On March 23, the Congregation for Catholic Education (for Educational Institutions)1 issued an “Instruction,” “The identity of the Catholic school for a culture of dialogue.” The focus here is on elementary/primary schools and secondary/high schools (not colleges or universities, which were supposedly handled by Pope John Paul II’s Ex Corde Ecclesiae).
We find heavy reliance on many earlier offerings of the Congregation over many years, but now re-stated and applied to current circumstances, so that we are reading a kind of “compendium.”2 It is essential to point out the immense difficulty of a project like this because of the vast diversity of socio-cultural-cultural-political scenarios of a universal Church (e.g., consider differences among the United States, Italy and Nigeria).
Last but not least, bringing this vision to life will depend on implementation at the local levels (national, diocesan, parochial); Ex Corde was a superb document, however, it was DOA (dead on arrival) in this country, due to the fecklessness of the hierarchy.
What I hope to do in this three-part series is to present what I consider to be relevant texts, followed by my commentary.
1. . . . one of the most recurrent and topical issues in the general debate was represented by the need for a clearer awareness and consistency of the Catholic identity of the Church’s educational institutions all over the world3. . . . At the same time, the Congregation for Catholic Education has been confronted with cases of conflicts and appeals resulting from different interpretations of the traditional concept of Catholic identity by educational institutions in the face of the rapid changes that have taken place in recent years. . . . .
The impetus for this document is noted at the very outset and several times more throughout: This dicastery has been flooded with “cases of conflicts and appeals” dealing with all-too-often mutually exclusive views of just what constitutes a Catholic school.
2. . . . appropriate to offer a more in-depth and up-to-date reflection and guidelines on the value of the Catholic identity of educational institutions in the Church, so as to provide a set of criteria responding to the challenges of our times. . . .
In typical Vatican understatement, we hear about “the challenges of our times.” Indeed!
5. The Congregation for Catholic Education hopes that this contribution will be welcomed as an opportunity to reflect and deepen our understanding of this important topic which concerns the very essence and raison d’être of the Church’s historical presence in the field of education and schooling, in obedience to her mission to proclaim the Gospel by teaching all nations (cf. Mt 28:19-20).
This is a shot across the bow. Simply put, if we can’t get Catholic identity straight, we have lost our way, failing to heed Our Lord’s “Great Commission.”
6. The first part of the Instruction frames the discourse of the presence of the Church in the school world in the general context of her evangelising mission. . . . The second chapter deals with the various actors working in the school world with different roles, assigned and organised according to canonical norms. . . . The final chapter is dedicated to some critical issues that may arise in integrating all the different aspects of school education into the concrete life of the Church. . . .
Here we get an overview of the whole document.
7. . . . an intentionally concise and practical tool that can help to clarify certain current issues and, above all, prevent conflicts and divisions in the critical area of education. . . . Only a strong and united action by the Church in the field of education in an increasingly fragmented and conflict-ridden world can contribute both to the evangelising mission entrusted to her by Jesus and to the construction of a world in which human persons feel they are brothers and sisters, because “only with this awareness of being children, that we are not orphans, can we live in peace among ourselves.”
In other words, “the best defense is a good offense.” Having a clear statement of identity forestalls “conflicts and divisions.” And if such negative occurrences do occur, the school leadership will be able to confront dissenters with the foundational document. While it is undoubtedly true that we inhabit – and educate – “in an increasingly fragmented and conflict-ridden world,” honesty compels us to admit that this is also the reality within the Church, which is why this entire discussion is needed, to begin with.
The Church, mother and teacher
9. The icon of the Mother Church is not only an expression of tenderness and charity, but also holds the power to be a guide and a teacher.
The Church as “mother and teacher” is a powerful image and was the title of the 1961 encyclical of Pope John XXIII, Mater et Magistra. The present document wants to have recourse to this metaphor, however, heading off at the pass any one-sided interpretation. And so, the corrective is presented: While it is true that Mother Church is “an expression of tenderness and charity,” the same image needs to take account of a mother’s role as “a guide and a teacher.”
10. As a consequence, the Council affirmed that “to fulfil the mandate she has received from her divine founder of proclaiming the mystery of salvation to all men and of restoring all things in Christ, Holy Mother the Church must be concerned with the whole of man’s life, even the secular part of it insofar as it has a bearing on his heavenly calling. Therefore, she has a role in the progress and development of education. Hence this sacred synod declares certain fundamental principles of Christian education especially in schools.” This clarifies that the educational action pursued by the Church through schools cannot be reduced to mere philanthropic work aimed at responding to a social need, but represents an essential part of her identity and mission.
This whole paragraph offers the basic rationale for the Church’s educational apostolate and highlights how the Church’s evangelizing mission is realized, “especially in schools.” We are also warned about a reductionist danger of seeing our schools as “mere philanthropic work.” Cardinal James Hickey, the late Archbishop of Washington, coined the expression: “We operate schools not because they (the students) are Catholic but because we are.” However, as true as that is, it is also necessary not to lose sight of the basic evangelizing reason for our schools – on which the document will expand further on.
11. . . . education, as the formation of the human person, is a universal right. . . .
What is the purpose of education? “The formation of the human person.” A correct understanding of education does not allow for this to be merely a process of information-giving (which any computer can provide) but is a matter of formation, which demands genuine human interaction – an insight which was re-discovered during the Covid-imposed “virtual learning.” Because real education does involve – necessarily – the forming of a person in mind and heart, this is “a universal right.”
12. Since education is a right for everyone, the Council called for the responsibility of all. The responsibility of parents and their priority right in educational choices rank first. School choice must be made freely and according to conscience; hence the duty of civil authorities to make different options available in compliance with the law. The State is responsible for supporting families in their right to choose a school and an educational project.
Determining the most appropriate educational environment for a child is preeminently a parental prerogative. And because education is “a universal right,” it cannot be infringed, directly or indirectly, by making the exercise of the right contingent on one’s financial status. As Jesuit Father Virgil Blum, founder of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, put it succinctly: “A civil right penalized is a civil right suppressed.”
13. . . . Evangelisation and integral human development are intertwined in the Church’s educational work. . . .
Once more, we are reminded that the Church does not – and should not – function as some kind of NGO, a group of “do-gooders,” absent any awareness of the underlying mission.
14. Another fundamental element is the initial and permanent formation of teachers. . . . may teachers by their life as much as by their instruction bear witness to Christ, the unique Teacher.”
When our schools were led mostly by Religious and clergy, the issue of faculty formation was not a preoccupation as it took place naturally and even unreflexively. Even when lay teachers became more numerous, they were mentored by a Religious colleague. With the effective departure of women Religious from the scene, faculty formation has to be very intentional, especially as that relates to a teacher’s personal witness, mindful of Pope Paul VI’s oft-cited assertion in Evangelii Nuntiandi: “Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses.”
15. The success of the educational path depends primarily on the principle of mutual cooperation, first and foremost between parents and teachers. . . .
Professor John Coleman of the University of Chicago pointed out many years ago that, in his opinion, the success of Catholic education resided precisely in the close cooperation between home and school. It is not uncommon to hear teachers who have moved into the Catholic school system from the government segment how amazed they are at the intense interest and involvement of Catholic school parents, in contrast to what they experienced in their former positions. And how wrong are those government school agents and agencies which have told parents they have no role to play in the education of their children: “Leave it all to us experts.”
16. As far as Catholic schools are concerned, the conciliar declaration represents a turning point, since, in line with the ecclesiology of Lumen Gentium, it considers the school not so much as an institution but as a community. The characteristic element of the Catholic school, in addition to pursuing “cultural goals and the human formation of youth,” consists in creating “for the school community a special atmosphere animated by the Gospel spirit of freedom and charity.” . . . In this way, the Catholic school prepares pupils to exercise their freedom responsibly, forming an attitude of openness and solidarity.
Visitors to Catholic schools often remark about the apparent closeness of faculty to students and of students to each other – a family atmosphere. Which, of course, is exactly how it ought to be in an assemblage of persons “animated by the Gospel spirit.” Further, we instill in our students a proper notion of freedom, which is not freedom to do “what I want,” but a freedom to do “what I ought,” a freedom which is truly liberating.
17. . . . in particular, the permanent profile of Catholic identity in a changing world; the responsibility of the witness of lay and consecrated teachers and school leaders; the dialogical approach to a multi-cultural and multi-religious world. Moreover, for Catholic schools it is important that students “be given also, as they advance in years, a positive and prudent sex education.”
Children come to us from “a changing world.” Hence, the absolute need to have teachers who live rightly and know how to guide their young charges along the same path, so as to negotiate the very real Scylla and Charybdis of the modern era of moral relativism. This is particularly clear in regard to the proper mode of giving students – “as they advance in years” – “a positive and prudent” education in human sexuality. And so, not for us, gender-bending indoctrination for children as young as pre-K!
The dynamic profile of the Catholic school identity
18. . . . to offer an educational service appropriate to the present times. The witness of Catholic educational institutions shows on their part a great responsiveness to the diversity of socio-cultural situations and readiness to adopt new teaching methods, while remaining faithful to their own identity (idem esse). . . .
Sometimes one hears critics of a “traditionalist” bent complain that Catholic schools today aren’t like the ones from “the good old days” of the 1950s. How could they be? And if they were, what a disservice that would be to our young people. The homogeneity of the general culture of the fifties evaporated forty years ago. What is called for here is for Catholic educators to have the wisdom of the steward praised by Our Lord because he knew how to bring out of his storehouse “the new and the old” (Mt 13:52).
19. . . . school as such “is designed not only to develop with special care the intellectual faculties but also to form the ability to judge rightly, to hand on the cultural legacy of previous generations, to foster a sense of values, to prepare for professional life. Between pupils of different talents and backgrounds it promotes friendly relations and fosters a spirit of mutual understanding.”. . . The school must be the first social setting, after the family, in which the individual has a positive experience of social and fraternal relationships as a precondition for becoming a person capable of building a society based on justice and solidarity, which are prerequisites for a peaceful life among individuals and peoples. This is possible through a search for truth that is accessible to all human beings endowed with rationality and freedom of conscience as tools useful both to study and in interpersonal relationships.
Several themes coalesce here: the need for serious academic formation, along with training in the habits of right judgment (in other words, careful reflection before action). Beyond that, fostering an appreciation for one’s cultural heritage, which leads to a grounding in adopting strong values (I would have preferred having recourse to the word “virtues,” rather than “values”). All of this is eminently “marketable” in terms of day-to-day adult living (local business owners often seek out Catholic school graduates for this very reason). Educators are reminded of their high responsibility as the principal actors in “the first social setting” to teach, especially by example, how to relate to others in a genuinely human fashion (which is also a Christian manner). Finally, the point is made that “search for truth” undergirds all human interaction and all human relationships. Thus, the Catholic school is a veritable “school of human relation.”
20. . . . a Catholic school is endowed with a specific identity: i.e. “its reference to a Christian concept of life centred on Jesus Christ.” . . . it can be said that in the Catholic school, in addition to the tools common to other schools, reason enters into dialogue with faith, which also allows access to truths that transcend the mere data of the empirical and rational sciences, in order to open up to the whole of truth so as to respond to the deepest questions of the human soul that do not only concern immanent reality. . . .
A Catholic school that is not “centered on Jesus Christ” is not a Catholic school. In October of 1979, Pope John Paul II spoke to a gathering of 20,000 Catholic high school students at Madison Square Garden in New York City. He asked why the Church in our nation has expended so much time, energy and money on her schools. “To communicate Christ to you,” came his reply. Our students must be given the tools to view reality “sub specie aeternitatis,” that is from the perspective of eternity. They need to grasp in their youth the answer of the Baltimore Catechism question, “Why did God make you?” “God made me to know, love and serve Him in this life, so as to be happy with Him forever in Heaven.” A Catholic school exists to make saints; as such, our students will experience the greatest measure of true happiness here below, even while their ultimate gaze is fixed on eternity.
21. . . . Catholic schools are part of the Church’s mission. . . .
This is a critically important assertion. Why? Because all too many bishops and priests do not see things that way. Whenever you hear a cleric declare that his school is “a drain” on finances, you know he doesn’t subscribe to the notion highlighted here. Is the line-item in the budget for candles or wine or vestments a “drain”? No, they are essential elements in the proper functioning of the institution. If St. John Paul II was correct in pronouncing the Catholic school the very “heart of the Church,” then it cannot be viewed as an appendage or “drain.” That does not only concern the monetary aspect; it also implies that the school deserves – and even demands – the wholehearted commitment of time and talent of the clergy and the generous support of all the faithful (see canons 800.2 and 802.1).
The witness of lay and consecrated educators
23. . . . “In the Catholic school’s educational project there is no separation between time for learning and time for formation, between acquiring notions and growing in wisdom. The various school subjects do not present only knowledge to be attained, but also values to be acquired and truths to be discovered. . . .
What is being advocated here is nothing less than a holistic approach to education. In the Catholic scheme of things, the “faith” component of a school day cannot be relegated to a half-hour formal religion class; on the contrary, religious and moral values must permeate the entire curriculum. In reality, how can one properly guide a discussion in a literature class without reference to questions of good and evil, vice and virtue? Or science class, without reference to the ethical dimension? Compartmentalization is totally alien to our understanding of the educational project.
24. The work of the lay Catholic educator in schools, and particularly in Catholic schools, “has an undeniably professional aspect; but it cannot be reduced to professionalism alone. Professionalism is marked by, and raised to, a super-natural Christian vocation. The life of the Catholic teacher must be marked by the exercise of a personal vocation in the Church, and not simply by the exercise of a profession.”
One can never say that someone is “only” a lay teacher in a Catholic school; that demeans the lay vocation and reduces such a person to second-class status. The presence of committed lay teachers offers a distinctive and necessary witness; after all, 99% of our graduates will remain lay persons for the duration of their lives.
25. . . . [consecrated Religious] carry out an ecclesial mission that is vitally important inasmuch as while they educate they are also evangelising.”
Just as laity present a balanced image of ecclesial life, so too consecrated persons round out that image. Therefore, it is most unfortunate when a school is deprived of the contributions of Religious.
26. The specificities of the lay faithful and of consecrated persons are enhanced by their sharing in the common educational mission which is not closed within the Catholic school, but “can and must be open to an enriching exchange in a more extensive communion with the parish, the diocese, ecclesial movements and the universal Church.” In order to educate together, a path of common formation is also necessary, “an initial and permanent project of formation that is able to grasp the educational challenges of the present time and to provide the most effective tools for dealing with them […]. This implies that educators must be willing to learn and develop knowledge and be open to the renewal and updating of methodologies, but open also to spiritual and religious formation and sharing.”
This paragraph neatly combines the insights of the previous two paragraphs, as well as other preceding material.
Educating to dialogue
27. . . . The history of Catholic schools is characterised by welcoming pupils from different cultural backgrounds and religious affiliations.
When missionaries ventured forth into new fields, one of the first things they always did was to open a school. We stand in that noble tradition when we maintain our inner-city schools.
28. For the Catholic school, a great responsibility is to bear witness. . . . Today, due to the advanced process of secularization, Catholic schools find themselves in a missionary situation, even in countries with an ancient Christian tradition.”. . . “Schools, even Catholic schools, do not demand adherence to the faith, however, they can prepare for it. . . . To those who then decide to cross this threshold the necessary means are offered for continuing to deepen their experience of faith.”
Again, we are reminded that our schools do not simply have a philanthropic goal; they exist for evangelization. This paragraph also underscores a most distressing reality with which we must contend today, namely, the “advanced process of secularization,” which has the effect of placing our institutions “in a missionary situation.” One can no longer assume that even baptized Catholic children are coming to us with much or any faith experience. However, if the school does it job well, our evangelization of the children can – and very often does – bring about a “reverse evangelization,” that is, the children evangelize their parents.
29. . . . Faced, then, with the continuous technological transformations and the pervasiveness of digital culture, professional expertise needs to be equipped with ever newer skills throughout life in order to respond to the needs of the times without, however, “losing the synthesis between faith, culture and life, which is the keystone of the educational mission.” . . . Accompanying pupils in getting to know themselves, their aptitudes and inner resources so that they can make conscious life choices is of no secondary importance.
Catholics are not Luddites; we embrace technology when it is placed at the service of the human person. By employing good technology, Catholic educators should be teaching their young charges the proper use of technology. Just as importantly, our teachers have the privilege and obligation to guide youngsters through the very noble process of coming to self-knowledge.
30. Catholic schools are ecclesial entities. . . “[they] practise the ‘grammar of dialogue,’ not as a technical expedient, but as a profound way of relating to others.” . . . Dialogue combines attention to one’s own identity with the understanding of others and respect for diversity. In this way, the Catholic school becomes “an educating community in which the human person can express themselves and grow in his or her humanity, in a process of relational dialogue, interacting in a constructive way, exercising tolerance, understanding different points of view and creating trust in an atmosphere of authentic harmony. Such a school is truly an educating community, a place of differences living together in harmony.” . . . “the duty to respect one’s own identity and that of others, the courage to accept differences, and sincerity of intentions. The duty to respect one’s own identity and that of others, because true dialogue cannot be built on ambiguity or a willingness to sacrifice some good for the sake of pleasing others. . . .
Some readers might glance at the first few lines here and dismiss the whole paragraph, being turned off by words like “dialogue” or “diversity.” However, I would urge all to read on, for here we have no call to endless and meaningless conversation or the diversity promoted by the “cancel culture.” No, this argues for a dialogue that is honest, faithful to one’s traditions and identity, because “true dialogue cannot be built on ambiguity or a willingness to sacrifice some good for the sake of pleasing others.”
An education that goes forth
31. . . . an education “which teaches critical thinking and encourages the development of mature moral values.”. . .
Historically, Catholic schooling has never practiced “brain-washing”; on the contrary, we have always presented all sides of an issue, albeit demonstrating why the “Catholic” position is worthy of acceptance. As St. John Paul II was fond of saying, the Church “proposes”; she does not “impose.” Another part of advancing critical thinking skills is giving students the tools to analyze and critique social, cultural and political programs, lest they become victims of so much of the insanity that attempts to pass itself off as “normal” and even “good.”
Education as “movement”
32. Education consists in a polyphony of movements. First of all, it starts with a team movement. Everyone collaborates according to their personal talents and responsibilities, contributing to the formation of the younger generations and the construction of the common good. At the same time, education unleashes an ecological movement, since it contributes to the recovery of different levels of balance: inner balance with oneself, solidarity with others, natural balance with all living beings, spiritual balance with God. It also gives rise to an important inclusive movement. Inclusion, which “is an integral part of the Christian salvific message,” is not only a property, but also a method of education that brings the excluded and vulnerable closer. Through it, education nurtures a peacemaking movement that generates harmony and peace.
If one can cut through the jargon and gobbledygook, there are some worthwhile insights here. Resorting to this kind of language, however, can have the effect of turning off serious people by the effort to be “relevant.”
A global compact on education
33. These movements converge to counter a widespread educational emergency. The latter mainly stems from the breakdown of the “educational compact” among institutions, families and individuals. These tensions also reflect a crisis in the relationship and communication between generations, and a social fragmentation made even more evident by the primacy of indifference. . . . capable of responding to the current “transformation that is not only cultural but also anthropological, creating a new semantics while indiscriminately discarding traditional paradigms.”
This is quite a mouthful, but it is a very realistic assessment of the current cultural scene in the West but also affecting communities around the world. “Fragmentation” and “indifference” must be confronted head-on, giving our youngsters, from the tenderest ages, the wherewithal to become comfortable in living a counter-cultural existence.
Educating to the culture of care
36. This ability to adapt finds its raison d’être in the culture of care. It is born within the “family, the natural and fundamental nucleus of society, in which we learn how to live and relate to others in a spirit of mutual respect.” The family relationship extends to educational institutions, which are called upon “to pass on a system of values based on the recognition of the dignity of each person, each linguistic, ethnic and religious community and each people, as well as the fundamental rights arising from that recognition. . . .
As in so many ecclesiastical documents, once more a stress is placed on the centrality of the family. It is exactly this social unit that has been under attack for decades, with all kinds of alternates being proposed as equally viable entities. Educating a child today is exponentially more difficult than it was in the 1950s – when the family structure was still largely intact. For the most part, we have a generation of parents today who do not know how to “parent” because they were never properly “parented” themselves. For this reason, whenever I engage in a school assessment, my very first recommendation is that the school embark on a serious program of parenting workshops.
1Some readers will wonder why the body is still calling itself a “congregation,” when all such Curial bodies are now to be designated as “dicasteries.” Its promulgation date (January 25, the feast of the conversion of St. Paul) and its publication date (March 29) both precede the implementation date of Praedicate Evangelium (June 5). It should also be noted that there is often a time-lag between a document’s promulgation and publication dates, generally due to the need to provide translations into the various languages. Finally, when documents of the Holy See are published in English, the spelling used is the British orthography (England provided us with the “mother” tongue!).
2For a thorough-going anthology of Church teaching on Catholic schools, see a work edited by Father Nicholas Gregoris and myself: The Mission of Catholic Schools: A Century of Reflection (National Catholic Educational Association and Newman House Press, 2021).
3The Catholic Education Foundation which I head has offered Catholic schools around the country our Catholic identity assessment instrument for a decade now, with schools in over forty dioceses participating. For further information, visit our website.
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