‘Gravissimum Educationis’: Does the Declaration on Education Retain Its Relevance?

COMMENTARY: Second Vatican Council Symposium

Gravissimum Educationis

Declaration on Christian Education

Promulgated by Pope Paul VI on Oct. 28, 1965



The landscape of Catholic education and of religion in general has changed dramatically in the 50 years since the promulgation of Gravissimum Educationis (Declaration on Christian Education).

In 1965, roughly half of Catholic school-age children in the United States attended Catholic parochial schools. Today, according to a recent study by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, less than a quarter of adult Catholics of the Millennial generation have attended a Catholic primary school at some point in their education. And the pool of potential students may also be shrinking. In 1964, there were 1.3 million infants baptized in the Church; in 2014, there were 713,302. We might reasonably ask, then, whether Gravissimum Educationis has any relevance for the Church today.

I believe it does. The vision of Catholic education outlined in Gravissimum Educationis is linked to the Church’s understanding of man, of faith and the Church’s mission to “Go forth and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19). This means more than just preaching the Gospel from a soapbox or making children memorize the Baltimore Catechism. Christianity makes a claim on every aspect of human life. Becoming a Christian, as St. Paul put it, means putting off the old self and putting on Christ (Romans 8:13; 13:14).

“To fulfill the mandate she has received from her divine founder,” Gravissimum Educationis recognized the Church “must be concerned with the whole of man’s life, even the secular part of it, insofar as it has a bearing on his heavenly calling.”

So Christian education aims to teach the faith. But it also aims to help Christians conform their lives to the Gospel and to use their natural abilities to contribute to the good of society.

The concerns about Catholic education outlined in Gravissimum Educationis are thus perennial. But we still might ask whether the declaration’s ideas about Catholic schools are still tenable today. Catholic education has, after all, looked very different in different times and places. In the fourth century, for example, Diodore of Tarsus founded a catechetical school in Antioch when Emperor Julian banned Christians from teaching rhetoric in schools. In the sixth century, Cassiodorus founded his monastery school at Vivarium, where monks would study the liberal arts in order to better understand the Scriptures.

Perhaps today’s religious landscape calls for a different approach to Catholic education than creating and maintaining Catholic schools after the model proposed by Gravissimum Educationis. Or to put the issue in more provocative terms: Do parents — as the declaration teaches — still have a “duty of entrusting their children to Catholic schools wherever and whenever it is possible and of supporting these schools to the best of their ability and of cooperating with them for the education of their children?”

I say Yes — with a caveat.

Catholic schools are perhaps more important today for the enterprise of Catholic education than they were 50 years ago. Gravissimum Educationis taught that the proper function of a Catholic school is to create “a special atmosphere animated by the Gospel spirit of freedom and charity.” In this atmosphere, students learn “to order the whole of human culture to the news of salvation.” They learn to make sense of the world in the light of faith.

Today, this atmosphere animated by the Gospel is increasingly rarified. This year, the Pew Research Center reported that, “between 2007 and 2014, the Christian share of the U.S. population fell from 78.4% to 70.6%, driven mainly by declines among mainline Protestants and Catholics.” At the same time, the number of “nones” — people without any religious affiliation — is on the rise.

A Christian worldview is no longer the consensus that informs our culture. This is a point Pope Francis made forcefully in his recent encyclical, Laudato Si (The Care for Our Common Home). People often no longer recognize the earth as the gift of a loving God, he said, or the particular love that God has for each human being.

When the culture in which we live doesn’t express a sense of man’s transcendence or wonder at creation, it shouldn’t be surprising that Christians can lose this sense, too — because culture shapes our understanding of reality. This is one of the reasons the Church built such magnificent churches during the Renaissance. “Majestic buildings, lasting memorials, witnesses to their faith planted on earth, as if by the hand of God,” as Pope Nicholas V said, offered visual and tactile encouragement to faith. The same could be said for beautiful music and art.

Catholic schools offer a unique means to rebuild a Catholic vision of reality. If our faculty approach every discipline, from history to biology and English to engineering as Catholics, we can cumulatively build a vision of reality illuminated by the light of faith. In this atmosphere, we can reinforce our students’ sense that “The world is charged with the grandeur of God,” as poet Gerard Manley Hopkins put it. And these students, in turn, can reshape the broader culture.

This brings me to my caveat: When Catholic schools provide a community and a curriculum permeated by faith, they will remain an essential tool for Christian education and are worthy of the support of the faithful. When the only distinctive features of a Catholic school are religion classes and school uniforms, however, they become an expensive version of the local public school.

John Garvey is president

of The Catholic

University of America.