilization learned that the rule of law is superior to the rule of brute force in the exercise of arbitrary power. That lesson has to be learned in every generation. But in learning it, we recapitulate the lessons learned, not without cost, in the Roman forum and in the building of a law-governed polity that once ruled the entire Mediterranean world.

As that Roman lesson about the superiority of the rule of law worked itself out in the Christian Middle Ages, other ideas were added to the mix: that there is an inherent sense of justice in the people to which just government must attend; that consent is essential to just governance; that positive law must be tethered to the natural moral law if law is not to decompose into an instrument of tyranny. Pope St. John Paul II reminded the West of these truths in his social magisterium; and it must be your care and concern to be witnesses to these truths in your lives as citizens.

The rule of law is superior to the rule of brute force. Except when Congress fails to act, in which case Mussolini must, as the representative of the will of the people, act regardless of the law. Right? Because the will of the people as understood by the best and brightest is a higher, if undefined and exquisitely flexible, law.

What could possibly go wrong? One hopes a classics education, where Cicero becomes one’s traveling companion, will at least make such arguments sound alarmingly familiar.

Wonderful talk. Do read the whole thing.  It brought to mind my go-to guy for modern thinking and politics: Callicles, who sums up modern thought and modern politics 2500 years ago when he says: virtue is the power to harm your enemies, reward your friends, and fulfill your every desire. Once Jerusalem is stripped away, and reason crumbles, and law becomes whatever the tyrant says it is, virtue comes to equal ‘freedom’. How can it be virtuous to do anything you don’t want to do? And Callicles lays out exactly what that freedom means.

One final thing: the student address, delivered by  Felicity Seeley, is also worth reading. Here’s a taste:

After all, to hold truth means to hold it in the depths of our souls, not just the surface of our minds; to believe Truth means trusting it with our whole being. To do this, we must show our thoughts and bare our insecurities out loud in class. If we’re supposed to let Truth inform our souls and build our worlds, we must be invested in it, and, as we said before, we must not be afraid to look silly.

We are certainly invested in the classroom. Here’s a common example: Descartes says something extreme or silly, or even extremely silly; it might not affect us much. But as soon as one of our peers disagrees with us, even slightly, it’s nearly impossible to let it slide. I don’t think it’s because their mistake would ruin our ability to believe and understand the Truth. It’s because we have discovered that their world is false, that they hold something in their souls that differs from us.

We all find this distressing. For some reason, we can’t shrug it off and say, “Well, let So-and-so be wrong.” I think this has to do with friendship. When we grow closer to someone in friendship, we share more and more of ourselves, our picture of the world and its effects on our souls. The more we share of ourselves, and the more we understand and become like the other person, the more we grow in love and friendship for them.

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Author: Joseph Moore

Enough with the smarty-pants Dante quote. Just some opinionated blogger dude.

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