Reflections on Catholic Education at the Millennium

J. FRASER FIELD

If Catholic students are not made aware of the great wealth they have inherited in terms of culture, they may well end up, as the great Catholic historian Christopher Dawson predicted, "divided personalities with a Christian faith and a pagan culture which contradict one another continually."

What is the difference between what is being taught at your local Catholic school and what is being taught at the public school down the block? Well, the first answer obviously is religion. The Catholic faith is taught in a religion class in the Catholic schools, but not in the public schools. But is the addition of a religion class to the usual subjects sufficient to make a school effectively Catholic?

Before we answer that question, we need to be clear about one thing. The raison d’etre for the Catholic schools, their purpose for being, is to help pass on the deposit of faith to the children in their care, and, pray God, to pass it on in such a way that the faith is understood, valued, and integrated into the whole pattern of the students’ life. Our question then becomes, is the addition of a religion class to the regular subjects offered, sufficient to allow the Catholic school to fulfill this purpose?

The simple answer is, no.

Vatican II’s Declaration on Christian Education directs Catholic schools to integrate the Christian faith into the whole pattern of human life in all its aspects. It enjoins Catholic educators to strive “to relate all human culture eventually to the news of salvation, so that the life of faith will illumine the knowledge which students gradually gain of the world, of life, and of mankind.”1 Dominic Aquila, chairman of the Humanities Department at Franciscan University, develops this thought when he writes, “Rather than seeing Catholic education as merely the addition of a religion course to the usual academic subjects, we want our students to make Christian sense out of what they learn in their natural science, math, and history courses, in their study of art, music, and literature.”2 While clearly stated in the documents of Vatican II, and in many other places, this vision remains the great, largely unrealized ideal of Catholic education in North America today.

In 1986, Paul Vitz wrote Censorship: Evidence of Bias in our Children’s Textbooks, in which he outlined the findings of a research project set up by the National Institute of Education (NIE) to determine if there is bias in text books used in public schools in the United States. In this, the only systematic study of religion and traditional values in public school textbooks, Vitz and his research group concluded that public school textbooks are both biased and censored. Religion, traditional family values, and conservative political and economic positions have been systematically excluded from our children’s textbooks. 3

No one even vaguely familiar with the direction Canadian and American public education has charted for itself over the past 35 years could be much surprised by this finding. What may surprise, and should certainly concern Catholics, is the fact that Catholic schools, in both Canada and the United States, are using these same resources which are predictably silent about the Christian perspective on how social life should be conducted and on the contribution of Catholic faith and culture to the progress of history and our current cultural context.

Of course, the fact that the resources we are using were written with the public schools in mind shouldn’t make any difference. Paul Vitz has pointed out that the central issue is a question of the facts of our past and present. Those facts are clear, “. . . religion, especially Christianity, has played and continues to play a central role in our culture and history. To neglect to report this is simply to fail to carry out the major duty of any textbook writer, the duty to tell the truth.”2 The study of Western civilization remains incomplete and distorted without an adequate consideration of the influence of Christianity upon it. The Holy Father puts it forcefully, “The exclusion of Christ from the history of man is an act against man.”

Surely then one of the great tragedies of public education today is the fact that the average young person leaving our school systems has no conception of the positive influence Christianity has had on society and culture. As citizens of the modern world our young people are destined to live off the spiritual and cultural capital of our Judeo-Christian heritage without ever recognizing or acknowledging their debt. Yet given the ideological agendas now driving curriculum development in public education, it is hardly surprising that public schools fail to give Christian faith and culture their rightful place; the reaction against Christianity is just too strong.

Fact is, as the public system has increasingly committed itself to an exclusively secular vision, public school resources have become less and less reflective of Christian values, Christian content, and, in the areas of history and social studies, Christian-based criteria of interpretation. Public school textbooks today, can in no way be considered sufficient to the task of helping our students “make Christian sense out of what they learn in their natural science, math, and history courses, in their study of art, music, and literature.”


This situation is a serious concern because the relationship between instruction in Catholic faith and instruction in Christian culture is a critical and interdependent one. In a sense faith requires culture to incarnate itself.


Recognizing this problem many Protestant educational organizations have developed their own resources which emphasize a Christian perspective. For some reason we Catholics have been slow to react to the secularized content of the resources we are using.

Another problem facing us in the Catholic schools, is that having received their training in secular universities, most Catholic teachers are poorly equipped to appreciate the positive historical and cultural impact of Catholicism and are therefore generally lacking in the background necessary to share these riches with their students.

As a consequence, most Catholic schools in the United States and Canada, having come to depend on the same textbooks and other resources as those used in the public schools, and staffed, for the most part, by graduates of the same universities as the public schools, are, outside of the subject of religious education, teaching almost exactly the same content as the public schools, content that is decidedly impoverished in the rich heritage and meaning of Christian faith and culture.

This situation is a serious concern because the relationship between instruction in Catholic faith and instruction in Christian culture is a critical and interdependent one. In a sense faith requires culture to incarnate itself. If Catholic students are not made aware of the great wealth they have inherited in terms of culture, they may well end up, as the great Catholic historian Christopher Dawson predicted, “divided personalities with a Christian faith and a pagan culture which contradict one another continually.” The challenge and importance of the study of Christian culture for Catholic education can hardly be overstated.

Sharing my concerns about these matters I found I was far from alone and in 1998 a group of teachers, priests, and academics in the Vancouver area joined together to form the Catholic Education Resource Center (CERC).

CERC is compiling an internet library of journal articles, articles, book excerpts, and other texts chosen for their objective, concise, and clear presentation of Catholic teachings, history, and culture, particularly in those areas in which the Church’s role is unknown, or misunderstood. Articles are selected to assist teachers in Catholic schools, home-schooling parents, as well as all other interested Catholics and enquiring non-Catholics.

Our goal is to act as a clearinghouse for some of the most articulate and cogent materials available explaining the Church’s position on a broad range of social, moral, and historical issues. Any of the articles on our site may be downloaded and copied for use in the classroom as supplementary reading materials for the students, or used simply as background by a reader wishing to be better informed.

Many of the finest journalists, authors, and publishing houses in the world now support this effort by making their writings available to CERC without charge. For example, Peggy Noonan of the Wall Street Journal, Roger Scruton of The American Spectator, etc., historian Paul Johnson of The Spectator (UK), George Weigel of Newsweek, LA Times, etc., Rev. Raymond de Souza of the National Post, and many others.

Authors and publishing companies tell us they like the respectful, high tone we insist on and the attractive way we present their articles. Many tell us they are honoured to have their articles included on CERC. A sampling of recent articles shows the quality of the writers and diversity of important topics covered by CERC.

The nature of our outreach makes it particularly popular with college professors and other teachers in a wide range of schools; students; professionals; and curious, thinking non-Catholics.

Our CERC Bi-Weekly Update allows interested subscribers to receive an email letter listing all the new articles posted to the site along with links to important articles of interest on faith and culture from around the world.

Especially in our own time, when it is not so much the Catholic faith itself as the moral and social teachings derived from that faith which are under attack, we believe it is important to prepare Catholics for engagement in the world by providing them with effective apologetics on the moral and social teachings of the Church.

In 2007 CERC’s important contribution was acknowledged when the Catholic Civil Rights League of Canada gave its Archbishop Adam Exner Award for Catholic Excellence in Public Life to the managing editor of CERC, J. Fraser Field.

Well-known Catholic historian James Hitchcock has written: “I believe that this project is one of the most promising of the past thirty years and will contribute greatly to the genuine renewal of Catholic education at all levels.”

Endnotes:

  1. Walter Abbott, SJ and Joseph Gallagher eds., “Declaration on Christian Education”(Gravissimum Educationis), Documents of Vatican II, (New York: Corpus Books), 646.
  2. Dominic Aquila, "The Value of a Catholic Liberal Arts Education", This talk was given to the board members and parents of students of Aquinas Academy, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on October 3, 1997.
  3. Paul C. Vitz, Censorship: Evidence of Bias in our Children’s Textbooks, (Ann Arbor, MI: Servant Books, 1986).


 


ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Field, J. Fraser. “Can a Fish Live Without Water?: Reflections on Catholic Education at the Millennium.” The Catholic Faith (May/June 2000).

This article was adapted from a larger article published in the Fall 1999 issue of The Catholic Social Science Review, Volume 4.

Reprinted by permission of The Catholic Faith. The Catholic Faith is published bi-monthly and may be ordered from Ignatius Press, P.O. Box 591090, San Francisco, CA 94159-1090. 1-800-651-1531.

AUTHOR

J. Fraser Field is Managing Editor of The Catholic Education Resource Center and can be reached at: info@catholiceducation.org.

Copyright © 2000 The Catholic Faith




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Not all articles published on CERC are the objects of official Church teaching, but these are supplied to provide supplementary information.