International Étienne Gilson Society

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Biography of Étienne Gilson’s Intellectual Life

Why Gilson?  Why Now?  by Dr. Peter Redpath

Why Gilson?  Why Now?  by Dr. Curtis L. Hancock

National Great Books

Church Fathers


Great Books Essay: “The Great Books Feast” by student, R. H., Middle Ages Third Year

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Great Books Feast

Great Books Feast

A man sits down to a banquet, and rather than eating only tomatoes, or only chicken, or only cauliflower, he sees that he has been provided with a huge variety, and so takes a broad assortment of foods, and gains nourishment and satisfaction from the whole banquet. Upon concluding his meal, his friend comes up to him and asks him which one bite he ate during the meal was the most pleasing and nourishing. Although he may know that certain foods he tried he disliked, chances are he will laugh at his friend, and rather than telling him anything, will attempt to get him to taste the banquet, and the answer his won question for himself.

This is precisely the position one feels when one is asked which particular book among the Great Books has been most influential on one’s mind. The question “which one was the best” presupposes that the books are all on the same subject, and that they are unequal in importance. But this is so far from the case that the matter becomes merely a question of opinion, opinion which will change from day to day. The purpose of this essay, therefore, is to give one malleable opinion of three books between which the writer of this essay cold not choose one over the other two. It is his intent that the reader will get a glimpse of the feast from which he has been privileged to partake, by bringing out a sample on a plate.

The first sample to be examined here is a “Shakespeare Salad”: out of the thirteen plays which we discussed in detail, it is virtually impossible to pick a favorite one. The different plots, conversations, comic romps, and tragic dirges made the readings incredibly interesting, but the glory of Shakespeare is in his colorful characters. He brings the hypocrite Iago to life with the same frightening exactness with which he portrays Macbeth’s self-loving blackness. Hamlet’s torments and struggles are presented so clearly that one cannot help but see death itself in a different light. The comedy and confusion of the people of Ephesus over two sets of identical twins creates a vivid an entertaining image of what is the natural result when people imagine they know everything. And these are but a few plays out of a whole collection of dramas. The characters are so three-dimensional and believable that the reader/viewer can see only too clearly the truths with which Shakespeare plays It is a shame that many people are so convinced that Shakespeare is only for stuck-up aristocrats and professors that they never read the plays and change their opinions. A Great Books feast would be nothing without the works of Shakespeare on the banquet table.

The Russian steak we can sample next was far too large to enjoy in one sitting. An enormous volume, Tolstoy’s War and Peace provides a deep perspective of Russian culture during the Imperial era. Beyond that, however, it is a story of the lives of particular people, one of the most prominent of whom is Prince Andre Bolinski, a silent, morose figure in the Russian aristocracy. Prince Andre disdains the society which he sees around him, abandons his pregnant wife in the hands of his sister and father, and removes himself to Austria, to the frontier where the war with Napoleon is taking place. When Prince Andre’s dreams of battle glory are shattered by a realization of what war really is like, and he sees what really matters in his life (his wife and child that he abandoned), the first part comes to a dramatic and moving end. Tolstoy’s descriptions of war, Russian society, true peace, and ruptured love are possibly among the most powerful and realistic portrayals ever written.

The third and final sampling from the banquet is the bread-rolls piled high in the center of the table, sweet because they have been backed by the greatest “Scholastic Chef” and healthy because this chef is a doctor (of the church). Saint Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologia occupied five entire weeks out of the third year of class. The scholastic method with which he presents his arguments is so solid that a rational objection could scarcely be posed against his statements. The reason for this is that he presents many powerful objections to his statements like a solid brick wall, and then proceeds to batter down these objections one by one, leaving little or no room for doubting his procedures. The brilliant discourse of the Summa makes it an undeniable necessity for the banquet table.

These three volumes have influenced the writer of this essay very greatly, so that he has been unable to put one of them over the other two. The mesmerizing writing of Shakespeare, the heart-wrenching beauty and reality of Tolstoy, and the solidarity of Aquinas have made their works truly great. But even as three tastes from the great feast cannot carry the whole satisfaction of the banquet, so these three works are not solely responsible for satisfying the hunger of human reason. It must be acknowledged that this essay was written based upon the opinion held at the moment by the author, and in another two weeks, after having pondered other Great Works in turn, the opinion as to which book was most influential may have changed. Any one of the hundreds of great works might stand up on its own, carrying its own lesson, and teaching the world something about humanity, just as a pineapple slice does not require a glass of punch to taste like a pineapple. But like any banquet, if one plate of morsels were taken from the feast, the feast would be lacking, even if no one was aware of the loss.

Vatican Catholic Education Prefect: Only Universities with Strong Catholic Identity Will Last

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Vatican City,  Aug 13, 2010 / 03:04 pm
(CNA/EWTN News).-
“Only the Catholic university that conserves its identity will have a future,” said the prefect of the Congregation for Catholic Education just days before the 20th anniversary of John Paul II’s document “Ex Corde Ecclesiae.”

 Cardinal Zenon Grocholewski, in speaking about the continued relevance of the document on Catholic higher education, explained that if a Catholic university loses its identity, it becomes just like any other.

The Apostolic Constitution “Ex Corde Ecclesiae,” which established guidelines for the functioning of Catholic universities, was presented by Pope John Paul II 20 years ago this Sunday. Cardinal Zenon Grocholewski, prefect of the Congregation for Catholic Education and prefect emeritus of the Apostolic Signatura, spoke with CNA about the importance of the document on Friday.

According to Cardinal Grocholewski, two motivations led John Paul II to write the document. The first was the “importance” that he attributed to the Catholic university, which, he said, the Pope himself explains best at the end of the document in an exhortation for Catholic witness. The second reason, the prefect pointed out, was that John Paul II believed it was necessary to create legislation outlining the nature and mission of Catholic universities, while giving them juridical norms for their creation and the composition of their faculty.

Success Stories

“Ex Corde Ecclesiae” has produced “great results,” he said, most of all we can see this in the foundation of so many Catholic universities “with a clear disposition” since its publication in 1990.

Citing the creation of more than 250 Catholic universities during Pope John Paul II’s pontificate, he said, “many of these have had a guideline from the very beginning, a clear vision of what a Catholic university should be.”

This has been especially significant in African and ex-Communist countries, he explained.

“I think that many universities, also based on this document, have strengthened their identities, which is very important,” he added.

Fidelity to the Magisterium

CNA asked the cardinal about certain challenges that have come up in the course of applying norms for John Paul II’s ideal for the Catholic university, such as the need for a “mandatum,” a statement from the local bishop that assures theologians are in communion with the Church’s teachings.

The cardinal prefect said that this is a question of methodology as with any other field of study. He explained that “to be a theologian, one must believe in the Sacred Scriptures and Tradition and must be united to the Magisterium (teaching) of the Church.”

“It is a rather risky assumption if a single person wishes to be more important than the Magisterium of the Church,” he remarked.

Catholic Identity

When asked about the requirement for Catholic institutions of higher learning to promote their Catholic identity, even with non-Catholic faculty members, the cardinal replied that all professors have a “responsibility” in this sense to the Church, and before science and the world.

“In the Catholic university people who are not Catholic can also teach, but they are obligated to respect the Catholic identity.”

Reflecting on the application of the Apostolic Constitution today, Cardinal Grocholewski said that it remains “current everywhere.” He considers it to be an “stupendous” document that “gives spirit to the Catholic university.”

To the cardinal, “the Catholic university that conserves its own identity, as was delineated in Ex Corde, truly has a future and will contribute to the good of society,” while seeking to be an interlocutor between cultures and a force for progress.

Stressing the importance of Catholic schools retaining their roots, the cardinal said that “if the Catholic university loses its identity, it’s similar to all the other universities, practically it becomes less significant and this is a big challenge, or a big problem.”

He noted that his congregation has received protests from people who attended Catholic universities, who have said that the education being offered was not in line with Church teaching. They have said that if the institution does not offer a Catholic education while claiming to be Catholic, it is “hypocritical and lying.”

“I think they are right,” said the cardinal prefect,” and the same goes for Catholic grade schools, he said.

“I think that only the Catholic university that conserves its identity will have a future.”

“Ex Corde Ecclesiae,” he said, “does not demand a ‘grand reform,’ the document is current, it is a very realistic approach, and in itself it has a great dynamism to make the Catholic university important in today’s world … where, as we know there is a cultural and moral relativism that creates so much damage.”

What is needed in the modern context of permissibility and relativity, he said, is “the Catholic university that defends the truth, the objective truth.”

The Model Catholic University

There is no specific model Catholic university in the world, noted Cardinal Grocholewski. Universities should not compare themselves to each other, he also advised, “rather they should turn to the document which is fundamental for the Catholic university, which is ‘Ex Corde Ecclesiae’.”

“There,” he said, “the ideal of the Catholic university is outlined, and I think that studying this document is much more productive” than looking to the “diverse realities” of other universities for direction.

Asked about Pope Benedict XVI’s perspective on Catholic education today, the cardinal prefect said he is “a great enthusiast of the Catholic university. He practically rejoices when he sees that the Catholic university, (as) it progresses, preserves its identity …”

The current Pope, he said, has encouraged him to continue “to fight for the Catholic university.”

The Cardinal Newman Society (CNS) republishes this article with the gracious permission of Catholic News Agency.  Read about the comemmoration of the 20th anniversary of Ex corde Ecclesiae by CNS here

Fr. Fessio Leads New Online College Program for High School Students

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Fr. Fessio Leads New Online College Program for High School Students

The Faster Way to Receive Your Report Cards and Graded Papers: Scan and Email

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We would like to encourage our parents and students to scan and email us your tests and essays.  This is the faster way to receive back your graded tests and essays.  You may still send the tests to our PO box if you do not have a scanner.  To scan and email us your work, please send the scans to our main email address:   We will then grade and email you back the work along with a report card. 

Or you may still mail the tests to:
Angelicum Academy
PO Box 47
Manitou Springs, CO 80829

We have dozens of new essays and reports to post online.  Check back soon to see the new essays!