I attended public schools from first grade until I graduated from high school. I was not the only religious student in my grade (or even the only Catholic) but nonetheless I was labeled as the “token Catholic.” This label was at times a point of pride for me and at others a burden
I wish I could evade. While it never hindered me from making friends, it still set me apart. I would take up defense of the Church’s often unpopular stance on social issues in class discussions. In some rare cases I even found that my thoughts on certain subjects were brushed off as being my opinion only because of my faith, and any evidence I supplied in support of that stance was ignored. While I received a well-rounded education, the school community was so concerned with being tolerant of all things that it became intolerant of ideas it perceived as being intolerant.
After high school, I attended a Catholic college. This was my first real experience of having faith integrated into my formal education. There were numerous differences, but perhaps the most notable was the community. In every classroom, there were Catholic students whose beliefs varied widely, as well as students of other faiths or no faith at all. Regardless of who you were or what you believed, you were expected to support your opinion with reason. It was this environment that fostered a community of intellectual discussion and debate (which rarely turned into conflict). Every idea was heard, which allowed me to hone my own beliefs while also growing in faith. This community was truly welcoming and challenging to all—even when that meant a difference of opinions.
Education should be a constant exchange of ideas. This exchange is not always smooth and simple, and that can in fact be a good thing. Saint Thomas’s two greatest works, Summa Theologica and Summa Contra Gentiles, incorporate the work of the Greek philosopher Aristotle (which, at the time that Saint Thomas lived and wrote, was just shy of heresy). He also conversed with philosophers of other faiths, most notably Islam. Despite this pushing of boundaries—or perhaps because of them—Saint Thomas is recognized today as one of the founders of modern philosophy. In his writings he addresses arguments and opposition to his theories head-on regardless of whom they came from. This boldness in spirit is what made him both an incredible student and teacher. It is also why, over eight hundred years later students—myself certainly included—ask for his intercession with their studies.
As Catholics, it is our duty to build up communities where we can encounter both those who share our faith and those who do not. We can see this lived out in the challenging and formative words of our Holy Father. May we always seek to be students and teachers of the faith. Saint Thomas Aquinas, pray for us.
Patrick Burke is a staff member at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.