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Brebeuf and the two competing views of education

The Common View believes the goal of education is to provide students with the means to pursue their own chosen ends. The Catholic View understands education to be the formation of the individual to live out one’s vocation in holiness and virtue.

Brebeuf Jesuit Prep (Image: CNA)

The story of Brebeuf Jesuit Preparatory has taken several turns since the Archdiocese of Indianapolis announced that it was severing ties with the school over a decision by its administration to retain a teacher who entered a same-sex marriage.

The reactions to these events have been somewhat predictable. Secular and some Catholic media sources describe the Archdiocese’s action as an example of Catholic bigotry against LGBT men and women. For example, Fr. James Martin, SJ of America Magazine demands that, “the targeting of LGBT employees must cease,” and Brebeuf’s decision to retain the employee is “the most Catholic thing Brebeuf could do.” Archbishop Charles Thompson, the ordinary for the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, stated that, “All those who minister in Catholic educational institutions carry out an important ministry in communicating the fullness of Catholic teaching to students both by word and action inside and outside the classroom.”

Those defending the Archdiocese’s actions have done so by defending the Church’s view of human sexuality and the good it does for faculty and staff to live according these principles. These responses are certainly true, but they miss something vital for a proper understanding of education and the role of teachers, staff, and administrators. What has received less attention is Archbishop Thompson’s statement that employees in Catholic schools act as “ministers.” To the degree that we do not ask questions about the purpose of education and the role of the teachers, staff, and administrators in that education, to that degree we will fail to understand the need for a codes of conduct and how an individual may fail to be suitable for a position despite expertise in his or her discipline.

Two views of education

If we do not want situations such as these to devolve into predictable partisan responses, we must ask essential questions about the purpose and goods of education. What, then, are the goods of education? What is the ultimate purpose of education? What role does the teacher, administrator, or staff member have?

I suggest that there are two competing views of education, one that I will call the Common View and the other I will call the Catholic View. The first, the Common View, sees a limited and narrow role for the teacher and the curriculum. The teacher’s primary role is to convey a specific set of facts and skills. The curriculum will often contain whatever is deemed necessary for what follows the student after graduation, whether that be high school, college, or a career. The classes one takes do not have much of any connection to each other, apart from those that set prerequisite skills and benchmarks for more advanced courses. The teachers of these classes, in their official capacity, are largely there as functionaries: they pass on the information. To be sure, teachers do not see themselves in this way, but insofar as they act as representatives of the school, the teacher’s role is not to pass on values or ideals to the student, except those approved by the administration. The goal of education, according to the Common View, is to provide students with the means to pursue their own chosen ends.

A second view, the Catholic View, sees the point and purpose of education, in the words of Alasdair MacIntyre in his 1999 talk titled “Catholic Universities: Dangers, Hopes, Choices”, as “to transform the mind of the student, or rather to work with the student toward her or his self-transformation, so that students become able to exercise a full range of powers of understanding and judgment.” What MacIntyre calls “the educated mind” is very similar to what John Henry Newman calls the “enlargement of mind” in his classic The Idea of a University and what St. John Paul II referred to as the sapiential dimension in Ex Corde Ecclesia, his statement on the nature of Catholic education.

Whereas the Common View sees education as exclusively ordered to providing the means for students to pursue their own ends, the Catholic View considers part of education to be the formation of the individual to live out one’s vocation, which involves not only the passing on of intellectual habits but also a moral formation. It seeks to help students identify the goods and ends that will truly fulfill their humanity, and it also attempts to form their desires so as not to be frustrated by pursuing short term pleasures at the cost of long-term happiness. We could say that this understanding of education sees part of its goal as forming students in holiness. A uniquely Catholic education will ultimately help the student to understand that only when the soul is in union with God will the human heart truly find rest and fulfillment.

Put simply, the Catholic View sees education as about both ends and means.

What role would a teacher play in these views of education? For the Common View, the personal qualities and worldview of the teacher are not that relevant to whether she is qualified for the position. The purpose of education, on this view, is simply to prepare the student for post-graduation life, whatever that may be. Thus, it would not really matter if the teacher was a man, woman, LGBT, straight, of a religious background, or of no religious belief at all. The institution does not claim to help form students to pursue certain kinds of ends. It only purports to provide students with the proper means to achieve their own self-chosen ends. Professional competency, not personal integrity, are what ultimately matters.

On the other hand, if the goal of education is to give the student both means and ends, intellectual skills as well as formation in the habits needed for pursuing a truly fulfilling life, then the values and character of the teacher become very important. As we have seen, the Catholic View precisely does consider ends and the habituation in virtue as one of the goals of education. In this case, the personal qualities and beliefs of the employee, apart from professional competency, are of great importance. If an employee, by his way of life and choices, compromises the students’ formation, then that individual cannot fulfill his role within the Catholic school.

Brebeuf and morality clauses

In the case of Brebeuf and other similar situations, when teachers are well-known to be in same-sex relationships, the decisions by Catholic officials not to retain these teachers appears, according to the Common View of education, to be simply because the school does not wish to have LGBT individuals on staff. The assumption is that it is a dislike of LGBT people that motivates the decision not to bring back a woman whose only questionable action was marrying another woman. It looks like unjust discrimination. To the Common View, there would be no conflict between a woman teaching classes at a Catholic school and very publicly living in a way that contradicts the Catholic view of human sexuality. Her job is simply to convey information and provide means.

From the Catholic View of education, however, what a teacher does outside of school hours can have a significant impact on her ability to fulfill her role as a teacher. If she is there to help form students to pursue a flourishing life informed by a Catholic worldview, then her actions and choices in life, regardless of what she teaches or the function she has in the school, could serve to miseducate students on those ways of life that are truly fulfilling. If the Catholic Church is right, then truly fulfilling and full expression of human sexuality takes place in the context of a married man and woman.

In the case of Brebeuf, a teacher, well-known to be in a same-sex marriage, would present a challenge to the ability of a Catholic school to form students according to a Catholic view of human sexuality and its role in their lives. Since the Catholic View of education is about educating students into fulfilling their human vocation and call to holiness, a prominent employee contradicting that vocation would lead students away from the habituation necessary to foster holiness and virtue. It is for this reason—since the Catholic View sees habituation in virtue as essential to education and not because of a wish to distance oneself from others—that Archbishop Thompson considers all teachers and similar employees as “ministers”. They are to model for students the way of life that will most lead them to holiness.

To be sure, many will suggest that students ought to challenge the Catholic view of sexuality and holiness because, in their minds, the Catholic Church is simply wrong. This criticism, however, is of a different nature. If parents do not want their children formed according to the Catholic worldview, or if a teacher or employee does not want to form students in this way, then it would be best for them not to be a part. In joining the Catholic community, all students, administrators, staff, and faculty agree to participate in the work of Catholic education. This work involves not only giving students intellectual tools to live and thrive in contemporary society, but the virtue and habits needed to help them understand and grow in holiness.

The behavior of faculty and staff has a distinct influence on the habits students are able to build. Ways of life that would be a hindrance to students are not isolated to men and women in same-sex marriages. A man who lives a life of frequent sexual encounters or who is a well-known adulterer or sexual assaulter would likewise fail to model virtue and holiness to students. A teacher who treated minorities with disrespect and vilified immigrants similarly does not serve to witness to the Catholic View to students. It is not the case, of course, that only Catholics should work at Catholic institutions, and the age of the students certainly sets different parameters over who would be appropriate for a given institution. For example, an elementary school student would be much more impressionable than a college student, and so the personal qualities of the staff and faculty become less influential.

It is important that we understand and communicate the true purpose of moral clauses and codes for faculty and staff. It is because the Catholic View considers the teacher’s role not simply as conveying a set of facts, but more importantly to be one of modeling virtue and holiness to students. In so doing, students are given the tools they need to flourish in this life and the world to come. If we can demonstrate this view of Catholic education, then we can begin to make clearer why an individual’s personal beliefs and choices are relevant to his or her role in a Catholic school.


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About John Macias 2 Articles
Dr. John Macias serves as Assistant Professor of Philosophy at St. Patrick's Seminary & University in Menlo Park, CA. He received his Ph.D. in Philosophy from the Center for Thomistic Studies at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, TX. His research interests include political philosophy, natural law, and the thought of Alasdair MacIntyre.

4 Comments

  1. “Fr. James Martin, SJ of America Magazine demands that, “the targeting of LGBT employees must cease,””

    Leslie, reader of Catholic World Report, demands that “the supporting and promoting of perversion by Fr. James Martin, SJ, must cease.”

  2. Thank our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ for Archbishop Charles Thompson., his courage and true understanding of
    our beautiful Catholic faith .

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