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Mount Michael Benedictine School students, Max Swiniarski, left, a junior, and sophomore Zachary Rapoza, put the finishing touches Jan. 23 on a robot created during robotics class, part of the STEM curriculum at the school. The banner behind them points to the school’s accomplishments in a recent robotics competition. MIKE MAY/STAFF

Emphasis on science, technology advantageous and challenging

Is a strong STEM education compatible with a strong Catholic faith? 

On the surface, the question seems ludicrous. Many, if not all, Catholic high schools in the Archdiocese of Omaha offer 

thoroughgoing STEM instruction. They are also known for their strong Catholic identity.

Yet disturbing trends in the last decade reveal that many Catholic young adults, even those who attended Catholic high schools, abandon their faith in college or shortly thereafter. Attacks on faith from the perspective of science are often given as reasons.

“STEM” stands for science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Originally promoted by education professionals at the United States’ National Science Foundation, STEM now refers to a larger educational movement that uses technology to integrate different academic content areas and to challenge students to become critical thinkers and problem solvers.

The reach of STEM education over the last two decades has extended not only into public schools but Catholic schools as well. With its emphasis on science and technology, a strong STEM education facilitates college admittance and sets students up for success in a highly competitive job market. 

According to niche.com, Duchesne Academy of the Sacred Heart, Mount Michael Benedictine School, and V.J. and Angela Skutt Catholic High School are among the best STEM schools in Omaha, along with Creighton Preparatory School, Marian High School and several public schools.

Many Omaha high schools, both public and private, are making substantial investments to improve their STEM curricula. Duchesne and Mount Michael boast new facilities to support STEM, and Skutt is renovating its space.

SCIENCE AND FAITH

Although the heavy focus on STEM may lead to young Catholics being well versed in scientific thinking, it may also be taking a toll on their faith. In her book “Forming Intentional Disciples,” Sherry Weddell points out that most Catholics who abandon their faith do so when they are young, shortly after high school.

A 2009 Pew research study found that attending a Catholic high school makes little difference in whether or not a person decides to remain Catholic, apparently indicating that Catholic high school faith formation has little enduring impact. Further, the study found that 65 percent of those who became unaffiliated reported that they simply stopped believing in church teaching – considerably higher than those reporting that they opposed the church’s moral teaching or that their spiritual needs were not being met. 

At the 2018 Synod on Young People, Bishop Robert E. Barron of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles explained this erosion of faith: “Innumerable surveys and studies over the past 10 years have confirmed that young people frequently cite intellectual reasons when asked what has prompted them to leave the Church or lose confidence in it. Chief among these are the convictions that religion is opposed to science or that it cannot stand up to rational scrutiny, that its beliefs are outmoded, a holdover from a primitive time,” among other things (Catholic Voice, Oct. 19, 2018, page 21).

This begs the question: Is it true that the scientific education Catholic high schools provide our young people is rigorous and compelling, while the religion instruction is less convincing?

CATHOLIC HIGH SCHOOL MISSION

The first goal in Duchesne’s mission statement is to educate students to have “a personal and active faith in God.” According to its mission statement, Mount Michael’s educational approach is “rooted in Benedictine values” and “the search for God is fundamental to understanding the meaning of life” at the school. Perhaps most poignant, one of the belief statements on Skutt’s mission webpage emphasizes providing “a spiritual anchor to assist students in modeling their lives within the Roman Catholic tradition according to the Gospel message of Jesus Christ.”

Theological and catechetical instruction at each school follows its mission. “I think primarily our goal as a theology department is that our students remain in communion with the church and that they’re fully activated disciples,” said Bart Zavaletta, Skutt theology instructor. 

Brother August Schaefer, a theology teacher at Mount Michael, expressed similar thoughts. “The religion teachers at Mount Michael strive to incorporate Benedictine spirituality and history into our lessons. All teachers strive to help students put into practice the knowledge of the faith that they are learning. The emphasis is on living the faith that is professed,” he said.

While theology aims at understanding the highest things, STEM pursues knowledge of the natural world and seeks to harness the power of nature in creative applications.

“I would like my students to have a solid foundation in understanding the natural world, as far as our current knowledge extends,” said Abbey Brockhouse, a physics and biology teacher at Skutt. “I would like my students, with the help of training and practice in scientific thinking, to be critical and logical thinkers. This type of thinking takes practice and is helpful in navigating every aspect of our modern day lives,” she said.

TWO WINGS

At the beginning of his encyclical “Fides et Ratio” (“Faith and Reason”), Saint John Paul II indicates that contemplation of both the supernatural order and the natural order perfects the human person. He writes, “Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of the truth; and God has placed in the human heart a desire to know the truth.”

The Catechism of the Catholic Church is more explicit about the compatibility of the two domains: “Though faith is above reason, there can never be any real discrepancy between faith and reason. Since the same God who reveals mysteries and infuses faith has bestowed the light of reason on the human mind, God cannot deny himself, nor can truth ever contradict truth” (no. 159).

The fundamental accord between faith and reason is demonstrated in the Catholic classroom. “I presume that the students gather that as a priest and a physics teacher, I believe that there not need be any conflict between the two,” said Abbot Michael Liebl of Mount Michael.

“I would note, for example, George Lemaitre,” he added. “A Belgian priest, astronomer and physicist first proposed the Big Bang theory, which holds that the universe is expanding.”

In her classes, Brockhouse takes the issue head-on: “The content I teach in science does not in any way conflict with Church doctrines,” she said. “In fact, I am proud of our scholastic and scientific tradition and take the opportunity to educate my students about it. For example, I teach about the beginnings of universities as Catholic scholastic centers, and the development of the scientific method from the intellectual tools developed in Western theology.”

QUESTION OF EMPHASIS

So if there is no opposition between faith and scientific reasoning, then why do Catholic young people – even those who have attended Catholic high schools – leave the church in the face of supposedly “scientific” argumentation? Brother Schaefer suggests the problem may be one of emphasis. 

“I do believe that sometimes the other academic areas overshadow theology in the minds of the students,” he said. “The students in my classroom are very much focused on getting into the college that will help them most in their future careers; this, for some, will put a higher emphasis on those subjects that are more closely aligned to what they see is their future job.”

In “Fides et Ratio,” John Paul II itemizes some questions of ultimate importance for the human person, questions like “Who am I?” “Where have I come from and where am I going?” “Why is there evil?” and “What is there after this life?” (no. 1). These questions, he says, find their answers in ultimate truth, the person of Jesus Christ, who is “the way, the truth and the life” (Jn 14:6).  

Bishop Barron explains that scientists who attempt to answer these questions strictly from the perspective of science exceed the bounds of their inquiry.

“Following their method of empirical observation, hypothesis formation, and experimentation, the sciences can indeed tell us a great deal about a certain dimension of reality,” he said in a recent critique of famous theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking (Catholic Voice, Nov. 16, 2018, page 13). 

“But they cannot, for example, tell us a thing about what makes a work of art beautiful, what makes a free act good or evil, what constitutes a just political arrangement, and indeed, why there is a universe of finite existence at all. These are all philosophical and/or religious matters, and when a pure scientist, employing the method proper to the sciences, enters into them, he does so awkwardly, ham-handedly,” he wrote.

RELATIONSHIP WITH JESUS

If it is important to equip Catholic students with an understanding of the limits of science, perhaps it is even more important to cultivate in them a personal relationship with Jesus.

That’s the approach taken by Laura Hickman and Scott Quinn, theology teachers at Duchesne Academy. They emphasized that one of their goals as educators was to help their students understand that they are loved by God and to challenge them to love as Christ loves us, that is, with unending compassion and mercy.

Once young people experience the love of God in their lives, “scientific” arguments are unlikely to persuade them to give up their faith. Yet to get young people to pursue this relationship, it has to be attractive.

“A lot of what we do is based on earning their trust, establishing authentic relationships with our students, modeling and witnessing what it’s like to be in personal relationship with Jesus Christ,” said Skutt’s Zavaletta.

He acknowledged the reality that many students who were educated in Catholic schools wind up abandoning their faith, some of them led away by scientism – the false notion that science can explain everything that really matters.

“We’ve realized that if we expect our students to understand and accept the faith as real and true before they believe and accept that Jesus is real and true then we’re essentially setting them up to leave the faith. The question then is how they come to believe and accept that Jesus is real and true. The short answer is quite simple: We must invite them to come to know him in a positive and personal way,” he said.

INTEGRATIVE APPROACH

A STEM curriculum properly taught in the context of faith can be highly advantageous for students, said Catholic high school educators. “We use ‘Laudato Si’’ (Pope Francis’ encyclical ‘On Care for Our Common Home’) as an emerging church teaching that informs our environmental science classes and our morality teachings,” said Bruce Moore, STEAM integration specialist at Duchesne, which adds the arts to the STEM framework.

Brockhouse indicated that being able to bring principles of faith and principles of science together makes young people more insightful and persuasive when they choose STEM-related careers. “Having Catholic professional leaders in these fields provides a more effective voice on bioethical issues,” she said.

“Next year, Skutt Catholic is planning to launch a new course in biotechnology in a newly renovated lab space,” she said. “I will use my background in molecular biology research to teach students the most recent techniques in the field. Along with the theory and application of the techniques of this new and ever-changing field, we will discuss bioethical issues and the science that supports church teachings.”

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