On Answering Questions


We never know what curiosities former students
will come up with. Eric Wind, an ex-student long interested in the history of Georgetown College, found for sale on eBay an old examination given at Georgetown in January 1929. (Let me note that this test was not Schall’s, as in January of 1929, he was but one year old.) The student taking the test was Lawrence Mehren; it was given by Rev. John J. Murphy, S.J., a name I had not run across before. On the test are twelve questions; the students were asked to do ten. I do not know how much time they were given.

The questions of 1929 are brief and to the point: 

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  1. What is Faith? What are the two elements of Faith?
  2. Prove that Faith is necessary for salvation.
  3. What is the motive of Faith?
  4. Why is Tradition superior to Holy Scripture?
  5. What is the historical argument for the existence of God?
  6. Prove the unicity of God.
  7. Why is God in no sense responsible for moral evil?
  8. What is the history and significance of the words, Homoousious, Homoiousious, and Filioque?
  9. Why does creation require an infinite being?
  10. Why could not God have created forces in the beginning capable of producing the human soul?
  11. What principle of truth do the Evolutionists neglect?
  12. What scientific evidence is against the evolution of the body of man? 

Evidently, Mehren skipped questions 2 and 6. We do not know what grade he received; nor, alas, do we have his answers. Actually, this little test-sheet should go for a lot of chips; I hope the good folks at eBay know what it is. Some wry philanthropist should perhaps give a copy to each of the bishops.

Several things might interest us on reading these “mid-year examination” questions. The first would be that such a list, however interesting, could be found in no examination in any of today’s Catholic institutions, probably including seminaries. The second is that the students are not asked their “opinion” or, even worse, their “feelings” on any of these issues. Nor is it asked if they believe in any of the answers they give. They are simply asked to answer the questions in a coherent and intelligent way. No doubt, the professor probably found numerous “wrong” answers among the erstwhile Georgetown students of 1929.

Obviously, evolution was a hot topic at the time. The students must have known that the relation of tradition to Scripture was based on the awareness that Scripture itself depended on some tradition that pre-existed its being written. The students were appraised of the arguments about the meaning of Christ as true God and true man, with its origin within the Trinity.

This course is billed as “apologetics,” a word with Socratic overtones. Its presupposition is that any intelligent young man should know many things, whether he likes it or not. (In 1929, the young ladies were attending their own colleges, where they surely were asked similar questions by some perceptive Madame of the Sacred Heart or Dominican nun.)

We seldom teach apologetics any more. We teach theology or religious studies. The first is usually considered a science, though not exactly the same science that Aquinas called it. The second is a sort of survey. The religion requirement has been steadily decreasing in most schools; often there are but two required courses, one a sort of general overview of God and His doings taught by most anyone, the second usually fulfilled by studying what some other religion besides Christianity said about it all. The buzz words are pluralism, tolerance, peace, justice, “let’s just get along.”

Are there things we should know to be saved? St. Paul and St. John, among others, seem to have thought so. Indeed, revelation itself is something that “seeks intelligence.” So the reason of faith is worth a look. Our lives may depend on it.

Whatever we may think of “the scientific evidence against the evolution of the body of man,” these questions indicate that in the 80 years since Mehren took his mid-term, a definite devolution of mind is underscored when important questions of what the Faith holds, and why, are simply not asked or authoritatively answered.

Such a test also reminds me of Pope Benedict XVI’s Caritas in Veritate. Our academic institutions have replaced theoretic intellect with practical intellect. Ethics has taken the center, not unlike classic Roman thought. But by itself, ethics usually becomes the latest ideology or political enthusiasm. Charity not only needs truth, but students need truth. Without it, they act in a vacuum. Truth asks questions but, more importantly, gives answers. This understanding was at the heart of that 1929 mid-term.



  • Tom Howard

    Tom Howard is retired from 40 years of teaching English in private schools, college, and seminary in England and America.

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