It's time for Catholic education to rediscover its core purpose.
After years of declining enrollments, Catholic schools have recently enjoyed an influx of new students. This growth has surely been driven by pandemic-related school closures and parental concerns about the creeping cultural Marxism found in far too many government-run schools.
But Catholic education has its own identity crisis, and it's not one that simply welcoming new students can resolve. In many Catholic schools, the curriculum, teaching methods, and overall mission is nearly identical to what you might find in their secular counterparts. Students may attend religion class or go to Mass, but the general vibe in many Catholic schools is that their primary mission is to prepare students for college and careers. And while that's an important component of education, it's only a tertiary goal for truly Catholic schools.
It's time for Catholic education to rediscover its core purpose. And it's time for Catholic parents to claim their rights and duties as the primary educators of their children. Whether you choose homeschooling, a Catholic school, or a government school, Catholic parents need to make sure their own children are being educated for their eternal destiny.
First, regardless of their chosen schooling method, Catholic parents must never surrender their child's learning to professional educators. The clear teaching of the Catholic Church is that parents are teachers—the first and most important teachers of their children. In 1929, Pope Pius XI made this case clearly in his encyclical Divini Illius Magistri, a point that was echoed again in the Second Vatican Council's document on education, Gravissimum Educationis. Paragraph 2223 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church hammers it home again: "Parents have the first responsibility for the education of their children."
Schools exist to support and supplement parents in this educational mission, not to replace them. And what is the nature of this mission? Catholic education, in whatever its form, has three goals of primary, secondary, and tertiary importance.
Education Priority #1: Getting kids to heaven
Why did God make me?
The first goal of education is the same as parents' first duty to their children: to form children so that they may become saints and spend eternity with God. "The proper and immediate end of Christian education is to cooperate with divine grace in forming the true and perfect Christian," Pope Pius XI wrote, "that is, to form Christ Himself in those regenerated by Baptism" (Divini Illius Magistri, 94).
The purpose of learning grammar, history, the sciences, art, or anything else is ultimately spiritual. Children can master the entire body of human knowledge, but if they lose their souls, their schooling was a massive, tragic waste. Rather, academic studies provide the content for students to learn virtue and self-mastery, what St. Augustine called ordo amoris, or the proper ordering of our affections.
If children lose their souls, their schooling was a massive, tragic waste.
This was the understood purpose of education until about 100 years ago, when so-called "Progressive" methods sought to purge schooling of all spiritual content. Classical learning forms the student's affections and virtues by conveying the greatest ideas and values of our civilization.
As the great G.K. Chesterton put it, "Education is simply the soul of a society as it passes from one generation to another. Education is not a subject, and it does not deal in subjects. It is instead the transfer of a way of life."
Education divorced from this eternal and civilizational purpose is anemic and incomplete. But even a Catholic school that acknowledges the spiritual meaning of education is adrift unless this goal is clearly shared by all stakeholders as the primary and driving purpose of learning, the centerpoint from which all other learning goals arise.
Education Priority #2: Vocational Discernment
How do I serve Him?
The core purpose of education, then, is also the core purpose of life itself. As the first lesson of the Baltimore Catechism framed it, "Why did God make you?" The answer: "God made me to know Him, to love Him, and to serve Him in this world, and to be happy with Him forever in heaven."
The second priority of a truly Catholic education is to help children begin to explore how they might serve God in this world.
This is the vocational mission of education. The Latin word vocare means "to call," and generally it refers to the way in which all men and women are called to eternal life with God and to serve Him in this world through a life of perfect charity (CCC, 1604).
Parents and schools address the vocational mission of education when they help children understand that God has a plan and purpose for their lives, that God gives us each a unique set of talents and dispositions with which to serve Him and His Kingdom. Education should help children begin discerning their own special gifts and how God might be calling them to serve.
The idea here is far bigger and more important than the kinds of "career awareness" programs found in most schools. The question to our kids is not, "What are you going to be when you grow up," but rather, "How are you going to serve the Lord?"
A truly Catholic education should strongly encourage children to discern from the earliest age whether they may be called to ordained, vowed religious, or married life.
Our vocation is not always the same as the job we do for money, although they may be closely related. My personal vocation, as I have come to understand it, is to teach, to write and communicate, and to advocate to make the world better, especially in the realm of education. I have had many "job" roles over the years in which I live out that vocation, including classroom teacher, school principal, professor, consultant, lay catechist, blogger, writer, mentor, board member, and dad.
Other people may have vocations that would lead them in the direction of artistic expression, scientific inquiry, creative endeavors, public service, or other roles. A few rare individuals will know as children specifically how God wants to use them in life, but for most of us this vocational function of education is about helping us discern our talents and our weakness, what kinds of activities make us genuinely happy and fulfilled. In this way, vocational discernment is a lifelong process that far exceeds what most schools consider "college and career readiness."
One important note: a truly Catholic education should strongly encourage children to discern from the earliest age whether they may be called to ordained, vowed religious, or married life. There are probably many reasons for the great decline in vocations to the priesthood and religious life over the last century, but surely one of the causes is a lack of concern on the part of parents and educators to encourage such a discernment in their children. A good Catholic school (or parish for that matter) should assess itself in part by the number of priestly or religious vocations it has produced over the years.
Likewise, in a culture that constantly undermines the family and glorifies sex as a form of self expression, a true Catholic education forms children to properly discern the call to marriage and what stable, fruitful, godly marriages look like and how they are maintained.
Education Priority #3: Knowledge and Skills
What must I know and be able to do to serve the Lord?
Finally, we come to the third purpose of education, which in most schools is considered primary, but in true Catholic schools is actually of tertiary importance: guiding students to mastery of knowledge and skills.
Being of third importance does not make this goal unimportant. Mastery of content is essential. But from a Catholic perspective, learning a body of knowledge or skills is in service to the first two goals: helping children to know, love, and serve God and be happy with Him forever.
The best framework for knowledge and skill is classical Christian education. Classical education is a language-rich approach to curriculum that emphasizes history, science, art, and great literature as the foundation of learning and expects students to develop a well-trained mind adept at logic and rhetoric and capable of participating in the "Great Conversation" of ideas that has shaped and driven the development of Western civilization.
Learning a body of knowledge or skills is in service to the first two goals: helping children to know, love, and serve God and be happy with Him forever.
This is how education was organized since ancient times, right up until the secular humanist Progressives repurposed education for their own social and political goals 100 years ago. Classical learning is what used to be called "liberal" education. Here, "liberal" does not refer to a political ideology but rather the concept of freedom, but not in the modernist sense of the liberty to do as one pleases. Rather, the ancients understood liberty to mean a level of self-mastery that allows human beings to freely choose the good, the true, and the beautiful, rather than be ruled by their reckless, self-centered passions.
Classical education is experiencing an exciting revival, and there are many excellent classical Catholic homeschooling programs now available. The Institute for Catholic Liberal Education offers a wealth of resources to help schools adopt or transition to a classical curriculum, along with case studies of schools that have successfully made the leap.
What most schools find is that there is a large, pent-up demand for the kind of rigorous, God-centered education classical learning provides. Catholic schools can become more appealing to families—including non-Catholic families—by reasserting their Catholic identity and traditional approaches to education.
The pandemic-related bump in Catholic school enrollment is temporary. Catholic schools must distinguish themselves from their secular counterparts, and can do so by recommitting to the three core goals of Catholic education, in the proper order of importance.
Meanwhile Catholic parents must reclaim their role as their child's first teachers and make sure that the goals of Catholic learning are being accomplished regardless of where their children attend school. In this way, parenting and teaching are the same thing. Just as parenting is a 24-hour per day endeavor, so is the education of our children. In a follow up essay we'll lay out a framework for Catholic parenting that can guide families in fulfilling this most sacred vocation.
Gary Houchens. "Restoring the Catholic in Catholic Schools." Missio Dei (October 24, 2022).
Gary Houchens is professor of education administration at Western Kentucky University. Gary is a Catholic convert and lifelong educator. He and his family live and serve the Lord in Bowling Green, KY.Copyright © 2022
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