Throughout the world, Catholic higher education rightly turns for inspiration to St. John Henry Newman for his collection of discourses drawn together as The Idea of a University (1852). Notwithstanding Newman’s lasting accomplishment in that text, this essay looks across the English Channel to France, generally, and then specifically to the case of Basil Moreau (1799-1873), a professor, educator, and religious founder beatified in 2007 by the Catholic Church. Moreau is probably most well-known for his religious order’s (the Congregation of Holy Cross) educational institutions, especially the University of Notre Dame in the United States. But his presentation of Catholic education is of sophistication and importance, highlighting the need to reassess Moreau and other religious founders like him in the 19th century, French context.
In response to all of the ways in which the French Revolution caused harm both to education in France (literacy rates, numbers of institutions, and student census) and religious orders (persecution and suppression), the following century was one of the burgeoning of religious life. After Bonaparte’s 1801 Concordat, for instance, over 400 new women’s religious orders came to be in France by 1890. Of the male religious orders that emerged from the same period, many French missionary congregations dedicated to education still have universities today. A few examples in addition to the Congregation of Holy Cross aforementioned include Marist Brothers, Marianists, and Basilians. Because these orders are relatively young in terms of Roman Catholic consecrated life, their foundations often remain to be thoroughly studied. Yet, they provide an illuminating glimpse into Catholic education at the thoroughly modern intersection of political tension, violence, the increasing academic status of the natural and hard sciences, and social networks in which Catholicism was not necessarily assumed to be of collective benefit.
Basil Moreau is an ideal test case of such a figure. A native of Laigné-en-Belin, his educational history included Château-Gontier (minor seminary), St. Vincent’s of LeMans (major seminary), and San Sulpice of Paris (advanced studies). Moreau would return to LeMans to be appointed a professor of philosophy, then theology (dogmatics and scripture). During this time (1820s), Moreau distinguished himself not only as a popular professor but also as a curricular reformer. He added a seminary requirement in physics to orient future clerics to the science of their day, argued with people about Lamennais’ theses in-between classes, and required Cicero and Bacon as interlocutors in addition to the regular theological canon he taught. A decade later, he assumed the leadership of a group of teaching brothers dedicated to St. Joseph who went out into the countryside on yearly basis of commitment. By 1837, Moreau had added to that group of brothers a small handful of local diocesan priests. For the purpose of education in the faith, in a village called Sainte-Croix outside LeMans, the Congregation of Holy Cross was born. In twenty years, the order became one of pontifical right—extending by that time from current day Dhaka, Bangladesh to the Midwestern United States.
What makes Moreau and other religious founders of this era so interesting is not the developed nature of their oeuvre. Indeed, though Moreau was a prolific writer, his writing was almost always in service of some sort of immediate mission need: a handbook for pedagogy, a complete set of Ignatian-inspired spiritual exercises for novices, a set of meditations gathering from across the French School of spirituality, and circular letters responding to crises of budgets, diseases, and deaths. If anything, these founders wrote in a manner that Rowan Williams describes as the taxi-rank approach. They treated the next important issue that emerged, just as one would get into the next cab that arrives at a taxi-rank. The intensive focus of energy and resources required to respond to mission needs precipitated quick and incisive thinking concerning Catholic education in rapidly changing contexts. Even though their world is far different from ours, their approach to it remains instructive.
Basil Moreau composed his Christian Education (1856) to be a resource for his religious order’s teaching members. In some instances, it provided standards and practical wisdom. In others, it set forth serious reflection on virtue formation for both the Christian educator and student. Even more, Moreau’s all-encompassing pedagogical vision is evidenced by his appending to the text an extensive collection of music meant to replace by attraction the vulgarities which students arrived at school singing. More importantly even than his provocative claims about pedagogy truly being the art of arts, Moreau’s Christian Education gives theological typologies for education itself.
Moreau opens and closes his treatise by linking education and eschatology. He opens with a line from Daniel and closes with a theology of resurrection. Daniel 12:1-3 is a text on the liberation of the Hebrew people as well as the resurrection from the dead. Though the prophet distinguishes between those who will wake to everlasting disgrace and those who will shine brightly, Moreau picks up the latter. Education, in the terms of Dn 12:3, is the act by which those to teach justice (Daniel has “lead to” justice) will shine like the stars for all of eternity (Christian Education, introduction). One could consider this a lovely epigram were it not the case that Moreau returns to the line from Daniel 12:3 that “Those who teach justice to many will shine like the stars for all eternity” in his consideration of the virtues of a teacher (faithfulness, knowledge, zeal, vigilance, seriousness, gentleness, patience, prudence, and firmness). In addition to imparting knowledge that is useful and necessary, the task of education is formation for completion, signified in care for the soul that ends only in the resurrection. Moreau characterizes the educator in terms of Dan 12:3 to signify this care for completion. The final image is in the treatise’s closing paragraph in which Moreau exhorts his teachers to take up their project as the “the work of the resurrection.” That, for him already includes preparing civil society for better times than the present by forming competent citizens. For Moreau, the light-out-of-darkness, life-out-of-death significance of the act of Catholic education is a participation in some small and analogical way in the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
I am blessed to teach theology at the university level in a much different time than Moreau’s. In fact, at Notre Dame we require two courses in theology from students in every area of study: a foundational course in scripture and the early church and a complementary course in a developmental topic so as to think with the tradition. In a time of unprecedented departure of young people from the Catholic Church, it is incumbent upon me as a professor to present theological paradigms for why such an education might be more than useful—to be truly salutary. Moreau has provided the most effective words. In the act of learning itself, my students know what it is like to struggle and even to fail. This relationship between learning and adversity is hardly new as even the Greeks held some aspects of pathei-mathos or the way in which adversity conditions learning. However, students relish when those things which we learn after a great deal of struggle and failure arise in our minds and hearts as if new life. As such, it is possible for the learning experience first to point the typological way to Calvary hill and then for the empty tomb to elevate further true learning beyond the limits of use and value to the enjoyment of God and neighbor. I have been truly struck by how compelling my students—who though predominantly Catholic also include the major world religions, nones, and others—find my suggestion that this explicitly Christological paradigm is useful for considering their own university studies. Both teaching and learning in a time of pandemic have only added emphasis to their interest in this conversation about resurrection and completion.
In our time, questions regularly emerge about what is uniquely Catholic in the act of education or learning. We have rich language in reply: faith and reason as well as the splendor of truth. But there is something further to be learned from post-revolutionary educators like Moreau, who were engaged in the same question. These figures had already proven themselves rigorously engaged with the debates of the day as well as grappling with the natural sciences. Beyond practical aspects of education as useful knowledge or societal advancement, however, they were committed to searching out theological typologies which could give eschatological meaning to their present labor. Moreau settled on the prophet’s pining for justice and life on other side of the resurrection. His clear thesis is that Catholic education might help people in some small way learn what it means to rise again in Christ. As my students are ever more compelled by job market pressures to cultivate personal brands, bolster LinkedIn profiles, and sacrifice all to achieve intermediate goals, the “work of the resurrection” is a 19th century phrase that has become not only a hope but a reprieve.