Vince Kostos’ theology course on moral decision-making is, essentially, a how-to class on happiness.
“The goal of the moral life is to live happily,” said Kostos. “Our church, through the Scripture and through the person of Jesus, gives us some clear wisdom on how to do that.”
His students at Marquette University High School exist in a culture that tells them happiness comes from temporal sources and that true freedom is at odds with “the rules” of religion, so Kostos — with a little help from St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Ignatius, St. Augustine and other theological heavyweights — wants his students to understand that sin leads to unhappiness, in this life and potentially in the next.
“We’re trying to help guys understand that God, in making us in the image and likeness of himself, gives us a natural law that we all have access to. We’re all born with some inkling of how to live our lives. But it’s not enough to just come to a common-sense understanding,” said Kostos, who came to MUHS eight years ago. “We need more specifics on how to do that.”
To unlock those specifics, Kostos’ students delve into how exactly the moral law is given to mankind, studying Scripture and catechism as well as commentary written by theologians.
While recognizing the “glimmer of truth” that exists in philosophies like moral relativism and secular humanism, Kostos isn’t afraid to emphasize to his students that these approaches do not, in all circumstances, correctly prioritize “what we need versus what we want – possibly at the expense of what others may need.”
In other words, sin is a real thing. He describes it to his class as, “A falling short, a missing the mark, and a pattern of that can lead to desolation and unhappiness.”
Units of study in the class cover topics like the Beatitudes, human sexuality, the gifts of the Holy Spirit, cardinal and theological virtues, the development of the conscience and Christ’s victory over sin.
And while that can sometimes mean introducing tough subjects like abortion, pornography, date rape, homosexual unions and more, Kostos said that he isn’t intimidated by the potential for controversy in the classroom.
His students, he said, are “hungry” for the truth. And he is eager to help them find it.
“We owe it to future generations to respect and honor the wisdom of the Church, its great teachers, theologians, saints and holy women and men who gave their lives in service of the great truth, goodness and beauty of our Lord,” he said. “At MUHS, we respect our student’s ability to make their own decisions, but without knowledge and truth, how can they truly make a ‘best’ decision?”
At the beginning of the semester, he invites students from all his morality courses to anonymously submit questions about moral conundrums they face in their own lives. Every Monday throughout the year, he will randomly pick a question to read to the class. Together, Kostos and the students determine the moral goodness or badness of the scenario based on the act or object, the intention or motive and the circumstances surrounding the dilemma.
“I truly believe the guys want to have some guidelines for decision making. Most, if not all, would admit they are ignorant in many areas. They are uncertain of the information which they think they know to be true,” said Kostos. “In this way, it’s not me imposing my position on them, but rather sharing the guidelines of our church, and helping to explain the reasons why the Church teaches what it teaches. Though some may still disagree with the Church, they at least have something upon which to disagree, and knowingly choose to do so. Many, however, find a security and safety in knowing the wisdom and teaching of the Church.”
In dealing with controversial issues, Kostos, “breaks it down to the basics for the high schoolers to slowly comprehend, and he gets to the deep questions,” said MUHS senior Patrick Donohue. He has had Kostos as an instructor for morality as well as a coach and academic advisor.
“He’s not just saying the Church teaches no same sex marriage. He teaches why — because it’s not procreative. With immigration, (he explains) how we need human dignity for all people no matter their race, sexuality or socioeconomic status,” he said.
In addition, said Donohue, Kostos, “talks very personally about his life — not in a way to make him stand on a pedestal because he’s doing everything right, but shares life experiences on what he’s teaching.” He describes Kostos as “a role model” and “inspiration.”
A Chicago native named for St. Vincent de Paul, Kostos grew up in a devout Catholic family and spent seven years in the seminary, first at Loyola and then at University of St. Mary of the Lake, Mundelein. When he decided against the priesthood, teaching seemed to be a natural fit.
“I felt called to give back to the Church, to the people who were so supportive of me while I was journeying toward priesthood,” he said. “I found a home in Catholic education, in particular, high school education. High school students are in a critical period of their formation, and to be entrusted to furthering and enhancing their formation, particularly in their faith journey is a sacred and significant call.”
Before coming to MUHS, he spent 20 years working in Catholic schools in Racine, first at St. Catherine’s High School and later at St. Edward’s Elementary School (now Our Lady of Grace). In addition to teaching, he has also coached football, soccer, basketball and golf at MUHS. Kostos has been married to Karen for 28 years.
“The privilege to teach and serve at Marquette, as well as St. Catherine’s and St. Edward’s, has in many ways formed me to be a better husband, father and disciple,” he said.
Kostos said he sees himself as a “consultant” and not a “manager” of the students, and advises parents that operating on that level might improve their ability to connect with their child. A parent’s hesitation to navigate these questions of morality is completely normal, he said, and acknowledged that many might feel inadequate in their own knowledge of the church’s teaching on these issues.
“The African proverb that it takes a ‘village to raise a child’ rings true here,” he said. “Parents have to seek out good people, good schools, church leaders, mentors, coaches, teachers, who can assist them in forming the correct moral landscape for their children.”
A father of three, Kostos is mindful that kids are ever-watchful. “We have to give our children a living example of the faith,” he said. “We cannot tell our children to not ‘cheat, steal, gossip, covet, become addicted to technology, be morally lukewarm’ and yet do the very same things.”
And whenever in doubt, look to Christ, “the Master Teacher,” Kostos said.
“Christ taught, by word, by example, by death. If we as educators in Catholic schools can passionately and sincerely share his mission and vision with students, our world has hope.”