Christian Education Renewed--Fr. Calmel
Editor’s Note: During the summer university of the Society of Saint Pius X District of France, which was held at Saint-Joseph-des-Carmes School from August 12-16, 2016, the theme was “The Family in Danger? Catholics Respond!” There Fr. Alain Lorans gave this conference on the relation between education and instruction, according to Fr. Roger-Thomas Calmel. In order to preserve this conference’s character, the oral style has been maintained and the citations suppressed.
For those unaware of his life and his work, Fr. Roger-Thomas Calmel, OP (1914-1975), was a French Dominican, a Thomist philosopher and theologian, who made an important contribution to the fight of Catholic Tradition with his writings and conferences. He collaborated with the journal Itinéraires for 17 years, from 1958 to 1975. Before Vatican II, he was made a counselor to the Congregation of the Teaching Dominicans of the Holy Name of Jesus of Toulouse, at the request of Mother Hélène Jamet, who was Mother General in 1948. The Congregation had almost 200 sisters at the time and founded fourteen schools between Bordeaux and Grasse. In 1950, Pius XII approved the Congregation’s new constitutions that had been written up by Fr. Calmel and Mother Hélène Jamet. His most important influence was with the teaching Dominican Sisters of Brignoles and Fanjeaux—both from the Congregation of the Holy Name of Jesus of Toulouse—who have founded schools for girls in France, South America, and the United States. Fr. Calmel formed the founding members of these communities, giving them the philosophical and educational principles needed for educating Catholic girls in a de-Christianized society.
“Christian Education Renewed,” is the title of this conference; it is borrowed from a book by Fr. Roger-Thomas Calmel whose exact title is Christian School Renewed. Why did I choose this theme? Because during this summer university we are speaking about the family and Fr. Calmel’s book is about education and instruction, because it shows the role of the family in education, and the collaboration the family owes to the school where the children receive their instruction. He insists repeatedly upon the fact that education and instruction must not be separated. However, several objections can be made before even we even treat the subject.
I gave you the book’s title, but not its subtitle: The Education of Girls. Nor did I tell you it was published for the first time in 1956, 60 years ago! We might wonder whether a 60-year-old book is still relevant today! Plus, a book for girls will not be of much interest for boys!
If you look at the table of contents, you find chapters on Catholic doctrine, on the role of literature, on how to teach French, on writing well, on the role of teachers in the early classes, and even on grammar in the early classes. In other words, useful pedagogical considerations for teachers of young girls.
But these chapters also contain some biting lines by Fr. Calmel that dispel any qualms and show us that he is writing about precisely what interests us: education and instruction, the family and society. On page 165, you have a chapter inspired by Péguy—Fr. Calmel was an avid reader of Péguy—entitled “Christendom Must Go On,” in which he says:
“To all those who easily make do with today’s situation and civilization and who accept them—sooner or later, openly or under the table—and thus make any form of compromise with them: how to make those willing to compromise understand what Christendom represents? Truly it would be impossible to discuss the issue with them constructively without first questioning today’s institutions, the spirit behind them, and the direction they have taken.”
And he continues energetically: “One can only constructively discuss Christendom with those who are willing to admit that today’s institutions, at least a certain number of them, are more or less air-conditioned antechambers of Hell, because they are institutions that go against natural law; they legitimatize, they authorize, they offer the cover of their authority to acts and attitudes that are an offense against the Creator and Redeemer of human nature. Whereas a society that deserves to be called Christian, a Christendom, must be in conformity with natural law, worthy of God and worthy of man, inspired by the teaching of the Church, and must allow men to win Heaven.”
These are the heights from which Fr. Calmel takes up his stand; the reflections we have collected here and there in some of the chapters of this book will allow us synthesize everything we have seen during this summer university. They speak of education and instruction, the family and Christendom, and that on the most interesting level there is: sub specie aeternitatis. For Fr. Calmel was not writing only for the Christians of 1956 or only for elementary teachers for girls. And he certainly is not for the mediocre who merely want a small, vapid, comfortable, not too demanding version of Christianity, with flexible convictions and alternative loyalties. They can continue on their way; Fr. Calmel is not talking to them, he does not speak their language!
In the chapter entitled “Christendom Must Go On,” a fact we may have forgotten, Fr. Calmel reminds us that the family is an institution, that the school is an institution, that we social beings, and thus that we need institutions. We cannot be monads—he borrows this term from the vocabulary of the German philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. Nor are we, as Jean-Jacques Rousseau believed, individuals, perfect and solitary “wholes.” Fr. Calmel is rightly anti-individualistic. And whether we like it or not—in 2016, as in 1956—we are all more or less contaminated by individualism and we have a great difficulty understanding what an institution is. Fr. Calmel’s thoughts are going to help us realize what a Christian institution is, in other words, what we need in order to recreate Christendom.
What we say, even in our own circles, or what we think without daring to put it into words is this: “It is enough for each one to live his catechism well on his own. We do not need an institution.” Some even think that they can very well send their child to a non-Catholic school and add on a sprinkling of catechism, and that will be enough.
Fr. Calmel has an answer for them: “These arguments are perverse. They ignore the fundamental truth that man is not a sort of monad untouched by exterior influences; in truth, man cannot escape scandal and edification, especially the scandal and edification that come from a social reality, from habits and customs that are approved by the authority of the law.”
Yesterday, we heard a conference on the crime of abortion. Like all sin, it unfortunately has always existed. But the drama is that today abortion has been made legal, institutional, even though it is intrinsically immoral. And so we are no longer in a society or a civilization, but in a “dis-society,” which Marcel De Corte (1905-1994) energetically calls a “termite mound.”
Yes, we have original sin, we have our actual sins, we can do evil all by ourselves. But the question presented is this: are we not drawn even more towards evil, are the wounds original sin left in us not infected even more, is not our vulnerability made even worse by a law that goes against natural law, the law of God?
And on the contrary, are we not protected by truly Christian institutions that hold us back, that keep us from falling into all those excesses reproved by morality?
As Fr. Calmel has written, “It’s agreed, man is weak enough and spoiled enough to do evil without any incitement from outside, without any encouragement from society; but it is truly something else to be protected from incitement and encouragement to do evil; it really is a chance to do less evil, a chance to remain more upright.”
Fr. Calmel realistically observes that a school, a weekly, or a theater group are the beginnings of a Christian institution….The minute you have natural and Christian rules for these activities, you have a little piece of Christendom, an “isle of Christendom” as Gustave Thibon would say. Wherever Christians come together, they must try to create these isles—very simply, because they are nothing more than dispersed isles, similar to the times when the barbarians invaded Christianity: there were little isles called monasteries. The monks maintained the institution and recopied the treasures of tradition while the barbarians came swarming in. But under the eyes of the barbarians, the monks stood their ground.
This social, institutional dimension is fundamental. “There is nothing trivial,” continues Fr. Calmel, “about not being drawn to evil by the permanent and authorized scandal of an unnatural institution, and on the contrary by being supported in the good by an upright institution that is a permanent and authorized invitation to uprightness and an honorable life.” Concretely, this means that all the sacrifices we make to develop the schools, or to have large and truly Christian families should be seen in this light. And it is this high ideal that we seek, that we desire—and we accept all the sacrifices, sufferings, and difficulties because we know our eternity is at stake.
Fr. Calmel explains that an institution maintains, retains, and contains the human being wounded from the start, but that it also depends on the quality of the people who comprise it. Thus if a Christian institution is composed of members who do not seek to live up to the proposed ideal, they are a hindrance rather than a help to the institution. It is a logical requirement: we have to be consistent with the institution to which we belong because it is fragile; and if we do not live up to this level of demand, the institution could disappear. Or we will end up with an institution that hobbles along as well as it can, like a cover-all: on the inside, no one lives up to the ideal, which is a form of pharisaism, of hypocrisy.
Fr. Calmel says this about the school, about the family, and, as a consequence, about all institutions. As far as the institutions of the school and the family go, it can be summed up in a word: the family must collaborate with the school.
Let’s face it: many find this need for coherence a bit exaggerated. They think it is enough to respect the demands of the good priests and the good sisters during the week so they will not have to worry about them on Saturday and Sunday— but this makes no sense. And it creates torn, divided children…schizophrenics, a psychiatrist would say.
“It is not as pathologically serious as all that!” you will say, and you are right, but know that Fr. Calmel does not want torn children, with intellectually and morally misaligned eyes. And he says so. Thus in one chapter he quotes the full text of a letter distributed to the parents by the Mother Prioress of a school on the first day of school. It explains in black and white what is expected of the children and especially of the parents:
“Instruction is different from education, and we wish to respect all its requirements, the first being to transmit the truth, but we will never separate instruction from education. In fact, we believe that transmitting the truth is the first way to dispose the heart to good and to virtue [not only in the family but for life]. We do not make a break between the doctrine [learned from Monday to Friday] and life [which begins on Friday evening and ends on Monday morning when class starts], between the student who is a sort of conventional person and the young lady who is a real person [on Saturday and Sunday]. Also, without disregarding the importance of exams, we do not make them our supreme concern. These consecrated educators know there is an exam that mustn’t be failed, the exam for which they are preparing the children: the great final exam for which we all know there is no retake.”
The institutions of the family and the school depend on people, and these people must not separate themselves or drift away from those institutions: “Just temporal institutions have their dignity and their own necessity. Here below, people cannot normally do without them.” You do not restore Christendom on your own, all by yourself, just as the Church does not begin so with us! The Church is two thousand years old. And we cannot say that tradition begins with us either; and we cannot say that Christendom is summed up in our own little person. We are members of an institution.
“Here below, people cannot normally do without them. These institutions uphold people, their character, their virtue, and the uprightness of their life; but they are first raised up and carried by these people.” Hence the importance of people who are in harmony with the institutions to which they belong.
And here Fr. Calmel says something interesting: “If someone finds a way to live on the level of egoism within an institution of justice, if he makes the public order a protection for his private disorder, then sooner or later the public order will be harmed by it. And besides, how could those who do not truly love justice or who refuse to believe in it not pounce on the opportunity to question the truth of an institution that too many people have forced to become a sinister mask or a clever protection for their exasperating iniquity? They will not fail to say, for example: ‘What value does a hierarchy have when the leaders are profiteers? What significance does a social order have when it makes a pact with a state of affairs that makes crime morally unavoidable for the less fortunate?’” We are no longer in the year 1956, but what Fr. Calmel said 60 years ago is still true today—pehaps even truer than it was 60 years ago.
So instruction and education, the Christian school and the Christian family, require, in his eyes, the necessity that those who live in these institutions and who live off these institutions be in harmony with the Christian spirit that animates the institutions from within. They must not seek to use the institutions to hide their mediocrity; on the contrary, they must seek to live more and more in keeping with the ideal these institutions infuse into them: to always strive towards sanctity.
For instruction properly speaking, since it is his subject, Fr. Calmel offers teachers a charter for instruction that is the polar opposite of mediocrity. He says that if we transmit the truth—and such is the defining characteristic of Christian instruction—we must live the truth; we must not content ourselves with simply pouring knowledge into an intelligence, we must—by living the truth—make the truth communicative, contagious.
What Fr. Calmel eschews is to see teachers pouring their knowledge into the heads of their pupils like you pour liquid into an inert container. He believes you cannot simply pile on knowledge: either you live it—and it is interesting, fascinating, captivating; or you merely receive it passively—to spit back out when the exam comes around. In this case, you are formatted, if not stuffed, and everyone knows that a stuffed bird is a goose…a silly one. In other words, a creature that is not at all or not very well formed, is not or not very capable of defending itself, and terribly vulnerable to errors. The silly goose has not assimilated, has not understood, and therefore cannot explain or use. Let’s hear what Fr. Calmel says:
“Education can’t be plastered onto instruction. And instruction alone is not enough to ensure it, but it does come through instruction.” There is a necessary interdependent relation. We could tell ourselves a little too easily: education is learning the rules of how to behave in the family; instruction is what teachers teach to help the students get their high school diploma. No! There must be a deep, interdependent relation between education and instruction. Practically speaking, how does one create this harmony between what is intellectually received and the realities of daily life? Fr. Calmel explains and then gives some practical examples.
“It depends very much on the human authenticity of the teacher, the originality and quality of his human reactions; having the right ideas is not enough, nor is the art of making oneself obeyed….You see it, it is a whole different ideal from that of a one-dimensional professor, skinny, brainy, so specialized he has been stupefied. It is even worrisome that some professors dream of being just specialists. While specialization is useful to a certain extent, we do not see what could be the advantage of the specialist drying out and destroying the man; no one wins, neither the specialist nor the man—neither the students nor the teacher.”
So Fr. Calmel does not want any freeze-dried teachers. He wants an irrigated teacher, capable of irrigating others. For he wishes to show us that in the end a teacher teaches what he knows, but he mostly teaches what he is. And if he is only a specialist, he will only teach a specialty. This specialty makes him very good in his domain, he may be the specialist on the aorist in Aeschylus in 400 BC, but not before and not after: Aeschylus, but not Xenophon. He may be unbeatable. But he is unlivable. And he does not live, and he doesn’t know how to live. And he does not know how to make things come alive. And he does not know how to thrill his students. He is there, dry, dried out, a dryer. But he will not teach them to live. He will not teach them to think. He will not teach them to react as Christians.
But how to make this symbiosis a reality? Remember, by the way, that this book was written 60 years ago. It is no old dusty volume I pulled out of some forgotten drawer: it is prophetic. Fr. Calmel saw ahead of time what we are living today. And you could say the suggestions he offers, the prescriptions he gives us after a thorough diagnosis, are the remedies for today. But you are already convinced!
For him, orthodoxy is the principal quality of a Catholic teacher. He teaches baptized children, so he must be orthodox, that is to say, his doctrine must be sure—in all the subjects he teaches, whether religious or profane. But it must be a living orthodoxy. Not the orthodoxy of a bookworm.
“Instruction is the transmission by a living mind to another living mind of the truth received from human tradition but reinvented….It is the truth, the communication of the truth that makes a school; but the truth is not very effective if it has not taken root and come alive in the intelligence and heart of the teacher.”
The definition of school is “the communication of the truth.” If the teacher contents himself with being nothing more than a megaphone, and does not himself live the truth he teaches, if you can feel that there is a difference between what he lives and what he says, then there can be no contagious enthusiasm.
Saying: “It is truth that makes the school,” is the same as saying: “It is the life of the truth in the soul of the teacher that makes the school.” If this truth does not have a living existence but is simply book knowledge, if the teacher simply repeats a textbook, if all he has to give is tips for reviewing with Cliffsnotes, then he does not live, and he will not bring anything to life. “The primacy of the truth means the primacy of the teacher living in the truth.”
So all of this is extremely demanding. But what Fr. Calmel says of teachers he necessarily says of parents as well. Because what is true of instruction is also true of education. There is a short chapter on this called “The House of Nazareth” in which he shows how the mother of a family educates her children not in a university or scholarly fashion, but by example—and unfortunately also by counter example. She thus teaches more through her interior dispositions than through the words she speaks to her children. The requirement of coherency and excellence is the same for education as for instruction. Here is what he writes:
“Who will give the home its face: this familiar setting that permeates us day after day without our realizing it? On whom does [the home’s] sincerity or its flashy mask depend? Its clutter or its airiness? The enthusiasm or the boredom of the humble daily chores; the frugality or refinement of the meals; the frivolity or dignity of the conversations, attitudes, and attire—who is the most responsible for it all? The house has a soul and bears the imprint of a mind. What soul and what mind? One of the two spouses, doubtless. But (this is a daily evidence) most men’s houses are made in the image of a woman; the image of the happiness or the misfortune, the nobility or the mediocrity of the young girl and the young wife.”
We are still talking about the institution, about education, whose etymology you know well, e-ducere, to raise up, elevate, bring higher, and not the absence of education, as Fr. Calmel says a little further on: “How many women, alas, ruin the homes they should have edified, drag down those to whom they should have given wings [and zeal]; either they bog them down in softness and comfort; or they accept, with I know not what despicable tenderness, to place themselves meticulously at the service of the least desires: ”Here, sweetheart, have a fourth spoonful of Nutella…”
Orthodoxy must therefore be living, and lived to the full. This means that the education cannot be plastered onto instruction and vice versa. There has to be a close interdependent relation. And Fr. Calmel gives a counter-example in Chapter 29, “The Centers of Interest and the Danger of Moralism.”
“A teacher in one of the young classes had made up all her lesson plans on the theme of effort. For her, this theme was a self-serving catch-all. She had chosen it as her central subject with an ulterior motive that was apparently very practical but in reality very mistaken. She told herself: ‘These little ones who are so indolent and so encouraged by their surroundings to laziness, I need to get something out of them—for their own good, of course, but also because otherwise my class would be too unbearable. So how do I go about it? I am going to talk about effort. I am going to drive it home. We’ll run into effort on any and every topic: family is an effort; the Church is an effort; a walk is an effort; even sleep is an effort. Everything for effort; nothing without it, everything for it.’”
This is exactly what you mustn’t do. It is completely plastered on. There is no education. “It is true,” writes Fr. Calmel, “that children need to make efforts, but we would be wrong to remind them of this obligation a thousand times a day, on every topic and even off-topic; it would tire them or exasperate them. And above all, while making all these unlikely acrobatics to convince them that life, virtue, and sanctity are summed up by effort, we are not even in the truth; reality is not that simplistic.”
Next he explains that you have to start with what is real and concrete to help them understand how there are situations in which one must soak up the “realities of life and family, honor, work, and suffering, and other mysteries, too”—a far cry from a simplistically plastered effort, a far cry, too, from mind-numbing entertainment. And Fr. Calmel gives some of the mysterious realities that little children can understand: “They sense [he is speaking of little girls], even without being able to put it into words, that these mysteries are more than just effort. What are you waiting for to show them as they are, instead of skirting around the edge with moralizing? What are you waiting for, for example, to help them realize what they have already sensed of the mystery of life: their impression by the side of a crib; their feelings of maternal joy and pain; the lies they have perhaps already breathed in on selfishness in the home and controlling births; their religious emotion at a worthily celebrated baptism or an Easter vigil when some child is baptized.”
You learn the lessons of things from what is concrete and real. There was a time when no one talked about “science class.” Back in my days—days those under the age of 20 never knew—we called it “lessons of things.” And Bossuet said: res ipsa loquitur, the thing speaks on its own.
Before concluding, I am going to read to you a passage that would draw a smile from a superficial mind unable or unwilling to rise to the heights to which Fr. Calmel invites us. But I know that you, you will not smile, I know that you will see in these few lines the summary of his thoughts, in beautiful and marvelous words, for we must admit that the truth is beautiful, that it is not necessarily grouchy, wrinkled, leathery or freeze-dried. Far from it.
Here is what he says:
“The child has a mind that must be awakened, not crushed. What awakens a mind is another mind that is awake. You think perhaps that it will never be the case for you. But observe how when, for example, you write to someone out of tenderness or displeasure, your mind is beautiful and awake. Why would it not be the same with the children; especially since you love them and you love to communicate the truth to them. So let this love go all the way down into your intelligence and you will be capable of awakening, or communicating a singing and germinating truth.”
It is marvelous. To communicate a “singing” truth, with no false notes, perfectly in tune with the baptismal ideal. And “germinating,” not sterile, not shriveled, but fertile, capable of bearing fruit. That is Christian education. That is Christian instruction. That is the renewed Christian school.
It is very difficult for a soporific teacher to awaken students. Fr. Calmel writes elsewhere that it is absolutely impossible for a teacher who is fundamentally, methodically “disparaging.” That is to say, who always denigrates, who sees everything in a negative way, because he has extinguished any capacity for admiration and wonder. He will never awaken anyone. Besides, he is not a teacher, but an anesthesiologist, not even a re-animator. It is always dangerous to follow an anesthetic teaching from which we might never awake….But let’s read: “Is a teacher naturally disparaging, or if you will, naturally unappreciative and grudging—imagine a teacher who has hindered or ruined his capacity for admiration, how do you want him to communicate enthusiasm, even when explaining Corneille or Péguy? Try as he may, he will come across as he is, he will betray himself.”
I shall conclude with the word I have been using since the beginning of this talk: “institution”—institution of the family, institution of the school. At its root is: institute, the duty of “re-instituting”—or restoring—Christendom, of re-instituting a truly Christian social, familial, educational order, as Fr. Calmel says: “A society that deserves to be called Christian, a Christendom, must be in conformity with natural law, worthy of God and worthy of man, inspired by the teaching of the Church, and must allow men to win Heaven.”
You have St. Pius X’s motto as a filigree here. Christian education and instruction are there to instaurare omnia in Christo. And all the rest is just literature. We cannot do less. Anything less is maybe an ersatz of education, or a counterfeit of instruction, but it is not Christin instruction.
Do not say: “Yes, but restoring everything to the Christian order means taking a step backward, borrowing a time-travel machine, going back to 1956.” No! Restoring is not going in reverse. Restoring is making an eternal principle apply at all times. Restoring is making the Kingship of Our Lord apply here and now.