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Educating for what matters most

Catholic schools exist for a fundamental purpose, as they are called to help our young Catholics to reach the goal of life: true happiness in God.

Students in the Diocese of Nashville, Tenn., pray during a Feb. 1, 2018, Mass in celebration of Catholic Schools Week in Nashville. (CNS photo/Rick Musacchio, Tennessee Register)

January 31 kicks off Catholic Schools Week, timed to coincide with the patron of Catholic education’s feast day, St. Thomas Aquinas, on January 28. In Catholic schools, we often ask the question: what is education for? Although it’s become too common to value education for its material benefits — academic achievement ordered toward career success — Catholic schools exist for a more fundamental purpose. They are called to help our young Catholics to reach the goal of life: true happiness in God.

Aquinas, in his great Summa Theologiae, reflects on the nature of happiness, pointing out that only an infinite good, God himself, could ever fully satisfy us: “It is impossible for any created good to constitute man’s happiness. For happiness is the perfect good, which lulls the appetite altogether; else it would not be the last end, if something yet remained to be desired” (I-II, question 2, article 8).

If we aim at wealth, success and pleasure, these goods will pass away. We need a happiness that exceeds them, not only in intensity, but that can also last beyond death.

Happiness should be our litmus test for Catholic schools. If our students can come to know the truth and then actually live it, they will be on the path to happiness. True happiness is not a feeling or an accomplishment. It is the realization of our being, our potential as thinking and loving beings made in the image and likeness of God. God put us on this earth with a mission that is not focused simply on oneself. We realize our deepest longings through communion, moving outside of ourselves and into the life of God, sacrificing ourselves for the good others. This is what brings happiness.

We would never say that we do not want our students to do well in school and in their careers. Yes, our schools teach the skills, form the dispositions and impart the wisdom that our students need to live a good life and to do well in the world. Yet, especially within our secular culture, forming a deeper vocation, even in that success, is instrumental to real success. If we cannot see that our earthly goods are meant for serving others, we will be trapped in seeking a false happiness.

Pope Benedict XVI, while addressing Catholic educators in Washington, D.C., in 2008, challenged us to lead our students into the truth, although he urged us not to stop there. He said we have often neglected the will (or free choice) of our students, giving them information but not calling them into a life transformed by the good. He shows us teaching the truth should lead necessarily to the question of what it means to live a good life:

These harmful developments point to the particular urgency of what we might call ‘intellectual charity.’ This aspect of charity calls the educator to recognize that the profound responsibility to lead the young to truth is nothing less than an act of love. Indeed, the dignity of education lies in fostering the true perfection and happiness of those to be educated. In practice, ‘intellectual charity’ upholds the essential unity of knowledge against the fragmentation which ensues when reason is detached from the pursuit of truth. It guides the young towards the deep satisfaction of exercising freedom in relation to truth, and it strives to articulate the relationship between faith and all aspects of family and civic life. Once their passion for the fullness and unity of truth has been awakened, young people will surely relish the discovery that the question of what they can know opens up the vast adventure of what they ought to do. Here they will experience ‘in what’ and ‘in whom’ it is possible to hope, and be inspired to contribute to society in a way that engenders hope in others.

Forming students for their happiness is not an isolated task. When their minds are opened to the truth and their wills inflamed by the good, they will be able to give hope to others, giving our society what it needs most.

Education should teach us the art of living. Students who receive a genuinely Catholic education will know what matters most and how to order everything else to that ultimate goal. This gives deeper meaning to our lives, because every choice can be ordered to God, drawing us deeper into communion with him and others.

For schools to point students toward this true goal, we will have to be willing to be countercultural, to go against the current that so often distorts the truth and our freedom. In the end, to achieve what matters most, we have to be willing to sacrifice everything else for the pearl of great price. And therein lies the irony: if we do this, only then will we be truly happy.


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About Dr. R. Jared Staudt 32 Articles
R. Jared Staudt PhD, serves as Associate Superintendent for Mission and Formation for the Archdiocese of Denver and Visiting Associate Professor for the Augustine Institute. He is author of Restoring Humanity: Essays on the Evangelization of Culture (Divine Providence Press) and The Beer Option (Angelico Press) and the editor of Renewing Catholic Schools: How to Regain a Catholic Vision in a Secular Age (Catholic Education Press). He and his wife Anne have six children and he is a Benedictine oblate.

11 Comments

  1. “For schools to point students toward this true goal, we will have to be willing to be countercultural” (Jared Staudt). Precisely. Although, the immense challenge is bishops pastors presbyters deacons laity who accommodate today’s culture. Papal leadership a prerequisite to change this.
    Jared Cites Benedict XVI and the necessity to ‘train’ the will by educating, really demonstrating to the young intellect the premier place of the good in their lives. Mr Staudt is on the money here, meaning those tokens given by the Master expecting not reimbursement, rather profit, the evidence of a well formed conscience.
    Aquinas always deserves recognition as well as study for his wisdom. He didn’t create a system, rather a means for the acquisition of truth. For us, foremost are those innocent lovely faces of children above, the reason why we spend our all in the pursuit of truth.

    • “Only an infinite good, God himself, could ever fully satisfy us” (Staudt citing his major premise on education from Aquinas). We can teach how to arrive at what brings us that complete happiness, we can’t teach it. That is, to possess it. It belongs to the will, in that we freely choose to love the infinite good that is God.
      An educator, teacher of children, seminarian lecturer can instill that in his subjects by his own comportment, and in the visible indication of something beautiful and invisible, the spiritual reality of divine good in him. A preeminent way of arrival at this is through prayer, the other hand in hand is with praxis of the greatest of the theological virtues, charity [I believe it was Teresa of Avila that preferred a highly knowledgeable spiritual director to a very holy unlearned one]. We consequently either freely choose to love what good we do for others or we decline. If we find we desire to commit to this exercise of charity and prayer finding in it an incomparable happiness, then we owe thanks to Our Lord for the gift.

  2. True enough, education for lasting happiness. And part of this happiness, still on this side of the veil, might be the confidence to really know that deep faith and real science are not in conflict…

    As one example, classroom familiarity with the recent relabeling of the Hubble Big Bang theory—-an expanding physical universe—-as the Hubble-Lemaitre Law (Lemaitre a Jesuit Priest) should be a certain cause for countercultural happiness and ever-expanding curiosity about the whole universe. (An almost certain alternative being the boredom of rote or compartmentalized education, and then early addiction to the fluidity of social media, smart phones, Scientism and the culture of “whatever,” and finally forgetfulness of the Faith.)

    https://www.amnh.org/learn-teach/curriculum-collections/cosmic-horizons-book/georges-lemaitre-big-bang
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hubble%27s_law

  3. According to a Wall Street Journal Report (May 10 2021), “At least 209 of the country’s nearly 6,000 Catholic schools have closed over the past year, according to the National Catholic Educational Association.” There were 4.4 million elementary and secondary school students in 1970; there are about 1.6 million attending Catholic schools now. About 80% of the students are Catholics. In my experience few and fewer (and their families) are practicing the faith. This downturn of course reflects the lower attendance at Mass and the general increase of disbelief of the faith in the country. In my area the best Catholic Schools being overseen by the best priests in the diocese are close to being taken over by the diocese, just as the diocese is closing and merging schools that it directly oversees. Dr. Staudt has given us the essence of a good Catholic School, but I know very few Catholic schools in my region that market that essence and identity. They do however have LGBT student groups that meet with the administration. How many students graduating Catholic schools – elementary through college – know and agree that the purpose of their education was to learn the art of happy living under God? Since the first proper place to learn this is the family, is it high time that our faltering Catholic school system consider a hybrid model that provides good faithful Catholic instructors to support a homeschooling model; say qualified, better-paid teachers meeting in smaller settings, that assist parents truly invested in Catholic education, adding the traditional Catholic notion that poorer children and families are not excluded? Not sure where this would fall on the financial side but it would ameliorate the need to keep up with deteriorating facilities. In any case, by 2023 Catholic Schools Week ought to bring about a reversal of bad fortune once the new synodal church takes over! (Sarcasm intended).

  4. My good old dad would say happiness is always temporary but joy through a true love for God by knowing the love of Jesus Christ for you is eternal. So I try my best to live by these words and I hope it sinks in with my own kids too. A Catholic education is great but more important are parents who are willing to live by what is being taught.

  5. The fundamental question is how do we keep the Catholic Schools from just being the upscale education of only those with higher incomes.

    • Dear Grand Rapids Mike,
      Yours is a very important question. Here is my response:

      Catholic Education in Solidarity with the Poor

      Recent popes have declared that the “rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer”. This same criticism could be applied to Catholic education: Catholic schools and colleges are serving more the rich; and less the middle class and poor.
      When my grandparents emigrated from Ireland in the early 1900s, the Catholic church in the United States already had in place a parochial school system designed primarily for immigrants. However, these schools are now too expensive for today’s immigrants.
      St. Ignatius of Loyola, when he established Jesuit schools and colleges in the sixteenth century, insisted that no tuition fees be charged to the students in order that the poor might participate with the rich. Today, student fees in some of our Catholic colleges are exceeding $60,000 a year.
      Should Catholic education include, as part of its mission, the goal of reducing the gap between the rich and poor? Can Catholic education encourage what Cardinal Claudio Hummes calls “solidarity with the poor”?
      “A servant church must have as its priority solidarity with the poor,” he said. “The faith must express itself in charity and in solidarity, which is the civil form of charity,” Hummes said. “Today more than ever, the church faces this challenge. In fact, effective solidarity with the poor, both individual persons and entire nations, is indispensable for the construction of peace. Solidarity corrects injustices, reestablishes the fundamental rights of persons and of nations, overcomes poverty and even resists the revolt that injustice provokes, eliminating the violence that is born with revolt and constructing peace.”
      My thesis deals with the question: Can the poor be included as participants in Catholic education in order to encourage “Solidarity”?
      First, I consider the thesis of Mary Perkins Ryan in her book: Are Parochial Schools the Answer? — “In trying to provide a total Catholic education for as many of our young people as possible, we have been neglecting to provide anything like an adequate religious formation for all those not in Catholic schools, and we have been neglecting the religious formation of adults.” Mrs. Ryan suggests that the resources of the Church could be better used where the public schools provide for general education.
      I then modify Mrs. Ryan’s thesis to establish my own which I summarize as follows: “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.

  6. My heart breaks everyday I send my kids to a Protestant school, BUT is a classical Christian program: Latin, art, music, literature, Euclidean Geometry!… contrast that with the “woke” teaching of our diocesan schools. One can honestly ask, “Is there any truly Catholic school left?” We supplement teaching Catholic theology at home but it is nice to only have to explain our faith and not defend all of Christian culture which gives us the freedoms, educational opportunities and dare I say the world’s greatest economy to reward doers over takers—alas all under fire as we slouch toward Gomorrah (Bork docet) and socialism. Pray and educate our kids we must! The Church is not!

    • “Is there any truly Catholic school left?”

      The ‘domestic church’ provides a great education if parents enable it. Have you researched cooperative homeschool programs? If you live in a large city, this may be an available option. Parents will face inordinate work at first, but God will provide. My son and I struggled through it, with inordinate rewards. The pandemic’s effect of online learning significantly horrified parents, moving many to initiate other non-standard private school ventures. Do you have like-minded parents in your near community with whom you could partner to create something beautiful?

      Good wishes and prayer in providing the best for your children.

  7. “willing to be countercultural,to go against the current,willing to sacrifice everything else for the pearl of great price” Do you mean we should refuse the abortion-tainted vaccine? And in case we die,
    we will be truly happy, because having sacrificed our life we have earned the great price?

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