The Way of BeautyThe American Catholic Church and Education: Part Four

Catholic education begins with Christ the Teacher. As early as the third-century, he is portrayed in Alexandrian frescoes and wall paintings holding the book of Scripture. At least two parables point to the essence of good education. The Good Shepherd, in his undying love for every creature, leaves the ninety-nine sheep for the lost one. In the parable of the talents, the three servants are entrusted with talents to develop (Mt 25:14ff).   

Our Lord tells the Twelve that the Holy Spirit, sent by the Father in his name, will teach them everything and remind them of all that he has said to them (Jn 14:18).

Catholic education is about caring for the individual and the obligation of each individual to realize his or her full potential in God.  Grace does not destroy nature but elevates and perfects it. Catholic education emerges from the Judeo-Christian view of man and woman rather than from a philosophy of education.

Catholic Education in the United States

“Throughout history, there is likely no more compelling instance of Catholic commitment to education than the school system created by the U.S. Catholic community” (Encyclopedia of Catholicism, 267). To elaborate.

Despite the various declarations of freedom in early America, anti-Catholicism was prevalent among the colonists. Nevertheless, in the mid-seventeenth century, the Jesuits opened schools in Maryland, including a college, later named Georgetown, also opening schools in New York City and in Philadelphia. To counter anti-Catholicism, Archbishop John Hughes (1797-1804), spearheaded Catholic education in the Northeast with a separate school system was generously supported by Catholic parents and parishioners. Thus, an independent school system was established and other dioceses followed suit.

By the mid-eighteenth century, groups such as the Know-Nothing Society were founded to eradicate all things Catholic.  Yet, between 1840-1900, at least sixty European religious orders of women and men came to teach in the United States. Elizabeth Ann Seton (d 1821), a widow,  a convert, and now a canonized saint, founded the Sisters of Charity.  In 1808, her sisters opened the first school in Baltimore.

Commitment of Teachers

There is no substitute for competent, goal-oriented educators who come to love their students. Archbishop Hughes recruited men and women religious who, in imitation of Christ the Teacher, would bring to the classroom this level of commitment. With few exceptions, these men and women received no salaries. Instead, the Local Ordinary paid them a stipend for contributed services.

Success Stories

Religious institutes of women have taught in every socio-economic situation. Showing God’s love to the needy, they have brought a pedagogy of respect for other cultures and faith-traditions. In predominantly depressed neighborhoods, the children are taught to believe that they are equal to others and can aspire to high achievements if they are willing to work at it. By word and example, their teachers respect and love them, prod and admonish them to realize their highest potential for themselves, their families, and for the common welfare.

In a recent interview at Duquesne Law School, Justice Clarence Thomas unequivocally stated that had it not been for the “nuns,” he would have succumbed to laziness instead of advancing to Holy Cross College and Yale Law School. ‘The “nuns” always stressed that Blacks were equal to Whites. They never gave us the feeling that we were inferior.’ Likewise, the late Tim Russert acknowledged a key influence in his academic and public life, his eighth-grade teacher, Sister Lucille. There are many public figures who attribute their success to religious sisters who cared enough to encourage them and follow-up on their welfare years later. Writers and journalists, graduates of Catholic schools, have frequently remarked: ‘We learned to write well because the sisters guided us. We diagrammed sentences.  And we loved it. The sisters made ceratin that we spoke well with that eloquentia perfecta through daily recitations and oral topics.’  Others in important administrative posts have written about these selfless women “who honed our skills and most of all fostered the awareness that it was our responsibility to change the world for the better.” Writes one highly-placed laywoman, “I am often asked how I maintain my sense of purpose, my optimism, my drive and my tenacity, I am quick to attribute these precious gifts to the sisters, of course.”

Catholic Humanism

Catholic education is values-oriented with a deep reverence for learning. Scholarship and faith belong together, the intellect seeking ultimate Truth.

For Catholic humanism, God is found not just in the sacred but also in the secular where Christian values and virtue can be uncovered. Catholic education is theocentric and incarnational, centered within the Eucharist, humanistic and contemplative. It develops in its students a Catholic moral compass and a Catholic sensibility in order to understand how society and democracies function. Moreover, all creatures serve the divine plan.  The religious and the profane are mutually inclusive because the world is a universe of grace and promise, “charged with the grandeur of God.”

The humanities are associated with depth, richness, character and moral development, and feelings. This is why the literary and refining arts are so important. They sensitize the feelings of our youth and influence their behavior, especially in deterring violence. 

Special Needs Education

More in The Way of Beauty

Consecrated men and women have traditionally answered the needs of the time. Whether it has been to the hearing impaired, to children and teenagers at-risk, Catholic educators have been shining examples in helping others find their purpose in life despite the odds.

In 1939, Spencer Tracy won an Academy Award for Best Actor in Boys Town. The biographical dramatic film was based on the now-famous apostolate of Father Edward J. Flanagan, who believed that there is no such a thing as a bad boy, spent his entire life proving his conviction. The priest took underprivileged, unwanted, and delinquent boys and molded them into responsible young men. At the Oscar Awards ceremony, Tracy spoke: “If you have seen [Father Flanagan] through me, then I thank you.” Here was a successful experiment that put love at the heart of the boys’ education.


Today, thousands of parents educate their children at home. At the heart of their decision is the conviction that parents are the first educators of their children, and it is in the home that children best learn to know about God and to pray to God, to know how to deal with the world, with others, and with themselves.

The Catholic University, Seminaries, and Houses of Formation

Between the 11th - 13th centuries, education reached a new synthesis of faith and reason with the rediscovery of Aristotle and Scholastic theology.  During this time, higher education was a series of questions resolved by logical argument, for example, the timeless questions, “Does God exist?  What is God?” The Universities of Paris, Bologna, Padua, Oxford, and Cambridge ranked among the outstanding European universities.

In the Renaissance, the disciplines exalted men and women and their human endeavor. The Church was somewhat uneasy with this new emphasis and became even more so when, to seize control of education from the Roman Church, the Protestant Reform favored education that was put in the hands of the state. Following the Council of Trent, women’s religious orders joined with those of men in the Church’s apostolate of education. 

(Column continues below)

The tradition of a Catholic university continues the great university tradition of a liberal arts education. Strictly speaking, a liberal arts education does not specialize. It frees one for virtue; all education is in the pursuit of wisdom. A liberal arts education makes one more fully a human person, for to be only a specialist is to be only half a person. Ideally, a business major, within the liberal arts framework, studies the business world but from a holistic view of the world so that the business world makes sense. It gives the individual a broad context within which a business major fits. The same holds true for other majors. A liberal arts education gives one a broad, full, and rich context to make the individual minimally conversant in all areas of learning. 

A liberal arts education is based on right reason, that is, philosophy, which teaches the student how to think. Philosophy debates the most important issues before humankind, and the knowledge derived from it is related to ethical and religious values. Philosophy lays the groundwork for and supports theology. Today, apologetics may be needed more than ever in Catholic education in order to defend against the novel approaches to anti-Catholicism.  Our students should be skilled in debate:  to get the Catholic principles, internalize them, anticipate counter-argument, and then, where applicable, to defend the Church.

Finally, the most precious gift Catholic education can give to its students is “the love of learning and the desire for God.”  (To be continued.)

Our mission is the truth. Join us!

Your monthly donation will help our team continue reporting the truth, with fairness, integrity, and fidelity to Jesus Christ and his Church.