In a Catholic school the finality of all that we study is the Truth Himself, Jesus Christ, the Saviour of the world. And as Blessed John Henry Newman and St John Paul II so tirelessly taught, there can be no conflict between Faith and Reason, because both are bound up in a love for truth. This service of the Truth who is Christ has an evangelical dimension: this is the “authentic reality of the Christian faith, which is not simply a set of propositions to be accepted with intellectual assent. Rather, faith is a lived knowledge of Christ, a living remembrance of his commandments, and a truth to be lived out.”
As St John Paul II taught, well educated young people will be able to serve the common good of society as well as spreading the Good News of Jesus Christ, because the authentic educational experience consists in “the ardent search for truth and its unselfish transmission to youth and to all those learning to think rigorously, so as to act rightly and to serve humanity better.” Such an education is an expression of what has come to be known as Christian humanism: the liberal and classical tradition of men such as St Thomas More.
“We call those studies liberal, then, which are worthy of a free man: they are those through which virtue and wisdom are either practised or sought and by which the body and mind is disposed to the best things.” Pier Paolo Vergerio, in The Character and Studies Befitting a Free-Born Youth (c. 1402.)
Catholic education espouses this philosophy of education that belongs to the great tradition of liberal education; and we call this Christian humanism. This kind of education is not simply a dry theory, nor is it restricted to those subjects now named humanities, although its principles are mostly clearly seen in our teaching of these disciplines.
Liberal education is the transmission of our great Western cultural patrimony to our young. But it is more than that: its aim is to make every student his own man: free and capable of using his reason, fit to take part in that “great conversation” begun in fifth-century Athens and among the people of Israel and continuing to this day.
At the centre of that great conversation is the Incarnate Word, “the Redeemer of man, Jesus Christ … the centre of the universe and of history”.
In the first two chapters of Gravissimum Educationis, The Second Vatican Council taught that a good Catholic education should be broad, deep, moral and prayerful. The prayerful dimension is up there in lights with the other three, and we must not forget it. The depth is about the ability to “get to the bottom of a question” … it is about giving children a taste for asking questions and finding out the answers through assiduous study; the moral aspect is to do with developing habits of virtue. It is not simply a question of making sure that young adults will do the right thing, but that they will have the moral sense to know what is right, and then the moral fibre to make the right ethical choice in all the difficult situations of modern life. In the words of the Council Fathers: “This sacred synod likewise declares that children and young people have a right to be motivated to appraise moral values with a right conscience, to embrace them with a personal adherence, together with a deeper knowledge and love of God.”
But what about the issue of breadth? Why does a school programme have to be broad? On the one hand, I believe the Council did not want Catholic schools to be Christian madrassars which only taught religious instruction. On the other hand, it wanted all Catholic schools to espouse the Liberal education tradition, and not to become overly technical and specialised.
A wide-ranging curriculum is proposed not simply so as to stimulate the interest and curiosity of its students. It proposes a complete intellectual formation that provides a coherent world-view. In the fast-changing modern world, this is an especially important task, in the face of the “segmentation of knowledge” which, “with its splintered approach to truth and consequent fragmentation of meaning, keeps people today from coming to an interior unity,” St Pope John Paul II emphasises: “taking up what has been taught repeatedly by the Popes for several generations and reaffirmed by the Second Vatican Council itself, I wish to reaffirm strongly the conviction that the human being can come to a unified and organic vision of knowledge. This is one of the tasks which Christian thought will have to take up through the next millennium of the Christian era.”