Catholic educational institutions should have three goals in order to be able to fulfil their primary mission to allow students to “encounter the living God who in Jesus Christ reveals his transforming love and truth” (Pope Benedict XVI). These objectives are: to provide an environment in which students are enabled to build and deepen their relationship with God; to foster an academic culture aimed at the pursuit of truth; and to actively promote growth in virtue.
When Christ is the center of all we do, then we are enabled to redirect our focus of life towards an understanding of the world in which we live that is geared towards the promotion of human dignity and the common good. Young men and women graduating from Catholic schools and universities should have the keen understanding of being called as Christians to work for the common good and to do so through a life that is deeply rooted in Christ, combined with a vigorous desire to pursue the truth of things, to live through and with reality rather than merely being guided by constantly changing feelings and preferences.
It is at this point that the primary importance of what we would call “virtue-oriented” formation becomes visible. Catholic schools should let the educational endeavor be guided by a constant promotion of the virtues, especially the cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance. No matter how strong the faith of a person might be, without a certain degree of practice in the virtues, it will be hard not to be led exclusively by the emotions and impressions that constantly enter our minds.
Pope Benedict fittingly calls it the duty of the educator to be led by ‘intellectual charity’ which is inspired by the recognition that leading the young to truth is an act of love. The relativistic mindset that reigns at most schools and universities, including many of those calling themselves Catholic, proclaiming that all truths are equal and the secular truth more equal than others, tells us that religion and education need to be separated because they have nothing to do with each other. What is really being proposed by secularist movements is that the pupil should replace whatever god he believes in with the secular god. Catholic educators however should be able to identify this ruse and know that the only proper way to educate is by providing a formation that centers on Christ alone. It is the only way to enable the student to beat out a coherent path of life by being guided by the one and only God who created heaven and earth.
In order for Christians to be able to effectively promote the true, the good and the beautiful, there is the vital need for coherence in word and deed. Pope Paul VI brought this strikingly to the point when he observed that “(M)odern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses” (Evangelii Nuntiandi, 1975). Young people are especially sensitive to this for they are shaped more by the concrete experiences in their lives, and thus the lived example of their teachers, than by the best of pedagogical techniques. Any form of Catholic education will ultimately fail when the student is confronted with the word being spoken not conforming to the life being lived.
Schools and the Social Order
As we consider how to go about promoting the renewal of Catholic education so as to align it more closely with the purposes described, one of the critical questions that confronts us is the role of government.
The relationship between Catholic education and the state has taken a variety of forms in different countries and at different times in history. However, the “signs of the times” in which we need to think about the application of Catholic social teaching to public policy in education include as perhaps their most prominent feature a major decline in religious practice and a general indifference towards religion, especially in the upper echelons of Western political systems. At the same time, however, there has been a greater recognition in many countries that, for both practical reasons and reasons of principle, parents should have greater autonomy when choosing schools. Expanding opportunities to choose schools, however, have often been accompanied by more extensive regulation of schools.
How should Catholic social teaching approach the question of public policy in education? As in other areas of Catholic teaching on matters to do with political economy, there is no “correct” Catholic answer to the question, “To what extent should the state be involved with education?” However, arguably, more guidance has been given by the Church on this subject than on other controversial political matters. This is largely, of course, because of the relationship between evangelization, education and the formation of the whole human person and because of the vital role of the family—and especially the parents chosen by God—in both formation and education.
The Church regards the dignity of the human person as the foundation of all the other principles and content of the Church’s social doctrine (Compendium of the Social Doctrine [CSD], no. 160). Because of the dignity of each human person from the moment of conception “the social order and its development must invariably work to the benefit of the human person, since the order of things is to be subordinate to the order of persons and not the other way round” (Gaudium et spes, no. 26). “For this reason neither his life nor the development of his thought, nor his good, nor those who are part of his personal and social activities can be subject to unjust restrictions in the exercise of their rights and freedom” (CSD, no. 133).
The principle of human dignity also has implications for education. Firstly, because education cannot be separated from the formation of the human person and the development of his vocation—whether secular or religious—restricting basic freedom in education is a restriction on freedom of conscience, the rights of parents and the freedom of religion more generally. Unduly restricting freedom in education and imposing the state’s conception of education on all families would be to subordinate the person to society. In this respect, the right to religious freedom is paramount in the Church’s social teaching. People should not be forced to act contrary to their religious convictions (Dignitatis humanae, no. 2) and to prevent a family from educating children in the faith would be to do just that.
A Right to a Christian Education
The Church states that promotion of human dignity does not just require freedom in education; it also implies that all have a right to education, as one of those things “necessary for leading a life truly human” (Gaudium et spes, no. 26).
This does imply that, if there is insufficient support from a family’s own means or from charity or the Church to provide all children with a basic education, then government funds could be used for this purpose. However, we are warned that this should not be seen merely as a right to a secular education (Gravissimum Educationis [GE], no. 2): “Since all Christians have become by rebirth of water and the Holy Spirit a new creature so that they should be called and should be children of God, they have a right to a Christian education.” Clearly, such a right would not be fulfilled if a secular education were provided free by the government and the less-well-off lacked the means to obtain a Christian education.
In order to bring these rights to fruition, the Church must have the space to pursue her mission by establishing schools to serve the faithful. The Church has the right “freely to establish and to conduct schools of every type and level,” the Second Vatican Council stated, and “the exercise of a right of this kind contributes in the highest degree to the protection of freedom of conscience, the rights of parents, as well as to the betterment of culture itself (GE, no. 8).
But, while the Church institutionally must have the right to establish schools, the freedom to educate children ultimately belongs to parents: “Parents who have the primary and inalienable right and duty to educate their children must enjoy true liberty in their choice of schools” (GE, no. 6). This freedom belongs to parents because of our God-given nature and the gift of free will that is given to us:
Government, in consequence, must acknowledge the right of parents to make a genuinely free choice of schools and of other means of education, and the use of this freedom of choice is not to be made a reason for imposing unjust burdens on parents, whether directly or indirectly. Besides, the right of parents are violated, if their children are forced to attend lessons or instructions which are not in agreement with their religious beliefs, or if a single system of education, from which all religious formation is excluded, is imposed upon all (Dignitatis humanae, no. 5).
Given that freedom in education is an extension of freedom of conscience and freedom of religion more generally, it is important to note that the Catholic Church is not calling for privileges for Catholic parents and children. In many traditionally Catholic countries (though also in the UK) systems of Catholic education have become intertwined with the provision of free state education more generally. This means that parents can choose a Catholic education that is funded by government on the same basis as secular education. However, this freedom is not necessarily available to all parents. Furthermore, Catholic parents can be limited in their choice of schools to those the state wishes to authorise (with places and the building of new schools often being severely limited). The Catholic Church, in the authentic promotion of her teaching, does not wish to defend such arrangements as privileges. The Church believes that freedom in education should be available to all parents. It is a fundamental human right and should not merely be a special arrangement for Catholics in countries where Catholics are sufficiently numerous.
Thus, the state exists to safeguard all human beings in the exercise of their rights and freedoms and to ensure that they can live in dignity. It does not exist to acquire for itself arbitrary rights over human persons and families. As we have seen, there is a role for the state in education. But this role, following on from the principle of subsidiarity, facilitates rather than displaces the initiative of the family.
Excerpted from Catholic Education in the West: Roots, Reality and Revival  (2013) by Christiaan Alting von Geusau and Philip Booth, the latest volume in Acton’s Christian Social Thought Series .