Putting First Things First in a College Education

St. Gregory’s University just concluded its first bi-annual “Leisure and Labor Conference,” which brings academics and professionals together to reflect on the interplay between the liberal arts and the professions.

The dialogue between Martha and Jesus in Chapter 10 of Luke’s Gospel captures the essence of this relationship between labor and leisure. Mary sits at Jesus’s feet, attentively listening to him, while Martha serves the guests. “Martha, burdened with much serving, came to [Jesus] and said, ‘Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me by myself to do the serving? Tell her to help me.’” Jesus replied, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things. There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her.”

Reflecting on this passage in his Angelus message on July 18, 2010, Pope Benedict XVI said that this Gospel passage “recalls the fact that the human person must indeed work and be involved in domestic and professional occupations, but first and foremost needs God, who is the inner light of Love and Truth. … And who, if not Jesus Christ, gives us Love and Truth?”

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Ora et Labora—pray and work—are both vital for this life as the Benedictines who have fostered faith and education in central Oklahoma for the past 142 years can attest. Work is important for two vital reasons. First, most of us need to work to sustain ourselves and our families. More importantly, God is a Creator, and we are given the task to work with God as co-creators. But, we must put first things first. As the Gospel says, “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness and all these things will be given you besides” (Matt. 6:33).

What can this mean for Catholic higher education? Cardinal Newman lecturing in the 1850s (The Idea of a University), Josef Pieper lecturing in the 1950s (Leisure the Basis of Culture), and Alasdair MacIntyre writing and teaching in our own day (God, Philosophy, Universities) suggest an answer for the Catholic university. Each of them was responding to powerful forces pushing the university toward the practical end of preparing future laborers for their important but narrow professional labor.

None of these three preeminent scholars would suggest that a Catholic university should focus solely on the liberal arts, or what we might also call the liberating arts. Very few students can afford to leave the world of work for four years without some practical training in a specific discipline. Most of us must and all of us should participate in labora—what Pieper calls the servile arts, or what might be better called the serving arts. And, for those serving arts requiring a college degree, a university deeply enmeshed in its Catholic identity is a particularly good place to receive such practical training for reasons I’ll suggest below.

Before sharing my vision for a rich Catholic education, I’ll tell two stories from my nearly three decades of teaching law that deeply inform my judgment regarding the importance of Catholic education done well.

At the University of Oklahoma, students take Constitutional Law in the first semester of law school. Early in the semester, we would read and discuss Dred Scott v. Sandford, the 1857 U.S. Supreme Court case that constitutionalized slavery. I’d ask my students whether slavery was wrong. Nearly every student answered affirmatively. I’d then ask, why is slavery wrong and here these students would struggle to answer. The most popular answer was an emotional answer: “If I could own you then you could own me.” I responded that that was an argument from fear not morality. Very few students over the years ever made anything approaching a natural law argument, but usually a student would with some trepidation offer a religious argument against slavery. This was sometimes followed by other students arguing that religion shouldn’t enter into the discussion, especially at a public university.

My conclusion from this annual exercise was that my students had been trained that slavery is wrong the way I train my dog to sit but that by and large the students had not learned why slavery is wrong. They had not learned what or who the human person is. With religion relegated to campus ministries on the margins of most campuses, and with natural law either ignored or derided as a cheap trick by religionists to smuggle their theology into philosophy, the students lacked not only an adequate anthropology but they lacked any coherent anthropology. What is worse, they were unaware of this deficiency in their education.

The other story comes from my ethics class, which is a required course in every law school in the country. Each semester, I would show the students a clip from the 1980’s lawyer show, L.A. Law. In this segment, criminal defense attorney Michael Kuzak represents a trust fund kid accused, along with two other thugs, of raping a dying woman. The attorneys decide to defend their clients by turning the tables on the victim and alleging consent in the hope that the woman quits or dies before a trial is concluded. Kuzak goes along with this scheme although he is visibly uncomfortable with it.

I have surveyed more than 1000 students over the years and around half said that zealous advocacy required this type of defense. One such student said that he’d feel bad but that was his job, and he’d just have to live with it. I asked him how he’d “live with it,” and he replied “I’d go home and drink.” If you have to drink in the evening because of what you do during the day, there is a problem.

Kuzak and the students who would follow his lead are living dis-integrated lives. Kuzak treated his not so loveable client as an object—a means to a healthy income—and not as a moral subject. He treated himself as an object—a mere instrument of the law no different than a search warrant—and not as a subject engaged in a profession fraught with moral questions. Finally, he treated the rape victim as an object to be manipulated in a game of advocacy and not as a moral subject entitled to respect even by her adversaries.

My conclusion from these experiences is that these highly trained students—all have at least a Bachelor’s degree—are ill prepared to be community leaders grappling with the most difficult moral issues of the day and are also ill prepared to live integrated lives in the face of challenges that will arise in the course of everyday life. They had not yet been “awakened to wonder” … about themselves and their surroundings. Their formal education had not provided a framework for consciously asking much less answering “the fundamental questions which pervade human life: Who am I? Where have I come from and where am I going? Why is there evil? What is there after this life?” (Pope John Paul II, Fides et Ratio ¶ 1.) These are precisely the questions that the typical American university qua university cannot offer an answer, so the questions go unasked.

Why is this so? The organization, curricula, and pedagogy of a university are necessarily built upon often unstated assumptions about the nature of the human person. And, most American universities, including many Catholic universities, operate, as Alasdair MacIntyre observed in God, Philosophy, and Universities, from a “practical atheism,” which renders “their secular curriculum Godless.” These universities are perhaps better called multiversities because “each academic discipline is treated as autonomous and self-defining, so that its practitioners … prescribe to those entering the discipline what its scope and limits are. And, in order to excel in any one particular discipline, one need in general know little or nothing about any of the others.” And, the individuals—both faculty and students—inhabiting these universities are similarly seen as autonomous and self-defining sovereign self-choosers.

In short, the contemporary American university, precisely because it lacks a thick understanding of what it means to be human, lacks the resources necessary to equip its students with the tools for critically analyzing the deep moral questions of the day or a framework for living an integrated life.

What about a Catholic university? Does it possess the resources to address these most important questions? “Theism,” MacIntyre notes, “is not just a set of doctrines about God. It concerns the nature of the natural and social universe as created and sustained by God, as embodying his purposes. For theists understanding how things are is inseparable from understanding them as informed by God’s purposes. So any study of physics or history or political science or psychology that omits all reference to God will be importantly incomplete.”

The curriculum of a university that takes God seriously “would have to presuppose an underlying unity to the universe and therefore an underlying unity to the enquiries of each discipline into the various aspects of the natural and the social. Over and above the questions posed in each of these distinct disciplinary enquiries—the questions of the physicist or the biologist or the historian or the economist—there would be questions about what bearing each of them has on the others and how each contributes to an overall understanding of the nature of things” so that we are equipping people to take their place in building God’s kingdom right here and now. “Theology would be taught for its own sake and as a key to that overall understanding. And it would be the central task of philosophy in such a university to enquire into the nature of the relationship between theology and the secular disciplines.”

MacIntyre provides the framework for strong Catholic higher education. Professional and pre-professional degrees prepare students for employment (or graduate school) upon graduation. The liberal arts foundation, which is reinforced seamlessly throughout the curriculum, develops habits of mind that liberate our students from narrow technical training, providing alumni with great vertical and horizontal job mobility. Uniting and grounding this education in the Catholic intellectual and spiritual tradition provides students with a framework for being liberated from the fears and base appetites that control the lives of so many, allowing them to live a joy filled life in service to others.

If we are to form the whole person, this education must take place not only in the classroom, but in the cafeteria, the ball field, the dorm, and the chapel. Every single person employed by a Catholic university contributes to the students’ understanding of truth, beauty, and goodness. The groundskeepers, for example, contribute to beauty. The coaches model and teach discipline, teamwork, and healthy competition. And, the heart of the Catholic university is divine worship, culminating in the Eucharistic Feast.

Like Mary, faculty, staff, and students sits at the feet of Jesus absorbing the great Catholic Liberal Arts tradition, which liberates our minds, souls, and bodies, freeing us to take up our work with joy in service to our sisters and brothers. In this way the Catholic university follows in the great Benedictine tradition. St. Gregory the Great once said that St. Benedict was a luminous star in the dark world that followed the collapse of the Roman Empire. Graduates of a robust and faithful Catholic university are bright stars in their communities as they engage in their domestic and professional occupations.

The ultimate goal of Catholic education (including higher education) is not to make good citizens, efficient business people, or competent professionals. The real goal, the ultimate goal of Catholic education is to make saints. We have an Oklahoma model to guide us in this holy work. Fr. Stanley Rother, who will be beatified in Oklahoma City on September 23, and who is the first American born martyr, exemplifies what we hope comes from a strong Catholic education. He daily practiced the gift of presence with those he encountered in both Oklahoma and Guatemala. By all accounts, he was excellent in his chosen profession—his vocation—in the professional arts, serving as pastor, catechist to catechists, and ensuring that the Gospels were translated into his people’s native Tz’utujil. He also excelled at the practical arts, farming alongside his flock. And, he could do all this, including returning to his people in Guatemala knowing that he would likely be killed because he had—through God’s grace—overcome fear, even fear of death.

Reflecting on the Martha and Mary story, Pope Benedict XVI said: “Without love, even the most important activities lose their value and give no joy. Without a profound meaning, all our activities are reduced to sterile and unorganized activism.” Fr. Stanley Rother loved deeply and with an abiding joy despite difficult circumstances. May he be a model of servant leadership for all of us who work in Catholic higher education and for all of our students who will go forth from their respective universities spreading the Good News in whatever communities and professions God draws them.


  • Michael Scaperlanda

    Michael Scaperlanda, J.D., is the sixteenth president of St. Gregory’s University located in Shawnee, OK. A graduate from the University of Texas School of Law, Scaperlanda clerked for the Chief Justice of the Texas Supreme Court. After leaving law practice in 1989, he served the University of Oklahoma in many academic and administrative capacities. He held the Gene and Elaine Edwards Family Chair in Law and also was a Professor of Law at OU. His books include Immigration Law: A Primer and Recovering Self-Evident Truths: Catholic Perspectives on American Law.

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