Education as Transformation


The natural inclination to know rightly, and live nobly, is concept that was articulated by St. Thomas Aquinas, called connaturality.

Education in the Church takes many diverse forms: preaching, marriage preparation, catechizing our RCIA candidates and catechumens, various youth ministries and CCD, as well as any evangelical witness—on the street, at work, and especially within your homes. These are all types of education.  In this essay, I shall reflect on the meaning of education in light of the human person.  First, I want to discuss the Thomistic concept of connaturality.  Second, I would like to present a concept that is very much at the heart of Pope John Paul II’s approach to education and knowledge and, finally, a few non-conventional ideas will be presented for you to consider for your work.


The human person longs to know. Unless this inclination is distorted through the cultivation of vicious habits, men and women, by their very nature, desire to know the truth of things.  Such a natural inclination to know rightly, and live nobly, is an age-old concept that was most notably articulated by St. Thomas Aquinas, called connaturality.  Aquinas argues that human judgment of things occurs, first, by the use of reason and, second, “on account of a certain connaturality with the matter about which one has to judge.” By “connatural,” St. Thomas means the type of knowledge that unites the knower with the thing known, thus transforming him by the knowledge received.  So, writes Aquinas, those who wish to think in agreement with God, to see reality as God does, and to live this human life as Jesus Christ did, must be complete. This occurs “not only by learning, but also by suffering divine things (patiens diuina).” Such “suffering with God and connaturality (compassio et connaturalitas) with God is the result of charity, which unites us to God, according to 1 Cor 6:17: Anyone united to the Lord becomes one spirit with him” (Summa Theologiae, II-II 45, a.2).

Notice how St. Thomas clearly distinguishes connaturality from the “use of reason.” Gaining knowledge through connaturality would be different from learning by textbook, or in the classroom, or through instructional learning. Second, we should notice that connaturality is associated with virtue, defined as doing things rightly, not necessarily just thinking rightly. Third, and perhaps most importantly, we should see that connaturality is a gift that comes from compassio, or a kind of suffering with God. This presupposes a receptivity to God’s gift. In other words, we have to be open to knowledge through connaturality.

So what’s the point of talking about connaturality in the context of education? The point is that the human person is not just a thinker; he is also a receiver.  There is only one Teacher, the rest of us “teachers” are, at the same time, students, receiving knowledge even when imparting it. That’s not to say that knowledge through the use of reason is not also a gift. However, St. Thomas is pointing out that we receive knowledge in other ways besides from conventional instruction. Knowledge can come from a certain closeness or openness to God, which is lived out through virtue. Understanding the role connaturality can play in education can be a key that provides access to the concepts of wonder and mystery.

The Wisdom of the Cross

Pope John Paul II takes up the idea of connaturality, giving it a more complete meaning in the second chapter of his encyclical, Fides et Ratio, where he relies on the Augustinian image of believing in order to understand, credo ut intellegam, “I believe so that I may understand.” For many, this phrase seems backwards. After all, aren’t we all striving to understand our faith better so that our faith will be stronger? It’s hard to believe something when we don’t understand it. This is obviously true, but the pope is convinced that there is another way, a divine way, of knowing, insisting that divine belief can be a path to human understanding. He refuses to limit “believing” simply to a mental activity, which is also a way of living, of engaging all of the human person.  As he sees it, we actually have to live something out before we can understand it.  Let’s take a look at a passage from Fides et Ratio where this is apparent:

The crucified Son of God is the historic event upon which every attempt of the mind to construct an adequate explanation of the meaning of existence upon merely human argumentation comes to grief. The true key-point, which challenges every philosophy, is Jesus Christ’s death on the Cross. It is here that every attempt to reduce the Father’s saving plan to purely human logic is doomed to failure … The preaching of Christ crucified and risen is the reef upon which the link between faith and philosophy can break up, but it is also the reef beyond which the two can set forth upon the boundless ocean of truth. (§23)

Here, John Paul II is saying that the most important reality that is an object of knowledge requires something else than logic to process it. This reality turns logic on its head, especially the logic of our prevailing society.

This is crucially important for understanding what we face in our daily work and ministries. When we boil it down, no matter what we are involved in, our work is essentially “the preaching of Christ crucified and risen.”  The mentality of materialism, and self-indulgence, will always be rocky soil for the seeds of Christ crucified. This is the kind of challenge we face in our educational endeavors, regardless of their forms, knowing how the Cross, for so many, can be a “reef” where our journey to the truth can break up, but it can also be the launching pad from which we set sail on the “boundless ocean of truth.”

Cultivating Mystery: Some Unconventional Ideas

So, in terms of our work and ministries, we need to develop some ideas that take into account some of these things. Even though the logic of the world can seem like an unrelenting beast, we know that the human person has the capacity for the mystery of Christ crucified through connaturality.

To help us fine-tune our focus a bit more, I want to introduce a quote from a British scholar, Stratford Caldecott, from his essay entitled, “A Distinctively Catholic School”:

The purpose of education is not merely to communicate information, let alone current scientific opinion, nor train future workers and managers. It is partly to teach the ability to think, speak and write. This was the function of the classical Trivium of Grammar, Dialectic and Rhetoric, the essential foundations for the study of the various subjects in the Quadrivium. Yet, even this falls short of the goal. More important than the ability to think—or, if you prefer, the highest aim of thought—is the ability to find meaning. We must be able to perceive the inner, connecting principles, the intrinsic relations, the logoi, of creation. For this, the eye of the poet, or of the ,mystic, is needed. Education should lead to contemplation. (Stratford Caldecott, “A Distinctively Catholic School,” Communio 19, 274)

Caldecott makes a striking point here by saying that even the traditional ideals of education, like the Trivium and Quadrivium, are not enough for the fulfillment of the human person. Education should provide the person with the tools to find meaning: “Education should lead to contemplation.”

This is a good starting point from which to develop some unconventional ideas. We need to think of things that lead to contemplation. Of course, you can’t force someone to contemplate. You have to cultivate the desire. We need things that will cultivate fertile ground for the mystery of the Cross to take root. Cultivating brings us the notion of culture. The things around us basically cultivate us, for better or for worse. There are obviously many things in our prevailing secular culture that cultivate for the “worse.” But, we can choose to surround ourselves with things that cultivate us for the “better.”

The first thing that can really help cultivate a sense of mystery is the Mass. I know this sounds obvious; the sacramental value of the Mass is beyond anything. But, I think we underestimate the artistic value of the Mass, when it’s celebrated with reverence and care—an obvious requirement in presenting the ultimate mystery.  High liturgy, with sacred music, has the ability to impart the sacred mysteries through its sheer beauty.  At our school, we use an hour each day for daily Mass in Latin, with our student choir singing. Some parents have questioned this practice, saying that a school should not be a seminary or a convent. I try to explain that daily Mass at school is not a matter of piety (not that there’s anything wrong with piety). It’s actually a matter of pedagogy. Discovering truth in the classroom is only enhanced by discovering Truth at the altar.

The next idea that I would like you to consider is ballroom dancing. Aside from the current popularity of Dancing with the Stars, ballroom dancing has immense intrinsic value for what it can cultivate. In order to do it well, men and women must know their roles. Although different, they are co-essential. They are complementary. This is the whole theology of man and woman in a nutshell.  I think this is something that could be really effective with youth groups, as well as pre-Cana classes. Both our senior high school and junior high school students love ballroom dancing. When you see them dancing, you can immediately tell that it’s natural, not contrived. It’s a stark contrast to more popular forms of dancing, where the young people seem self-conscious, and their interactions artificial.

A related idea—drawing from yet another high, noble art now lost—is how a good, old fashioned feast can cultivate many important virtues. What I’m talking about is a multi-course meal, always with good wine (with perhaps a different wine with each course), lasting more than just the few minutes needed to ingest our food. Ideally, the participants should share a part in its preparation.   A true Catholic feast, especially one that celebrates a liturgical feast, can not only generate great fellowship, but it can be a powerful way to introduce a sacramental view of the world. The movie, “Babette’s Feast,” is a fine example. In the film, a Spartan-like, Protestant community is treated to an exquisite feast where the participants come to realize that our bodily appetites are meant to reflect our spiritual appetites. Both discipline and indulgence are important for bodily appetites for they are meant to point us to a heavenly banquet. Feasting gives fasting meaning, and vice versa. Because our faith is incarnational, we must ever be reminded that the good things of this world are vehicles for grace.

These three things, that I just mentioned, are actually the essential elements to any good wedding celebration. Any wedding that focuses on the Mass, will also find that dancing and feasting is bound to be a hit. I would like to suggest that, if you can figure out some way to incorporate these elements into your various ministries, you will likely have success.  Because the prevailing society is teaching the logic of the world, Catholics desperately need things in their lives that provide a context for living the faith. If Catholics don’t have concrete things in their lives that convey the Good, the True, and the Beautiful, which provide the context for the Gospel message, our ministerial efforts will become a losing battle. This is why I am suggesting that culture is just as important as content, if not more so. Sometimes, culture can impart more knowledge than standard methods of instructions.  Culture can be more powerful than conventional ways of teaching. I would like to encourage you to think about how you can incorporate culture—conveying the Good, the True, and the Beautiful—into your model of educating others. If you do this, you will be incorporating the Person who identified himself with these transcendentals: “Ego sum via, veritas et vita” (“I am the way, the truth, and the life,” Jn 14:6).  Here is our mission to teach: to reveal Jesus Christ as the only Way to human flourishing, the only Truth worth the name, and the only Life worth our own.

This paper was originally presented at the “Called to Love Conference” on John Paul II’s “Theology of the Body for Diocesan and Parish Educators” at the Center for Cultural and Pastoral Research at the John Paul II Institute, Washington, D.C., September 16, 2010.

Mo Fung Woltering


 Mo has been dedicated to serving the Church and the Culture of Life for over ten years. His past positions include Director of Public Policy for the American Life League and Executive Director of the Cardinal Newman Society for the Preservation of Catholic Higher Education. He has served as a consultant for the, the Institute for Magisterial Teaching, the Ethics and Public Policy Center and the Culture of Life Foundation. Mo has been a featured guest on EWTN’s Mother Angelica Live and Life on the Rock, a host for EWTN’s series From the Heart of the Church, as well as a guest commentator on CNN and several radio programs. Mo has given testimony to the President’s Council on Bioethics and has served as an accredited NGO representative to the United Nations. He is a columnist for the Arlington Catholic Herald and a contributor to the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars Quarterly, Laywitness and Catholic Dossier, and the National Catholic Register. Mo is a graduate of Christendom College with a B.A. in history, the John Paul II Institute with a Master of Theological Science, and has studied in Rome for two years where he is currently a candidate for a Licentiate of Sacred Theology from the Pontificio Istituto Giovanni Paolo II in Rome, Italy. In addition to volunteering for the Human Family Foundation, Mo is a consultant for several other Catholic organizations. Mo is married with one child.

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