What Makes Catholic Education Catholic?


“Catholic education” seems like a known commodity. How can we have serious questions about it, given the array of Catholic schools in this country? Surely, the history of Catholic education has clarified the matter. Unfortunately, things aren’t so simple.

Recently, Kolbe Academy-Trinity Prep — a classical, liberal arts K-12 school in Napa, Calif. — asked me to participate in a faculty in-service discussion. Given that it was the start of the school year, I took the opportunity to re-examine the mission of Catholic education.

There are three basic issues in Catholic education: What is education? What is Catholic education? And how do the “education part” and the “Catholic part” fit together? This last question is what I call the “two friends keeping each other honest” part of Catholic education.


What Is Education?

The Second Vatican Council’s Gravissimum Educationis (Declaration on Christian Education) insists that “a true education aims at the formation of the human person in the pursuit of his ultimate end and of the good of the societies of which he as man is a member and in whose obligations as an adult he will share” (1).

The same document speaks of helping young people “to develop harmoniously their physical, moral and intellectual endowments,” and it insists that because young people need moral formation, “together with a deeper knowledge and love of God,” public authority should make sure they get what they’re entitled to.

The Vatican’s Congregation for Catholic Education defines a school as “a place of integral formation by means of a systematic and critical assimilation of culture” (“The Catholic School,” 26). Integral means all the pieces are there and they fit together. Formation means education concerns the kind of person one becomes, not just what one knows.

In other words, it concerns intellectual and moral knowledge but also virtues — habits of acting for the true, the good and the beautiful. Integral formation also includes spiritual formation.

Education involves the systematic and critical assimilation of culture. It’s not a haphazard and uncritical endeavor.

“The Catholic School” continues: “The integral formation of the human person, which is the purpose of education, includes the development of all the human faculties of the students, together with preparation for professional life, formation of ethical and social awareness, becoming aware of the transcendental and religious education” (17).

In short, this document speaks of liberal education — that is, the education of the “free man,” the person who knows his mind and exercises virtue, who participates thoughtfully and virtuously as a member of civil society, someone who seeks the true, the good and the beautiful in his own pursuit of happiness and in his contribution to that of others.

Only liberal education truly develops all the human faculties, as well as prepares one for professional life, forms one ethically and socially and develops one’s awareness of the transcendental — what goes beyond this life. The Church presupposes all of that when she speaks of Catholic or Christian education.

The Church refers to the common function of Catholic education, which it shares with all genuine education, and the proper function of Catholic education. The proper function involves evangelization and discipleship training for life and mission.

As the "Declaration on Catholic Education" states:

“A Christian education … has as its principal purpose this goal: that the baptized, while they are gradually introduced to the knowledge of the mystery of salvation, become ever more aware of the gift of faith they have received and that they learn in addition how to worship God the Father … especially in liturgical action and be conformed in their personal lives according to the new man created in justice and holiness of truth; … also that they develop … to the mature measure of the fullness of Christ … and strive for the growth of the Mystical Body; … that they are aware of their calling, they learn not only how to bear witness to the hope that is in them … but also how to help in the Christian formation of the world that takes place when natural powers viewed in the full consideration of man redeemed by Christ contribute to the good of the whole society …” (2).

Notice the principal purpose of Catholic education is to form disciples — people who know Christ, follow Christ and make him known. Not excellence in education, as important as that is; not equipping students to have successful careers, however valuable that may be. But forming disciples.

Are our schools succeeding in their main goal? Do our students know Jesus, follow him and share him with others? In our zeal for academic excellence, do we obscure or minimize the evangelical purpose of our schools? How many leaders of Catholic schools can honestly say their institutions are principally about forming educated disciples?

A final point is what I referred to at the beginning of this commentary as the “two friends keeping each other honest” aspect of Catholic education. The “education part” of Catholic education must keep the “Catholic part” honest when it comes to the formation of the whole person, including the intellectual dimension. This helps Catholic education avoid becoming a glorified Bible study or apologetics program. When that happens, the “Catholic part” of Catholic education suffers, too. Vital dimensions of the student’s life are not fully developed in light of the Gospel because they’re not developed or adequately developed. The minds and wills God gave young people to exercise and grow are stunted.

But the “Catholic part” of Catholic education must keep the “education part” honest, too. Otherwise, Catholic schools may achieve limited academic excellence or worldly success but at the expense of forming disciples. Ironically, such education is less than full academic excellence, for it has shaped the student without regard for his ultimate end — union with God.

Catholic education must be genuine education — formation of the whole person according to high standards of intellectual, moral and physical excellence. But all of that must be ordered to the formation of genuine disciples of Jesus — people who know him, love him and serve him in mission to the world. That’s what makes Catholic education Catholic.

Mark Brumley is president and CEO of Ignatius Press.

He holds degrees in education and theology and

 is a member of the board of trustees of the

Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology in Berkeley, California.