Senior Demi Ovalle is conference POY; alumna Liz (Perry) Timmons ’04 goes to state for first time as a head coach.
Last weekend in the pool, the Fenwick girls’ water polo team (23-6-1) defeated Northside College Prep, Oak Park-River Forest and then York High School (Elmhurst, IL) to win the IHSA Sectional championship and head to state! The Friars the Dukes of York 10-9, holding the lead the entire fouth quarter. The girls play in the state quarter-finals at 4:30 p.m. on Friday, May 20, at Stevenson HS (Lincolnshire, IL) against the host Patriots.
Fenwick student-athlete Demi Ovalle ’22 (Chicago) has been selected as an all-Metro Catholic Aquatic Conference player as well as a member of the All-Sectional 1st team. Teammates Linden Gierstorf ’22 (Oak Park, IL) andAnnie McCarthy ’23 (Elmhurst) also were named to the MCAC and Sectional 1st teams. MCAC 2nd-team selections are Xiomara Trejo ’24 (Chicago) andPamela Medina ’23 (Chicago); at the Sectional Tournament, Trejo made the 2nd team and Medina was honorable mention. Additionally, Ovalle is the MCAC Girls Senior Player of the Year!
Stay tuned in, says Head Coach Liz Timmons, a 2004 alumna of Fenwick, because “we are still waiting on [the] All-State and All-American lists.”
2022 Friars are small but mighty
Both varsity and JV levels have proven themselves in the pool throughout the season, reports Coach Timmons, “even though they have played many games without or with very few substitutions.” Leading the team are seniors Ovalle, Gierstorf, Naomi Szczeblowski (Berwyn, IL), Christina Mireles (Cicero, IL ) and Elizabeth Mack (Chicago). The varsity season started strong with a win at the Naperville North Tournament and continued with wins at the Fenwick Quad and Fremd tourneys. Other notable games for included the Friars’ crushing defeat of cross-town rivals OPRF and beating MCAC rivals St. Ignatius, Mother McAuley and Loyola Academy. (Check scores for all of the Friars games throughout the varsity season.)
JV also has had an incredible season, finishing 4th at JV MCAC. All players demonstrated a lot of improvement, their coach notes with a smile. There were many close games, including a tough, one-goal win against Loyola.
Szczeblowski (in formal gown, below), who suffered a season-ending injury, showed up to support her team on her prom night for their 8:45 p.m. Sectional game last Friday. “It truly shows how dedicated this team is to each other and how much they want to see each other succeed,” praises Timmons. “They have set a goal and have been working toward it all season. We are excited to show everyone what we can do here at the end.”
Student preacher Kate Dugan ’22 shared this message with the Fenwick student body on April, 29, 2022.
We gather this morning to celebrate the Feast of St. Catherine of Siena. St. Catherine of Siena was born during the plague in Siena, Italy, on March 25, 1347. Though Catherine’s parents wanted her to marry, she was opposed to the idea and instead joined the Third Order of St. Dominic. At 21, she described herself as in a mystical marriage to Christ. She frequently visited hospitals and homes where the poor and sick lived. Catherine played an instrumental role in restoring the Papacy to Rome and forming peace deals during conflict and war in Italian city states. St. Catherine was also instrumental in the resolving of conflict between the two popes. She passed away at the age of 33. The exact reason is unknown, but she fell ill in January of 1380 and eventually passed away on April 29th. St. Catherine is the patroness against fire, illness and nurses, among many other things.
One of the most well-known St. Catherine quotes says “Nothing great is ever achieved without much enduring.” REPEAT. Now I don’t know about you, but I do know that my faith has been tested time and time again. It was tested when school was shut down because of a global pandemic. It was tested when we were told both my Grandma and Grandpa had cancer. It was tested when my brother was in a car accident that should have killed him. It was tested when my Grandpa passed away from said cancer last year in May. But through it, I have somehow found a way to strengthen my relationship with God.
In psychology class we learned about an idea that shapes the world view of many Americans. It is an idea called the Just-World Phenomenon in which someone believes that bad things happen to bad people and good things happen to good people. It’s something a lot of people in the world believe in, including me, up until recently. If the Just-World Phenomenon did exist and God could control who got hurt and who didn’t, then why did he let any of this happen to me and my family? How did he decide to take my Grandpa away from me so soon? It took me awhile and many long nights, but I finally realized that God had bigger and better plans for my Grandpa than I could ever imagine, and the only thing that I could do was pray for everything to turn out for the better, even if it meant losing family. It sounds corny, but everything has turned out exactly as it was meant to and has helped me to grow in my faith in God and as a person.
As graduation draws closer and the daunting task of college approaches, I think back to the quote mentioned before: “Nothing great is ever achieved without much enduring.” Now, after having been in this school for four years, I can confidently say there were many times I was tested and many times I either failed or prevailed. Most of you have big aspirations for what you want to do with your life, and I ask that you remember this quote. “Nothing great is ever achieved without much enduring.”
If you want something, it is hard work. Nothing ever comes easy. Every class here is designed to test your mental capabilities and your willingness to become a better and smarter version of yourself by the time you graduate. Fenwick wants you to take the lessons you learn here and apply them to the rest of your life and, if you do, you will do great things.
St. Catherine’s life inspires us to have a life of hope and trust in God. A trust that God will bring the right things forward to you and present you with only what he believes you are able to handle. St. Catherine’s commitment to her relationship with God and her willingness to follow God helped her to have an extraordinary life, just as we are meant to do. You are all here for a reason. You are completing homework assignments and taking tests for a reason — all for that higher goal. St. Catherine’s story serves as a reminder that if you are doing your best, that is good enough for God.
Kate Dugan (above) is a Fenwick senior from River Forest, IL.
For this year’s Women’s History Month, basketball alumna and Fenwick Broadcasting Club founder shares how Frair teachers guided her along a career path to sports journalism.
By Karli Bell ’12
Two years ago, an icon in the basketball world passed away unexpectedly. Kobe Bryant’s death was something that shook the sports world and shook me to my core. I lost an icon, a coach and a hero. Then, I had to go on air and talk about this in my sportscast.
I broke down. I tried to hold in the tears and emotions. But to me, I had a hole.
I spent upwards of 10 years on the hardwood. It was the one sport that I loved to my core (and still do) for a few reasons. I loved the constant flow of the game, having constant action, the selflessness, the mental challenges.
But it’s also the only sport that is gender equal when it comes to the core of the game. The only differences in women’s and men’s basketball are the size of the ball and the number of steps allowed to travel. It was a game that I could play with anyone, anytime and, really, anywhere. Growing up as the only girl on a Northwest-side Chicago block, it was a classic staple in my alleyway.
My time as an athlete is a time that forever shaped me. It taught me discipline, teamwork, selflessness, confidence and to put in 110 percent in everything you do. Work ethic is everything. If you put your mind to it, you truly can accomplish anything you want to do.
When I ended my time as a basketball player, the world of sports had such an impact on me that I couldn’t just leave. Basketball and sports saved my life, in all honesty. It brought me so much confidence, empowerment and boosted my self-esteem. I couldn’t leave this space; that’s when I found sports journalism and media.
Sitting in Mr. Arellano’s speech class is when I wanted to start working on my craft. I would ask him for advice on how to fix my delivery, my presence, if I had any nervous ticks. I wanted any and all feedback. He answered every bothersome, annoying question I had. He was the first teacher I went to when I ‘pitched’ what is now the Fenwick Broadcasting Club.
Fenwick was training camp. I spent hours in Mr. Paulett’s basement English classroom, editing videos with makeshift software. I was in the tech office, reading a Microsoft Word script off a laptop to a small little camcorder or interviewing classmates about school events. I would post countless Facebook posts to promote viewership, as I’m now learning was maybe a bit too much. (Sorry, guys!)
I put all my effort into it, just how I used to put all my effort into basketball. Work ethic, confidence, selflessness, teamwork, discipline, communication, creativity. I learned all that on the basketball court. It all translates. Those times on the court are memories that stick.
Flash forward to now 10 years later: That work ethic translated to being in a top-three sports market before age 30. Communication transferred into networking and building a list of professional contacts. Creativity shows in countless stories,videos and photos. Discipline, teamwork and selflessness is used every day in the workplace.
Life lessons are learned on a court, field, diamond, track and mat. Sports are impactful. They have a profound influence on youth, but particularly little girls. Basketball showed I’m equal. The only thing that mattered was how you play the game. Let the work and practice speak for itself, which would be the best way for me to enter a male-dominated field.
Sports showed me a rigor and fire in myself that I couldn’t find anywhere else. They gave me a social circle and group of friends that every tomboy girl needs. They challenged me constantly, both mentally and physically. You learn respect for authority, to listen, to analyze; all of these being valuable lessons that were first learned on the court.
By Student Preaching Team Member Grant Schleiter ’23 (Elmhurst, IL)
Lent is a time when Christians focus on the three pillars of fasting, prayer and alms giving. Today is Ash Wednesday, the kickoff of Lent, or as I used to think of it in grade school “the day when we compete to see who can keep their ashes on the longest.” Lent is known as a time of sacrifice. When I was little, Lent was always a competition in my family. Lent was always “who could give up the most difficult thing.” This competition was mostly between my sister and me, and it was a battle of who could succeed at a harder Lenten promise. One year, I took it so far I gave up added sugar, and it came to the point I was searching up menus of fast-food restaurants to make sure I was beating my goal. Having sugar-free yogurt every morning for 40 days is absolutely disgusting. I do not recommend it.
But what I was doing was actually the exact opposite of what Jesus says to do. In the Gospel today, Jesus says, “When you fast, do not look gloomy. When you give alms, do not blow a trumpet. When you pray, pray in secret.” Instead, I was making it known to everyone that I was struggling with a difficult penance — and was making it known that mine was more extreme. I was not sacrificing for God but rather for my own bragging rights.
As Fenwick students, we are called out to follow these three pillars. Prayer obviously is something we practice every day; at the beginning of second period we usually get to hear the enthusiastic voice of Charlize Guerrero, or maybe, every once in a while, the deep voice of Lee O’Bryan.
Fasting is the pillar most people associate with Lent. Many people associate Lent with giving up food, but you can also change a practice of something, like working out every day, or being nicer to a sibling, or going on your phone less. Fasting from something that distracts you from God can free up more time to do something to praise God. Something as easy as reflection through prayer could be done, or maybe you take it a step up and do charity work to accomplish almsgiving.
All of these actions help us become better people, and in becoming better people, we grow closer to God. In making time for God in your life, you are making time for goodness. Another thing about Lent is once you start to get into a routine, it is hard to snap out of it. When I did my sugar fasting, as soon as I hit Easter I had about 40 cookies and probably half of the lamb cake. All I was focusing on was “getting to Easter so I could enjoy sugar again.” Yes, some bit of fasting is to compensate for the 40 days Jesus spent in the desert, which is your typical giving up foods you like; but usually we go back to these after Lent, so maybe this year focus on something that you could build into a new routine — something you can do that can make your life better. Maybe instead of looking at your phone in the morning, talk to one of your parents; or if your parents are not awake, maybe take some time for silent meditation. You could even read the daily Bible verse. Do something simple that can help bring you closer to God. Jesus died for our sins and there’s no point in going right back to them after Lent. Instead, use it as a time to realize what you can change in your life to bring you closer to God.
Lent is a season where we must turn away from pleasures and see how we can redistribute our time for the needs of others and the needs of God. Lent is not a season for bragging; instead it is a season for serving. Focus on serving God and our neighbors. Do something that can help make a positive impact on others. Giving up sugar was something that did not make a positive impact on others; I think it only helped the Oikos yogurt brand. Do something that brings you closer to God.
As Women’s History Month 2022 continues, we give a shout out to Mary Kate Callahan ’13 (of La Grange, IL), who made IHSA history nine years ago.
At Fenwick’s Fall Sports Recognition Night on November 15, 2021, Athletic Director Scott Thies ’99 introduced a special, guest speaker:
Mary Kate has been navigating life on four wheels for as long as she can remember. At five months old, a virus attacked her spinal cord, leaving her a paraplegic. Now, at 26, she has been around the world racing triathlons, advocating for what she believes in, and mentoring people of all abilities.
Mary Kate has crossed numerous finish lines; spending 11 years racing on U.S. National Team in the sport of paratriathlon, running marathons, and even breaking the course record at Ironman Louisville. She enjoys educating and spending time with people to show them how the fitness industry can be adapted for all types of athletes. Mary Kate has a passion for helping others find their own starting line to tap into their own potential and inner athlete.
Further, Mary Kate is the reason the IHSA holds a State Series for athletes with disabilities! As a student at Fenwick, she stood in front of the IHSA advocating on behalf of athletes with disabilities. As a result of her efforts, there is now a State Series in place. Mary Kate was actually the first to compete at State! In my 18 years at Fenwick, she is the toughest, most determined, resilient athlete I have seen.
Ms. Callahan spent a few minutes addressing the Friar student-athletes in attendance in the Auditorium, helping them to keep their sports lives in perspective. Her remarks answered three key questions that she encourages all athletes to ask themselves:
Did I try my absolute best — no matter what cards were handed to me each day?
Did I show up for people and help bring out the best in them when I had the chance?
Fifty academic years ago, Miss Janet Spingola blazed a trail for women educators at the Dominican Catholic high school in Oak Park, Illinois, where no ladies’ restroom yet existed in 1971!
By Jan Spingola Dovidio
Even though 50 years have passed, I am still very proud to tell the story of serving as the first female teacher in Fenwick’s history.
Fenwick High School was very familiar to me, as my father, two of his brothers and many cousins were graduates. Since then subsequent generations of cousins – male and female – have also earned the title of Fenwick alumni.
I attended Immaculate Conception High School (now ICCP) in Elmhurst, followed by four years at Northern Illinois University. My path to Fenwick began in the spring of 1971. I was in my senior year at NIU. I was ready to graduate with a Bachelor’s degree in French with a minor in Spanish, and a teaching credential. I had always dreamed of serving as a high school teacher.
Fenwick notified NIU’s language department that it was seeking a French/Spanish teacher. I wasted no time in submitting my application.
About a week later I received a call from Fenwick Principal Father Gerald McGreevy that he would like to set up an interview. I was delighted when Father McGreevy offered the position to me – and my father beamed with pride.
I do recall (boldly) asking why Fenwick was hiring a woman after its decades of all-male student body and faculty. He replied that the board and administration knew that in the not-too-distant future the school would most likely have to welcome female students, in order to maintain a full student population. The administrators felt it was wise to begin with the faculty.
If you check the 1971-72 yearbook, you will see that another woman was hired as an art teacher, but she decided to leave the position after a few months. It remained to me to forge this new path for females at Fenwick.
I reported to the school several days before the first day of class for the usual teacher in-service days. The room went silent as I entered. Several friars asked how they could help me. I am not sure the good fathers believed my reply or truly accepted that I belonged there.
We need a ladies’ room!
During a break half way into the morning session, I asked Father McGreevy to direct me to the ladies room. His face turned pale and his expression was priceless.
“I failed to realize that we needed to have a ladies room!”
Even though the school had an all-male faculty and student body, there were two female secretaries working in the office. Over the years, they went over to the adjoining rectory to use its restroom. That arrangement just wouldn’t work now.
The administration quickly prepared a sign saying “WOMEN” and attached it to the door of a first floor bathroom. For the first few days, several of my fellow lay teachers valiantly guarded the door while students adjusted to the change and did not walk in unexpectedly. The restroom was also remodeled to remove the urinals and install more stalls to make it a true ladies room.
As a rookie teacher at the school, I did not have my own classroom, but instead used other language department rooms during fellow teachers’ preparation periods.
I taught French and Spanish to freshmen and juniors. What a pleasure to teach students serious about their education and dedicated to doing well.
There was a period of adjustment for about the first week. The young men were not only taller than me but also were not quite sure how to react to a female teacher. It was a new experience in those hallowed halls. I appreciated that they all remained seated during class so that no one towered over me. More than that, many students became more than cooperative to “earn points” with this new teacher and others were very shy about answering at all. We all settled into a very appropriate teacher/student connection within a few days.
The adjustment among the faculty also presented challenges at first. My fellow lay teachers were always welcoming and helpful, especially as I learned my way around the halls for my various classroom locations. Most of the friars were very polite and hesitant at first but they soon grew to accept the idea of a woman in their midst. The adjustment was hardest for the older friars who had served the school for decades without changes.
Who were the Alognips?!
A group of my freshman students formed a team for the winter basketball intramural tournament. The boldest among them asked if they could name their team after me. While I appreciated the compliment, I wasn’t sure how this would go. They decided to name the team by using my maiden name backwards – from Spingola to Alognips. I proudly supported them at their games.
I had the best possible experience as a first year teacher – dedicated and serious students, always polite, phenomenal history and alumni at the school and the full support of the faculty, parents and administration. The fact that this also forged a new path for Fenwick – they hired six women the following year and soon became a coed student body – made me very proud to have contributed to the beginning of the new journey.
Sadly, I only spent one year at Fenwick. I was engaged to be married when I accepted the position. My soon-to-be husband Tom, who graduated from Notre Dame Law School that May, was job-searching that year. He ultimately accepted a position in California.
How blessed I was to have my Fenwick experience. I will always be grateful for the students, the faculty and the administration for welcoming me and embracing such a major change at Fenwick.
My special thanks to the current Fenwick administration for allowing my extended family to offer the Spingola Family Scholarship each spring to a deserving junior. It is an honor to continue our connection to Fenwick.
A non-profit organization founded by a Fenwick alumnus from Oak Park is helping to advance literacy in the Chicago area.
By Franklin Taylor ’15, president and executive director of Our Future Reads
During the pandemic, I graduated from college. At the same time, I received a Fulbright Grant to go to Germany and teach English — a dream that I have had since my Fenwick German classes with Frau Strom and our German Club trip to the country. Since the pandemic pushed back this opportunity, I was able to find a job as a data analyst while I waited.
One day while working from home, I glanced around my room and pondered what to do about the giant mountain of books I had accumulated from attending Fenwick and Bowdoin College over the years. Some of the books I had really enjoyed reading, but others I would never pick up again. I thought “Do I throw these out? Who throws out books? Can I give these to someone who would enjoy them? Where can I even donate books in the area?”
These thoughts led me to reflect on the junior-year service projects we got to do as students at Fenwick. These memories motivated me to look on the Internet for places that would take in books for adult readers. To my surprise, I could only find organizations looking for children’s books. Since I was unable to find much information, I felt my Friar spirit kick in and marched down the field to do something about it. That is when the idea for Our Future Reads was born. I thought, if I have this problem, then I am sure many others share this problem, too. Instead of finding an organization to donate these books, I decided to do it myself.
Our mission statement at Our Future Reads is: For those that are curious, be curious! Through books, curiosity is born. People say ‘don’t judge a book by its cover,’ we say it’s fine to do that, as long as you took the first step in picking it up. Our Future Reads is here to make sure thosewithout readily available access to books get an opportunity to read whatever piques their curiosity.
I learned many things at Fenwick, and the most important was to help others when you can; and at Our Future Reads we are doing exactly that. In just eight months, Our Future Reads has collected over 10,000 new and gently used books, established relationships with a number of other charitable organizations in and around Chicago, and donated over 2,200 books to people in need. Brian Heuss, a fellow Fenwick Football teammate and Class of 2015 alum, as well as [my brother] Jared Taylor (see below), Class of 2019, are on the board of the organization along with a good friend from OPRF. Class of 2015, Matthew Herbst. We have received amazing support from individuals and other local organizations who have conducted book drives to help Our Future Reads build its inventory to accomplish its mission to redistribute books to those in need.
Help us achieve our goal of increasing the literacy rate in the Chicagoland area by donating. If you, or your child or grandchild who is currently a Fenwick student, would like to hold a book drive to support our inventory at Our Future Reads, please reach out to me via email. For any more information, you can explore our website.
Let the Curious, Be Curious … and Let’s Go Friars!
Thomas wished for“Nothing but You, Lord:”Father Chris shared this homily today with Fenwick students at an all-school Mass.
By Fr. Christopher Johnson, O.P., Fenwick High School
Let’s pretend for a moment that you stumbled across a magic lamp in the attic of your grandmother’s house. A magic lamp seems like a probable thing to find among other mementos and items from yesterday. After finding this lamp, you rub it, a genie pops out and offers you one wish. What will you ask for? All “A’s” for this semester and every semester to come? Admission into your dream college? Fame? Wealth? The opportunity to play or perform your favorite activity at the professional level? A successful marriage with perfect children?
What about a relationship with God?
There is a story about St. Thomas Aquinas that describes him as fervently praying in the chapel of his priory one evening, in front of the crucifix. The crucifix suddenly began to speak, and Jesus tells Thomas that he has written well of Jesus and the faith. Jesus then asks what Thomas would like as a reward. Thomas responds, “Non nisi te domine.” “Nothing but You, Lord.”
Think about that. St. Thomas could have asked for anything he desired — a long life, good health, to be well known and well liked by people, to become the smartest person in all of human history, you name it. Yet he says that he simply wants to be known and loved by God.
Isn’t that amazing?
Can we honestly answer that God is the number one priority in our lives?
Does he rank ahead of our desires for success — be it academic, extracurricular, familial, career?
Does God rank ahead of all our relationships? Whether they be romantic, familial or friendship?
Does he rank ahead of our desire for fame, wealth and esteem?
Nothing but You, Lord.
It’s Catholic Schools Week
This week the U.S. Catholic Church celebrates Catholic Schools Week. It is fitting that we celebrate our brother, Thomas, today since he is the patron saint of students.
What does it mean to be a Catholic school student? What does it mean to be a Catholic school? It means more than just wearing uniforms, or celebrating Catholic Schools Week each year with pajama day, field trips and class parties, as you may have done at your Catholic grade school.
Catholic education is more than that. As Carl mentioned, St. Thomas was known for both his deep intellectual knowledge, but also his spiritual wisdom. We are called to pursue the same thing as Fenwick Friars. May you not only learn about math, science, writing, reading, history, economics and so forth during your time as a Friar. I pray that you also learn what it means to love God and to be loved by Him.
Any student at any school can learn to add, subtract, read, write and memorize. That should be a given for anyone who has the opportunity to attend school. But most students do not have the opportunity to learn as Carl did — to ask the big questions — “What is the meaning of life?” “Who am I?” “What is my place in the world?” The questions that reason and intellect alone cannot answer.
I pray that you have the opportunity at Fenwick to not only learn math, business, economics, science and the like, but to consider how people are to be treated. After you graduate from college and begin to work in business or any other industry, may you view the world through a Catholic lens. Consider the questions of:
I hope that you do not leave Fenwick simply glad that you got into a good college; won a state championship in your activity; were involved with some successful organizations; and proud of all you learned.
Success inside the classroom and in the community is a good thing. Likewise with setting oneself up for good opportunities in the future. But that cannot be it.
Keep God in your life
I hope you leave Fenwick with an understanding of who you are in light of your relationship with your Creator. God loves you and has given you an immortal soul. He has formed you in His image and likeness, and nothing can change that.
He has also made all your classmates and loves them more than you can imagine. They too share in God’s image and likeness.
By Fenwick Student Preacher Carl Lukas ’22 (Riverside, IL)
Good morning everyone. My name is Carl Lukas, and I am a member of the Class of 2022. We gather here today to honor Saint Thomas Aquinas, who is a highly revered Dominican friar and scholar. He is probably the best-known Dominican in the Catholic Church, and his influence is seen throughout Fenwick. There is a statue of him on a staircase, he is depicted on stained glass in the chapel, and his image appears in numerous classrooms.
It is evident that Aquinas is important in the church, but it can be difficult to see how his life is relevant to us in the 21st century. Thomas Aquinas lived in the 13th century and spent his life composing philosophical and theological works. He wrote of improving our relationship with God through our intellect, and he is instrumental in clarifying the teaching of the Catholic faith in a concise and systematic manner as well as promoting the importance of the Eucharist. Through Aquinas’s teachings, we can learn more about ourselves and the world around us, allowing us to strengthen our faith.
I recently finished my first-semester World Religions course with Mr. Mulcahy. I was fascinated by the different religions across the world and what they believed. I learned about how different world faiths seek to guide their members in living a good life. I learned about Islam’s solution to the problem of pride, and how Hindus work towards breaking out of a cycle of rebirth. Through this class, I discovered that from the start of human history, we have always been searching for answers that cannot be found through the use of our senses and reason. The use of our senses and faculty of reason are useful in coming to understand the world around us. However, there are some questions that cannot be answered with human intellect alone. Rather, to make sense of the dilemmas we need something different, which we call wisdom.
Wisdom and knowledge are usually mistaken. The two words are often used interchangeably. However, there is a difference between the two. Knowledge can be gained somewhat easily. We go to classes every day and gain new knowledge on a variety of topics. We are then tested on these topics and sometimes let them slip out of our minds. We can know many different things, yet it is hard for us to understand why we need to know them.
This is where wisdom comes in. Having wisdom is being able to apply your knowledge in your life. We can go on autopilot and learn new knowledge without having to truly understand why we are learning it.
Wisdom is different from knowledge
However, to gain wisdom we must understand the world around us to apply our knowledge. This is why it was important to me to learn as much as I can about the world, including the beliefs of other traditions. All traditions are seeking an answer to a similar question but approach it differently. The desire to seek knowledge outside of simple academic knowledge is naturally sought after throughout the world. Now that I understand more about what others believe, I can strengthen my own beliefs by understanding the impact we have on each other. I am able to strengthen my faith by questioning the essence of my beliefs.
As we celebrate Thomas Aquinas today, I think it is safe to say that only a small minority of Americans have read anything he wrote. To be fair, his writing is dense and dry. Some of it is only available in Latin. But I would also be willing to bet that a much larger portion of our population has come across one of his claims: laws which contradict the natural and eternal law are unjust and should not be followed. Martin Luther King, Jr. cites Aquinas in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail” (see image below) to explain why segregation laws are unjust and should not be followed. In 1963 this was a profound, counter-cultural and necessary message. (Every time I teach it, I do find a little bit of joy from seeing the ideas of a fellow Dominican used as one step towards making the world a better place.)
Given the events since the murder of George Floyd, the current fears of war with Russia, and the push to get people further into space, one could be forgiven for thinking that it’s still 1963. MLK’s writing certainly remains profound for us today. However, I think our time needs to be reminded of the basics which MLK took for granted. We need to read a little more deeply and remember the rest of what Aquinas wrote about the law (something MLK clearly did while getting his doctorate in systematic theology). Unjust laws are the footnote — they are not the main focus of legal theory. In a world where the claim that “an unjust law is no law at all” is thrown around right and left, the modern revolutionary is the one who respects authority.
To be clear, I am not arguing that all laws are just or that we should be blindly subservient to the government. Nor am I saying we shouldn’t protest. It can be a powerful way to create needed change. Civil disobedience will always be necessary as systems will always be flawed as long as humans run them. My claim is merely that we have talked about the exception so much that we have forgotten the norm.
What is the norm?
Consider this: Before I graduated from college in Indiana, I got three speeding tickets, each costing about $150. One was for going 78 mph in a 65 zone, another for going 68 in a 60 (my cruise control was set at 63) and the last was for going 58 in a 55. Students laugh when I share this. Most of them don’t even know what the speed limit on 290 is. They certainly cannot imagine a world where going 10 miles over the speed limit on the highway matters. To be fair, Chicago does have norms for “safe” driving — they just don’t match the written laws. Can you imagine Chicago without any traffic norms at all? I wouldn’t leave the priory!
Or look at our use of alcohol. Each year in Moral Theology we discuss whether alcohol can contribute to our happiness; and students have some excellent reflections on the formation of friendships, the dangers of alcoholism, the horrors of drinking and driving, the goodness of simple pleasures in moderation, etc. Then we push it further: “Can it be good for a teenager to drink alcohol?” Invariably students bring up concerns about healthy neurological development. Rarely does anyone say, “No, it’s better for me to follow the law than to drink with my friends.”
Aquinas, on the other hand, insists we have a moral obligation to learn from and obey laws. Always. As MLK correctly explains, he does notargue that we don’t have a moral obligation to follow bad laws — he argues that unjust laws are not laws at all. This is a bizarre claim at first. He isn’t saying that they don’t actually exist or that no one passed them. He is saying that an unjust law fails to meet the necessary criteria for something to count as a law. Might does not make right. A law is “an ordinance of reason for the common good, made by him who has care of the community, and promulgated.”1 Laws are supposed to teach us how to be part of a harmonious society. They help us to be good. For example, school-zone speed limits count as laws because they structure our driving practices around the goal of protecting children. They are made by a legitimate authority and are very clearly posted for drivers to see. Following such a law is simply a good thing to do — individually and communally we benefit from the harmony such a law creates.
If a law isn’t actually directed to achieving a reasonable good (a major topic in its own right, which I have to set aside here), it’s an abuse of power and not a law. A law limiting families to one child is oppression, not law. However, a lot of laws have good reasons of which people aren’t aware or with which they disagree. We are not all experts. It’s important to hold government leaders accountable for creating good laws, but that’s also a lot of work. Sometimes I do just need to trust that a law has a good reason even if I don’t understand it.
None of this tells us how to respond to unjust laws. Should we follow them? Aquinas’s answer is, unsurprisingly, nuanced.2 If the law is directly contrary to clear natural goods or divine goods, then do not follow it; they will not lead you to any form of goodness. Breaking these is the right choice. MLK explains why masterfully: “All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority.” Following such a law clearly adds to the destruction of human dignity individually and communally.
About those COVID-19 protocols …
But laws can fail to be real laws in other ways. A secret law isn’t a real law — if it isn’t promulgated, one can’t learn anything from it. A law could aim at a good goal but fail to accomplish it because the law is based on false assumptions or insufficient evidence. A government can overstep its authority. Do we have any obligation to follow a misguided law? According to Aquinas, yes, these “unjust laws” oftendo bind our consciences. Why? Because disregard for authority damages society and that should never be taken lightly. Something is still gained from following them even if it isn’t ideal. I think the American drinking age fits here. I disagree with 21 as the drinking age and think it should be lowered. But I don’t regret following it when I was in high school and college, and I encourage students to do so, too. There is much to be said for learning how to listen to authority even when authority is somewhat wrong.
If Aquinas is right on this point, we have a lot to ponder when it comes to COVID protocols. One might generously call them a rough draft of what an ideal pandemic response would be. Revisions keep coming and everyone wants to supply their own peer-edit. Whether these protocols actually accomplish the goal or not, they are a real attempt to care for the common good of society; conscience demands that we prioritize this. The problem is that the right means to the end isn’t crystal clear. Aside from the novelty of this virus itself, there are tons of unintended consequences to every choice and many social goods that seem to fight against each other (i.e. physical health, mental health, economic health). Like many people, I have gone down rabbit holes reading about the efficacy of various safety measures. But I’m not an expert and I’m not in charge, so I have stopped researching. Sometimes we all just need to trust others and do what we were asked to do.
Other times you do need to push back. I think I would really struggle to strictly enforce masks if I were a kindergarten teacher. Some protocols do seem to have gone too far, and I understand the argument that those measures are too harmful to children for us to follow them. However, I do not see any similar argument for teenagers and adults. Even if it turns out that wearing a mask while I taught for the last year and a half did little to stop the spread of COVID (which I can’t totally rule out), I am sure Aquinas would tell me I did the right thing by complying. Being part of a harmonious whole and prioritizing public health is a good thing even if we did it badly. It significantly outweighs some facial discomfort.
Laws can be wrong. My understanding of Aquinas could be wrong. Aquinas himself could be wrong. All of this is possible, and we’d be a bit foolish to think otherwise. We’d also be foolish to mistake the exception for the norm and critique laws more than we follow them. If we want to live well, find joy in society and one day enter into eternal joy with God, it’s time to remember the goodness of obedience. If it turns out everyone in charge was wrong, I hope we all have the humility to pray as Christ did: “Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do.”