The living tradition of Catholic education: A history with a future

The decline of Catholic education is a civilizational crisis, no less critical than the loss of Latin in the liturgy.

(Image: Giammarco/

In recent decades, Catholic education has become less and less distinct from mainstream schooling. Catholic educational leaders often talk of the need to educate the whole person and to instill “values” in pupils, notwithstanding the fact that values are contemporary America’s replacement for the traditional virtues. Many teachers, Catholic or not, would agree with these two vague and highly subjective goals. Things have not always been so.

Historically, an unchanging characteristic of Catholic education was the search for a balance between the Biblical and classical Greek models of pedagogy. Overall, for most of the past two thousand years, this education aimed to mold pupils for the Christian life and their future salvation via training in the seven cardinal virtues, participation in the sacramental life, and knowledge of the truths of the faith. Only in recent decades have we deviated from this.

Historically, Christian school masters followed the Greek trivium, or three-fold path of grammar, dialectic or logic, and rhetoric. In theory, if not practice, this was to be followed by the quadrivium, or four-fold path of arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy. Astronomy was once deemed to be the highest secular discipline because it dealt with the realm closest to the angels. Together, the trivium and quadrivium made up the liberal arts, which were valued by most people in the West for centuries.

The roots of this Christian system were almost as ancient as Christianity itself. The Church Fathers turned to ancient Greek philosophy and paideia (the Greek word for education) for evangelization. This had a major bearing on ancient Christian pedagogy. The Alexandrian School, led by Clement of Alexandria (150-215) and his disciple, Origen (184-253), sought to fuse the very best of the pagan thinkers with Christianity.

Even if certain Fathers such as Pope Gregory the Great (540-604) warned against the teaching of the pagan authors to Christians, they could not escape how they themselves had been shaped by this education, as H.D. Brown notes:

[A]ll of the Fathers drew upon their classical training and repertoire. It is also important to remember that, whether rejected or not, the values and attitudes culled from Roman education pervaded the Fathers’ thought, and as a result much that filtered through the system as Catholic doctrine about history, society, and morality was Roman and not specifically Christian.1

The Church Fathers passed on ancient classical teaching, whether they intended to or not. Nonetheless, Biblical principles were always at the forefront of Christian education. In a letter to a friend on her girl’s education, St. Jerome advises strict training in the virtues. Jerome (342-420) also prized the Psalter as a source of reading practice and knowledge of the virtues, a practice that became widespread in the Middle Ages. According to Jerome, training in religious truths and ascetic practices such as fasting would protect the girl from the sins of the world: “Christians are not born, but made.”2

Christian education also aimed to pass on tradition. St. Augustine (354-430), a former teacher of rhetoric, reflected on education in De magistro. Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy noted in 1938 how in this treatise education fit into the saint’s concept of tradition:

Teacher and student represent past and future, and, also, the bridge of communication between past and present. They are, therefore, distemporaries, not contemporaries. Two types exist of which one is embodied by the teacher, the other by the pupil. In learning, in teaching, in education, the miracle is achieved of bringing both together in a third time.3

As the ancient world gave way to the early Middle Ages, the Benedictines became Europe’s schoolmasters. While the medieval era is famed for its trade in saints’ relics, the trade in books to add to the monasteries’ ever-growing libraries was also intense. The most famous libraries were in France, though the Irish and English also played significant roles in passing on ancient learning.

With few educational centers on the Continent in the eighth century, England’s School of York stood out as a center of learning. Worried about the effects of inadequate education on the health of Christianity and, therefore, on the political and cultural unity of his empire, Charlemagne (748-814) fused the evangelical work of the Church with greater learning. He prioritized grammar to bring greater clarity to preaching and catechism. He invited the great Alcuin of York (735-804) to be the schoolmaster of Europe.

The so-called High Middle Ages saw great upheavals in Catholic education. If Charlemagne placed the first path of the trivium, grammar, at the core of education, the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries placed logic and dialectic, the second path of the trivium, at the core.

It was the development of the universities, particularly the University of Paris, in step with the growth of the Franciscans and Dominicans who largely manned these new institutions, that most obviously transformed the educational scene in these centuries. Masters roamed, from university to university, from one Dominican or Franciscan house of learning to another.

Born in 1225, Thomas Aquinas seemed to always be moving about—first to Naples, then Paris, Cologne, back to Paris, and Italy too—often following his own master, Albert the Great, who outlived him. Aquinas was on the road to a Church Council in 1274 when he checked into a local monastery. The monks pressured the ailing Dominican into giving a few lessons, which were to be his last.

The humanist embrace of rhetoric was the last of the three medieval revolutions in learning that followed the paths of the trivium itself. As was often the case, the change in education reflected wider social shifts. The fourteenth and fifteenth-century Italian communes were growing in political independence. Unsurprisingly, they also sought independence from the Church. This included education. Later, the northern humanists, led by Erasmus of Rotterdam (1466-1536), solidified the new education by preferring classical Greek and Latin to medieval Latin.

The Jesuits, born in the humanist age, continued this humanist love for the classics until the twentieth century. Their contribution to education in the re-energized Tridentine Church paralleled that of the University of Paris in the High Middle Ages. However, instead of students going to them in Paris, they went to the students. Along with Franciscan and Dominican educators, they spread throughout the world.

This was the age of heroes. Adhering to the spirit, “Teach us to give and not to count the cost,” Ignatius of Loyola’s men followed the Portuguese adventurers to Goa, Malacca, Macau, and Brazil. They followed the Spanish to Mexico, Peru, and the Philippines. They followed the French to Quebec and further west. Everywhere they went, they set up colleges and trained the next generation. Yet they also formed the next generation in the Old World. Their influence in France was so widespread that most aristocrats, and even Voltaire, were Jesuit-trained in the eighteenth century.

Female orders made tremendous contributions to this expansion of Catholic education. The Ursulines’ work paralleled that of the Jesuits and helped to build the Catholic culture of the new world. The Ursulines’s foundations included Mexico City (1585) and New France (1639).

If the Middle Ages was the age of the trivium in the service of the Church, the age of Galileo, and the centuries that followed, was that of the quadrivium in the service of the state. Western man became enamored with science and, even more, with technology and the power that technology could bring over nature. This led to an ever-widening split between society and the Church, which was mirrored in education.

The state increasingly encroached on what had been the Church’s domain. Christianity’s influence over education began to decline, as Europe’s princes began to see the significance of technology and science-oriented education as keys to the expansion of their own power. Curiously, scientists themselves remained religious, if not Catholic. Newton wrote more on spiritual topics than on science. Leibniz wrote extensively on God, ontology (the metaphysics of being), and the problem of evil, famously concluding that “we live in the best of all possible worlds.”

The French seventeenth century saw many education-related orders established. The Sulpicians focused on educating the priesthood. The Christian Brothers and Lasallians contributed to educating children.

The growth in educational orders continued in the nineteenth century, when the French Church tried to repair the destruction of the Revolution. French bishop Felix Dupanloup (1802-78) wrote at length on education, and was concerned that women receive an education in order to have more fulfilling lives. Henry Newman (1801-1890) continues to inspire generations.

Yet at the end of all the social, economic, and political changes in the nineteenth century, secularism seemed to win the day in many countries. The French state passed its law of laicité in 1905, which secularized the schools and took education (and a host of other duties) out of the hands of the Church. A parallel movement, the Kulturkampf, took place in the last decades of the century in Bismarck’s Germany. The Catholic Polish inhabitants of Prussia, for example, were forced to go to Germanizing and secularizing state schools.

The twentieth century saw more fracturing, though there were also triumphs. Female religious orders, such as the Sisters of Loretto and the Sisters of Holy Cross, made tremendous, memorable, and long-lasting contributions. Catholic education flourished in the U.S. from elementary schools to Catholic universities. Notre Dame, Fordham, Georgetown, and other institutions eventually became accepted parts of the American establishment. Perhaps too much.

Fortunately, Rome provided strong leadership. The papacy’s leadership, such as by promoting the study of Thomism in seminaries, encouraged areas of growth and hope. Today, Thomism continues to flourish throughout the Catholic world.

The benefits of Catholic schooling and the Latin Mass have been felt throughout culture and society. This means that the decline of Catholic education is a civilizational crisis, no less critical than the loss of Latin in the liturgy. The pastor’s daughter (and translator of Dante) Dorothy Sayers (1893-1957), in The Lost Tools of Learning, articulated this loss:

Do you ever find that young people, when they have left school, not only forget most of what they have learnt (that is only to be expected), but forget also, or betray that they have never really known, how to tackle a new subject for themselves? Are you often bothered by coming across grown-up men and women who seem unable to distinguish between a book that is sound, scholarly, and properly documented, and one that is, to any trained eye, very conspicuously none of these things?”4

What would Sayers say of the state of education, Catholic or otherwise, today?

Yet there have been many promising developments in recent years. New Catholic educational institutions in the US claim greater adherence to traditional Catholic teaching and education than much of the Catholic old guard. New classical publishers and institutions of learning serve the growing need for educational resources in Latin, Greek, rhetoric, classical authors, virtue education, and the Bible.

The future of Catholic education faces many challenges but can be bright—as long as we remain determined, learn about this tradition, and form communities of learning.


1 George Hardin Brown, A Companion to Bede, Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2009, p. 18.

2 St. Jerome, “A Girl’s Education,” in Jerome: Select Letters, pp. 338-369, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1933.

3 Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy, De Magistro of St. Augustine, 1938, p. 2.

4 Dorothy Sayers, (1948) “The Lost Tools of Learning,” Hibbert Journal: A Quarterly Review of Religion, Theology, and Philosophy, vol xlvi, p. 4.

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About Brian Welter 12 Articles
Brian Welter has studied education, history, and theology and writes on these subjects for many publications including Studia gilsoniana. He teaches English in Taiwan.


  1. When Whittaker Chambers (author of “Witness,” 1952) discerned as a student at Columbia University that “civilization is everywhere in collapse and man is everywhere in despair” he opted for Communism. Not because of the teachings of Marx (even as Lenin exploited the messianism of ancient Mother Russia), but “because I became convinced that the intelligence and power of the West were no longer able to solve the continuing crisis” (“Cold Friday,” 1964).

    Once he witnessed the actual nature of Communism (e.g., the Purge, the Gulag) he turned on his colleagues and testified against Alger Hiss and the whole system of espionage. Then, to counter systemic terror in pursuit of ideology, he asked, “what is the rallying idea of the West?” and decided that “it does not exist.” He could not imagine the collapse of the post-Christian Soviet Union (1991), nor its survival in China, nor now the vulnerability of Western remnants to pre-Christian (not chronologically) Islam and its own messianic prophet.

    He did discern, however, that “the West believes [only] that man’s destiny is prosperity and an abundance of goods. [adding] So does the Politburo.” So, of spreading Socialism today, he wrote: “What else is socialism but Communism with the claws retracted?” He foresaw well the self-fulfilling logic of technocracy.

    So, what now of the perennial Catholic Church?

    In addition to Aristotle, can we learn more from St. Augustine who confronted with clarity the impending collapse of the Roman Empire and its imprint on the meaning of the entire cosmos? To startled, misled and imperiled souls, today, what is the message of the Church? What about those apostles who have been “sent?”

    Some USCCB pygmies in red hats are already poised to oppose clarity about the Jesus Christ of the Gospels (!) over any more generic “gospel of Jesus.” About the salvific and sacramental Real Presence and, therefore, about Eucharistic coherence…

  2. It was not until the 20th Century that education for the masses was accepted as necessary and important, prior to this education and that includes Catholic was for the elites, despite the great gift the church has given to the world from the outset education was for the rich and powerful. In Australia without the work and determined efforts of St Mary Mackillop and the Sisters Of St Joseph, in the late 19th and early 20th century many thousands of poor Catholic children would not have had an elementary education let alone secondary or God forbid tertiary education. Unfortunately, when the penny dropped for governments of whatever ideological persuasion, that education was the answer to gain wealth and power and as a sideline prosperity and progress, that’s when the baby was thrown out with the bath water and the bath – religion and faith based schools began to decline and were tied to government directives
    in curriculum and objectives with prescribed outcomes. In Australia , Faith is hardly taught in Catholic schools, the objectives are to succeed be the best and get a good job and earn lots of money- God does not enter into the equation. In the book of Wisdom it says ‘the truly stupid man does not know of God’ education today is looking more and more stupid.

  3. “The future of Catholic education faces many challenges but can be bright—as long as we remain determined, learn about this tradition, and form communities of learning.”
    This is part of the solution, but the main solution has to do with the poor. The Catholic schools have become too expensive.
    “A preferential option for the poor” should be maintained in our Catholic schools. If we find that we cannot afford to keep our schools open to the poor, the Church should be ready to use its resources for something else which can be kept open to the poor. We cannot allow our Church to become a church primarily for the middle-class and rich while throwing a bone to the poor. The priority should be given to the poor even if we have to let the middle-class and rich fend for themselves.
    Practically speaking, the Catholic schools must give up general education in those countries where the State is providing it. The resources of the Church could then be focused on Confraternity of Christian Doctrine and other programs which can be kept open to the poor. These resources could then be used to help society become more human in solidarity with the poor. Remember, the Church managed without Catholic schools for centuries. It can get along without them today. The essential factor from the Christian point of view is to cultivate enough Faith to act in the Gospel Tradition, namely, THE POOR GET PRIORITY. The rich and middle-class are welcome too. BUT THE POOR COME FIRST.

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