Secular Academic Materials and Programs in Catholic Education

Catholic education fulfills a divine mission, to provide for the common good of humanity and the Supreme Good of those being educated.[1] To accomplish this mission, Catholic schools and colleges create authentic, faith-based communities which educate students’ intellectual, moral, emotional, physical, and spiritual gifts within a rich Catholic worldview.[2]

Faithful Catholic education draws upon the best available programs and materials to aid in instruction that fulfills its Catholic mission. Books and programs which are specifically designed to foster a Catholic worldview are a natural choice for Catholic education, but sometimes secular materials and programs—which may include textbooks, lessons, and activities—can also fulfill the requirements of providing content to an already enriched Catholic curricular (e.g., math and science textbook series) and extracurricular foundation.

Such materials and programs must be carefully evaluated to determine if their underlying philosophy, content, and activities are aligned to the mission of Catholic education and, if used, what adaptations might be needed.

The success of Catholic education is not dependent on doing a better job of teaching secular texts or programs or getting higher test scores on standardized tests than public institutions. Catholic educators teach and do more. This means they must ask more of any material or program imported into the educational environment and be ready to heavily adapt it toward a greater end. Catholic educators must also be quick to realize that some resources will be woefully insufficient, and others may have elements that actually work against the Catholic mission.

This guide presents principles, standards, and resources to assist Catholic educators in the evaluation of prospective secular materials and programs. The Cardinal Newman Society also has a series of analyses applying these principles and standards to particular secular resources frequently found in Catholic education, including Advanced Placement (AP) courses, International Baccalaureate (IB) programs, and secular character development programs. The Cardinal Newman Society’s Catholic Curriculum Standards[3] and Standards for Christian Anthropology (with Ruah Woods Press)[4] are also available to provide guidance in ensuring that critical elements central to Catholic elementary and secondary education are being delivered throughout the academic program.


Principle 1: A fundamental element of Catholic education is the evangelization, catechesis, and sanctification of the student.

Catholic education is an expression of the Church’s mission of salvation and an instrument of evangelization:[5] to make disciples of Christ and teach them to observe all that He has commanded,[6] preparing students to fulfill God’s calling in this world so as to attain the eternal kingdom for which they were created.[7]

Principle 2: A fundamental element of Catholic education is that it forms Christian communion and identity.

As a faith community in unity with the Church and in fidelity to the Magisterium, students, parents, and educators give witness to Christ’s loving communion in the Holy Trinity.[8] The Catholic school or college is a place of ecclesial experience, in which the members model confident and joyful public witness in both word and action and teach students to live the Catholic faith in their daily lives.[9] The community itself is a means of education and formation[10] and is nurtured by the consistent and public witness of employees and volunteers who abide by Church teachings and the moral demands of the Gospel.[11]

Principle 3: A fundamental element of Catholic education is the integral formation of the human person: body, mind, and spirit.

Catholic education promotes the integral formation of the human person by developing each student’s physical, moral, intellectual, and spiritual gifts in harmony, teaching responsibility and right use of freedom.[12]

The religious, aesthetic, and creative senses are developed along with formation of the will and dispositions.[13] Catholic education is rooted in a Christian understanding of the dignity of the human person who, created in the image and likeness of God,[14] is at once corporal and spiritual,[15] made in perfect equality and complementarity as male and female,[16] with a fallen nature redeemed by Christ’s death on the cross.[17]

Principle 4: A fundamental element of Catholic education is that it imparts a Christian understanding of the world.

Catholic education seeks to integrate faith with reason and synthesize faith with life and culture. In the light of faith, Catholic education critically and systematically transmits the secular and religious “cultural patrimony handed down from previous generations,” especially that which makes a person more human.[18] Both educator and student are called to participate in the dialogue of culture and to pursue “the integration of culture with faith and of faith with living.”[19]

Catholic education imparts “a Christian vision of the world, of life, of culture, and of history,” ordering “the whole of human culture to the news of salvation.”[20] A hallmark of Catholic education is to “bring human wisdom into an encounter with divine wisdom”[21] and prepare students for the evangelization of culture and for the common good of society.[22]

Standards for Policies Related to Secular Materials and Programs

In Catholic education, policies involving the use of secular materials and programs (including textbooks, lessons, and activities):

  • support and protect Catholic schools and colleges as educational communities of evangelization that promote the salvation of students and service to the common good;
  • ensure that the school or college environment, staff, and leadership remain fully committed to faithful Catholic education;
  • place priority on the selection of Catholic materials and programs over secular options, whenever possible, and with due consideration of the mission and objectives of Catholic education;
  • ensure fidelity to the magisterium of the Catholic Church in all lessons, activities, and programs;
  • ensure that secular materials or programs do not cause scandal, conflict with Catholic teaching, or cause confusion about the truth of Catholic teaching, including promotion of atheism, agnosticism, relativism, materialism, or false ideology about the human person;
  • ensure that secular materials and programs help students develop their intellectual, moral, emotional, physical, and spiritual talents harmoniously without contradiction to Catholic teaching and Christian anthropology;
  • ensure that secular materials and programs do not impede students’ development of a Catholic understanding of the world and the human person or obstruct the goal of uniting faith and reason and synthesizing faith with life and culture;
  • ensure that secular materials and programs are adapted or richly augmented as necessary with resources and opportunities to integrate Catholic teaching and practice and transmit a Catholic understanding of the human person and the world; and
  • prevent formal cooperation or illicit material cooperation with evil by the use of secular materials and programs, including any collaboration with a secular organization or publisher that causes scandal or confusion about the Catholic faith or causes doubt regarding the school or college’s faithful commitment to the mission of Catholic education.

Operationalizing the Standards

To meet these core standards, policies and practices such as those below can be of assistance:

  • The school or college uses curriculum standards, such as the Newman Society’s Catholic Curriculum Standards and Standards for Christian Anthropology (with Ruah Woods Press) for grades K-12, to specifically target and address the integration of faith and reason and the synthesis of faith and life and culture.
  • The curriculum is designed to facilitate an understanding of objective reality, including transcendent truth, which is knowable by reason and revelation. It specifically counters any secular programs that may seem to promote atheism, agnosticism, relativism, materialism, or false ideology about the human person.
  • The school or college ensures that secular materials and programs do not place excessive demands in testing, teacher formation, or curriculum that crowd out the priorities of Catholic education and a strong Catholic culture.
  • Secular history programs and texts which espouse political or social activism should be avoided, but if used, they are supplemented to ensure that the principles of Catholic social teaching are taught, compared, and understood.
  • Secular science materials and programs are carefully examined for any philosophies, positions, and statements, either explicit or implicit, that may run counter to Church teaching. Such materials and programs should be avoided, but if used, they are countermanded with clear Church teaching and thorough explanation to ensure that students understand the differing philosophies and appreciate the harmony of faith and reason and God and nature.
  • Secular human sexuality programs—and those elements of human sexuality addressed in science, psychology, literature, and history—should always further discussion and Christian understanding of the human person, should be integrated with Catholic religious and moral instruction, and taught in collaboration with parents at the K-12 level.
  • Programs promoting global citizenry should not be allowed to mask the more profound reality and Catholic emphasis on the transcendent and universal destination of humanity in God. The principle of subsidiarity should be emphasized to counter a false globalism. The assumption that human ills are solvable by human programs and human self-mastery alone, rather than reliance on God’s grace, mercy, and salvation, are held in check.
  • Courses in philosophy accompany but do not replace catechesis and theology courses.
  • Instruction in virtue and morality must not pre-emptively surrender or silence religious insight and revelation, by attempting to ground morality and dignity on entirely secular grounds.

Catholic educators should unleash the entirety and integrity of human wisdom, including and especially the Church’s inspired wisdom, in their efforts to equip students to attain and practice heroic virtue in the post-modern world.

Possible Questions

For questions about particular materials and programs—including Advanced Placement courses, the International Baccalaureate program, the Meeting Point sexual education program, and secular character development programs—The Cardinal Newman Society publishes separate reviews with detailed recommendations. See the Newman Society website for these reviews.

Question: The best and most up-to-date materials and the programs with the most resources and supports—especially in science, math, grammar, and social studies—are all secular. They are the only reasonable choices for most Catholic schools and colleges. So why even bother worrying about any of this? There is no “Catholic” math, grammar, or science.

Response: Like secular education, Catholic education studies reality using the appropriate methods for the subject at hand and delves deeply into each specific academic discipline on its own terms. So, yes, Catholic educators can use secular materials in these and other areas. But Catholic education is also specifically and distinctly open to the uncovering of transcendent truths which surpass and integrate the disciplines.

For example, Catholic educators can use secular science materials but will also want to, at some place in the curriculum, ensure that students can confidently explain and promote the relationship and unity of faith and reason. They should know the reality that the God of nature and the God of the Catholic faith are one and the same God. They should develop the ability to evaluate the errors present in the belief system of scientific naturalism, which incorrectly claims that scientific exploration and explanation are the only valid sources of knowledge.

In another example, the study of math can also be better pursued by highlighting its transcendent dimension as a reflection of the good, true, and beautiful. Students should develop the ability to reveal qualities of being and the presence of God in mathematical order. Catholic educators also want their students to evaluate the ongoing nature of mathematical inquiry, its inexhaustibility, and its opening to the infinite. Students should develop a sense of wonder about mathematical relationships and confidence in mathematical certitude, and they should understand the unique nature of that certitude, which is not directly transferable to other areas of inquiry into the truth of things.

There is much more that Catholic educators are doing and exploring in most academic disciplines, so while they can and sometimes must use secular materials and programs, they must not limit inquiry or teaching to secular perspectives alone.

Question: Parents demand and colleges respect secular programs such as the Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate (IB) programs and tests. If a Catholic school does not compete with other schools and provide such opportunities to students, it may suffer in its reputation and enrollment. Shouldn’t Catholic schools go all in and work on the terms of the secular programs, for the good of the school and the students?

Response: Without dismissing the prestige of such tests and their impact on college admissions, it is critical for Catholic schools to remember that their core purpose is not to deliver access to college and credit. Their purpose is the dissemination and discovery of truth, the salvation of students, and service to humanity. Testing need not get in the way of these ends, but if not carefully managed, it can. Catholic schools must protect against this to ensure that authentic learning and the dissemination of a Catholic worldview is not negatively impacted.

Catholic education is expansive and holistic. It teaches things which cannot be easily measured, tested, or translated to academic credit. So, while Catholic schools can offer high-stakes testing and credit, they must ensure that these do not hinder the flexibility, freedom, discovery, and awareness that enkindles a love for truth wherever it might be found.

Question: Why can’t a Catholic school use a secular program focused on virtue, character development, or sexual ethics that is based on the natural law and does not emphasize religion? The ability to construct a universal set of human values based on reason and nature may even make it more palatable and attractive to modern students.

Response: While such programs can be used when necessary, they must be supplemented with biblical and magisterial guidance. Reason and humanity alone are not sufficient, since we also have a religious nature which cannot be denied without peril. The humanism of the best ancient Greeks and Romans, the civic virtues of Confucianism, or the science of human reproduction are not enough to build a complete human character or consistent moral framework consonant with the way and the end for which we were created.

Humanity cannot be saved and find happiness based on programs and ideas of its own making. There is no simple human-based fix or program or series of insights to the problem of original sin and humanity’s weakness. Christ alone fully reveals man to himself and unlocks the keys to virtue and happiness. He cannot be left out of human formation without consequence in any school, let alone a Catholic school, whose very function is to lead students to their destiny and salvation in Him.


This document was developed with substantial comment and contributions from education, legal, and other experts. Lead authors are Denise Donohue, Ed.D., Director of the Catholic Education Honor Roll at The Cardinal Newman Society, and Dan Guernsey, Ed.D., Senior Fellow at The Cardinal Newman Society and principal of a diocesan K-12 Catholic school.


Appendix A: Selections from Church Documents Informing this Topic

…the Catholic school tries to create within its walls a climate in which the pupil’s faith will gradually mature and enable him to assume the responsibility placed on him by Baptism. It will give pride of place in the education it provides through Christian Doctrine to the gradual formation of conscience in fundamental, permanent virtues—above all the theological virtues, and charity in particular, which is, so to speak, the life-giving spirit which transforms a man of virtue into a man of Christ. Christ, therefore, is the teaching-centre, the Model on Whom the Christian shapes his life. In Him the Catholic school differs from all others which limit themselves to forming men. Its task is to form Christian men, and, by its teaching and witness, show non-Christians something of the mystery of Christ Who surpasses all human understanding.

Congregation for Catholic Education, The Catholic School (1977) 47


Since true education must strive for complete formation of the human person that looks to his or her final end as well as to the common good of societies, children and youth are to be nurtured in such a way that they are able to develop their physical, moral, and intellectual talents harmoniously, acquire a more perfect sense of responsibility and right use of freedom, and are formed to participate actively in social life.

Holy See, Code of Canon Law (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1983) 795


Students should be helped to see the human person as a living creature having both a physical and a spiritual nature; each of us has an immortal soul, and we are in need of redemption. The older students can gradually come to a more mature understanding of all that is implied in the concept of “person”: intelligence and will, freedom and feelings, the capacity to be an active and creative agent; a being endowed with both rights and duties, capable of interpersonal relationships, called to a specific mission in the world.

Congregation for Catholic Education, The Religious Dimension of Education in a Catholic School (1988) 55


The human person is present in all the truths of faith: created in “the image and likeness” of God; elevated by God to the dignity of a child of God; unfaithful to God in original sin, but redeemed by Christ; a temple of the Holy Spirit; a member of the Church; destined to eternal life.

Congregation for Catholic Education, The Religious Dimension of Education in a Catholic School (1988) 84


Not a few young people, unable to find any meaning in life or trying to find an escape from loneliness, turn to alcohol, drugs, the erotic, the exotic etc. Christian education is faced with the huge challenge of helping these young people discover something of value in their lives…We must cultivate intelligence and the other spiritual gifts, especially through scholastic work. We must learn to care for our body and its health, and this includes physical activity and sports. And we must be careful of our sexual integrity through the virtue of chastity, because sexual energies are also a gift of God, contributing to the perfection of the person and having a providential function for the life of society and of the Church. Thus, gradually, the teacher will guide students to the idea, and then to the realization, of a process of total formation.

Congregation for Catholic Education, The Religious Dimension of Education in a Catholic School (1988) 13, 84


A school uses its own specific means for the integral formation of the human person: the communication of culture… if the communication of culture is to be a genuine educational activity, it must not only be organic, but also critical and evaluative, historical and dynamic. Faith will provide Catholic educators with some essential principles for critique and evaluation; faith will help them to see all of human history as a history of salvation which culminates in the fullness of the Kingdom. This puts culture into a creative context, constantly being perfected.

Congregation for Catholic Education, Lay Catholics in Schools: Witnesses to Faith (1982) 20


Catholic schools provide young people with sound Church teaching through a broad-based curriculum, where faith and culture are intertwined in all areas of a school’s life. By equipping our young people with a sound education, rooted in the Gospel message, the Person of Jesus Christ, and rich in the cherished traditions and liturgical practices of our faith, we ensure that they have the foundation to live morally and uprightly in our complex modern world. This unique Catholic identity makes our Catholic elementary and secondary schools “schools for the human person” and allows them to fill a critical role in the future life of our Church, our country, and our world.

U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Renewing Our Commitment to Catholic Elementary & Secondary Schools in the Third Millennium (2005)

From the nature of the Catholic school also stems one of the most significant elements of its educational project: the synthesis between culture and faith. The endeavor to interweave reason and faith, which has become the heart of individual subjects, makes for unity, articulation, and coordination, bringing forth within what is learned in a school a Christian vision of the world, of life, of culture, and of history.

Congregation for Catholic Education, The Catholic School on the Threshold of the Third Millennium (1997) 14


Literature and the arts are also, in their own way, of great importance to the life of the Church. They strive to make known the proper nature of man, his problems and his experiences in trying to know and perfect both himself and the world. They have much to do with revealing man’s place in history and in the world; with illustrating the miseries and joys, the needs and strengths of man and with foreshadowing a better life for him. Thus they are able to elevate human life, expressed in multifold forms according to various times and regions.

Saint Paul VI, Gaudium et Spes (1965) 62


Teachers should guide the students’ work in such a way that they will be able to discover a religious dimension in the world of human history. As a preliminary, they should be encouraged to develop a taste for historical truth, and therefore to realize the need to look critically at texts and curricula which, at times, are imposed by a government or distorted by the ideology of the author… they will see the development of civilizations, and learn about progress…When they are ready to appreciate it, students can be invited to reflect on the fact that this human struggle takes place within the divine history [of] universal salvation. At this moment, the religious dimension of history begins to shine forth in all its luminous grandeur.

Congregation for Catholic Education, The Religious Dimension of Education in a Catholic School (1988) 58-59


Every society has its own heritage of accumulated wisdom. Many people find inspiration in these philosophical and religious concepts which have endured for millennia. The systematic genius of classical Greek and European thought has, over the centuries, generated countless different doctrinal systems, but it has also given us a set of truths which we can recognize as a part of our permanent philosophical heritage.

Congregation for Catholic Education, The Religious Dimension of Education in a Catholic School (1988) 57


The curriculum must help the students reflect on the great problems of our time, including those where one sees more clearly the difficult situation of a large part of humanity’s living conditions. These would include the unequal distribution of resources, poverty, injustice and human rights denied.

Pope Pius XI, Divini illius Magistri (1929), 21


Literary and artistic works depict the struggles of societies, of families, and of individuals. They spring from the depths of the human heart, revealing its lights and its shadows, its hope and its despair. The Christian perspective goes beyond the merely human, and offers more penetrating criteria for understanding the human struggle and the mysteries of the human spirit. Furthermore, an adequate religious formation has been the starting point for the vocation of a number of Christian artists and art critics. In the upper grades, a teacher can bring students to: an even more profound appreciation of artistic works: as a reflection of the divine beauty in tangible form. Both the Fathers of the Church and the masters of Christian philosophy teach this in their writings on aesthetics—St. Augustine invites us to go beyond the intention of the artists in order to find the eternal order of God in the work of art; St. Thomas sees the presence of the Divine Word in art.

Congregation for Catholic Education, The Religious Dimension of Education in a Catholic School (1988) 61


The Catholic school should teach its pupils to discern in the voice of the universe the Creator Whom it reveals and, in the conquests of science, to know God and man better.

Congregation for Catholic Education, The Catholic School (1977) 46


…help their students to understand that positive science, and the technology allied to it, is a part of the universe created by God. Understanding this can help encourage an interest in research: the whole of creation, from the distant celestial bodies and the immeasurable cosmic forces down to the infinitesimal particles and waves of matter and energy, all bear the imprint of the Creator’s wisdom and power, The wonder that past ages felt when contemplating this universe, recorded by the Biblical authors, is still valid for the students of today; the only difference is that we have a knowledge that is much more vast and profound. There can be no conflict between faith and true scientific knowledge; both find their source in God. The student who is able to discover the harmony between faith and science will, in future professional life, be better able to put science and technology to the service of men and women, and to the service of God. It is a way of giving back to God what he has first given to us.

Congregation for Catholic Education, The Religious Dimension of Education in a Catholic School (1988) 54


Furthermore, when man gives himself to the various disciplines of philosophy, history and of mathematical and natural science, and when he cultivates the arts, he can do very much to elevate the human family to a more sublime understanding of truth, goodness, and beauty, and to the formation of considered opinions which have universal value. Thus mankind may be more clearly enlightened by that marvelous Wisdom which was with God from all eternity, composing all things with him, rejoicing in the earth and delighting in the sons of men. In this way, the human spirit, being less subjected to material things, can be more easily drawn to the worship and contemplation of the Creator. Moreover, by the impulse of grace, he is disposed to acknowledge the Word of God, Who before He became flesh in order to save all and to sum up all in Himself was already “in the world” as “the true light which enlightens every man” (John 1:9-10). Indeed today’s progress in science and technology can foster a certain exclusive emphasis on observable data, and agnosticism about everything else. For the methods of investigation which these sciences use can be wrongly considered as the supreme rule of seeking the whole truth. By virtue of their methods these sciences cannot penetrate to the intimate notion of things. Indeed the danger is present that man, confiding too much in the discoveries of today, may think that he is sufficient unto himself and no longer seek the higher things.

Saint Paul VI, Gaudium et Spes (1965) 57


Catholic schools strive to relate all of the sciences to salvation and sanctification. Students are shown how Jesus illumines all of life—science, mathematics, history, business, biology, and so forth.

U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, National Directory of Catechesis (2005) p.233

16. Integration of knowledge is a process, one which will always remain incomplete; moreover, the explosion of knowledge in recent decades, together with the rigid compartmentalization of knowledge within individual academic disciplines, makes the task increasingly difficult. But a University, and especially a Catholic University, “has to be a ‘living union’ of individual organisms dedicated to the search for truth … It is necessary to work towards a higher synthesis of knowledge, in which alone lies the possibility of satisfying that thirst for truth which is profoundly inscribed on the heart of the human person”(19). Aided by the specific contributions of philosophy and theology, university scholars will be engaged in a constant effort to determine the relative place and meaning of each of the various disciplines within the context of a vision of the human person and the world that is enlightened by the Gospel, and therefore by a faith in Christ, the Logos, as the centre of creation and of human history.

17. In promoting this integration of knowledge, a specific part of a Catholic University’s task is to promote dialogue between faith and reason,so that it can be seen more profoundly how faith and reason bear harmonious witness to the unity of all truth. While each academic discipline retains its own integrity and has its own methods, this dialogue demonstrates that “methodical research within every branch of learning, when carried out in a truly scientific manner and in accord with moral norms, can never truly conflict with faith. For the things of the earth and the concerns of faith derive from the same God”(20). A vital interaction of two distinct levels of coming to know the one truth leads to a greater love for truth itself, and contributes to a more comprehensive understanding of the meaning of human life and of the purpose of God’s creation.

18. Because knowledge is meant to serve the human person, research in a Catholic University is always carried out with a concern for the ethical and moral implications both of its methods and of its discoveries. This concern, while it must be present in all research, is particularly important in the areas of science and technology. “It is essential that we be convinced of the priority of the ethical over the technical, of the primacy of the person over things, of the superiority of the spirit over matter. The cause of the human person will only be served if knowledge is joined to conscience. Men and women of science will truly aid humanity only if they preserve ‘the sense of the transcendence of the human person over the world and of God over the human person”(21).

23. Students are challenged to pursue an education that combines excellence in humanistic and cultural development with specialized professional training. Most especially, they are challenged to continue the search for truth and for meaning throughout their lives, since “the human spirit must be cultivated in such a way that there results a growth in its ability to wonder, to understand, to contemplate, to make personal judgments, and to develop a religious, moral, and social sense”(23). This enables them to acquire or, if they have already done so, to deepen a Christian way of life that is authentic. They should realize the responsibility of their professional life, the enthusiasm of being the trained ‘leaders’ of tomorrow, of being witnesses to Christ in whatever place they may exercise their profession.

28. Bishops have a particular responsibility to promote Catholic Universities, and especially to promote and assist in the preservation and strengthening of their Catholic identity, including the protection of their Catholic identity in relation to civil authorities. This will be achieved more effectively if close personal and pastoral relationships exist between University and Church authorities, characterized by mutual trust, close and consistent cooperation and continuing dialogue. Even when they do not enter directly into the internal governance of the University, Bishops “should be seen not as external agents but as participants in the life of the Catholic University”(27).

32. If need be, a Catholic University must have the courage to speak uncomfortable truths which do not please public opinion, but which are necessary to safeguard the authentic good of society.

33. A specific priority is the need to examine and evaluate the predominant values and norms of modern society and culture in a Christian perspective, and the responsibility to try to communicate to society those ethical and religious principles which give full meaning to human life. In this way a University can contribute further to the development of a true Christian anthropology, founded on the person of Christ, which will bring the dynamism of the creation and redemption to bear on reality and on the correct solution to the problems of life.
General Norms, Article 4

§ 4. Those university teachers and administrators who belong to other Churches, ecclesial communities, or religions, as well as those who profess no religious belief, and also all students, are to recognize and respect the distinctive Catholic identity of the University. In order not to endanger the Catholic identity of the University or Institute of Higher Studies, the number of non-Catholic teachers should not be allowed to constitute a majority within the Institution, which is and must remain Catholic.

§ 5. The education of students is to combine academic and professional development with formation in moral and religious principles and the social teachings of the Church; the programme of studies for each of the various professions is to include an appropriate ethical formation in that profession. Courses in Catholic doctrine are to be made available to all students.

St. John Paul II, Ex corde Ecclesiae (1990)



[1] For more on this topic see Pope Pius XI, Divini illius Magistri (1929).

[2] For more on this topic see Principles of Catholic Identity in Education by The Cardinal Newman Society at



[5] Congregation for Catholic Education, The Catholic School (1977) 5-7; Saint Paul VI, Gravissimum Educationis (1965) 2; United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, To Teach as Jesus Did (1972) 7.

[6] Matthew 28:19-20.

[7] Holy See, Code of Canon Law (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1983) 795; Congregation for Catholic Education (1965) Introduction; Congregation for Catholic Education, Circular Letter to the Presidents of Bishops’ Conferences on Religious Education in Schools (2009) 1.

[8] Congregation for Catholic Education, Educating Together in Catholic Schools: A Shared Mission Between Consecrated Persons and the Lay Faithful (2007) 5, 10; Congregation for Catholic Education, The Religious Dimension of Education in a Catholic School (1988) 44.

[9] Congregation for Catholic Education (2007) 5; Congregation for Catholic Education, Educating in Intercultural Dialogue in the Catholic School: Living in Harmony for a Civilization of Love (2013) 86; Congregation for Catholic Education, Lay Catholics in Schools: Witnesses to Faith (1982) 18; U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Renewing Our Commitment to Catholic Elementary & Secondary Schools in the Third Millennium (2005).

[10] Congregation for Catholic Education (1977) 26; Congregation for Catholic Education (1972) 23, 108; Congregation for Catholic Education (2007) 12.

[11] Saint Paul VI (1965) 8; Code of Canon Law 803 §2; Congregation for Catholic Education (1972) 104.

[12] Code of Canon Law 795; Saint Paul VI (1965) Introduction; Congregation for Catholic Education (2009) 1.

[13] Congregation for Catholic Education (1982) 12.

[14] Catechism 355; Gen. 1:27.

[15] Catechism 362.

[16] Catechism 369.

[17] Catechism 402.

[18] Congregation for Catholic Education (1982) 12; Congregation for Catholic Education (1977) 26, 36; Congregation for Catholic Education (1988) 108.

[19] Congregation for Catholic Education (1977) 15, 49; Congregation for Catholic Education (1988) 34, 51, 52.

[20] Congregation for Catholic Education, The Catholic School on the Threshold of the Third Millennium (1997) 14; Congregation for Catholic Education (1988) 53, 100; Saint Paul VI (1965) 8.

[21] Congregation for Catholic Education (1988) 57.

[22] Saint John Paul II, Ad limina visit of bishops from Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin (May 30,1998); U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (2005); Congregation for Catholic Education, Educating Today and Tomorrow: A Renewing Passion (2014) II-1.

Analysis of Advanced Placement Courses

The following is part of The Cardinal Newman Society’s series of analyses of secular materials and programs used in Catholic education. Such materials and programs must be carefully evaluated to determine if their underlying philosophy, content, and activities are aligned to the mission of Catholic education and, if used, what adaptations might be needed.

The Newman Society’s “Policy Guidance Related to Secular Materials and Programs in Catholic Education” offers a framework for such evaluation and is the basis for this particular analysis.


The College Board currently has 38 Advanced Placement (AP) Courses for schools to choose from,[1] leading to exams in May. Some colleges will award credit toward an undergraduate degree if a student’s exam score is high enough.

The benefits of AP courses are sometimes exaggerated. College credit for a good exam score is not guaranteed and eighty-six percent (86%) of the top 153 U.S. colleges ranked by U.S. News and World Report restrict the credit awarded.[2] Additionally, research suggests there is no correlation between taking AP courses and success in college.[3] And students can sit for the exams without ever taking an approved course.

Nevertheless, some educators and parents are attracted to potential college savings and the rigor of AP courses, which suggests academic seriousness. The academic value deserves to be scrutinized: while the workload is heavy and the amount of information is often very large in AP courses, this emphasis may not allow much time for valuable classroom dialogue and critical analysis of the material. Students and teachers may have little time to focus on cultivating good habits of judgment and reasoning. AP course emphasis on skill development or memorization may prevent substantial integration of Catholic teaching, culture, worldview, and anthropology.

To carry the AP label, a course must meet the College Board’s institutional standards—especially the inclusion of a host of names, dates, concepts, events, and critical skill sets—but there is flexibility with instructional approaches and content selection. If a Catholic educator plans judiciously and carefully, it is possible to infuse an AP course with material and approaches to conform it to the mission of Catholic education. A school should carefully monitor whether this supplementary teaching is sufficient for a serious Catholic education, which demands substantial effort.


  • Begin with the mission of Catholic education in mind, which recognizes Christ as the foundation of the school.

  • Incorporate the Newman Society’s Catholic Curriculum Standards into the academic discipline, then include the AP standards.

  • Since AP does not prescribe the specific use of texts or textbooks, carefully select these materials to ensure their alignment with the mission of Catholic education and the presentation of a Catholic worldview or perspective while aligning with AP requirements.

  • Consult the course descriptions and class syllabi of faithful Catholic schools[4] and colleges[5] for ideas on texts and textbooks.

  • Materials including or espousing political or social activism (history, literature, science, and so forth) should be used with care, ensuring that the principles of Catholic social teachings are taught, compared, and understood.

  • Books should not be taught simply because they are “on an AP recommended list.” Choose the books that best fulfill the course objectives and allow for the presentation of a Catholic worldview.

  • For AP literature classes, closely follow The Cardinal Newman Society’s “Policy Guide Related to Literature and the Arts in Catholic Education.” This can help ensure that the selected works aid the student in a right ordering of the imagination, passions, and emotions and allow for teacher-led evaluation of content in terms of Catholic norms, values, and worldview.

  • Be aware that the AP World History exam is focused on history after 1200.[6] Ensure that adequate coverage of pre-history and the ancient world is required in the curriculum to avoid historical gaps.

  • Avoid an over-emphasis on the memorization of dates, names, and events. Take concrete steps to ensure that the “story” in history and man’s place in the world remains in focus. The use of the Catholic Curriculum Standards and its taxonomy for questioning will help toward this end.

  • Ensure that the course is not just focused on teaching to the AP test. Deep and meaningful learning must not give way to extensive but shallow reading and memorization done for test purposes only. Focus should be on the intrinsic value and wonder of the academic discipline, cultivating habits of good reasoning, and evangelization. The pursuit of the true, good, and beautiful[7] is what motivates and inspires the academic enterprise in a Catholic school. Our mission is to educate and inspire; it is not simply to deliver advanced college credit. The credit should not lead but will likely follow.

  • Ensure that the instructor is both a content expert and a knowledgeable and practicing Catholic who can impart an engaging Catholic worldview related to the discipline.


Denise Donohue, Ed.D., is Director of the Catholic Education Honor Roll at The Cardinal Newman Society.

Dan Guernsey, Ed.D., is Senior Fellow at The Cardinal Newman Society and principal of a diocesan K-12 Catholic school.


[1] See (accessed on June 6, 2020).

[2] Kelli B. Grant, “Study Up: Scoring AP Credit for College Isn’t Easy,” CNBC (May 4, 2017) at (accessed on June 6, 2020).

[3] See (accessed on June 12, 2020).

[4] See

[5] See

[6] Colleen Flaherty, “More Criticism of AP World History Timeline,” Inside Higher Ed (July 25, 2018) at (accessed on June 12, 2020).

[7] Dan Guernsey, “Educating to Truth, Beauty and Goodness” (Oct. 17, 2016) at (accessed on June 12, 2020).

Analysis of International Baccalaureate Program

The following is part of The Cardinal Newman Society’s series of analyses of secular materials and programs used in Catholic education. Such materials and programs must be carefully evaluated to determine if their underlying philosophy, content, and activities are aligned to the mission of Catholic education and, if used, what adaptations might be needed.

The Newman Society’s “Policy Guidance Related to Secular Materials and Programs in Catholic Education” offers a framework for such evaluation and is the basis for this particular analysis.


The International Baccalaureate (IB) program is used in about 5,000 schools in more than 150 countries,[1] including more than 1,800 schools in the United States.[2] The IB program has steadily increased its presence in the U.S., adding about 100 new schools a year in recent years.[3] Catholic schools currently comprise 2 percent of that total.[4]

Originally designed to instruct the children of international diplomats, the IB Diploma Program (IBDP) and its foundational Theory of Knowledge course were officially registered in Geneva in 1968. As the program slowly acquired global recognition, the Middle and Primary Year Programs were introduced, followed by a program geared toward students on a career-related track.

The mission statement reads:

The International Baccalaureate® aims to develop inquiring, knowledgeable and caring young people who help to create a better and more peaceful world through intercultural understanding and respect. To this end the organization works with schools, governments and international organizations to develop challenging programmes of international education and rigorous assessment. These programmes encourage students across the world to become active, compassionate and lifelong learners who understand that other people, with their differences, can also be right.

The learner profile was developed in 2006 to actualize the mission statement and to ensure the development of dispositions within the student characteristic of “international-mindedness”:[5]

The profile aims to develop learners who are: inquirers, knowledgeable, thinkers, communicators, principled, open-minded, caring, risk-takers, balanced, and reflective.

The IBDP is the oldest and best-known component of the IB. It aims to facilitate entry into college by offering specialized coursework during the student’s last two years of high school. The program is divided into six subject areas of language and literature, language acquisition, individuals and societies, sciences, mathematics, and the arts. Students are required to choose one course from each area and either an additional art course or a second course from one of the first five areas. While teachers have some say in course coverage (content and time spent on each concept), the mandatory externally graded exams drive the instruction. Students must also complete an extended essay (a research project begun in the junior year), a service project, and the foundational Theory of Knowledge (TOK) course.

The goal is to ensure a structured, academically rigorous, internationally focused program. It attempts to secure this goal through extensive teacher training, high levels of accountability, and strict testing regimens. Like AP, the IB uses its intensive testing programs in an attempt to stake out a position as a reliable indicator of college readiness so as to gain the notice of college admissions counselors and families.

Forty-one (41) Catholic elementary and secondary schools in the United States have adopted one or more of the IB’s programs.[6] These schools see the IB’s reputation for academic excellence, focus on the integration of knowledge, and emphasis on global solidarity and service as working in harmony with their school’s Catholic mission.[7] However, the existence of some important commonalities does not translate into a significant fit between IB and Catholic education.


  • IB takes a relativistic approach to truth. This is evident in its insistence upon exclusive use of a constructivist learning methodology (see discussion below), and it can be interpreted in its mission to help students “understand that other people, with their differences, can also be right.” The latter statement is certainly correct if understood to support the universality of truth, and matters of taste and opinion in some areas allow for multiple interpretations. Nevertheless, Catholic thought holds that there is much in the universe that is real and exists apart from our tastes, opinion, and often limited insight, whereas the IB program is often too focused on cultural differences. Math, science, and morality are not subject to human whim and limitation. Even though due to our fallen nature we might not always see the truth and may even at times seek to ignore or obfuscate it, we are nonetheless obliged to honor and bear witness to it in its fullness and direct our whole life in accordance with the demands of truth when discovered.

  • IB insists upon the exclusive use of the constructivist learning approach[8] to the exclusion of other proven instructional methodologies.[9] A constructivist learning approach “is a view of learning suggesting that learners use their own experiences to create understandings that make sense to them, rather than having understanding delivered to them in already organized forms.”[10] Key features of a constructivist approach center on the learner as an active participant in the creation of new understanding, building upon their current understanding of a topic under consideration. Social interaction, or collaboration, is an essential component as is the centering of the learning tasks within real-world, meaningful settings.[11] This is a relatively new instructional approach with roots dating back to the early 1900s and the research of developmental psychologists Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky and educational researcher John Dewey.[12]

    Constructivist learning theory tends to bleed over into a constructivist philosophy which states that man constructs his own knowledge—even of reality[13]—and that nothing exists that is not constructed in one’s own mind. Piaget, Vygotsky, and Dewey all rejected an objectivist or realist “view of knowledge and the possibility of attaining truth as it actually exists.”[14] This is something quite contrary to the Catholic perspective,[15] by which man is viewed as capable of knowing and entering into an objective reality. A constructivist philosophy leads to a subjectivist and relativistic view of reality since reality, according to this theory, is based upon each person’s perception.

    Catholic schools must be cautious about an exclusive use of any one instructive methodology. All content and subject areas should be infused with a Catholic worldview, oftentimes requiring a variety of methods of instruction[16] depending upon the learner’s experience and background knowledge of the faith. Embracing a pure method of inquiry alone guarantees that only a partial connection or no connection to the Catholic faith will be made. Catholic schools using the IB program should insist on using other proven instructional approaches[17] such as direct-instruction, lecture-discussion, guided-inquiry, and “learning by heart” (which has a special place in effective catechesis).[18] These methodologies are also valid and hold a place in Catholic school pedagogy.
  • IB has wide-ranging and costly licensing and program requirements, insists upon extensive teacher training in an overwhelming and indiscriminate group of teaching practices and contemporary learning theory, and controls the cumulative tests which drive the curriculum. There is real danger that a Catholic school’s own unique program and specific Catholic teacher training needs could get overwhelmed and crowded out.

    To be approved as an IB school, governing boards must agree that initial and future budgets will include funding for IB course instructors to receive IB professional development, that there is at least one designated IB coordinator in the school, and that teachers teaching IB courses have within their schedule a dedicated collaborative planning session and reflection time.[19] IB standards also highlight the central role of library and multimedia availability, so the program can “ensure access to information on global issues and diverse perspectives.”[20]
  • To onboard the IB program, Catholic schools have included language in their mission statement to describe students as global learners and have changed their graduate profiles to include the required characteristics of the learner profile: All IB learners strive to be Inquirers, Knowledgeable, Thinkers, Communicators, Open-Minded, Caring, Risk-Takers, Balanced, Principled, and Reflective. Catholic schools seek to instill a host of virtues in students as well as attitudes and dispositions described by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. Many schools already have graduate profiles that include attributes of service and life-long learning as well as outcomes of living one’s faith and becoming a witness and evangelist for Christ, but when worldly qualities and characteristics become equally or more important to the formation of a student as a disciple for Christ, a school’s Catholic identity can be compromised.

    The IB program requires that each grade level focus upon prescribed concepts and that these concepts are explicitly documented in classroom practice and lesson plans. Oftentimes in Catholic classrooms, pride of place is given to the formation of a specific weekly virtue, including the theological virtues, which is used as a cross-curricular strand for formation purposes. In contrast, some Catholic schools have been moving to the use of philosophical questions such as “What is goodness?” or “How is this beautiful?” as overarching essential questions. The IB program, in demanding a school-wide understanding of concepts such as change, global interactions, systems, continuity, and perspective and how these concepts are viewed from a local, global, and national level, focuses primarily on man and his manipulation and interaction within the world, rather than on the person and his relationship with God.

    With so many requirements from an outside organization, the mission focus of Catholic education may easily be crowded out. This violates the Catholic social principle of subsidiarity, which maintains that a state or larger society not “substitute itself for the initiative and responsibility of individuals and intermediary bodies.”[21] Much like recently failed national education reform movements in the United States, which attempted to drive local efforts, the IB places international, secular humanist requirements created by outside groups upon local schools.
  • IB’s emphasis on creating a globalist and relativist conception of the common good lacks what must be a Catholic school’s evangelical mission to spread the Kingdom of God on earth. Because Catholic education also pursues the common good, it may be tempting to assume a close match with a shared sense of philanthropic nobility and friendliness. But the nature of the common good and the means to advance it are approached differently in the relativistic and secular IB program than in the truth and faith-based focus of a Catholic school.

    IB literature states, “The aim of all IB programmes is to develop internationally minded people who, recognizing their common humanity and shared guardianship of the planet, help to create a better and more peaceful world.”[22] While this is a laudable goal, it excludes the need for strong local culture, the dignity of each human person as made in the image of God and the need to avoid a shared guardianship that increases the subservience of local peoples and cultures to globalist solutions which compromise individual liberty and national sovereignty in ways that contravene.

    IB’s emphasis on global citizenry conflicts with the Catholic social justice principle of subsidiarity, which favors a capable, smaller, and localized institution over dominance by a larger institution.[23]

    IB’s emphasis on a global citizenry can also mask the more profound reality of Catholic emphasis on the transcendent and universal destination of humanity in God.


Given the problems, complexities and dangers of integrating the IB program into a faithful Catholic school, it is best to not attempt to do so. Instead, Catholic schools should develop their own instructional programs to ensure a strong Catholic identity, an integral and harmonious Catholic liberal arts program, and solid teacher training that specifically includes designated opportunities for faith formation as well as the best of both traditional and contemporary educational practices.

However, if a Catholic school has already incorporated the IB and circumstances do not allow for a transition away in the short term for prudential reasons, we recommend that school leaders ensure that their use of IB exemplifies the five Principles of Catholic Identity in Education,[24] paying particular attention to the concerns identified for each principle below.

Principle I: Inspired by a divine mission. A Catholic school seeks to secure the supreme individual good of the students, that is their union with God, and to help serve the common good, the maximum of well-being possible for human society.

  • The Catholic school must be up front and explicit that the eternal salvation of its students is the primary goal, and the secondary goal of service pursues the common good. The Catholic school’s goal of service is of a different order than the IB’s service orientation and is particularly concerned with preparing students “for service in the spread of the Kingdom of God, so that by leading an exemplary apostolic life they become, as it were, a saving leaven in the human community.”[25] Service in a Catholic school has an evangelistic strand for the individual who is serving as well as those who are served.

  • The Catholic school must ensure that it does not fall into IB’s secular humanism with its errant anthropocentrism. This can lead to the assumption that all human ills are solvable by wholly human programs and human self-mastery rather than a reliance on God’s grace, mercy, and salvation. It can also result in a worldview where the manipulation of things and people supplant contemplation and an authentic interpretation of a thing or person’s meaning and proper end as intended by God.

  • The IB mission statement must be interpreted with mental reservation. The IB Mission element which states, “other people, with their differences, may also be right” must be interpreted as “other people may actually be right about some things” or “other people may be closer to the truth than I am on this matter.” Such a proposition is always worthy of consideration and determination; whether or not there are “differences” involved is irrelevant. Assuming that “differences” provide privileged access to the truth or that there are multiple truths so that others can also be right at the same time risks descent into intellectual cowardice and relativism. There is no room for relativism in Catholic schools, as their goal involves truth and freedom, and as St. John Paul II stated, “once the truth is denied to human beings, it is pure illusion to try to set them free. Truth and freedom either go together hand in hand or together they perish in misery.”[26] The ardent pursuit of truth, indicative of Catholic education, should lead all to Christ, who is truth incarnate, and not be left to a relativistic mindset for the purpose of inclusivity and collaboration.

  • The Catholic school must expand the limited profile of an IB graduate to fulfill the mission of Catholic education, not just the mission of international-mindedness, to include aspects of the Beatitudes, fruits of the Holy Spirit, and other dispositions advanced in the Bible such as humbleness, gentleness, patience, faithfulness, goodness, self-control, perseverance, godliness, joyfulness, peace, modesty, and love (see Gal 5:22, 2 Peter 1:5 and Eph 4:2).

Principle II: Models Christian communion and identity. A Catholic school is a faith community united in service and fidelity to the local and universal Church. A warm family-oriented climate pervades the school, where employees model faithfulness to Christian truth and service is oriented in Christian love.

  • The Catholic school must ensure that a globalist mindset does not replace the Catholic principle of subsidiarity—to address needs and concerns at the lowest level possible.

  • The Catholic school must ensure its deeper sense of community. More than just globalist humanistic citizens of the world, Catholic schools develop “universal” citizens with an eternal destiny in the communion of saints.

  • The Catholic school must transcend the IB’s limited and errant understanding of community and community service. If this point is missed, it could lead the school to think it is adequately fulfilling its communal function when it simply helps others through secular human aid projects. A Catholic school’s sense of community and service is called to go deeper. As the Church reminds us, “Every human being is called to communion because of his nature which is created in the image and likeness of God. Therefore, within the sphere of biblical anthropology, man is not an isolated individual, but a person: a being who is essentially relational. The communion to which man is called always involves a double dimension, that is to say vertical (communion with God) and horizontal (communion with people).”[27] We do not serve others to be cosmopolitan, politically correct, or impress colleges and potential employers. We bond with others and humbly serve others—always starting with those closest to us and moving outward—because we and they are made in the image and likeness of God.

  • The Catholic school must ensure that its own teacher training[28] in Catholic identity is strong and effective and does not simply cede teacher training to the extensive IB requirements.

Principle III: Encounter Christ in prayer, scripture and sacrament.  Catholic education, rooted in Christ, is continually fed and stimulated by Him in the frequent experience of prayer, scripture, and the Church’s liturgical and sacramental tradition.[29]

  • The Catholic school, interfacing with IB, must increase its spiritual elements explicitly, given that IB has removed religion from its mission.

Principle IV: Integrally forms the human person. A Catholic school harmoniously forms student’s bodies, minds, hearts, and souls in an environment where there is no separation between time for learning and time for formation.

  • As with the AP test, the IB tests are such high-stakes affairs that they can drain the joy from learning and limit it to the intellectual and to the testable. More holistic Catholic education also teaches things which cannot be easily measured or tested or translated to academic credit. To do this requires an academic atmosphere characterized by flexibility, freedom, discovery, and awareness that enkindles a love for truth wherever it might be found, especially if it manifests itself in un-testable glory.

  • The Catholic school must ensure the well-rounded education of the student, not just a specific focus on how to apply knowledge to “novel situations for which there are no ready-made answers.”[30]

  • The Catholic school must ensure that students continue to grow in physical ability and skill, since the last two years of the Diploma program heavily emphasize the acquisition of academic content along with sociological projects.

  • The Catholic school must ensure the teaching and practice of Catholic social teaching, specifically the dignity of the person as made in the image and likeness of God—and not the dignity of the person simply because he has the ability to think and make his own choices and establish his own community. The Catholic school will teach the right to life and the sanctity of marriage and the family.

Principle V: Imparts a Christian understanding of the world. A Catholic school critically and systematically imparts a Christian vision of the world, of life, of culture, and of history, ordering the whole of human culture to the news of salvation. It also ensures the illumination of all knowledge with the light of faith and allows formation to become living, conscious, and active.

Two specific IB areas need to be addressed: literature selection and the Theory of Knowledge Course.

Literature selection: In any high school literature course, the IB requires that roughly half of all works taught must come from a prescribed list of authors (any work from an author can be selected). This list is large enough that a savvy and well-formed Catholic educator, who knows the works and authors to emphasize and avoid, can piece together an acceptable curriculum.

  • A Catholic IB school should carefully study and implement the Newman Society’s Catholic Curriculum Standards for Language Arts[31] and “Policy Guidance Related to Literature and the Arts in Catholic Education” in its program.

Theory of Knowledge (TOK) Course: This is the keystone IB course which attempts to unify the IB diploma curriculum, and it is the only course of study that all IB Diploma students must follow.[32] It is a general overview of epistemological theories of how humans come to know anything. It is a type of secular metaphysics course which raises fundamental philosophical questions about truth, meaning, certainty, relativism, reality, theology, morality, freewill, freedom, perception, logic, language, and a host of other philosophical and theological concerns. Significantly, this is all done in an ostensibly neutral way, which simply lists claims and counterclaims for each critical element while avoiding a position on the truthfulness or accuracy of the claims.

This is a particularly dangerous and presumptive approach and can pose a grave threat to the intellectual and spiritual lives of students, who may not be in a position to adequately process and assess philosophical conundrums and crises which humanity has been debating for centuries. The material may be too weighty to be adequately digested by some teen minds. The dangerous combination of being overwhelming, oversimplified, and unresolved can lead to confusion, overconfidence, or despair. Ideas which students are not yet equipped to process on their own can risk leaving them adrift in a sea of relativism, rather than anchored in reality.

Natural philosophy requires a dynamic union with faith in order to purify it and liberate it from presumption and despair.[33] In many cases the Catholic Church has provided definitive answers to these questions through centuries of reflection using both reason and revelation. Clear Catholic presentation on these topics is absolutely critical. In reality there is no neutral position, as every textbook or instructor presents a course through a particular worldview or lens, and a Catholic curriculum demands that its courses be taught from a Catholic worldview.

When one tries to be everything to all people, one can be nothing to anyone—a truth that is evident in the presentation of the Ethics and Religious Ways of Knowing (WOK) sections. The morality subsection of the TOK course bends to proportionalism and consequentialism, inferring that the use of a deontological system of rules is backward—thus the following of the Ten Commandments as one of many ethical systems is inferred as an unadvanced way of knowing. It is also suggested that morality has many “matrices,” all of which can be correct depending upon your point of view.

According to one of the TOK textbooks, “It is not easy to know where to draw the line between one’s self and the groups we identify with… It is in this sense that we recognize that while there are multiple views on nearly all issues of importance—morality being central to our thought just now—no one can decide for you what is right and what is wrong no matter how tight the community bond is.” The very humanist view of morality is evidenced here, “At the very least, we can give our best thinking to important issues and one way to do this is to continue to ask questions of ourselves, thereby revising, rejecting, or reaffirming our own moral views.”[34]

It is the responsibility of Catholic educators to present cogent, compelling, and lived answers to the greatest of life’s questions, such as when discussing the difference between intelligent design of creation and the theory of evolution. Unfortunately, in one TOK text a faith-based answer to this type of discussion is met with incredulity:

The fundamental flaw in this argument is that a designer must logically be more complex than his or her design—a proposition which also needs explaining. Despite this, this line of thinking survives in what is known as ‘intelligent design’—proposed as an alternative explanation to evolution. Unfortunately for the ‘theory’, intelligent design amounts to little more than an admission of ignorance when faced with a phenomenon that is not understood. Most of the favourite examples (e.g. blood clotting mechanisms, the structure of the bacterial flagellum, the functionality of the eye) used by the advocates of intelligent design have been shown to have credible origins and developmental pathways through evolutionary processes (italics not in the original).[35]

To the contrary, Catholic educators are not neutral or disinterested spectators about these topics or the morality of these issues in the lives of their students. Teachers must be both passionate about the truths they discover and about the freedom and responsibility of their students to engage with these truths with growing independence. It is the student’s responsibility to probe and test the insights presented in their classes in their own lives. Students are ultimately free to reject the truths and reality which confront them, but teachers must in charity and freedom provoke the confrontations with reality whose ultimate source is Christ, the Word—the Logos—and Truth incarnate.

Catholic schools should heed Pope Leo XIII, who warned, “we must avoid at all costs those unfortunate schools where religious beliefs are indifferently admitted with equal treatment, as if, in the things that regard God and divine affairs, it matters little to have or not to have the right doctrine, or to embrace truth or error.”[36] Secular TOK courses are deeply prone to this danger. Catholic IB schools must do all they can to counter it.

Therefore, if choosing to use the IB program:

  • The Catholic school must ensure that the TOK teacher is deeply and faithfully trained in Catholic metaphysics and philosophy and has sound theological insight and training. It cannot be left to chance or simply handed off to a person of deep intellect and sincerity; the instructor must possess and be able to powerfully share a deep and felt Catholic intellectual worldview to counter the secularism and relativism saturating TOK texts.

  • The Catholic school must ensure the use of its own supplemental textbooks to present relevant materials and objections from a Catholic philosophical and theological tradition. A Catholic TOK program must ensure that significant readings or insights from Fides et Ratio, Veritatis Splendor, Redemptor Hominis, Dei Filius, and Gaudium et Spes (Part 1, Ch. 1-4) are included when “faith” is discussed as a required “Way of Knowing (WOK).”

  • The Catholic school must ensure that the TOK course does not supplant catechesis and theology courses and must accompany a standard four-year, full-credit Catholic religion regimen. Because of the distinct secular philosophy driving so much of the curriculum, it is essential that the school double down on Catholic instruction, including the teaching, comparison and understanding of Catholic social justice principles, and be even more explicit in its Catholic identity than other schools.

  • The Catholic school must challenge the IB perspective that theology and religious knowing are just other possible ways of knowing. Some texts condescendingly say that religious knowledge should not be rejected out of hand by IB students, as it is theoretically one of many possible ways of knowing that some may find helpful. This is a far cry from a Catholic understanding of theology as the queen of sciences.

  • The Catholic school must ensure that its teachers are prepared to counter the relativism which saturates TOK texts with clear teaching that the universe is human-friendly and was made for humanity. Reality is not unknowable or a trick of uncaring nature (materialist assumption) or of a god who wants to fool us.

  • The Catholic school must be aware that the relativism which informs the TOK course is also present in the critical pedagogy and constructivist elements required by the IB program. Such ideologies are founded on the notion that reality is a product of the mind or of the culture, and by changing the culture we can change reality and the truth. The IB program celebrates, “Teaching and learning in the IB celebrates the many ways people work together to construct meaning and make sense of the world. Through the interplay of asking, doing and thinking, this constructivist approach leads toward open, democratic classrooms.”[37]

  • The Catholic school must ensure that the “Areas of Knowledge” of religion and ethics, subsets of the TOK course, are not taught from secular textbooks but from the Catholic perspective, as incorporated in a traditional Catholic world religion class or Catholic morality course and based on the Catechism of the Catholic Church.


Denise Donohue, Ed.D., is Director of the Catholic Education Honor Roll at The Cardinal Newman Society.

Dan Guernsey, Ed.D., is Senior Fellow at The Cardinal Newman Society and principal of a diocesan K-12 Catholic school.


[1] See (accessed on June 12, 2020).

[2] See (accessed on June 12, 2020).

[3] “International Baccalaureate: Guided by a Mission” at (accessed on June 12, 2020).

[4] See (accessed on June 12, 2020).

[5] See (accessed on June 12, 2020). See also Bastian, S., Kitching, J., & Sims, R., Theory of Knowledge, 2nd Ed. (Harlow, Essex: Pearson Education Limited, 2014) 11. 

[6] See (accessed on June 12, 2020).

[7] John White, “The International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme in U.S. Catholic High Schools: An Answer to the Church’s Call to Global Solidarity,” Catholic Education: A Journal of Inquiry and Practice (Vol. 15, No. 2, March 2012) 179-206 at (accessed on June 12, 2020).

[8] While the philosophy of the IB program as articulated within its Standards and Practices suggests the use of a “range and variety of strategies” and the use of differentiated instruction to meet student needs (see, Section A: Philosophy: Standard A, 3 (c) for the Primary Year Program states “The school is committed to a constructivist inquiry-based approach to teaching and learning that promotes inquiry and the development of critical-thinking skills.” The professional instruction webinar series titled Strengthening programme implementation: Collaborative practice (2016) advances that a school commits to a constructivist approach to teaching and learning. See slide “Action Plan, A: Philosophy: The school’s educational beliefs and values reflect IB philosophy. 3c. The school is committed to a constructivist, inquiry-based approach to teaching and learning that promotes inquiry and the development of critical-thinking skills” at (accessed on June 12, 2020). The middle school and Diploma Program build on this constructivist approach with required collaborative, action-oriented, community-based projects.

[9] Kirschner, P.A., Sweller, J., & Clark, R.E., “Why minimal guidance during instruction does not work: An analysis of the failure of constructivist discovery, problem-based, experiential, and inquiry-based teaching,” Educational Psychologist 41(2) (2006) 75-86.

[10] Eggen, P. and Kauchak, D., Learning & teaching: Research-based methods (6th ed.) (Boston: Allyn & Bacon, 2012).

[11] Eggen and Kauchak (2012) 313.

[12] “Constructivism” at (accessed on June 12, 2020).

[13] See Gerard O’Shea, Educating in Christ: A Practical Handbook for Developing the Catholic Faith from Childhood to Adolescence (Brooklyn, NY: Angelico Press, 2018) 82-85.

[14] O’Shea (2018) 83.

[15] See Saint John Paul II, Fides et Ratio (1998) 82.

[16] U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, National Directory for Catechesis (Washington, DC: USCCB, 2005) 96.

[17] See O’Shea (2018), Chapter 13 for a discussion of effective and ineffective instructional approaches to use when infusing the Catholic faith into subject areas.

[18] O’Shea (2018) 102-103.

[19] “Resources and Support,” Programme standards and practices (2014) at (accessed on June 12, 2020).

[20] “Resources and Support,” Programme standards and practices (2014).

[21] Catechism of the Catholic Church (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1993) 1894.

[22] Programme standards and practices (2014).

[23] Catechism of the Catholic Church (1993) 1894.

[24] The Cardinal Newman Society, Principles of Catholic Identity in Education Overview (2017) at

[25] Saint Paul VI, Gravissimum Educationis (1965) 8. 

[26] Saint John Paul II (1998) 90.

[27] Congregation for Catholic Education, Educating Together in Catholic Schools: A Shared Mission Between Consecrated Persons and the Lay Faithful (2007) 8.

[28] See

[29] Saint John Paul II, Redemptor Hominis (1979) supra note 39, at 59.

[30] International Baccalaureate, Theory of Knowledge (2nd Ed) (2015) 8.

[31] The Cardinal Newman Society, Catholic Curriculum Standards for English/Language Arts 7-12 (2016) at

[32] Theory of Knowledge (2nd Ed) 7.

[33] St. Pope John Paul II, Fides et Ratio (1998) 75-76.

[34] Theory of Knowledge (2nd Ed) 302.

[35] Theory of Knowledge (2nd Ed) 321. .

[36] See (accessed on June 12, 2020).

[37] This quote originally came from “What is an IB education?” (2013) 4 at (accessed on June 12, 2020). The updated version at eliminates this claim yet retains the emphasis on critical pedagogy and addressing real-world problems through educational projects.

Analysis of Secular Character Development Programs and Materials

The following is part of The Cardinal Newman Society’s series of analyses of secular materials and programs used in Catholic education. Such materials and programs must be carefully evaluated to determine if their underlying philosophy, content, and activities are aligned to the mission of Catholic education and, if used, what adaptations might be needed.

The Newman Society’s “Policy Guidance Related to Secular Materials and Programs in Catholic Education” offers a framework for such evaluation and is the basis for this particular analysis.


By their very nature, schools form character; as long as schools have existed, there have been character development programs and materials. Many are designed for public schools and are therefore secular in orientation.[1]

Because public schools cannot directly address the theological foundations of virtue, morality, and character, they primarily rely on cultural, psychological, or philosophical assumptions to ground their efforts. Unfortunately, many programs and materials designed primarily for public schools have been tainted by atheistic humanism or relativism. Other resources are more promising, based on concepts of natural law and a traditional Western understanding of the human person without explicitly teaching traditional Christian norms.

The latter approach may be a good choice for public schools seeking stronger, more thoughtful, and more compelling character education. However, Catholic schools should be wary of using such resources; if used, they should be adapted significantly.

Programs and materials written from a “morally neutral,” purely humanistic, or relativistic perspective should only be used after an extensive integration of Catholic values and morals to make them suitable for Catholic school use. Such adaptations will help counter the modern culture’s assumptions that humanity, on its own, can figure out and achieve human perfection and excellence without God’s guidance and grace. Such a humanistic sense is antithetical to the fundamental mission of Catholic education.

St. John Paul II reminds us that, “In Christ and through Christ man has acquired full awareness of his dignity, of the heights to which he is raised, of the surpassing worth of his own humanity, and of the meaning of his existence.”[2] In a Catholic school, any attempt to discuss humanity, morality, and goodness without final reference to Christ, who fully reveals man to himself, is unthinkable. The very reason we have Catholic schools is to address these critical issues in the fullness of truth and with the guidance of Christ’s teaching and grace. To import a secular program which a priori was forced to surrender these truths to suit an international or public-school restriction is inadvisable.

One of the critical functions of a Catholic school is to impart a Christian understanding of the world, which allows students to interpret and give order to human culture in the light of faith.[3] Unadapted use of secular programs and materials related to human formation violates this principle of Catholic education. The Catholic school is called to transmit an understanding of humanity that is inspired by Catholic wisdom and scriptural insight. This understanding is not meant to remain theoretical but is meant to be put into practice in a student’s life, so as to provide for the integration of culture with faith and faith with living. Human wisdom is not enough in considering issues of humanity and human excellence; divine wisdom must also be carefully considered and applied. Secular efforts which are limited to defining human beings through their relationships with other human beings and with nature do not offer a complete answer to the unavoidable, fundamental question of, “Who is man?”

For Catholic schools, all routes must always explicitly end with Christ. This is because all human values find their fulfillment and unity in Christ. This awareness expresses the centrality of the human person in the educational project of the Catholic school, strengthens its educational endeavor, and renders it fit to form strong personalities.[4]

A strong personality and a mature faith will be able to integrate both natural and supernatural elements related to human nature and activity.

It is true that natural law cases can be made for things such as justice, loyalty, compassion, marriage between a man and woman, chastity, and honesty. It is also true that some of the writings of Catholic thinkers such as St. John Paul II can be marshalled to assist with natural law arguments. However, the strength of the thought of St. John Paul and the fullness of an understanding of these things cannot be presented without reference to the divine. John Paul beautifully proclaims, “Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth; and God has placed in the human heart a desire to know the truth—in a word, to know himself—so that, by knowing and loving God, men and women may also come to the fullness of truth about themselves.”[5] 

Even if natural law and Christian value-based programs are inspired by Catholic thought or the philosophical or anthropological insights of St. John Paul II, to attempt to convey such teaching without uniting faith and reason ultimately obfuscates these critical teachings. Catholic schools must unleash the entirety and integrity of human wisdom, including the Church’s inspired wisdom, in their efforts to equip students to attain and practice heroic virtue in the post-modern world.

Similarly, attempts to protect and promote human dignity cannot be fully advanced without grounding such dignity in a transcendent and objective source. Humanity simply affirming its own dignity does not guarantee that dignity. There has to be something outside of humanity guaranteeing this dignity and the freedom which it protects from hostile forces. Vatican II affirms that it is God’s revelation which discloses and affirms the dignity of the human person in its full dimensions.[6] Human dignity is ultimately anchored in man’s status as being made in the image of God and being redeemed by Him through the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Christ. St. John Paul II’s sense of human anthropology is built on the centrality of this notion which inspires his teaching, “God so loved the human being that, in the Incarnation, human flesh was divinized. The act of the Incarnation, in which the eternal Word of God took on human flesh, reveals the ‘greatness, dignity, and value’ of the human being.”[7]

Catholic schools must ensure that their students fully appreciate that they, and all whom they meet and serve, are made in God’s image and redeemed by Him. The fullness of this teaching can help them better understand their individual significance and the significance and dignity of all others as well. Simply teaching them that man has dignity de facto is not enough to withstand the massive and complex assaults on human dignity taking place all around them.

While good-willed secular character and dignity programs fight the good fight as best they can within the limitations placed on them by national and international government entities, Catholic schools must use their freedom to dig much deeper in preparing their students for the intensity of the battles ahead. They must assert their autonomy and the broader worldview such autonomy currently allows. They must not pre-emptively surrender or silence themselves by attempting to simply ground morality and dignity on secular grounds. This is sandy soil which cannot support the edifice of human dignity, which must be built on Christ. Efforts limited to natural reason alone are not only unfaithful to Catholicism’s broader insights but are also destined to fail if left on their own. Pope Leo XIII warns about strictly secular youth formation efforts:

Let nobody easily persuade himself that piety can be separated from instruction with impunity. In fact, if in no period of life, whether in public or private affairs, can religion be dispensed with, much less can that inexperienced age, full of life, yet surrounded by so many corrupt temptations, be excused from religious obligations. Whosoever, therefore, organizes education so as to neglect any point of contact with religion is destroying beauty and honesty at their very roots, and instead of helping the country, is preparing for the deterioration and destruction of the human race. For, once God is eliminated, who can make young people realize their duties or redeem those who have deviated from the right path of virtue and fallen into the abyss of vice?[8]


  • The Catholic school ought to first consider specifically Catholic character-formation programs and materials before looking to secular school programs that do not openly teach Catholic doctrine and ethics, even when claiming to be consistent with Catholic teaching.

  • The Catholic school that chooses a secular character-formation program or material must ensure that additional Catholic resources are explicitly and intentionally integrated into the course’s standards, lesson plans, and curriculum.

  • The Catholic school must ensure that the concept of human dignity taught in the program is rooted in man’s status of having been made in the image and likeness of God and in the incarnation, passion, and resurrection of Christ.

  • The Catholic school must seek first to emphasize the timeless and piercing insights from Scripture, Church teaching, and great Catholic philosophers and saints and attempt to avoid anecdotal and story-based activities that eventually become dated and lend themselves to meandering opinions of youth.

  • The Catholic school must be aware that, without firm theology and philosophy, such programs may not meet the needs of well-formed Catholic students. Whenever possible, older students should work directly with Scripture and original Church documents and encyclicals.


Denise Donohue, Ed.D., is Director of the Catholic Education Honor Roll at The Cardinal Newman Society.

Dan Guernsey, Ed.D., is Senior Fellow at The Cardinal Newman Society and principal of a diocesan K-12 Catholic school.


[1] There are numerous, widely varied programs. By way of example, but without endorsement, these include such programs as Alive to the World, an international character-building program; Character Counts, used in public schools across the U.S.; the Center for the 4th and 5th Rs, which promotes moral virtue; the Human Dignity Curriculum of World Youth Alliance; and the Heart2Heart program of Illinois Right to Life.

[2] St. Pope John Paul II, Redemptor Hominis (1979) 11 at (accessed on June 12, 2020).

[3] The Cardinal Newman Society, Principles of Catholic Identity in Education Overview (2017) at (accessed on June 12, 2020).

[4] Congregation for Catholic Education, The Catholic School on the Threshold of the Third Millennium (2002) 9.

[5] St. John Paul II, Fides et Ratio (1998) introduction.

[6] Pope Paul VI, Dignitatis Humanae (1965) at (accessed on June 12, 2020).

[7] John Paul II, Redemptor Hominis, supra note 39, at 59.

[8] Pope Leo XIII, Militantis Ecclesiae (1897) at (accessed on June 12, 2020 6/12/20).

General Education at Catholic Colleges and Universities

Executive Summary

Across the universe of American higher education, increasing attention is being given to the weakening of general education standards.  This study examines the general education requirements at Catholic colleges and universities.  It compares the general education programs at 184 Catholic colleges and universities to all other American colleges and universities, to see if the Catholic colleges are more comprehensive (that is, devote a larger share of the curriculum to general education) and more coherent (that is, provide their students with a fairly well identified set of courses that provide a unified vision of the body of knowledge that the institution believes that all educated citizens should be familiar with).  The study determines that Catholic colleges as a whole are more comprehensive and slightly more coherent than colleges and universities overall. Next, the study examines whether those colleges and universities included in the Newman Guide to Choosing a Catholic College differ substantially from the other Catholic colleges.  The Newman Guide schools are, indeed, significantly more comprehensive and coherent than the other Catholic colleges and universities. Finally, the distinctive role of theology and philosophy in a Catholic education was examined. Catholic colleges and universities retain, to varying degrees, their commitment to the study of philosophy and theology, which serve as integrative disciplines within the curriculum.  A surprising finding, however, was the extent to which the non-Newman Guide Catholic colleges and universities allow students to fulfill their theology requirements without actually studying Catholic theology.

General Education at Catholic Colleges and Universities

Pope Benedict XVI, in his 2008 address to U.S. Catholic educators, reminded them of the high calling of a university in the overall economy of salvation:

Set against personal struggles, moral confusion and fragmentation of knowledge, the noble goals of scholarship and education, founded on the unity of truth and in service of the person and the community, become an especially powerful instrument of hope.1

Throughout history and even today, in addition to supporting the intrinsic benefits of education for human development, the university plays a critical role in preparing students for successful careers.  Universities have consistently struggled to balance the educational goals of pursuit of truth and moral development with the more instrumental goals of career preparation and skill development.2

In most American colleges and universities today, it is in the pursuit of a major field of study that students focus on developing the career-related skills and knowledge that they will take with them into the world.  The more intrinsic benefits of higher education, such as those described by Pope Benedict, are emphasized and developed in the general education program which commonly precedes specialization.

A general education program attempts to provide an overview of the fundamental areas of human knowledge found in the traditional liberal arts.  The curriculum may further aim at integration of knowledge by requiring interdisciplinary courses or otherwise encouraging interdisciplinary approaches to human problems.  A well-designed general education curriculum will teach students to comprehend knowledge according to its proper order and in relation to other knowledge, developing what Blessed John Henry Newman called a “philosophical habit” of mind.

Historically, the means by which the American university (religious or secular) fulfilled its mission and oriented the student toward the unity of truth was through a core curriculum which gave all students in the university a common, integrated liberal arts education.  In a core curriculum, particular courses are required of all students, or at least a broad set of students (for instance, enrolled in a certain school within a university).  The university determines that every student should, at a minimum, have studied particular facts, concepts, themes, authors, literature, etc., while attaining an introductory or intermediate level of skill or knowledge in the disciplines of the liberal arts.  A Catholic university, for instance, might expect students to graduate with a common foundation in Catholic theology and Western philosophy, literature, and history by studying particular texts, authors, leaders, etc. The prescribed core ensures that all students share a common education and can dialogue on common themes, resting on the university’s judgment about the importance of certain subject matter.  Moreover, the courses in a well-designed core are highly integrated to illustrate the unity of truth across disciplines.

In 1884 the landscape of American higher education was changed forever, when Harvard University discarded its core and introduced an elective system at the heart of its curriculum.3 The unified set of courses that made up the core curriculum was replaced by a series of “distribution” requirements for graduation.  The distribution model allows students to choose among many courses introducing them to a variety of disciplines and methods of inquiry, with less emphasis on the integration of knowledge across disciplines.  The topics of the courses are varied; there is little or no effort to promote the study of common texts or topics.  Whereas the core curriculum emphasizes a shared body of knowledge and a common basis for dialogue—in the United States, typically requiring students to contemplate classical works and the ideas that shaped Western civilization and Christianity—the distribution model often encourages a student’s encounter with a variety of perspectives and arguments, independent of a university’s judgment about the value of particular subject matter.

This elective, distribution system of general education rapidly overtook the more traditional core model in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  While Catholic colleges and universities held to a core model longer than most other types of universities, by the 1960s most of the Catholic institutions of higher education had joined the mainstream movement away from a unified core curriculum to a distribution, elective-based model.  Unlike their secular counterparts, however, most Catholic colleges and universities retained vestiges of a unified, integrative curricular expression through their requirements that all students study philosophy and Catholic theology, ensuring that students recognize unifying themes and consider the great human questions when studying other disciplines.

This study will examine the ways in which contemporary Catholic colleges and universities approach the question of general education.  If it is true that, as Blessed Newman implies, it is through the integration of the specialized branches of knowledge that a student “apprehends the great outlines of knowledge, the principles on which it rests, the scale of its parts, its lights and its shades, its great points and its little, as he otherwise cannot apprehend them,” and that this represents “the special fruit of the education furnished at a University,” the state of general education is of paramount importance for all who are interested in Catholic higher education.4

This study confirms that Catholic colleges and universities today, by and large, remain committed to general education requirements, distinguishing Catholic institutions from their counterparts with generally weaker standards.  But most Catholic educators have embraced the distribution model of electives, abandoning the traditional core curriculum.  Some remnant of a distinctive role for philosophy and religious studies remains in place at most Catholic institutions, although there is evidence of a declining emphasis on Catholic theology.

General Education in American Higher Education

Even in the secular universities, increasing attention is being given to the disappearance of core curricula, the weakening of general education standards, and the need for attention to liberal arts education for undergraduates.  With the rise of the research university, with its hyper-specialization and concomitant growth of faculty allegiance to their specialties, there has been an overall de-emphasis on undergraduate general education, and in particular declining interest in curricular integration.  A National Association of Scholars (NAS) study in 1996 documented the diminishing role of general education in the undergraduate experience.5   This study demonstrates that not only has the distribution model of general education achieved near-total hegemony in the American higher education system, but also that the proportion of the overall curriculum devoted to any form of general education has been steadily shrinking over the course of the 20th century.  In 1914, the average student devoted about 55 percent of the credits needed for graduation to general education requirements; by 1993, this was down to 33 percent.

More recently, the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AACU) commissioned a study to analyze trends in this area, and this study reinforced the picture of a profound movement away from the concept of an integrative curriculum to a highly specialized, even fragmented, educational experience.6 The AACU study confirmed the reduced portion of the curriculum that is devoted to general education.  Only 6 percent of the respondents indicated that half or more of the credits needed for graduation are devoted to general education; more than 25 percent of the respondents indicated that a third or less were so devoted.  In most of these institutions, several of these requirements can be fulfilled in the course of pursuing a major, so there are even fewer credit hours that are specifically devoted to general learning, rather than the specialized education that makes up the major field of study.

The vast majority of institutions (80 percent) follow a distribution model of general education, in which students select courses from various categories to fulfill the general education requirements.  While most of these colleges provide some guidance to students with regard to specific courses or common experiences, the fundamental model is a choice-based approach to general education, with the emphasis on exposure to different fields of study rather than engagement with specific intellectual content.

One could conclude, then, that over time general education in America has become both less comprehensive (that is, less a significant and robust part of the overall educational experience) and less coherent (that is, less a unified and common set of courses designed to present an integrated approach to knowledge).

This report seeks to evaluate how the overall trends in American higher education are reflected in Catholic colleges and universities.  The general education programs at Catholic colleges and universities have been examined and categorized with respect to their coherence and comprehensiveness.  Since a distinctive attribute of Catholic core curricula has traditionally been a strong emphasis on theology and philosophy, this study also considers the role these disciplines currently play in the general education programs at Catholic institutions of higher education.  Finally, this study examines the correlation between the structure of the general education program and the Catholic identity of the institution.

The general education programs at 184 Catholic, four-year, co-educational colleges and universities in the United States were examined.  While there are 251 institutions of higher education recognized by the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities, many of those are not relevant to this study.  Excluded are exclusively graduate-level institutions, two-year colleges, seminaries, conservatories, and specialized health-care institutions.  Two colleges were eliminated because of insufficient information regarding their general education programs.

Data was collected online from college catalogs.  The information was drawn from the catalog that included the Fall 2009 semester.  The content of required theology courses was drawn from the information available online in August 2012.

Comprehensiveness of General Education at Catholic Colleges and Universities

The comprehensiveness of general education programs was determined simply by the overall number of credit hours required. The incredible complexity of many of today’s general education programs made even this classification difficult, so several methodological definitions and decisions were required.  General education was defined as required courses that all students had to pass in order to graduate.  If, as was the case in some large universities, there were different general education programs for different degrees (i.e., general education for the school of nursing, the school of business, etc.), the classification was based on the “college of arts and sciences” or equivalent degree program.

These general education requirements could be specific courses (all students must pass English 101, for example), distribution requirements (all students must take an English course), or an evaluated competency (all students must either pass English 101 or score an 85 percent or higher on the freshman writing exam).  Competency requirements were only counted as part of general education if they substituted for required coursework (so, for example, some colleges require students to demonstrate computer skills, but that was not counted toward general education, because no computer literacy class is required if they do not pass the test).  In most cases, courses taken to fulfill general education requirements may also count for major requirements (so American history might be a requirement for general education, but it could also count toward courses needed for a history major).  A few colleges do not allow any course taken in a student’s major field to count for general education, which has the effect of increasing the number of general education requirements; however, it was impossible to account for this given the wide variation in student majors.

The very nature of most general education systems, with their wide array of choices and possible substitutions, made it difficult to make uniform determinations of exactly how many credit hours were required to complete the program.  Within institutions there can be variation from student to student.  For example, many institutions require language to a third semester competency; some students need to take any language courses, while others take nine to 12 hours of language instruction.

It seemed best to classify programs in fairly broad ranges, rather than attempt a precise ranking based on a specific calculation of credit hours.  Therefore, those institutions which require, on average, 55 credit hours or more of general education (almost half of the credit hours required for a degree and the average amount of general education required 100 years ago) were classified as having a high level of comprehensiveness.  Those which require from 45 to 54 hours (more than a third, but less than half, and generally above the median 46.4 hours reported in the AACU survey) were classified as medium, while those which require 44 hours or fewer (roughly one third or less of the required credit hours) were classified as low.

While it is impossible to make direct comparisons with the studies done either for the NAS or the AACU, because the methodology was different, it is possible to draw some general conclusions.  Catholic colleges and universities tend to devote more of their curriculum to general education than is normal in U.S. higher education (see Figure 1).  As noted above, about half of the colleges in the AACU survey would fall into the low range in this classification, but at Catholic institutions, 76 percent fall into the medium or high ranges of general education comprehensiveness, indicating a distinctive commitment to general education requirements in Catholic higher education.


Coherence of General Education at Catholic Colleges and Universities

How coherent are the general education programs at Catholic colleges and universities?  General education programs were classified based on the proportion of general education credit hours that were elective (that is, a course chosen from a list of options) and what proportion were required.

In some cases, a small range of choice was allowed, such that the college or university retained significant direction over what the student learns.  Most institutions allow students to choose which language they will study for their foreign language requirement.  Most institutions will place students into the appropriate mathematics course based on their proficiency.  And, in some cases, students might choose between British and American literature to fulfill a literature requirement.  In situations like these, where the choice is either skill-dependent or limited to three or fewer options, this study classifies the credits as “required” even though there is some element of choice.7

Once again, institutions were placed within ranges.  Those which require particular courses for more than half the total general education curriculum were considered to have high coherence; those between one third and one half were considered medium; and those below one-third were considered low.

The results show that Catholic colleges and universities, much like their non-Catholic peers, have largely abandoned a strongly coherent core curriculum (see Figure 2 below).  Eighteen percent of the Catholic institutions assign half or more of their general education courses.  Only 44 percent require as much as one-third of the courses that comprise the general education curriculum.


Thus, while Catholic colleges and universities generally remain distinctive with regard to the comprehensiveness of their general education programs, they, like their non-Catholic counterparts, have embraced curricular choice as the dominant mode of delivering general education.  Many today lack a coherent vision of the subjects and knowledge that should be commonly learned by all students.

Influence of Strong Catholic Identity

Given the wide range of commitment to Catholic identity in Catholic higher education and the historical correlation between Catholic colleges and a strong core curriculum, it seems appropriate to analyze whether there are significant differences among Catholic institutions.  This study looks specifically at the 19 Catholic colleges and universities which were included in the online edition of The Newman Guide to Choosing a Catholic College as of the fall of 20098,  which identifies colleges that “give priority to their Catholic identity and actively practice it.”

Although the Newman Guide colleges vary considerably from one another (some are extremely small and dedicated solely to the liberal arts, while others are much larger and have a wide variety of academic programs), as a group they are clearly distinctive when compared with the overall universe of Catholic higher education.  Not only do they demonstrate strong Catholic identity, but their general education programs are significantly more comprehensive (see Figure 3 below).


None of the Newman Guide colleges falls into the low category for comprehensiveness of general education, whereas 78 percent fall into the high category.  Nearly the same percentage of other Catholic colleges and universities are in the medium or low category.  The green “all” bar is included as a reminder of how the entire group, both Newman Guide and other Catholic institutions, is categorized.

Similarly, the Newman Guide colleges show strong coherence in their general education requirements, compared to other Catholic institutions (see Figure 4 below).  Sixty-eight percent of the Newman Guide institutions fall into the high category on the coherence scale, whereas 87percent of the other Catholic colleges and universities are in the medium and low categories.


Philosophy and Theology in General Education

Most Catholic colleges and universities require students to take some philosophy and theology courses.  As Alisdair MacIntyre has pointed out, this distinctive attribute of Catholic institutions reflects their commitment to helping students integrate knowledge and bring the tools of faith and reason to bear upon the fundamental questions they encounter in other disciplines, and so refine their capacity for sound judgment9.

Likewise Blessed John Paul II, in the apostolic constitution Ex corde Ecclesiae, indicated that philosophy and theology have a special role in providing the unifying framework for the pursuit of truth that should mark the Catholic university:

Aided by the specific contributions of philosophy and theology, university scholars will be engaged in a constant effort to determine the relative place and meaning of each of the various disciplines within the context of a vision of the human person and the world that is enlightened by the Gospel, and therefore by a faith in Christ, the Logos, as the centre of creation and of human history10.

Thus, it is appropriate that these disciplines play a special and significant role in the curriculum of a Catholic college or university.  While the amount of philosophy and theology required varies significantly, from one course per semester in each discipline over four years to just one course total in either discipline11,  75 percent of Catholic colleges and universities require at least three courses in some combination of these two disciplines.

However, the size of the philosophy and theology requirement does not tell the whole picture.  The integrative function that theology plays in the traditional conception of the Catholic university is that it gives students the opportunity to examine all of their learning in the light of the truths of the Catholic faith.  For that to happen, obviously, the theology requirement would have to offer students those truths—that is, students would have to study genuine Catholic theology.

To be clear, it is not the purpose of this study to judge the quality or faithfulness of theology courses.  But the descriptions of courses permitted to satisfy the theology requirements of general education programs at Catholic institutions were examined to determine if they were Catholic theology at all, by their own definition.  In other words, if the description stated that the course covered Catholic (or, in fact, any Christian) theology, no further investigation into the content or approach of the course was carried out.

Also, the general education requirements were examined to ensure that theology courses are in fact required.  At almost every Catholic institution, students can study Catholic theology if they wish.  The question being considered is whether they are required to do so.  A requirement which could be satisfied by taking a course that is not Catholic theology, even if Catholic theology courses would also be accepted, has not been labeled a Catholic theology requirement.

According to these criteria, in 54 percent of the Catholic colleges and universities studied, the “theology” requirement could be satisfied without actually studying Catholic theology.  In a few of these institutions, there is no theology requirement at all.  Students may be required to take courses in either philosophy or theology, and so the requirement can be fulfilled entirely with philosophy courses.  Often the theology requirement is actually a “religious studies” requirement; religious studies is an academic discipline which focuses on the study of religion as a social phenomenon, but without any basis in a particular faith.  Or students may be permitted to study comparative religions or the theology of non-Christian faiths such as Hinduism or Buddhism.

The pervasiveness of the theology requirement, then, does not necessarily coincide with a commitment to ensure that all students are instructed in the truths of the Catholic faith.

Moreover, this area reveals the sharpest divergence between the Newman Guide institutions and other Catholic colleges and universities (see Figure 5 below).  While all of the Newman Guide schools require Catholic theology, 61 percent of other Catholic institutions do not.



This study shows that Catholic colleges and universities remain somewhat distinctive within the universe of American colleges and universities, with significantly more comprehensive general education programs.  But many Catholic institutions have followed their non-Catholic counterparts by embracing a distribution approach to general education and eliminating common core requirements.

Catholic colleges and universities retain, to varying degrees, their commitment to the study of philosophy and theology, which serve as integrative disciplines within the curriculum.  A surprising finding, however, was the extent to which Catholic colleges and universities allow students to fulfill their theology requirements without studying Catholic theology.

A closer look revealed that those Catholic institutions that most clearly and pervasively embraced their Catholic identity (specifically, those that were identified in the online edition of The Cardinal Newman Society’s Newman Guide to Choosing a Catholic College as of fall 2009) are much more likely to provide their students with a comprehensive, coherent general education program with a significant emphasis on philosophy and theology as integrative disciplines, and a definite requirement that students study Catholic theology.




A Rekindling of the Light: The Past, Present and Future of a Catholic Core Curriculum

Executive Summary

In his Washington address to Catholic educators, Pope Benedict XVI argued that three “goods”—those of the Church, political society and education itself—require the Church’s institutions of higher education have a strong Catholic identity. Although the Holy Father only touched on curricular matters incidentally, his argument entails important consequences in favor of curricula with robust cores in the liberal arts and sciences, philosophy and theology.

The history of Catholic higher education sheds light on Pope Benedict’s Ex corde Ecclesiae vision and its application to the current American scene. Six features of the medieval university curriculum working together remain essential. These six features are: (1) a bi-level nature; (2) an initial core followed by specialized, advanced training; (3) a curriculum that centers on books; (4) a curriculum that offers doctrine; (5) a curriculum that is Catholic; and (6) a curriculum that is integrated.

The present “rekindling” of traditional Catholic curricula at new colleges provides models from which larger Ex corde Ecclesiae universities may develop.

A Rekindling of the Light: The Past, Present and Future of a Catholic Core Curriculum

As part of his apostolic journey to the U.S., on April 17, 2008, Pope Benedict XVI spoke to Catholic educators assembled in Washington, D.C. The Holy Father was not breaking new ground, but building on Pope John Paul II’s Ex corde Ecclesiae (1990) and Fides et ratio (1998). His task was to inspire an Ex corde vision for American “institutions of learning,” which had already been somewhat thrown into relief by The Newman Guide to Choosing a Catholic College (2007).1

The 21 Catholic institutions recommended in The Newman Guide may surprise some readers, because the highest profile Catholic universities are absent. Administrators, faculty and alumni from these and other schools from among the 200 or so Catholic colleges and universities may challenge their non-inclusion.

But Pope Benedict embraced some of the recent trends captured by The Guide in his own vision of the “nature and identity of Catholic education today.” History helps to understand applying papal principles to the current American situation. It is useful to begin by looking at the history of Catholic colleges and universities, then briefly turn to the American scene, and on this basis attempt to “listen” to Benedict’s Washington address, including its hard truths—some explicit, others implied.

Universities Through Time

Core curricula in Catholic colleges and universities have developed and changed frequently, but never as dramatically as in recent history. Historians have already begun to recognize that the twentieth century saw changes in universities more rapid and extensive than any period since Catholics first created them in the European Middle Ages. Fortunately, two astute modern observers help with the American experience.2  Philip Gleason and Father James Burtchaell, C.S.C., both begin with the Jesuit Ratio Studiorum, the blueprint for the Society’s schools formulated in 1599, but it is instructive to go back even farther in time.

The Medieval University

While most educational experiments have not stood the test of time, the university—first created around the year 1200 in Paris, Oxford and Bologna—has done so because it possesses certain features that are essential to the central task of higher education, which is creating, preserving and passing on knowledge, even wisdom.3 Here I isolate six aspects of the medieval university’s curriculum.

These six features are: (1) a bi-level nature; (2) an initial core followed by specialized, advanced training; (3) a curriculum that centers on books; (4) a curriculum that offers doctrine; (5) a curriculum that is Catholic; and (6) a curriculum that is integrated.  The medieval university provides my illustrations, but my argument is that these six features are essential to the very nature of Catholic universities, which teach both undergraduate and graduate students, and Catholic colleges, which teach undergraduates.

The medieval university curriculum was modeled on the medieval craft guild—with its apprentices, journeymen and “master” craftsmen. This educational structure is still familiar: undergraduates pursuing a “Bachelor’s” degree and graduate students pursuing a “Master’s” (comparable to today’s Ph.D.). The curriculum was separated into two levels—undergraduate and graduate—because medieval professors, called “Masters,” understood that advanced intellectual training needed to be grounded in what we would now call general education. There would be no physics without mathematics and no philosophy without grammar, then and now. The medieval university curriculum, therefore, was bi-level because general undergraduate studies were separate from specialized graduate studies. Centuries later the undergraduate curriculum in both colleges and universities would itself become bi-level, divided into general or core courses required of all students and specialized “majors” pursued by fewer than all.

The whole curriculum of the medieval undergraduate Faculty of Arts was required of all students. Such a mandatory or core curriculum is sharply different from requirements that can be filled in a number of ways, nowadays called “distribution components.” The medieval core originally consisted of the seven “liberal” arts—the trivium of language arts (grammar, rhetoric and logic) and the quadrivium of mathematics and science (arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music)—so called because they “liberate” the mind for higher studies, then limited to theology, law and medicine. This practice recognized that illogical lawyers lose cases, and surgeons who cannot follow the geometry of the human body kill their patients.

The medieval curriculum was a books curriculum. Masters self-consciously preferred primary sources, many non-Christian, to textbooks written by one another. To the few classical and patristic sources available earlier, in the thirteenth century was added a vast array of Aristotle’s books. Aristotle’s works on logic and the “sciences,” both practical and theoretical, became incorporated into the medieval curriculum. University requirements were spelled out in terms of books.  To graduate, the student would be tested on them to determine if he—for centuries it would only be men—were “approved in science and morals (scientia et moribus).” The schoolmen were humble and wise enough to see in a books curriculum the basis for life-long learning, because they read other books like they read the book, the Bible.

The reason for laboring over books, especially master works, was to understand the truth they are thought to contain. This is what I mean by doctrine, which is not limited to Catholic topics, because the medieval scholars found doctrine in all the disciplines. In medicine, for example, learning correct “doctrine” about the geometry of lines and the nature of light resolved the centuries long dispute over whether seeing is accomplished by rays of light moving from the object to the eye or the reverse. The books in the medieval core were chosen because they imparted both intellectual skills and doctrinal content.

The medieval university was Catholic, but its curriculum was not limited to explicitly Catholic subjects. Centuries earlier Augustine had decided the issue: Greek learning would be integrated into Catholic education, in the way the ancient Hebrews had “spoiled” or appropriated the gold of the Egyptians when Moses led them to the Promised Land. Medieval curricula in theology and canon law were explicitly Catholic, but since these were graduate courses Catholic doctrine was taught to undergraduates less directly. Masters taught through lectures, “reading” books written mainly by classical pagan authors, through disputations on topics of current interest, and through sermons on Sundays and the many feast days on the university calendar.

In all three venues undergraduate students saw the dialectical interplay between faith and reason played out by their Masters, most especially in sermons that were more like essays on scripture and doctrine than what we have today. As one might expect, the Catholic character of medieval universities led from the beginning to disputes over books and doctrines (for example, in Paris, 1210). In the thirteenth century, the changing attitude toward some of Aristotle’s books—accepted, banned, accepted again—can stand as a sign that Catholic concerns guided the curriculum.

Integration is my term for how the curriculum and, more broadly, different strands in the tapestry of knowledge, fit together to produce a unified whole whose parts can be seen to complement each other. In one way, integration is a process of personal development, never complete because each of us must come to see for ourselves if there is such an order and what it is.  The medieval curriculum was designed to expedite this personal achievement.

But how the seven liberal arts, early Church Fathers and Aristotelian philosophy fit together was not obvious.  In the 1250s, the Franciscan Bonaventure and the Dominican Thomas of Aquino argued that theology stood first among the disciplines and integrated the “arts and sciences” into an ordered whole by providing them a goal beyond themselves.4 Thus was set the idea that the whole undergraduate curriculum would somehow open the mind to theology and to an active Christian life beyond the university.

These six features—bi-level, core, books, doctrine, Catholic and integration—characterized the medieval curriculum. Though manifested in different ways and degrees in various institutions, these features go to the very essence of what constitutes a Catholic university. All six working together are necessary for the university to achieve its proper “outcomes,” that is, graduates who will be Catholic professionals wise “in knowledge and morals,” and in the masters, books and artifacts that embody the wisdom those graduates need.  If so, these six features can be used as criteria to make judgments about Catholic colleges and universities, then and now.

The Jesuit Ratio Studiorum

Over the centuries, the expansion of knowledge put pressure on the university curriculum: at first the re-discovery of the past (Aristotle and the classics), and also new discoveries, whose pace quickened with the scientific revolution. The Jesuit Ratio Studiorum was designed to solve the problem of an expanding core by expanding time in school. The classical studies introduced by humanists from Petrarch to Erasmus were turned into a five-year “humanities” course (Latin, Greek, classical history and literature), designed as preparation for a three-year scholastic “philosophy” course (Aristotelian philosophy and mathematics as taken by Ignatius’s first Jesuits at the University of Paris), which culminated for Jesuits themselves, but not for laymen, in a three-year “theology” course.5

Jesuit schools were not part of the older universities, but built from the ground up, their “colleges” being an extension of their “humanities” schools, which we might think of as secondary schools. Typical was the Jesuit school at La Fleche, France, where from 1606 to 1614 René Descartes followed the Jesuit Ratio in humanities and philosophy, which qualified him to study law at the University of Poitiers (1614-16).  Two centuries later, the seven-year course of study at the Jesuit school in “George-Town on the Potowmack-River” by the 1830s contained the five years of “Humanities,” book-ended by a first year of “Rudiments” for backward Americans, and a last year of “Philosophy,” reduced from the three in the Ratio.6

The Jesuit Ratio covered only core subjects. It was also doctrinal and Catholic. Its humanistic bent had older students reading books, but relegating the classics to younger boys inevitably drew the pre-collegiate curriculum toward textbooks, a change exacerbated when Jesuits opened courses of study in vernacular languages and sciences.

In comparison with the medieval university, one thing was clearly absent—Jesuit education was not bi-level; it contained only core. And integration was another problem. Theology was still thought of as the “integrating” discipline, but since it was taught only to Jesuits, not laymen, the de facto integrating discipline in the Ratio was philosophy.  Descartes’ decision to separate rational knowledge completely from theology grew out of his Jesuit education. His “tree” of knowledge had three parts: its roots were metaphysics, its trunk the “new physics” and its branches and leaves would be scientific engineering, scientific psychology and scientific medicine. For Descartes and his heirs, philosophy would now integrate a secular curriculum.

President Eliot’s “Elective” System

In 1884, a crisis in American education was precipitated when President Charles W. Eliot introduced the “elective system” that eliminated the core curriculum at Harvard. Not for the first time, an American was attempting to imitate the Europeans, but without understanding them. Eliot saw that over time European universities had become devoted to specialized knowledge, but he failed to understand that Europeans had developed the lycée / gymnasium system, which downloaded the core liberal arts education from university to the secondary school level, something Americans had not done.

At first, Eliot proposed his elective system for colleges, and then even for secondary schools. In an Atlantic Monthly article in 1899, Eliot dismissed opposition to his proposal as retrograde religiosity and slammed the Jesuits:

There are those who say that there should be no election of studies in secondary schools…. This is precisely the method followed in Moslem countries, where the Koran prescribes the perfect education, to be administered to all children alike…. Another instance of uniform prescribed education may be found in the curriculum of the Jesuit colleges, which has remained almost unchanged for four hundred [really 300] years, disregarding some trifling concessions made to natural science. That these examples are both ecclesiastical is not without significance.7

Eliot’s elective system eventually predominated, reaching its high water mark in the 1960s, when some schools finally swept away all required courses. The elective system preserves none of the six features of the Catholic curriculum, which is why Eliot took after the Jesuits so viciously. Eliot’s curriculum would not even be bi-level; everything would be sacrificed to specialization.

Reaction against Eliot was determined. Samuel Eliot Morison, the chronicler of Harvard’s history, later wrote: “It is a hard saying, but Mr. Eliot, more than any other man, is responsible for the greatest educational crime of the century against American youth—depriving him of his classical heritage.”8 But in 1900 responding fell to a feisty philosophy professor and president (1894-98) at Boston College, Father Timothy Brosnahan, S.J. The Atlantic refused to print his reply to Eliot, so Father Brosnahan had to content himself with the Sacred Heart Review, in which he wrote:

The young man applying for an education is told to look out on the whole realm of learning, to him unknown and untrodden, and to elect his path…. He must distinctly understand that it is no longer the province of his Alma Mater to act as earthly providence for him. Circumstances have obliged her to become a caterer. Each student is free to choose his intellectual pabulum [nourishment], and must assume in the main the direction of his own studies. If he solve the problem wisely, to him the profit; if unwisely, this same Alma Noverca [Step-mother] disclaims the responsibility.9

That Father Brosnahan foresaw the debacle that would not fully develop until the second half of the twentieth century is a tribute to his foresight. But what kind of curriculum did he support? It was squarely based on the Ratio. American Jesuits quite rightly refused to demote humanities completely to the secondary school, and they knew that without humanities American collegians would not be prepared for the Ratio’s three years of philosophy. So for Americans, Georgetown’s version of the Ratio was best: begin with humanities, that is, Latin and Greek classics, and end with “philosophy,” as what we would now call a “capstone experience.”

At Father Brosnahan’s Boston College, the curriculum was core, doctrinal and Catholic. Following Jesuit tradition, it eschewed bi-level education and textbooks often replaced primary source books. In 1900, integration through theology was still reserved for Jesuits. Philosophy would remain the integrating discipline for laymen, and in the 1920s at Boston College, “[p]hilosophy provided the finishing of one’s collegiate education, the worldview which allowed and goaded each undergraduate… to organize all that he or she had learned… within the integrative way of thinking that was provided by Thomist philosophy.” And as late as “the 1950s a student would still take ten courses for a whopping twenty-eight credits in philosophy during his or her last two years: logic, epistemology, metaphysics, cosmology, fundamental psychology, empirical psychology, rational psychology, natural theology, general ethics, and special ethics.”10 In the first half of the twentieth century, the Ratio still guided Jesuit and many other Catholic colleges, but changes were coming.11

The Catholic Light Dying

Already in 1898, Father Read Mullen, S.J., successor to Father Brosnahan as president of Boston College (1898-1903), had introduced an English track that included English, modern languages and sciences, rather than classics, though it still held tight to the philosophy requirement. In 1935, Holy Cross and Boston College dropped the Greek requirement from the B.A. degree, and in 1955 the American Jesuits requested permission to drop the Latin requirement.  But if a good core can be run in the vernacular tongue (a reasonable assumption, since Latin was no longer the language of educated people), the Jesuit curriculum still held very much to the Ratio, with one significant improvement: place was made for undergraduate majors, which made the undergraduate curriculum bi-level.

Then came the fateful 1960s, with its vehement rejection of tradition, including philosophy, theology and even the very notion of a common core. In its centennial year (1963-64), Boston College cut its philosophy requirement in half to five courses, further reduced it to two in 1971. Throughout the Catholic system, core courses began to be replaced by distribution components fulfilled from a number of options, an application of Eliot’s elective system to required courses. The Catholic university became Father Brosnahan’s “caterer” at the same time one began to hear the phrase “cafeteria Catholic.”

The effect can be seen in courses currently required for a B.A. in Arts and Sciences at St. Louis University, to pick but one and arguably the most traditional of the major Jesuit universities. At St. Louis, the required curriculum is large, roughly half of one’s courses (16 to 21 out of 40, depending on foreign language). Vestiges of the Ratio can still be discerned. “Humanities” show up in requirements in English, world history and foreign language. Science (including mathematics) and philosophy fall under the Ratio’s conception of “philosophy.” There is also theology.

Such requirements seem to produce a bi-level curriculum, but only of a sort. Of the total required, only six are truly core courses, all the rest are distribution components for which any number of courses might suffice.  Indeed, there are 13 variations available for the first required English course; students may choose from 87 courses to satisfy the Cultural Diversity requirement; and the number of offerings that meet the Social Science component is even higher.

The net result is clear.  St. Louis no longer has a core curriculum of the sort found in Catholic universities from the 1260s to the 1960s.  Distribution components make a books curriculum for all students impossible. Nor is the curriculum doctrinal or Catholic, in the sense that it ensures every student the opportunity to encounter the wealth of the Catholic (or any other) intellectual tradition. It follows that the St. Louis curriculum is not integrated, but fragmented into myriad little pieces. As interesting as they may be individually, they do not add up to a whole, even if a particularly clever or well-advised student can devise a curriculum with all six of these traditional traits. The most important point: St. Louis University is but one example of a widespread problem.

*    *    *

Along with cathedrals, veneration of the Virgin, Franciscan poverty and knightly chivalry, the university is a world-historical gift from medieval Europeans to the whole human race. The university has been exported around the globe and shows no signs of diminution, because with it humans created a superb educational institution. It has changed over time, however, producing successive “models” of Catholic higher education.

In a papal bull issued in 1231, Pope Gregory IX called the university in Paris “parens scientiarum,” the parent of the sciences, in homage to its role as a model. And Paris begat the Jesuit Ratio, which begat the nineteenth century Neo-scholastic model, which in Hegelian fashion begat what I call the “Freewheeling” 1960s model. From Paris we can learn that Masters and their books are good even though it is unfortunate that universities eclipsed the thriving schools in Benedictine nunneries. The first Jesuits teach us that core and doctrine are good, but they also gave us Descartes and the term “Jesuitical.”

From Pope Leo XIII and Americans like Father Brosnahan came pugnaciously Catholic colleges, with curricula integrated by philosophy and theology. But they also gave us awful textbooks that eclipsed wisdom in pursuit of uniformity. The Freewheeling period showed that specialization and professionalization could produce a bi-level undergraduate curriculum. Specialization need not entail secularization, but secularization rode into American Catholic colleges and universities on the coattails of the Freewheeling model. This unhappy fact cannot be denied.

Will the Freewheeling model of a Catholic university be with us for a long time? No, it is already is dying because it cannot deliver the kind of truly Catholic education as could its predecessors. Such changes are not unusual; indeed, they are the iron law of history. We should attempt to preserve what is good in the Freewheeling model, especially that research universities must be staffed by the most accomplished researchers.

But imagine yourself in 1229 trying to convince Philip, Chancellor of the University of Paris, that there are no Dominicans professionally qualified for the Chair in Theology he has just secured for the fledgling order. History shows how shallow is this attitude, at that time espoused by the secular Masters of Theology then on strike and what we might now call the “Ivy League syndrome.” The first Dominican appointed was Roland of Cremona, whose name is all but forgotten, but within twenty years the Dominicans sent to Paris both Albert of Cologne and Thomas of Aquino.  The rest is history.

Rekindling the Catholic Light

The dissolution of the Catholic character of the curriculum at Catholic universities has not gone unchallenged in the post-Vatican II era by individual Catholic faculty in many places and by some reformers. Quite striking during this era have been the “new starts,” small, even tiny, institutions begun during the “dying of the light.” Several were founded in the 1970s, and a second wave is underway, including a few now in the planning stages.  Their founders have and still work very much against the common consensus of the American Catholic educational establishment, and for the first time many of them are laymen.

In looking at these efforts to restore Catholicity to curriculum, I would like to distinguish three kinds of institutions, all found in The Newman Guide, what I call: (a) the “Great Books” Catholic college; (b) the “Doctrinal” Catholic college; and (c) the Ex corde Catholic university.

The “Great Books” Catholic College

Catholics were not the only educators to react against President Eliot’s elective system. At Columbia, the gifted polymath John Erskine created the first “Great Books” course in 1920. When Robert Hutchins took over at The University of Chicago in 1929, he teamed up with a firebrand philosopher from Columbia named Mortimer Adler to produce the “Chicago Plan.” Neither Catholic nor committed to doctrine, the latter had other central features of the Catholic university: an undergraduate college with a core curriculum featuring books, combined with advanced learning in graduate school.  In 1937, near-defunct St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland, changed its whole curriculum into a four-year Great Books B.A.

In 1941 Brother Austin Crowley, F.S.C., introduced a Great Books curriculum at St. Mary’s in Moraga, California. By 1968, St. Mary’s was in trouble and, in an oft-repeated error, the curriculum was blamed for problems that had other causes.12 A vocal minority of the faculty argued that the problem was that the curriculum was not traditional and Catholic enough. Its manifesto, “A Proposal for the Fulfillment of Catholic Liberal Education,” became the founding document for a new Great Books college, Thomas Aquinas College (TAC), founded in 1971.

What Ronald McArthur and his fellow rebels from St. Mary’s did at TAC was to accept the fact that students would no longer be able to read the classics in the original, a lesson that had been very hard for the Jesuits to accept. It seems to me that despair over losing the original Ratio led the Jesuits to conclude that the sky was the limit on curricular change. TAC took the opposite view—since mastering Latin and Greek would not return, the content of the Ratio should be delivered in English.

The key curricular issue at TAC was: Would the curriculum follow a bi-level model or would it follow the Ratio and only have core? The college opted to follow the Jesuits and St. John’s—core and core alone. The next question was how to deliver this curriculum. Here TAC followed the St. John’s books curriculum, with the addition of Catholic doctrine. Vestiges of the Ratio abound. Under the Ratio’s humanities fall Latin (but only for two years) and “Seminar” (an eclectic four years of texts in literature, history, politics and modern philosophy). The Ratio’s philosophy is divided into four different four-year courses: in mathematics, science, philosophy (which means Aristotle) and theology (Thomas Aquinas).

The result is a fine updating in the spirit of the Jesuit Ratio. TAC’s curriculum has core, real books, doctrine and Catholicity. Integration is achieved in both the traditional Catholic ways, through theology and philosophy. TAC’s curriculum is resolutely and proudly not bi-level, which makes it like the Jesuit college and the medieval undergraduate school of Arts. It is for those uninterested in career preparation within undergraduate education, though it is clearly designed to provide its graduates a fine basis for graduate education elsewhere. For this reason, like St. John’s College, TAC will remain a minority option and cannot be the model for expanding John Paul II’s vision of an Ex corde Catholic institution from a small college to a larger university.

The Newman Guide lists other schools that attempt a Catholic Great Books curriculum. Notable among them is the University of Dallas (UD), founded in 1956 by laymen and a group of Cistercian educators who had escaped from Hungary during the Cold War. The curricular issue at Dallas was how to incorporate the Great Books into a curriculum divided into majors, and UD’s answer was to distribute their chosen list of Great Books among a set of required courses that are housed in the standard academic departments. This choice makes the Dallas curriculum bi-level, and shows the Great Books option offers real promise for larger universities. But Dallas does not yet have the size and breadth to prove the case.

The “Doctrinal” Catholic College

A second approach is exemplified by Christendom College, founded in Front Royal, Virginia, in 1977. Its core curriculum concentrates on delivering doctrine that is Catholic, but not tied to particular books.  This is why I call this category of colleges “doctrinal.” Christendom’s curriculum devotes the first two years to 24 required courses, while the last two years are devoted primarily to the major. This makes the curriculum fully bi-level, which is the predominant model for The Newman Guide institutions.

The language requirement is a distribution component, but all other courses during the first two years are core courses housed in departments. Under the Ratio’s humanities fall the subjects of English, history, foreign language and political science.  The math and science requirement is minimal.   Distinctive are large cores in philosophy and theology. The curriculum at Christendom is nicely bi-level, core, doctrinal and Catholic. Integration is to be achieved in the traditional ways—through theology and philosophy—and these two requirements are large enough to do the job.

However, the curriculum is not a books curriculum. On this point, Christendom and TAC are point and counterpoint to each other, with UD lying between them. In addition, while the curriculum is technically bi-level, the small size of the college means only a small number of majors are offered, making it impossible for Christendom’s curriculum to be bi-level in a robust sense. While Christendom is a fine example of an Ex corde Catholic college, its small size prevents it from being the model for an Ex corde Catholic university.

Ex Corde Ecclesiae Catholic Universities?

Perhaps the most striking statement in The Newman Guide is that it recommends only one institution, The Catholic University of America (CUA), that is large enough (about 3,300 undergraduates) and with a substantial enough graduate school to count as a “university” according to contemporary standards. None of the largest American Catholic universities make the list.

One major reason for this fact is because institutions that have been the most successful according to the usual measures—size, endowment or prestige—have curricula that have suffered most from that very success. For size and wealth have brought pressure for specialization, multiplication of majors and especially development of graduate programs at previously undergraduate institutions, accomplished by imitating current practices at non-Catholic institutions. There also is the Ivy League syndrome, the desire to follow the elite American universities, even if that means following them down the path that in the nineteenth century transformed Protestant religious institutions into secular ones, a phenomenon well documented by Burtchaell. All of these factors have combined to bring pressure to bear against the traditional Catholic core.

On this point, Catholic University is the exception that proves the rule. Its history shows it to be out of the ordinary in almost every respect. CUA opened in 1887, as an American initiative in the neo-Thomistic revival begun with Leo XIII’s Aeterni patris (1879). It started as a purely graduate university devoted to serving the needs of the Church in America for graduate training, at a time when other Catholic institutions were undergraduate. To staff its schools of philosophy, theology and law, CUA turned to Europe for help and has maintained close connections there ever since.

So when it expanded into undergraduate studies, these ties led CUA to follow the older European university tradition of bi-level education, with a strong undergraduate core. Over time, administrators have remained attached to CUA’s European roots, in no small part because many of them were educated there. They have been more committed to core, and especially to philosophy within the core, owing in part to the fact that at CUA philosophy is a school, not a department.

During the era of post-Vatican II problems, CUA was affected mainly at the graduate level, as in the affair of Father Charles Curran, who led dissent from Humanae Vitae (1968). The removal of Father Curran from the theology faculty in 1986, by then Cardinal Ratzinger, had symbolic impact, the value of which cannot be denied. A more recent symbol was the choice by the same man, now Pope Benedict XVI, to speak at CUA, rather than another Catholic university. So the example of CUA underlines how serious is the problem at large Catholic universities, which thus far have shown themselves willing to follow their Protestant brethren down the road to secularization, offering clever but specious arguments in their defense.

*    *    *

This brief survey of the American situation yields important results. First, real progress toward “rekindling” the Catholic light has been made at some institutions. I have merely picked four examples, and The Newman Guide has not captured all the signs of progress; absent are improvements made in institutions that did not make its list. Second, what these schools have in common is that Catholic identity is central to their educational endeavors and has led them to the kind of curriculum found in the earlier Catholic university tradition, characterized by the six features outlined above—bi-level, core, doctrine, books, Catholic and integrated. These schools package these features in the traditional way, with core courses in the liberal arts, philosophy and theology.  Third, if rekindling is to take hold, it next needs to move to medium and large Catholic universities. This is the challenge to which Benedict XVI responded in his Washington address in April 2008.

Enter Pope Benedict XVI

In his address to Catholic educators, Benedict called himself a “professor” and offered his audience a theological argument.13 Ever the realist, he courageously focused on the underlying but too often avoided existential question: Why have Catholic schools in the first place? He put the issue this way because “some today question the Church’s involvement in education, wondering whether her resources might be better placed elsewhere.”

“Some” here certainly includes leaders within the Church in America. The last of Benedict’s specific injunctions is directed expressly to them: “Here I wish to make a special appeal to Religious Brothers, Sisters, and Priests: do not abandon the school apostolate; indeed, renew your commitment to schools, especially those in poorer areas.” While many in the Vatican II generation may have closed their ears, their time is rapidly passing away and Benedict understands that younger religious and priests are listening to him closely.

In dialectical fashion, the “professor” himself raises the strongest objection. In a rich nation like the United States, “the state provides ample opportunities for education.” So should Catholic education fade away like the Catholic hospital? Benedict’s address is an extended argument in reply, supporting a fundamental conclusion: American Catholic colleges and universities are needed, but only if they exhibit a strong and vigorous sense of Catholic identity.

Benedict’s understanding of Catholic identity emerges gradually in his message, but for the sake of clarity I shall begin with it. For Benedict, Catholic identity is wide-ranging and comprehensive, including all the essential features of college or university life. At each step of his argument, he weaves together three related themes: how the individual cannot afford to ignore the wider community; how the good of the intellect is tied to the good of the will; and, above all, how reason cannot afford to ignore faith. He uses all three to explain Catholic identity because he is well aware of the temptation to reduce this complex reality to one of its parts.

He rejects the earlier neo-scholastic tendency to reduce Catholic identity to “orthodoxy of course content,” often confined to the departments of philosophy and theology, and the later tendency—widespread after concern for orthodoxy waned in the post-Vatican II period—to rest Catholic identity “upon statistics.” “A university or school’s Catholic identity is not simply a question of the number of Catholic students. It is a question of conviction,” that is, institutional conviction, not just personal choice. He asks, “Do we accept the truth Christ reveals? Is the faith tangible in our universities and schools?” Benedict advocates using many measures of Catholic identity, but understood as signs radiating from its center, the institutional conviction of the truth of the Catholic faith made tangible.

In support of Catholic identity, Benedict offers three distinct lines of argument, or “steps,” following his order of presentation. Step One: For the good of the Church, its colleges and universities should have a strong Catholic identity.  Step Two: For the good of communities outside the Church, notably the wider civic good, Catholic colleges and universities should have a strong Catholic identity.  Step Three: For the good of their own intellectual work, Catholic colleges and universities should have a strong Catholic identity.

Each of these steps involves consequences for the curriculum, some of which Benedict draws explicitly, while others are left implicit. What emerges from Benedict’s message is not a relaxing of standards in comparison with Ex corde Ecclesiae, but a strengthening of them. In response to current problems, Benedict’s comprehensive picture of Catholic identity entails a curriculum with the six traditional attributes featured above, one that involves some version of the liberal arts, as well as theology and philosophy.   These steps should be considered in turn.

The Good of the Church

Crafted to his audience, Benedict’s argument begins outside, not inside, the schools: “Education is integral to the mission of the Church to proclaim the Good News.” This one terse sentence sums up the argument of Step One. Catholic colleges and universities are parts within a wider whole—the Church itself. Proclaiming the Gospel to humankind, that is, evangelization, is the fundamental function of the Church; this task absolutely requires education in a broad sense. No education, no evangelization, no Church. Since the part (the school) fits within the whole (the Church), it follows that the goals and activities of the part should serve the whole.

What links evangelization outside the school to teaching within it is what Benedict calls “the ministry (diakonia) of truth.” Benedict selects examples of evangelical truths that are directly relevant to teaching. “God’s revelation offers every generation the opportunity to discover the ultimate truth about its own life and the goal of history… guiding both teacher and student towards the objective truth which, in transcending the particular and the subjective, points to the universal and absolute.”

This first step in Benedict’s argument moves at the level of faith. If evangelization outside the Catholic school requires education, education within the Catholic school should open students to evangelization. He tells us, “First and foremost every Catholic educational institution is a place to encounter the living God who in Jesus Christ reveals his transforming love and truth.” Fostering this encounter requires Catholic identity in a strong sense of the term.

The Civic Good

Strong Catholic identity also contributes to “a nation’s fundamental aspiration to develop a society truly worthy of the human person’s dignity.” U.S. Catholics have proven their value in the public square, a value now widely acknowledged. “It comes as no surprise, then, that not just our own ecclesial communities but society in general has high expectations of Catholic educators,” he says.

As throughout his address, Benedict here accentuates the positive from the past and for the future while never understating the challenges. He continues: “The essential transcendent dimension of the human person,” traditionally taught in philosophy courses, offers the wider society “objectivity and perspective” to respond to a host of current problems: the “relativistic horizon” that fosters “a lowering of standards,” a “timidity” about the difference between good and evil, “aimless pursuit of novelty parading as the realization of freedom,” a flattening of values that assumes “every experience is of equal worth,” and finally, the “particularly disturbing” wholesale “reduction of the precious and delicate area of education in sexuality,” where, as Marx put it, “the human becomes animal and the animal human.”

But there is a catch here, since these lofty ideals also serve as standards for judging Catholic institutions. The college or university that does not teach the “transcendent dimension” and what it entails is one that lacks a strong Catholic identity and cannot justify its existence by contributing to the civic good. Father Brosnahan’s Boston College could pass this test, but that is no guarantee 110 years later.

The Intellectual Good

The focus of Benedict’s address concerns the heart of the university–the intellectual good of knowledge. Here the experience of the “professor,” who personally has lived through what he calls “the contemporary ‘crisis of truth’,” dovetails with his deep understanding of the Church’s university tradition. What results is a brief but luminous description of both problem and solution.

The problem originated in Europe and has spread round the globe, now affecting many “societies where secularist ideology drives a wedge between truth and faith.” Popularizers of this ideology abound—think of Richard Dawkins, Steven Pinker or the ACLU. But the problem is deep and can be envisioned using Descartes’ tree of knowledge. Descartes devoted himself to its metaphysical roots and scientific trunk; its branches and leaves had yet to develop. But today they now surround us: gigantic cities stretching up and out are the modern monuments of scientific engineering, our great hospitals are the emblems of scientific medicine, and we are surrounded with the results of scientific psychology, from television advertising to popular journalism to huge prisons unknown in earlier ages.

The intertwined growth of its branches, however, has affected the tree of knowledge itself, and not for the better. Benedict points to three problems of “secularism.” First, the “fragmentation” of knowledge means students and their teachers confine themselves to smaller and smaller parts of the whole, become swamped by specialization, and finally lose sight of the whole. Second, the lush growth of the sciences has led many “to adopt a positivistic mentality,” where knowledge is thought to progress in linear fashion, original myths and religions superceded by philosophy, which in turn was left in the dust by modern or “positive” science. Third, fragmentation and positivism have produced a “relativistic horizon” that undermines all claims to know the truth with certitude, both theoretical and practical.

On the theoretical side, “critical” thought, positivism and Derridean “deconstruction” have taken an axe to the tree’s metaphysical roots, so it has come crashing down, ushering in an era of hyper-critical “post-modernism.” On the practical side, scientific psychology has teamed up with scientific socialism and utilitarianism to teach “praxis creates truth,” a relativistic conclusion that has snapped branches overladen by their own weight, like a giant Southern live oak. In sum, for Benedict “secularist ideology” involves fragmentation, positivism, and relativism.

Since the problem originates in science and philosophy, Benedict expands his solution accordingly, to incorporate modern science and the traditional liberal arts, as well as philosophy and theology. His solution tracks the problem point for point. Distilled to one sentence, it is this: “With confidence, Christian educators can liberate the young from the limits of positivism and awaken receptivity to the truth, to God and his goodness.”

In response to “secularism” taken as a whole, Benedict counters with the “confidence” that comes from Catholic faith in Jesus Christ. As the incarnate logos of God, Christ is both God and man and therefore an appropriate emblem for the harmony between faith (which comes from God’s revelation) and human reason.

In response to fragmentation and positivism (the latter a term students do not know but a mindset that has captured American culture), Benedict responds with the “essential unity of knowledge against the fragmentation which ensues when reason is detached from the pursuit of truth.” This “unity” is found, not by reducing the various disciplines to one type—this is the positivist error—but through acquaintance with the full range of knowledge in all its variety. This is a large topic and Benedict does not tarry over the details.

As a sign pointing to the answer, he mentions “metaphysics” and “Catholic doctrine,” one of many names for theology. But it is doubtful these two disciplines, as important as they are, can do the job by themselves. His choice of the term “liberation” seems an intentional echo of the “liberal arts.” So the “unity of knowledge” seems to involve the full range of the disciplines, as present in the Catholic university tradition: from the linguistic arts to the arts and sciences and on to philosophy. “Receptivity to the truth” begins with rational truth, but then can expand to openness to revealed truth about God, in theology.

In response to relativism, Benedict points to “intellectual charity” which “guides the young towards the deep satisfaction of exercising freedom in relation to truth, and it strives to articulate the relationship between faith and all aspects of family and civic life. Once their passion for the fullness and unity of truth has been awakened, young people will surely relish the discovery that the question of what they can know opens up the vast adventure of what they ought to do.” An ethics that is rational but also open to knowledge coming from revelation, and an ethics that involves practice as well as theory, is what Benedict here offers in response. He says, “While we have sought diligently to engage the intellect of our young, perhaps we have neglected the will.” The remedy is that strong Catholic identity must involve Catholic practice as well as doctrine.

In sum, this third and most important step in Benedict’s argument is that only a strong Catholic identity in the Church’s American colleges and universities will offer an adequate response to the “contemporary ‘crisis of truth’.” It also underscores how thoroughly teleological Benedict’s overall reasoning is, for all three “steps” argue from end to means. If the good of the Church requires theology be part of “Catholic identity,” the good of civil society requires philosophy, and the good of knowledge requires science and the liberal arts be combined with theology and philosophy to produce a robust Catholic identity.

*   *   *

While the applications and examples Benedict uses in his argument are completely contemporary, the three steps in his overall teleological argument—the good of the Catholic faith, the good of civil society and the good of knowledge—build directly on earlier Catholic and papal doctrine, notably that of his predecessor Leo XIII.

Leo’s promotion of the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas is well known, but Benedict has built his Washington address on a less recognized feature of Leo’s Aeterni Patris, its three staged teleological argument: “While, therefore, We hold that every word of wisdom, every useful thing by whomsoever discovered or planned, ought to be received with a willing and grateful mind, We exhort you, venerable brethren, in all earnestness to restore the golden wisdom of St. Thomas, and to spread it far and wide for the defense and beauty of the Catholic faith, for the good of society, and for the advantage of all the sciences.”14

Curricular Conclusions

Many consequences for curriculum follow from Pope Benedict’s Washington message. In the course of his speech he only touches on curricular matters incidentally; but the main line of his argument offers wide-ranging support for the traditional Catholic university curriculum. And Benedict adds some specific injunctions directed to different groups at the end of the speech. One of these is a specific moral obligation concerning Catholicity: “Teachers and administrators, whether in universities or schools, have the duty and privilege to ensure that students receive instruction in Catholic doctrine and practice.” It seems appropriate, then, to arrange the curricular consequences of Benedict’s Washington speech under three headings: (a) Catholic doctrine; (b) Catholic practice; and (c) unity of knowledge.

Catholic Doctrine

The injunction to “teachers and administrators” is to “ensure”—that is, to require of students—“instruction in Catholic doctrine.” In an academic setting, instruction means courses, so this obligation is for courses in Catholic theology, crafted so as to support the truth “as found in the Gospel and upheld by the Church’s Magisterium.” The rapid growth of “Catholic studies” in Catholic institutions, as a response to perceived deficiencies in “religious studies” or theology departments, is a sign Benedict is responding to a felt need.

The numerous theological topics Benedict mentions range over three areas: doctrine, scripture and morality. A reasonable inference is that the minimum number of courses be three, because superficial instruction amounts to no instruction at all. But great variation in students, teachers and texts is the reason why such decisions are usually made locally. What is uppermost in Benedict’s mind, however, is absolutely clear: providing students the opportunity to encounter orthodox Catholic content presented in a serious and supportive way. This requirement implies a curriculum with several of the traditional features. To have a place for theology, in addition to “major,” the undergraduate curriculum must be bi-level, with a true core that mandates theology for all students, and not as a distribution component. At a minimum, theology in the core must be doctrinal and Catholic, a significant departure from current practice in many institutions.

Catholic Practice

Benedict’s injunction about Catholic “practice” shows his openness to innovation. Courses in moral theology or philosophical ethics would be appropriate, to be sure. But Benedict also seems to be looking for more. Beyond the school itself, he seems to advocate what are usually called “social service” (he might prefer “Catholic service”) requirements. Such “practices” can even be brought into the curriculum, when combined with reading and classroom discussion of books in the long Catholic tradition of social justice.

Equally important, on the “practice” side also fall the many social and moral problems affecting campuses themselves, problems teachers and administrators all too often are too timid to tackle: from speaker policies to overnight visitation in dorms, from gay and lesbian clubs to condoms to The Vagina Monologues, from discounted tuition to scholarships to endowment investment, to say nothing of drinking and driving. Institutions that provide a campus environment in accord with Catholic “practice” teach ethics by example, always the most effective way to do so. In short, this injunction strikes me as a revival of the medieval idea that students should be educated “in morals” as well as “sciences.” To the extent “Catholic practice” enters the curriculum, this requirement is a step in the direction of integration, through integrating Catholic theory with practice.

The Unity of Knowledge

The problem of the “essential unity of knowledge,” when put in curricular terms, is nothing other than the problem of integrating the curriculum. So the consequences for the curriculum that flow from Benedict’s argument based on the “unity of knowledge” are numerous and important.


The one philosophical discipline Benedict mentions by name is “metaphysics.” The traditional function of metaphysics in the curriculum, of course, concerns the existence and nature of God.  Setting out “the division and methods of the sciences” is also a properly metaphysical task. Benedict turns to metaphysics as a direct reply to positivism.  “Recognition of the essential transcendent dimension of the human person” is a topic treated in what is now often called “philosophy of the human person.” And an ethics that is philosophical but open to revelation is a hallmark of Catholic philosophy curricula.

It is hard to see how this much philosophical content can be presented in fewer than three core courses. Benedict’s argument readily lends itself to courses in metaphysics, ethics and the human person; but other ways of presenting this content are also possible. The effect of adding philosophy to theology requirements in order to achieve “Catholic identity” is to make the curriculum exhibit more fully the traditional features of being bi-level, core, doctrinal and Catholic. In addition, a metaphysical response to positivism necessarily promotes an integrated curriculum, in arguing that human knowledge itself is “integrated” or “unified.”

Far from abandoning the traditional roles of theology and philosophy in the curriculum, Benedict argues for their expansion in comparison with current common practice. And his way of arguing from end goals to curricular means undermines the current practice of turning the few remaining philosophy and theology requirements into non-standard electives bereft of consistent content. Such courses cannot ensure the ends of Church, civil society and knowledge itself are addressed.

The Liberal Arts

A great advantage of Pope Benedict’s mode of argument is that it promotes philosophy and theology, not by papal fiat or as isolated requirements, but by putting them into their real context, the larger whole he calls the “essential unity of knowledge.” This “unity” involves three points. First, Benedict rejects the positivist rejection of non-scientific disciplines; there is knowledge beyond the limits of the scientific method. Second, Benedict recognizes that truths acquired in the various disciplines can exist in harmony or “unity” with each other, even if our contemporaries have despaired for this unity. Third, Benedict realizes there is a hierarchy among disciplines, because there is a hierarchy among truths, all stemming ultimately from Truth itself as found in God.

An unstructured curriculum is but another sign of the false sense of freedom Benedict rejects. So the first curricular conclusion here is that Catholic identity requires core beyond theology and philosophy, spread over some variety of disciplines, as the necessary base for a humane and religious intellectual life.

Acquainting students with all disciplines and all world traditions and all the great books is impossible. For a curriculum that is bi-level and has core, there must be a canon, choices must be made among disciplines, books and authors. Here the traditionalist may immediately turn to the humanistic subjects that have had a preponderant place in the Catholic teaching of the liberal arts, to the neglect of modern science and its offshoot, the social sciences. Benedict’s teleological argument, by contrast, is not taken from a history some educators have rejected, but from what the various disciplines can accomplish—their ends.

Even when most successful, each discipline succeeds in capturing only part of the complexity of truth, which is why over the centuries humans have invented a variety of ways of knowing. Such large-minded wisdom is the antithesis of small-minded positivism. A second conclusion, then, is that a Catholic core curriculum should include a selection of disciplines (or authors or books) that cover the range of ways of knowing reality, both for the sake of seeing its diversity, and also to see the “unity” that lies on the other side of diversity.

This second conclusion immediately generates the next question: What disciplines must be included? The reason the linguistic studies of the medieval trivium and the mathematics of the quadrivium were core is because they are skills courses providing the “language” of thought—both literary language and mathematical language—that makes possible knowledge gained in the higher disciplines. Deficiencies in these basic skills are the primary complaint “marketplace practitioners” have about American education, problems brought on where specialization trumps general education. So such “arts” should still be mandated in a “Catholic core.”

The remaining terrain—the vast expanse of specialties and sub-specialties—is huge, but Benedict helps us negotiate it by using the classic distinction between theory, whose task is to explain the world, and practice, whose task is to act in it. All students must be given the opportunity to see that the kind of theoretical knowledge achieved in literature or physics is not the same kind as the practical knowledge in ethics or finance or engineering, and that one cannot supplant the other.

On the theoretical side, the curriculum should show the student that explanations in humanities like literature or history or fine arts, which “portray” individuals in ways that implicitly or explicitly carry universal messages, are different from “sciences” (whether ancient or modern), that explicitly articulate universal messages (through principles, or laws, theories or equations) covering a multitude of individual cases. And students should see that practical disciplines are different still, because designed to produce individual and corporate actions. There is no algorithm for determining the exact mixture of skills courses, humanities, theoretical sciences and practical disciplines the curriculum requires. This is why traditions, once put in place, tend to last. But what is clear on Benedict’s argument is that a sufficient and organized sample should be required, in order for students to see “the essential unity of knowledge.”

Benedict’s argument requires some set of “liberal arts” in a “Catholic core,” for two reasons. First, the liberal arts highlight the different, but legitimate, modes of knowing—a lesson directly contrary to all reductionisms, especially positivism. Second, the liberal arts also show the diverse disciplines cohere together as an ordered whole, both in comparison with each other and by pointing beyond themselves, to philosophy, which articulates that order, and to theology, which shows the ultimate source of that order.

A curriculum that exhibits both the diversity and unity of knowledge must have the six traditional traits. In order for such a curriculum to teach the “essential unity of knowledge” it must be integrated, which in turn requires that it also be bi-level, core, doctrinal, Catholic and—I would also add, though this is less obvious—a books curriculum. If not, the curriculum will not be able to achieve the ends of supporting Church, civil society and knowledge itself.

While these six criteria certainly validate a curriculum whose liberal arts follow Catholic tradition that is heavy to humanities, giving less weight to modern “science” and “social science”—as do many of The Newman Guide colleges—they also can provide standards for Catholic identity apart from that traditional course structure, even for a curriculum that strikes out in very new directions with a non-traditional conception of “liberal arts,” perhaps one weighted much more toward modern science.

In similar fashion, I believe Benedict’s argument certainly supports a more traditional liberal arts curriculum; but it is also open to innovations about what should count as liberal arts, subject to an important caveat. Any new liberal arts must perform their central task of “liberating” the mind to see the unity as well as the diversity of the various modes of knowing, thereby opening the student to philosophy and ultimately theology.

Interdisciplinary Studies

If the multiplicity of intellectual disciplines has produced the problem of the “crisis of truth,” it stands to reason that moving through multiplicity to unity is the answer. Pope Benedict certainly advocates turning to the disciplines that make up the traditional Catholic liberal arts. But there is a second alternative to disciplinary study of the liberal arts—interdisciplinary studies—that have grown as another way to overcome the “fragmentation” Benedict finds such a problem. John Paul II clearly recognized both the promise and the problems interdisciplinary studies present, in the way he recommended them in Ex corde, para. 20:

While each discipline is taught systematically and according to its own methods, interdisciplinary studies, assisted by a careful and thorough study of philosophy and theology, enable students to acquire an organic vision of reality and to develop a continuing desire for intellectual progress.

Examples of non-departmental “core” programs abound, but they do not play a major role in the curriculum of The Newman Guide schools. John Paul II’s idea of using interdisciplinary studies, combined with philosophy and theology, seems to me quite consistent with Benedict’s vision of Catholic identity.

Academic Freedom

From Benedict’s comprehensive conception of Catholic identity comes another injunction that concerns the curriculum, one directed toward faculty: “I wish to reaffirm the great value of academic freedom. In virtue of this freedom you are called to search for the truth wherever careful analysis of evidence leads you. Yet it is also the case that any appeal to the principle of academic freedom in order to justify positions that contradict the faith and the teaching of the Church would obstruct or even betray the university’s identity and mission.” Here he rejects an absolutist conception of academic freedom that derives from faculty foreshortening their gaze to self or discipline, to the detriment of the greater good of the university itself and, beyond that, the “unity of knowledge.”

Such a cramped view of the freedom to pursue one’s discipline is but part of the broader “contemporary ‘crisis of knowledge’.” It can indeed lead to the perception that there is a contradiction between discipline and Catholicism; but Benedict is confident that in the long run there will be no real contradiction. What seeming contradictions invariably uncover is error, such as the error of positivism; and to hold that academic freedom means the freedom to espouse what is false is a direct assault, not just on the “unity of knowledge,” but on knowledge itself. Faculty, as well as students, can have a confused notion of freedom. “Catholic identity,” in short, has absolutely no obligation to give way to error.


Benedict’s Washington address coheres nicely with the lessons that come from Catholic university history and from the current state of American Catholic colleges and universities. Neither the medieval university nor the Jesuit Ratio nor the contemporary Freewheeling American university provides a detailed blueprint for every feature of a contemporary institution with strong Catholic identity. We need the virtue of prudence to shape principle to problem and circumstance. Let us recognize that graduate courses are no longer confined to theology, law and medicine, Latin is no longer spoken in the classroom and Jane Austen is unfamiliar to many undergraduates.

But on the other side, it is simply shallow nominalism to call an education “Catholic” that does not require Augustine’s Confessions or Dante’s Comedy, housed within a core curriculum devoted in part to the “liberal arts,” philosophy and theology. The six features of the curriculum that history shows are central to the Catholic university tradition are worth preserving because they lie at the very heart of a Catholic college or university. So far as I can tell, history, current good practice and now Pope Benedict XVI all point in the same direction. The next model for the Catholic university, as well as the Catholic college, will be the Ex corde model already emerging at some Catholic colleges. Staffed by professionals, it will include a curriculum that will be bi-level, core, books, doctrinal, Catholic and integrated. I think I see it developing, but time will tell.