The Bigger Picture of Catholic Education

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In his homily for the beatification of John Henry Newman, Benedict XVI recalled the English cardinal’s keen insights into “the most pressing ‘subjects of the day’” – the relationship between faith and reason, the role of religion in society, and the nature of liberal education. That Benedict expanded only on this last is noteworthy. Newman’s enormous contributions to education were never mentioned as potential papal material in the pre-visit media hype, and the homily complemented his earlier address to teachers and pupils, which offered a challenge to the narrowness of secularism through the time tested medium of Catholic education.

In Britain Benedict cautioned that a society closed off to revealed religion risks collapsing into ideologies that can jeopardize human dignity or generate social evils such as slavery and totalitarian regimes. Academic subjects – science, history, philosophy, economics – face similar dangers if they refuse to acknowledge the transcendent. The pope told Britain’s pupils that these disciplines “can lead us seriously astray” if their account of human life is too narrowly focused on the immanent.

Catholic education, from primary school through the university level, counters this narrow perspective by opening the student to God’s plan for creation: “In your Catholic schools, there is always a bigger picture over and above the individual subjects you study, the different skills you learn. All the work you do is placed in the context of growing in friendship with God, and all that flows from that friendship. So you learn not just to be good students, but good citizens, good people.” Echoing Jesus in the upper room, Benedict reminded pupils that they are not called to be slaves of the world; they are to be friends of the Lord whom they will love more deeply by studying His creation.

Following Newman, Benedict twice asserted that education must never serve purely utilitarian goals. Education “is about forming the human person, equipping him or her to live life to the full – in short it is about imparting wisdom. And true wisdom is inseparable from knowledge of the Creator.” Catholic education is at its best when, following Newman, it seeks an “environment in which intellectual training, moral discipline, and religious commitment would come together.” When properly cultivated, this environment educates the whole person, and, “over and above this, should help all its students to become saints.”

       Pope Benedict XVI beatifies Cardinal Newman

Benedict’s exhortations present a compelling rationale and orientation for Catholic education on the western side of the Atlantic, where Catholic primary and secondary schools are struggling desperately to stay afloat in competition with state sponsored monopolies. Catholic schools too often try to promote themselves with pithy slogans about “faith and values” without articulating what the words mean or how they fulfill the true mission of education. Benedict’s presentation to children on the nature of Catholic education is likely to be far more appealing and effective at attracting new families to Catholic schools than any chancery sponsored advertising campaign designed by secular marketers.

Catholic education’s vexing difficulty is its growing cost. Catholic schools’ determination to educate the hearts, minds, and souls of their students certainly appeals to the sentiments of a majority of American parents, Catholic or otherwise, but many simply cannot foot the bill. The burden used to be lighter when orders of nuns served as teachers. Without creative thinking and radical restructuring, Catholic schools risk pricing themselves out of existence. Archbishop Timothy Dolan recently presented the rudiments of his plan “to recover our nerve and promote our schools for the twenty-first century.” Central to its success will be convincing all Catholics – even those who attend parishes without schools – that Catholic education is “a communal, ecclesial duty” that all must support for the good of the Church, the world, and souls. Dolan looks to the past for models, but the present has at least one enviable example: St. Gabriel of the Sorrowful Virgin in Pittsburgh offers its parishioners a tuition-free parochial school, and it does so through tithing.

But creativity and practical thinking must never blur or oppose the bigger picture of Catholic education articulated by Benedict. The presentations of such thinking should also reflect the goals of Catholic education. The new school campaign of the Archdiocese of New York has been dubbed “Pathways to Excellence,” a phrase more akin to a presidential education initiative than Catholic school reform.

The pressing “subjects of the day” that Benedict challenged in Britain – and has challenged throughout his papacy and long theological career – require “an intelligent, well-instructed laity” as envisioned by Newman and repeated by Benedict. Catholic schools have been and must continue to be the backbone of the Catholic engagement of modernity. But as both Benedict and Newman agree, we need not only arguments but also “the witness of lives lived in integrity, fidelity, and holiness.” We need saints, and for that we need Catholic schools today as much as ever.

David G Bonagura, Jr.

David G. Bonagura Jr. teaches at St. Joseph’s Seminary, New York. He is the author of Steadfast in Faith: Catholicism and the Challenges of Secularism (Cluny Media).