Catholic Education’s Challenge, 50 Years after Vatican II
Later this month, educational leaders from around the world, including representatives from The Cardinal Newman Society, will gather in Rome to mark the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on Christian Education, Gravissimum Educationis, and to reflect on the future of Catholic education. The Vatican’s Congregation for Catholic Education has released an instrumentum laboris entitled Educating Today and Tomorrow: A Renewing Passion to help guide the presentations and discussions. Cardinal Newman Society participants will be reporting and reflecting upon the events from Rome.
At this moment it is good to reflect briefly on the seminal document Gravissimum Educationis, promulgated in 1965. The declaration covers a variety of topics including the importance of education generally for all men, the importance of schools, access to schools, the primary role of parents in education, moral education, types of Catholic schools, the importance of teachers and the need to coordinate educational efforts.
In this time of renewal in Catholic schools and colleges, it is helpful to focus on what the document has to say about the specific purposes of a Christian education. This is summarized in a single sentence in section two of the document. The weighty and somewhat complicated sentence contains 185 words, five references and 17 punctuation marks. A disaggregated and slightly modified version of the sentence is offered below:
The principal purpose of Christian education is thegoal that students:
1. while they are gradually introduced the knowledge of the mystery of salvation, become ever more aware of the gift of Faith they have received,
2. learn how to worship God the Father in spirit and truth especially in liturgical action,
3. are conformed in their personal lives according to the new man created in justiceand holiness of truth,
4. develop into perfect manhood, to the mature measure of the fullness of Christ,
5. strive for the growth of the Mystical Body, and
6. learn not only how to bear witness to the hope that is in them but also how to help in the Christian formation of the world that takes place when natural powers viewed in the full consideration of man redeemed by Christ contribute to the good of the whole society.
Or to summarize 185 words in 25: The principal purpose of Catholic education is to help the students to be saved, prayerful, moral and Christ-like, and that they grow the Church and evangelize the world.
While the document is not always an easy read, it is an important touchstone to remind Catholic educators that their “vocation” is “beautiful indeed and of great importance,” because “the Catholic school depends upon them almost entirely for the accomplishment of its goals and programs” (#8). Because teachers play the most critical role in a Catholic school’s ability to attain its goals, it is critical that teachers understand those goals and that they “by their life as much as by their instruction bear witness to Christ, the unique Teacher” (#8).
In an effort to assist Catholic school teachers encounter these fundamental expectations of the universal Church as expressed in Gravissimum Educationis, The Cardinal Newman Society has created an in-service program designed to assist schools in hosting a faculty reflection on the document. We encourage Catholics to alert Catholic school teachers, principals, and superintendents of this free resource.
In many other ways, all Catholics can work together to support the ministry of Catholic education, which is needed today more than ever. The ubiquitous Common Core, with its cynical utilitarian approach to knowledge as valuable only for college and career, is deadening not only the souls but also the intellects of this first generation subject to its mandates. As American culture continues a steep and dramatic decline, the Catholic school must continue its powerful and effective work as an agent of transmission of all that is true, good and beautiful and a challenge to all that is contrary to human excellence and authentic freedom. But as Gravissimum Educationis explains, the Catholic school’s power and effectiveness is directly tied to confidence in Christ and His Church and to an understanding that Catholic education’s
proper function is to create for the school community a special atmosphere animated by the Gospel spirit of freedom and charity, to help youth grow according to the new creatures they were made through baptism as they develop their own personalities, and finally to order the whole of human culture to the news of salvation so that the knowledge the students gradually acquire of the world, life and man is illumined by faith. (#8)
In the 50 years since these stirring words were written, Catholic schools have lost about 63 percent of their students (down from 5.2 million in the 1960s to 1.9 million today.) These intervening decades have been a time where some have felt that Catholic schools aren’t all that necessary and have grown simply too expensive to be worth it. Some Catholic schools, in a bid to survive, have been tempted to downplay their evangelical and supernatural ends in hopes of attracting more students and higher tuition.
However, with a greater awareness of the growing spiritual and moral dangers in the common culture, both Church leaders and parents are beginning to re-appreciate the value of being able to raise children, and grow the future Church, in an environment that is clearly dedicated to advancing authentic freedom; equipped to negotiate and interrogate reality clearly and effectively; unafraid to challenge the relativism, despair and dehumanizing elements of the common culture; confident in reason and the ability to know truth; and delighting in beauty and goodness.
More families and parishes are now discovering that Catholic schools which boldly embrace their fundamental mission as spelled out in Gravissimum Educationis are uniquely poised to help students and families thrive. In so doing, they will find renewed individual and institutional support and play an important role in the New Evangelization.
Dr. Dan Guernsey is the Director of K-12 programs at The Cardinal Newman Society.
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