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What is Catholic Education?

Though it would be difficult to come up with a definition of Catholic education on which everyone would agree, we can begin by offering one for consideration:  “Catholic education proposes to form the whole person—mind, heart, and hands—for flourishing in this life and the next.”

Note two essential features:  this definition places the complete and integrated person at the center and orders the activity of education toward a purpose that is at once natural (in this life) and supernatural (and the next). This purpose is also normative, it is rooted in and reflects “the truth of things.”

There are fundamental questions to consider.  In what way can we characterize a common and stable nature of a human person?  And what does it mean for such a person to flourish?  These and other questions deserve careful reflection.  Setting these questions aside for future consideration, let us take up the three aspects of the anthropology suggested in our definition.

Catholic education forms the mind

At the very center of Catholic education is the intellectual life.  Indeed, this is the lion’s share—or should be—of what we mean by Catholic education.  There are many metaphors for teaching and learning that could be employed to characterize the intellectual life and even fundamental disagreements within the tradition.  Some approach teaching and learning reductively as a simple transfer of information.  This is a model that I reject as distorting and simplistic.  Such a model might work if one wishes to learn to fry an egg or operate a tractor, but is far from representative.

Socrates seemed to suggest that in learning there was an element of remembering those things which have been long forgotten and yet somehow reside within us, if only the teacher can draw them out once again as a midwife brings to birth a newborn.  Another image, one also outlined by Socrates, suggests that education is more like being set free from a cave and moving from darkness into light, a process that culminates in a vision of the Good.  But even this process requires someone to initiate the journey from the depths of the cave:  someone must break the chains and guide the half-blind prisoner—sometimes with resistance by the prisoner—from shadows to a vision proper to human life.  (And it should be noted that most frequently those enchained don’t want to leave because they cannot imagine anything better.)  In addition to the image of a journey from darkness into light we also see the importance of the teacher as guide and mentor, the communal nature of the intellectual journey. This nature is clearer in the image of the “great conversation” that unfolds across time between authors, students, and teachers.

And there is still one other model worthy of consideration at this beginning.  Some have compared education, particularly in its liberal forms—as an ascent to a mountaintop:  having grown up in a village near a mountain, a village as familiar as one’s own home, a person decides to finally climb the mountain that has always been part of the horizon, engaging a guide to secure success.  Following the arduous climb, the person achieves a broader, integrated, and astonishing vision of the land that once seemed familiar, including the village he thought he knew so well.  The climber sees new horizons—beckoning for further exploration—and everything that once seemed familiar within a new light.  And then, following the return to the village, our climber finds that everything has changed.  All that was once taken for granted as well-known is now mediated by a vision of the whole.  Nothing will ever be the same.

Regardless of which images we adopt, the intellectual formation of Catholic education—understood in its broadest terms—will lead students from a state of ignorance to a state of knowing, from folly to wisdom both about particular, contingent, and local things as well as about the most important things we could consider. Whether the allegory is that of a cave or a mountain ascent, one’s vision is transformed, parts become integrated into wholes, and the journey is not undertaken alone.

Catholic education forms the heart

As central as intellectual formation is to Catholic education, in most contexts it is also complemented by other dimensions of formation, the heart and the hands.

According to the Catechism and Scripture, “it is the heart that prays.”  It is the heart that is the seat of a person’s reflective interior life, the hidden center to which we withdraw that stands beyond our powers of reason, beyond the searching of others, and a place that often remains hidden even to ourselves.  Ultimately, it is where we make the most important decisions and the place where we encounter God. [fn. Catechism 2562-2563]

It is this center, our core, that Catholic education also forms, albeit indirectly, as a complement to the formation of the intellect.  While Catholic education will call students to the study of the great texts of the Catholic intellectual tradition born from poetry, philosophy, theology, and the other disciplines, it also invites them to enter into the practices that lead to communion with God and with those created in his image.  A Catholic institution devoted to comprehensive education will offer ample opportunities for its students to live lives animated by the sacraments and prayer.  And its leaders—teachers, administrators, and staff—will serve as role models for the students as they strive to be lovers of wisdom seeking an ever-deepening communion with Christ.

In his address to Catholic educators at the Catholic University of America in 2009, Benedict XVI stated that “First and foremost every Catholic educational institution is a place to encounter the living God who in Jesus Christ reveals his transforming love and truth (cf. Spe Salvi, 4).” In Catholic education, we create the conditions for such an encounter by forming hearts that will be receptive.

Catholic education forms “the hands”

And there is a third dimension.  Catholic education also forms “the hands” of its students, with “hands” suggesting three aspects of our students (and ourselves): our embodiment as creatures uniting soul and body, our desire to serve others—often through the corporal works of mercy and building up the culture of life—and the call to fulfill our vocations in the world.

The students whom we form through Catholic education are embodied creatures and their embodiment is good and an essential dimension of what it means to be human.  If our institutions are residential—and even if they are not—we will attend to the needs and gifts that come from this embodiment.  Students need to rest, exercise, and eat well.  They will need physical rest and true leisure to renew bodies and minds.  The limits and opportunities that come with embodiment will shape policies and rhythms of the institution’s educational life.

Our hands also remind us that we are created for communion with others and given some part of the creation in which to serve and cultivate “the garden of the world.”  While resisting with all vigilance any efforts to reduce Catholic education to mere training for work, Catholic education—by “forming the hands” of its students—prepares students to fulfill their vocations in the world by serving God and others through their work.  Just as our first parents tended the garden in its prelapsarian state as a part of the stewardship of creation, the gift of work and the joys that come from answering the call of one’s vocation will animate this formation.

This formation of “hands” will take on different forms in different contexts.  Some institutions offer service programs in which students creatively give to their larger communities through the corporal works of mercy.  They may comfort distressed young mothers or lonely grandmothers.  Students may tend a greenhouse or gardens in which they can grow food—cultivating their own part of “the garden” of the world.  Or they may offer seminars to help students think about their future careers in terms of vocation and then guide them to apply this vocational vision in concrete ways while still students.

Though there is much more to consider about this proposed definition—and these considerations will be taken up in future essays—let us allow this definition as a point of departure as we consider the nature, purpose, parts, and whole of Catholic education.

Let us begin the conversation.

About the Author — Dr. George Harne

Dr. George HarneAs Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences, Harne brings a vision of Catholic education to his work that is animated by the thought of Plato, Cardinal Newman, Josef Pieper, John Paul II, and Benedict XVI. In his role as Dean, Harne cultivates the treasures of the School—its faculty, students, and programs—ensuring that it flourishes in light of the greater mission of the University and draws ever more deeply on the sources of that mission: particularly the great Catholic intellectual and spiritual traditions. He also champions the School within Houston, regionally, and in the nation at large.





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