Reflections on the Vatican’s Educating to Fraternal Humanism - Cardinal Newman Society

Reflections on the Vatican’s Educating to Fraternal Humanism

Educating to Fraternal Humanism is the latest guidance from the Vatican’s Congregation for Catholic Education. The document marks the 50th anniversary of Pope Paul VI’s social encyclical Populorum Progressio (The Development of the Peoples).

The new document’s main point is that education is fundamentally an exercise in promoting dialogue and social justice, which diminishes the Church’s well-established vision for Catholic education. While there are helpful insights presented in the relatively short 30-paragraph text, weaknesses in structure and content limit its contribution to a long history of more helpful documents published by the Congregation for Catholic Education.


One of the document’s structural flaws is its failure to define “fraternal humanism” clearly up front. This weakens the document for two reasons. First, “fraternal humanism” is a new turn of phrase in Catholic education and therefore requires explanation. It does not appear in Populorum Progresso nor in the hundreds of pages of previous guidance from the Congregation for Catholic Education through the years. In fact, the word “humanism” only appears a total of 13 times in all previous Catholic education documents combined.

Second, the very use of the word “humanism” is problematic, so it would have been helpful to acknowledge and resolve this tension up front. “Humanism” is most often associated with a philosophical and cultural movement that explicitly rejects the validity of religion; to the extent it is used in Catholic theology, the familiar term is “Christian humanism.” That would have been the better term to use, since it seems to capture the authors’ meaning of looking out for the needs and welfare of humanity within a Christian worldview and anthropology.

Veiled Christianity

Instead, the substitution of the word “fraternal” for the more apt “Christian” seems to highlight a strategy that seeks to downplay overt references to Christ in an effort to be better received by others and promote dialogue. The document has no references to Scripture and only mentions Jesus or God four times in almost 4,000 words. The glaring omission distinguishes this document from previous Vatican guidance for Catholic education.

The misguided attempt to further the mission of religious schools by deemphasizing Christianity has a sad history: one clearly seen in the United States. Books such as The Dying of the Light: The Disengagement of Colleges and Universities from their Churches and research such as “The Eliting of the Common American Catholic School” document the negative results in both colleges and schools of walking away from a Christian emphasis in an attempt to curry contact and favor from secular progressives and non-believers.

The ratchet only turns one way: religious schools becoming more secular, rather than scores of previously secular students formally transitioning into the faith. Additionally, in an academic context, the attempt to win others to your cause by holding back who you are or downplaying your own culture or religious beliefs in an attempt to be popular and liked is itself problematic. Things are to be believed because they are true, not because they are useful, popular, or attractive to modern tastes. Truth transcends popularity.

Insofar as the document does mention Jesus in one of its 30 paragraphs tucked in the middle, it finds some success:

One needs, therefore, through the hope of salvation, to be living signs [sic] of the same. How can the message of salvation in Jesus Christ be spread in a globalized world? “It is not science that redeems man. Man is redeemed by love.” Christian charity proposes universalizing and inclusive social grammars. Such charity informs the knowledge that, so imbued, it will accompany man in the search for meaning and truth in creation. Hence the education of fraternal humanism must start from the certainty of the message of hope contained in the truth of Jesus Christ. It is up to education, then, to offer this hope to the peoples of the world, as a message conveyed in reason and active life. [17]

This passage is quite well-stated, as is the later notion that, “The specific task that education to fraternal humanism can perform is to contribute to building such a culture based on intergenerational ethics” [21] which is “based on the indissoluble unity that brings ancestors, contemporaries, and posterity to surmount their degrees of kinship, so that all are equally recognized as being children of the Father and thus in a relationship of universal solidarity” [31]. This idea that we must start from the truth of Christ and that humanity is bound together in space and time, ethically and culturally, is helpful in situating larger Catholic educational elements in the totality of reality and human experience. These two highpoints of the document are valuable contributions to the Congregation’s long history of encouragement to Catholic educators, but they are soon drowned out by a flurry of humanistic verbiage.

Narrow view of education

The document rightly and repeatedly emphasizes that part of a Catholic school’s misson is to serve the common good. But in stating that “education should be at the service of a new humanism, in which the social person was willing to talk and work for the realization of the common good,” [7] it fails to affirm the more important point that it is by helping students discover truths about themselves and the world that the common good is secured. Education must be at the service of the truth, not just human relationships and the distribution of worldly resources.

Catholic schools are not just places to encounter each other; “First and foremost every Catholic educational institution is a place to encounter the living God,” as Pope Benedict XVI reminds us. While we can encounter the living God in each other, we also encounter Him in prayer, Sacrament, scripture, and in the various academic disciplines under study if we have the eyes to see and the ears to hear. Authentic Catholic education cannot be reduced to a social enterprise pursuing dialogue, just distribution, and harmonious relationships among students and cultures. The document teeters in this direction when it states, “First, the main purpose [of education to fraternal humanism] is to allow every citizen to feel actively involved in building fraternal humanism” [20]—which seems rather circular—and later adds, “The first commitment of education to fraternal humanism consists in self-socialization through the organization of cooperation networks” [24].

It is hard to imagine a public school educator who would find these concepts either new or objectionable. So what’s the point? At worst, the document might encourage those Catholic educators such as the misguided leaders of San Domino School who recently removed Catholic statues to appease non-Catholic students and emphasized that Catholic schools strive to teach that there is not one truth but many truths.

Zeal for fraternalism needs to be tempered by the realization that education must primarily be oriented to discovering and transferring knowledge of things and ideas rather than social bonding and social inclusion. We will be united in the truth, and in Christ who is the Truth, not in social constructs. We would do well to remember Blessed Cardinal John Henry Newman’s insight that, “Truth of whatever kind is the proper object of the intellect; its cultivation then lies in fitting it to apprehend and contemplate truth.” At times the pursuit of knowledge and truth will involve the clash of ideas, individuals, and even civilizations, and some have uncovered truths that others have not. Conflicts are inevitable, but in the end only the truth can unite, and only in the truth can humans flourish and be free.

The document also in some places seems to confuse means and ends. There are certain pedagogies and practices which are often useful in attaining the ends of education, but they are not the purpose of education. Dialogue is one such element. Fraternal humanism, according to the authors, “has the weighty responsibility of providing a formation of citizens so as to imbue them with an appropriate culture of dialogue” [14]. Dialogue is in many cases a good means to get to the end of education—the discovery, presentation, and appropriation of knowledge—but dialogue is not the only means nor an end in itself. Different subjects at different levels require different amounts of dialogue: some a lot, some very little.

Similarly, while it is a best practice to have healthy relationships among students and between students and faculty, this is not the end of education in itself. It is a means and a byproduct—and wonderful at that. So while fraternal humanism requires that “solidarity between teachers and learners must be ever more inclusive, plural and democratic,” [25] this is not really the purpose of education or even an absolutely necessary requirement, and it is certainly not a controversial or foreign concept to the vast majority of secular or religious teachers on the planet.

Despite the goodwill behind such widely recognized platitudes, it is possible to learn and discover truth even under hostile conditions—just ask any faithful Catholic student in a top-tier university. They are often not welcome, supported, or encouraged in sharing their dissenting opinions but nevertheless can learn among and from hostile peers and professors as they make their way through a political science major or medical school. So while it is a best practice to have fraternal relations, it is not a strict requirement to the nature of education to feel good about those around you or even to feel as if you “belong.”

Additionally, we read, “Globalizing hope is the specific mission of education to fraternal humanism” [18]. It is perhaps better stated that globalizing hope is a result of an education that is in service to the truth about Man as revealed by natural law and the Gospel. It is the presentation of these truths about the Gospel and God’s creation which is the specific mission of Catholic education and which leads to authentic hope.

Limited reflection

The document is most problematic if it is taken in isolation, or as anything more than a very limited reflection on one of several goals of Catholic education. For while Catholic education entails the building up of community, encouraging dialogue, and serving the common good, it is also about much more. This document is a limited reflection upon only one of several elements that go into a school’s robust Catholic identity. To be fair, it may not be just to expect every document issued by the Congregation to summarize all that has come before, but it would be misreading this document and its contribution if we fail to clarify or unduly privilege its limited scope.

A comprehensive survey of guiding educational documents from Church sources can yield several recurring and critical elements of Catholic identity. Five principles of Catholic identity stand out. First, Catholic schools are inspired by a divine mission. All educational efforts are part of the Church’s mission of salvation and evangelization for the good of each student and the good of society. Second, Catholic schools model Christian communion. Students are formed for relationship with God and with others in love and in service. All instruction is in fidelity with Catholic teaching. Third, they are places where students encounter Christ in prayer, Scripture, and sacrament. Fourth, they are places that integrally form students’ intellectual, spiritual, moral, and physical dimensions. Fifth, they seek to seek to impart a Christian view of the world, humanity, life, culture, and history, ordering the whole of human culture to the news of salvation and the unity of all knowledge.

In light of these broader categories, it is apparent that education to fraternal humanism focuses almost exclusively on the second element: modeling Christian communion. In its zeal to leave no one out and include all folks of all faiths and no faith in dialogue, it risks losing the essential truth that Catholic schools are primarily sponsored to save souls (the highest individual good) while also serving the common good. Examining this document in isolation might lead Catholic schools to miss out on a critical role they play. They are not simply places to provide a forum for all faiths to be explored in depth, but rather they are specific places built to provide a Christian view of the world, man, and culture.

Given the best possible spin, the document could be part of a valuable effort to build bridges. It could be seen as an effort to seek the common ground of a shared humanity as a place in which to begin and anchor an apostolic effort in a world that no longer has ears to hear the Gospel. The human person who is aware of the transcendent nature of humanity—and is open in good will to others—is “good soil” in which to gently plant the seeds of the full truth about humanity as revealed in Christ.

The document, however, seems to miss the opportunity to drive this point home, instead falling into a well-worn pattern of self-censorship and deferring the hard truths of the Gospel in exchange for an appeal for the friendship and approval of others. In the worst case, following this lead, a teacher might fall into the trap of thinking: “If the Gospel depends on others liking me, then I must be concerned with my own popularity and image.” However, this is not the path of the apostles, saints, and martyrs.

If teachers fall into the temptation of seeking to enhance their own relevance in the lives of secularized students by juxtaposing their own enlightenment—which often tends to look remarkably like the enlightenment of the seculars—against the stuffy, rigid, and unenlightened Catholics who have come before, then they run the risk of creating Catholic schools which conform to this world rather than transform it. If Catholic educators simply bond with humanists on their humanistic terms to prove that they have value and share the same ideals, our schools offer nothing new. They offer not the Good News but only complacency, where religious fervor and unique insight is sapped for the sake of a common humanity and getting along. Instead of a passionate search for the truth, which once found must be assented to and shared with others, Catholic educators may substitute a utopian search for tolerance and social justice.

If we ask, “What is the main problem the document seeks to address and what is the contribution of education toward this end?” it seems overly restricted to problems of social injustice and lack of fellowship. As a lifelong educator in the United States who knows the smell of the young sheep, I have had the pleasure of working with for almost 30 years, I am sure that social injustice and lack of fellowship are not the primary challenges to their lives, their salvation, and their call to serve the common good. There is certainly economic poverty around them, but they seem quite interested in addressing it.

The real challenge is that they are surrounded by the greatest poverty, the lack of God, and often cannot see it or do not know how to address it. Secular humanism has often restricted their capacity to see the reality of God’s love and presence all around them—and to live the lives of depth and coherence they ultimately are made to live. They are already passionate about issues of social justice and are very keen to accept and be accepted by others in a tolerant non-judgmental reality. Their biggest challenges relate to doubting reality itself and to real doubts about the truths of Christ and His Gospel.

We need to be clear-eyed and bold in assisting young people today to address the real issues that are killing them spiritually and socially. We need to center our efforts on Christ, who fully reveals us to ourselves and is the model of all we seek to do as Catholic educators. More talk about fraternalism and humanity is not in error; it simply is not particularly well-targeted in light of the massive challenges and the massive opportunities facing this current generation.

DAN GUERNSEY is a Senior Fellow of The Cardinal Newman Society and the principal of the Rhodora J. Donahue Academy in Ave Maria, Fla. Guernsey earned a Doctorate in Education (Ed.D.) at Eastern Michigan University, specializing in educational leadership.

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