Is it Wrong to teach Secular history in Catholic schools? - Cardinal Newman Society

Is it Wrong to teach Secular history in Catholic schools?

No. I mean, yes.

Exactly! The real answers to this question, the YES and the NO, require both definitions and distinctions.

On the surface, it seems patently absurd to assert that we should not teach secular history. After all, Caesar crossed the Rubicon and Robert E. Lee turned down the Federal Generalship. Who would not call these secular stories?

On the other hand, secularism is widely understood as anti-religious, materialistic, etc. – and should not be allowed in a religious school.

As we can see, our query hinges on the meanings of secular.

A quick look in many contemporary dictionaries will present secular as a “principle of separation of the state from religious institutions, or, being free from religious rules and teachings.”

The Merriam-Webster dictionary, however, gives a more classic definition which is, therefore, more broad and applicable to many ages. This has an advantage since it is a definition that helps modulate a vacillating political bias. It defines secular as “of or relating to the worldly or temporal; not overtly or specifically religious.”

Note, this latter definition does not pit secular against religion. It is not hostile or opposed to religion. It simply is looking at a more human, worldly or not-considering-the-divine perspective of an aspect of human events. Think of Caesar or Lee. Could we think about their actions sans religious motivations? Absolutely! Caesar was, at the Rubicon, driven by ambition and hubris. Lee, when asked by President Lincoln, was conflicted because of his love of country and his love of state.

It is in this sense of the word secular that we are compelled to answer the posed question as NO. It is not wrong to teach secular history in our schools. In fact, without teaching secular history, we would be treating our students unjustly. We would be robbing them of many elements of knowledge that they have a right to know as their cultural heritage, knowledge which is simply plain, human or natural activity that does not partake of any overtly religious elements.

However, there is also the other definition of secular which denotes an anti-religiosity. Upon consideration of the distinctions that this definition implies, we see that it IS wrong to teach THIS secularism in our schools. What we speak of here is the overt anti-religiosity which has been introduced to our own academic formation, our news and media, our textbooks and our wider culture. We must be profoundly careful about how that plays out in our classrooms, and especially in our own personal attitudes and thinking.

Here in California, we battle an extreme attitude of secularism within the educational intelligentsia. This is a powerfully anti-religious lobby. Sure, this secularist intelligentsia will pay lip service to the existence of religion, and religious people, but it comes across as grudging acquiescence. There is no allowance for real and positive religious motivation and goodness.

Yes, they are crazy in California, but don’t think the rest of the country is out of the woods. None of us are in the clear.

Pope Francis recently warned us against the “ideological colonization” of our young people in subjecting them to the moral dangers of teaching them that gender is a choice, and Pope Benedict famously cautioned us to be aware of, and to counter, the “dictatorship of relativism” that has tainted us all. Both of these ideas from our Holy Fathers point to our being tainted. As good as we might be, we suffer from some tainting.


Because the very textbooks we use in our classrooms are written from a viewpoint or philosophy which is implicitly hostile to religion. This has been the case for generations, though it has unarguably been getting more extreme in the last 10 years or so. The secular textbooks today are not just telling historical nuggets from a temporal point of view – they have adopted an aggressive political activist stance, and have crafted themselves according to the more anti-religious secularism. They are materialist, secular-humanist, and relativistic. “Your truth is fine for you, but…”

Here is how this problem of secularism affects us, as teachers. Students take for granted that the textbook used in class is accurate. But in today’s culture, these textbooks can undermine a young person’s understanding of the simple, universal human truth, of traditions, of nature, of natural law, and of our Catholic faith – of the significance of the Church and its faithful throughout history. This affects a young adult’s foundational understanding of the world and his purpose in it. How many teachers really evaluate a textbook, deeply, from a perspective of Christian anthropology, and whether the underlying “story” of the book is for us or against us? I would say most of us teachers do not evaluate in this way, placing too much trust in the publishers. “The publishers meet the state standards – they have to – so it must be OK,” a teacher may say.

This poses our great problem.

Our principal tools are working against us. Our textbooks undermine us.

As one superintendent said to me just last week, “Now, I am scared.” The new California framework, and therefore the new big publishers’ textbooks, will be talking of sexuality to first graders; lesbians, gays, transgenders and bisexuals to second-, third-, and fourth-graders. This is the “ideological colonization” that Pope Francis is warning us of.

Are we to teach secular history? Yes

Are we to teach secularism or secularist history? No.

We can and must teach much of history we might call secular, but we should shun the secularist history – for that has nothing to do with Truth.

As Catholics, we are called to be disciples and witnesses to the truth. History teaches us that! Many secular people died for righteousness. How much more should we, as Christians, be willing to do the same? How important for us to know the history of such people? How important to know the great history of Greece, and Rome, Spain, France, Africa, and America? Knowing these people and these stories will give our children a habitual vision of greatness – a necessary trait for any great man, woman, and saint.

Thankfully, in Catholic schools, we have a freedom that our public school teachers do not have. We are not compelled to follow the prevailing secularist agendas. In fact, we have a Gospel mandate to not follow them.

Render to Caesar what is Caesar’s.

Well, our children are not Caesar’s; they belong to God!

So let us raise them up properly, let us “seek ye first the kingdom of God, and all else will be added unto you.”

MICHAEL J. VAN HECKE, M.Ed., a seasoned headmaster and educational speaker, is also the founder and president of The Institute for Catholic Liberal Education and the Catholic Textbook Project. In their spare time, he and his wife farm avocados.

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