Dublin Capstone Reflection

Last summer, Dominican teachers Amanda Ball, Isabel Utschig and Emily Naczek traveled to the University of Notre Dame’s O’Connell House in Dublin, Ireland to attend the Science and Religion Initiative Capstone conference. The conference was an initiative of the McGrath Institute for Church Life at Notre Dame, which seeks to “enhance the dialogue between science and religion in Catholic education.” While in Dublin, they attended lectures and field experiences with teachers from around the country. 

Below is an essay written by Ms. Utschig, with contributions from Ms. Ball and Ms. Naczek, about their experience in Dublin this summer. 

(From Left to Right) Emily Naczek, Amanda Ball, Isabel Utschig

During a retreat in August to Benton, Wisconsin to visit the Sinsinawa Mound, home of the Sinsinawa Dominicans, the faculty and staff of Dominican High School reflected on the unique educational heritage of the Dominicans in Wisconsin. Under the direction of Fr. Samuel Mazzuchelli, the Dominican Sisters established a frontier academy for young women in Benton in 1848. This school was unique in the rigor and breadth of its curriculum, and Mazzuchelli acquired a wide array of scientific equipment for the school so that young women could have training in topics including Ancient History and Philosophy, Botany, Rhetoric, Trigonometry, Chemistry, and much more.

After Mazzuchelli’s passing, the Dominican Sisters continued to engage with the ever-changing world. In fact, the Dominican Sisters even traveled to the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago to stay apprised of the latest technological developments.  Dominican Sisters have been doctors, lawyers, educators, researchers and more, fully engaged with the world but seeing it more richly through a lens of faith. In the short film, In Good Company, Sister Kaye Ashe is quoted: “The search for self, for wisdom, for love, for truth, for justice, for God is strenuous and unending. We need good companions in order to persevere in it. In good company, in a community of conviction, the quest never loses its relevance, its urgency, or its savor.” She describes a life in community richly oriented towards this search for wisdom. What does this quest look like for our current students at Dominican and why is this quest relevant?

In the spirit of these questions, Amanda, Emily and I traveled to Dublin, Ireland last July to attend the Science and Religion Initiative Capstone conference sponsored by the McGrath Institute at the University of Notre Dame. We spent a week interacting with 30 teachers from across the United States and Spain, as well as historians and theologians from the University of Notre Dame.

A flight across the Atlantic and several bus rides brought us to the beautiful O’Connell House on Merrion Square in Dublin. Throughout the week we enjoyed lectures and rich conversations with colleagues, punctuated by field trips to Glendalough and the Boyne Valley, a boat tour of the Port of Dublin, and visits to Trinity College and the National Museum of Archaeology.  

One of the highlights of the experience was mass at University Church, the church founded by Saint John Henry Newman. Unassuming in its exterior, and tucked subtly between other Georgian style townhouses on St. Stephen’s Green, University Church is now under the care of the University of Notre Dame. The Holy Cross priest who presided over mass treated us to a tour of the church afterwards, pointing out imagery of saints that surround the pews (including our own, St. Dominic). Heather Foucault-Camm of Notre Dame then offered a lecture on Newman’s thought as represented in his work Idea of a University. In this work, Newman famously states the provocative claim “truth cannot contradict truth.”

Ms. Ball, Ms. Naczek and Ms. Utschig met teachers from around the country who are developing curricula in religion and science dialogue.
Ms. Naczek and Ms. Ball survey the Long Room at Trinity College after viewing the Book of Kells.

The concept of truth is highly contentious in the information-packed modern landscape we inhabit today. It goes without saying that our students live in a complex world filled with ambiguity and paradox. Such has been true of every age, however. Newman wrote during the 19th century, when science began to establish its reign as an intellectual authority that produced real technological advancements, at times calling into question religious authority. For Newman though, no scientific question could ever be considered a threat to religious truth. In Chapter 8 of Idea of a University, Newman writes, “he who believes Revelation with that absolute faith which is the prerogative of a Catholic, is not the nervous creature who startles at every sudden sound, and is fluttered by every strange or novel appearance which meets his eyes. He has no sort of apprehension, he laughs at the idea, that anything can be discovered by any other scientific method, which can contradict any one of the dogmas of his religion.”

We teach our students to approach complexity by asking questions and then use a relevant discipline’s methods to rigorously evaluate potential answers. In my science classes, we learn how to examine questions about the operation of the natural world through a scientific methodology. In other disciplines, other types of questions can be examined through different methods. Each subject is capable of cultivating curiosity in students and of seeking truth within certain inherent methodological constraints.

We need not fear complex and difficult questions. For Newman, it is imperative to see where reasoning can take the students and researchers. He writes, “if we invite reason to take its place in our schools, we must let reason have fair and full play. If we reason, we must submit to the conditions of reason. We cannot use it by halves; we must use it as proceeding from Him who has also given us Revelation” (Newman, Idea of a University Ch. 8)

Perhaps it is in the process of developing our reasoning that we also learn to respect its limits. In science, we can explore questions about vast systems grounded in natural laws. We respect the integrity of science and know that the natural world is intelligible through our scientific methods: we do not rely on faith to answer questions elucidated in Biology class. In history, we can ask questions focused on the artifacts and data we can collect about relationships between peoples and their environment over time. What then do we do when faced with ultimate questions such as: “What is our purpose?” and “Why is there something rather than nothing and will matter ever cease to be?” These questions cannot be answered with certainty and reveal that science cannot answer every pressing question raised by the human mind.

Moreover, my experiences as both a learner and a teacher suggest that it is in running up against the limits of our reasoning and our experience of our own insatiable “desire to know” (Bernard Lonergan S.J.) that we might encounter our Creator. We can look no further than St. John Paul II’s encyclical Fides et Ratio to see the necessity of both reason and faith in this pursuit: “Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth; and God has placed in the human heart a desire to know the truth—in a word, to know Himself—so that, by knowing and loving God, men and women may also come to the fullness of truth about themselves.”

Ms. Naczek views a template used by archaeologists to reconstruct the Faddan More Psalter, a book of Psalms dating to the 8th century that was found in an Irish bog in 2006.

Additionally, in the process of seeking we also experience a sense of wonder and awe. With this combination of reason, the desire for truth, and an emotional experience of wonder, perhaps we can see reality for everything that it really is: ordered, intelligible, and contingent in its absolute existence on the very ground of Truth and Goodness, God our Creator. Through this lens, our world is at once intelligible in terms of the natural laws that govern its working, and fundamentally sacramental. 

The three visited Newman University Church and found St. Dominic featured prominently on one side of the church.

The Universe as we see it today is both the product of discernable natural laws and has supernatural grounds in a Creator who has been revealed to us through the person of Jesus Christ to be loving. With these truths held together, what might this allow our students to see and apprehend?

A student at a Catholic school can study creation with a wider vision to not only answer the question, “how does this work?” but also to ask the question “what does this mean?”  In doing so, our students are invited to embark on a quest for truth only satisfied through faith. This wider vision means that we can understand ourselves as biological creatures connected through evolution to the rest of creation and, through faith, discover that our purpose is to love God and others. Both realities are true and coherent with one another.  A Catholic education teaches students that reasoning can and should be used to describe how creation operates, confident that there is truth to be found. Ultimately though, the Catholic lens frees our imaginations to behold creation and become aware of our place within it.

With this view, we can see and understand the world, as it is, in the words of Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J. “charged with the grandeur of God”, and thus take up our role as co-creators in God’s story of goodness. At a Dominican High School, in good company, we offer this vision to our students.

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