February 11, 2005

Letters to the Editor

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The difference between believing and knowing in the pursuit of truth

I was stunned by columnist Douglas W. Kmiec’s assertion that Catholic schools have a significant advantage because, unlike public schools, they have “freedom to pursue truth, whole and complete.” And I was appalled by his attempt to support this by noting resistance to teaching of creationism and its clever smoke screen, intelligent design, in science classrooms of public schools, implying that both can and should be discussed in the science classrooms of Catholic schools.

Equally disturbing was his propagation of the myth that the American Civil Liberties Union has an anti-religious freedom agenda, thereby needlessly further widening the destructive wedge between Christians and non-Christians in our nation. If and when religious freedom is truly threatened in this country, I certainly hope ACLU will be alive and well to lead the defense, which it indeed will.

Among the greatest gifts of my Catholic heritage is my Catholic education—eight years of elementary school and a bachelor’s degree from one of this country’s foremost Catholic universities. (Later, I had the good fortune to give something back by serving on the Archdiocesan Board of Education.)

But my four years of secondary education and five years of post-graduate study at public institutions, followed by more than 35 years of teaching at a public university, make it abundantly clear to me that Catholic schools have no advantage when it comes to pursuing truth, whole and complete. ( I don’t think it was an accident that I did not learn in Catholic schools the “whole and complete truth” regarding darker elements of the Church’s history, including the Inquisition, the seeds of the Reformation, Galileo’s mistaken persecution, etc… .)

In fact, the quality of Catholic education will diminish if creationism and intelligent design are introduced alongside evolution in science classrooms. Both are faith-based ideas that cannot be called theories, even though Kmiec wrongly elevates them to that status, because neither can be tested. Faith and science should never compete nor complement one another in the science classrooms of our schools.

Believing something to be true and knowing that something is true (sensu stricto) are fundamentally distinct. Faith is a wonderful gift and can permit us to believe whatever we want about a natural phenomenon; it does not permit us to know the phenomenon. For example, our faith enables us to believe that God created us in his image. But faith cannot permit us to know (prove) that we did not create God in our image as many without faith choose to believe. The difference between knowing and believing precludes any constructive intellectual debate between those with and without faith, both within and outside the classroom.

Science and the construction of theories expressing what we think to be true at any given time about a complex phenomenon such as evolution is about knowing through empirical testing, not believing because of faith or because some higher authority has told us to believe. How foolish and dangerous it is for us to say I know something to be true because from faith I believe it to be true—witness the number of criminal and terrorist acts justified by “faith.”

And no reputable scientist can or will ever call on the existence of an almighty being as the source of an answer to a question that he/she finds too hopelessly complex to answer within the existing framework of knowledge. For example, no one knows the ultimate origin of things. Perhaps space/time is finite with no boundary as Steven Hawking suggests. We just don’t know now, regardless of what we believe, but we might know later.

Therefore, scientists do not throw up their arms in despair over an inability at this point in time to “know” the answer to questions of genesis, and, in order to have an answer for those that need one right now and cannot wait for science to catch up, conclude that an almighty being was behind it all (i.e. intelligent design). Full and open pursuit of scientific truth abruptly ends in our schools when faith is invoked this way.

Let’s face it, fundamentalists, and now more and more mainstream religious people, fear the teaching of evolution in the absence of creationism/intelligent design because they lack total confidence and faith in the existence and power of God to be manifest in us and the world without empirical proof. They believe that if God is taken out of the physical mechanism of genesis, belief in the existence of God among children in our schools will be threatened. How sad, selfish and short-sighted.

-Lee J. Suttner, Bloomington


Fond memories of Catholic school

Articles in the fine Jan. 28 edition of The Criterion were testimonials to the fidelity and approbation of Catholic schooling. In my own formative years, I was gratefully educated civilly and Catholic by the good Sisters of Mercy, grades 1 through 8 at St. Ann High School in the eastern United States.

In those eight years, I had Sister Mary Ruth in the first grade, Sister Mary Domatilda in third, and for the life of me, which is short, I can’t remember my fourth-grade sister. But I surely remember Sister Mary Irmalita (where did those names come from, Domatilda, Irmalita)!

Sister Irmalita was short, about five feet short, with a somewhat sinister smile, nice teeth, mind you, and organized to teach my fifth grade, then moved on to teach our sixth. She had a healthy thumb and index finger on her right hand. These digits used to pull boys’ hair right about our ears when she caught us in a misdemeanor or when she suspected we were thinking about pulling one off.

One summer, the eight of us male classmates (it was a teeny class) met, before September studies resumed, to discuss ways of avoiding this hair-pulling addiction of Sister I’s. A crewcut! A shortage of hair to pull! And off we went to Pat the barber.

We started class that September year, our second with Sister Irmalita. She quickly took note of the boys’ very short hair, smiled sinisterly, and waited. I think it was the week before Thanksgiving when every boy’s hair was restocked and Sister was back in business! So we put up with it, believing that, since we had had Sister Irmalita in fifth, and this being the sixth-grade, surely we could put up with hair loss until June and be done with her!

God works in mysterious ways.

In September, seventh-grade arrived. The end of World War II had not. Settling down at desks in a freshly painted classroom at St. Ann we patiently awaited our new Sister. At precisely 8:15 a.m., in walked our new instructor, counselor and, wait a minute, Sister Irmalita? “Good morning class, and especially you boys; I’ll be teaching seventh this year. Oh, and also eighth-grade next year. Shall we begin?” she said.

For four formative years, this woman taught us and taught us well. Somewhere, Sister Irmalita, you reside in an absolutely indefectible state of mind. I thank you for your concern, and all the Sisters of Mercy, for recognizing I had half a brain and, “Please do something with it, Joseph,” which I did not except on occasion.

-Joseph M. Mucha, Pittsboro


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