The task of Catholic education

Currently, I am involved in an effort to begin a Catholic classical school in Wichita. The undertaking has its own website here. Our vision is described in this document. The slow but continued progress of that project has led to no few thoughts on the subject of Catholic education today.

A little over a year ago, an essay in The Homiletic and Pastoral Review argued that homeschooling is not the ideal. While it rhetorically stumbles out of the gate and unfortunately takes on a few too many straw men—or, rather, homeschooling straw-women—it makes the sound point that Catholic education cannot take place in separation from one’s local church (parish and diocese). Education is communal of its nature and seeks the common good of formation in the truth through a community of teachers and students.*

As Msgr. James P. Shea notes in the opening pages to his short book From Christendom to Apostolic Mission:

Every human society possesses with more or less strength a moral and spiritual imaginative vision, a set of assumptions and a way of looking at things that is largely taken for granted rather than argued for. These fundamental assumptions provide the atmosphere the society’s members breathe and the soil in which the various institutions of the society take root and grow. Such a vision is holistic, a way of seeing things. It is usually secured by a religion that orders the deepest questions, but it includes more than what we usually call religion: not only a moral code, but also an accepted ideal of the good person, clear categories of success and failure, economic and political values and practices, legal codes and public policy, manners and modes of entertainment. Such a vision is the property not just of a few specially educated people but of the whole society. Some will understand and be able to articulate it better than others, but all will possess it. In a vigorous civilization this imaginative vision is more or less a settled matter, and the longer it is settled, the more deeply and unconsciously it is assumed. When a culture’s vision is seriously contested, the society will go into a crisis until its original vision is either reconstituted or overthrown and another overarching vision takes its place.

Such a vision is broader than a worldview, which is private, and deeper than an image of the cosmos, which can tend to the scientific. Its scale is larger than the civilization that possesses it, because it locates the entire society and each of its members in their proper places in a larger whole, in a larger history. Ultimately, such a vision looks to providence.

This sort of vision can only be sustained through education. Understood in its deepest sense, education is the sine qua non for handing on such an encompassing reception and response to reality. When such a vision is Catholic, the education is also primarily received from outside human power through revelation—“What hast thou that thou hast not received?” (I Cor 4:7) Yet this does not arise without our own cooperation. If our age is an apostolic age, then part of that mission must include the founding of schools that are not just Catholic, but renewed in their being enflamed by the traditional loves and lights of Catholic education.

It is of no little importance that such an undertaking not be merely reactionary. Surely the state of Catholic education today can be characterized in terms of a crisis. Catholic education cannot be accomplished by a pantomime of public education with CCD music in the background. However, neither can a renewed Catholic education be accomplished without the aid of the laity. Indeed, in no small way, I think, will a generation or two of homeschoolers—pace the HPR essay—and Catholic college graduates contribute the resources necessary for such a resurgence. And it must be a sort of resurrection. It cannot be a reaction, or a turning to a good because of hating something else.

Josef Pieper points out in his essay on leisure that humanism and clasicism are of themselves insufficient to restore a culture of leisure. Like true leisure, true Catholic education cannot be undertaken even for an aim as grand as saving Western civilization. It has its own inner justification, and its inner conditions cannot be guaranteed through mere human efforts. As my coauthors and I write in our vision document, the “long tradition of the Catholic Church can and must be handed on today, as it proposes an education arising from the needs of human nature itself, seeking its ultimate end in God. Its execution, no less than its nature, depends upon Divine Providence.”

Therefore, to call it a project is misplaced. It is a mission received from an origin beyond our control, a burden placed upon one, a call to share in an epic (see Brague, The Kingdom of Man, pp. 4–5). So, then, please pray for the success of our task!

* It is not the place here to dispute the various merits and demerits of the HPR essay. It suffices to note, first, that precisely the problems of education today generally and Catholic education specifically contributed in large part to the homeschooling movement and its great merits in the face of necessity (which the essay acknowledges briefly), and, second, that the renewal of Catholic schools today may in no small part come about because of the chance given a few generations of students through homeschooling (which the essay does not contemplate). As such, the ideal of education is a school which, in solidarity and subsidiarity, complements the role of parents as the first and fundamental educators. For the same reason, families are made better through a life lived in community with other families in one’s local church. This is the very nature of the principle of the common good and the primacy of the common good.

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