Exploring Catholic Education through research with staff and students of Catholic schools
“Gravissimum Educationis” and Catholic Education
No heaven, only sky?
Catholic education in the twenty-first century has drawn on the deliberations of the bishops who gathered in Rome for the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). Pope St Paul VI promulgated The Declaration on Christian Education on 28 October, 1965. The Latin title of the document is ‘Gravissimum Educationis’, which has been taken from the opening description of education as being “extremely important” in peoples’ lives and in society.
The passage of the document through the Council in 1964 and 1965 was not without argument and debate. The importance of education to the Church and the world was expressed by Bishop Luis Henriquez Jiminez from Caracas, Venezuela. He described Catholic schools as ‘lovely and enclosed gardens cultivated with much love, but whose fruits for the evangelisation of the world seem to diminish with each passing day.’ Other bishops called for a complete revision of the document so that it would give direction to the missionary character of education. Yet others called for a statement that gave support to Catholic teachers working in public schools. The document was re-drafted seven times before it was approved by the vast majority of bishops present at the Council.
The document was intended to provide a set of principles upon which to base the development of Catholic education. The first principle relates to the universal right to education. The purpose of this right is explained as follows:
For 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, as man, he is a member, and in whose obligations, as an adult, he will share. (GE, 1)
The Church today uses the word ‘integral’ to describe the type of formation of the human person that is the goal of education. Such formation is intended not just for the individual, but also and necessarily for ‘the good of society,’ that is, for the common good. The universal right and obligation to education is just that: it is for every human person. Moreover, a true education places every person in the role of servant to the common good. It is through this life of service, no matter how long or short, that each person will reach their ultimate end, which is union with God in heaven.
I recall learning as a child about my ultimate destiny. The small catechism that we were given had the question, ‘Why did God make you?’ And the response was: ‘God made me to know Him, to love Him, and to serve Him here on earth and to be happy with Him forever in heaven.’ I had heaven on my mind when I was a child … and I still do today. I think I was trained to think in that way. But is that still the case in Catholic schools today?
In a research project I conducted in 2021 into Catholic school staff members’ perceptions of their school’s mission, I asked the participants to describe the mission of their school. One participant said that it was to ‘churn out better kids.’ Another said it was to ‘turn out well-rounded people.’ A third participant chose to speak about the school’s mission being ‘teaching our students about faith and how it applies to life.’ A fourth staff member spoke about the mission of her school being for children ‘to grow up and have faith.’ However, one staff member expressed concern about the Christian dimension of her school’s mission ‘becoming less important’ and that some paid ‘lip service’ to it. She also said that ‘there are many days where I don't hear the word “Jesus,” the name “Jesus.”’
Even though the participants chose to speak about the importance of their faith to their participation in the mission of their school, they did not make any reference to their ‘ultimate end’ or of those they taught. Their focus was on building strong relationships among and with students so that the students can spend their time together, preparing for a successful life in society beyond the school. If they did live their lives with their eyes on their ultimate destiny, they did not describe their school’s mission in those terms.
Might it not be reasonable to conclude that the emphasis that the participants placed on faith and the Christian dimension of the curriculum in their school, suggests that their “ultimate end” is taken as a given? I would accept that (and it is my hope that it is so), but the evidence tells me a different story. The participants told many beautiful stories about the love of God and the love of one’s neighbour, stories that were part of their own lives, both prior to coming to work in the school, and during their time as members of the school community. The word “heaven” was not used by any of the participants in their interviews.
Jesus, being central to Catholic education, spoke about our “ultimate end,” that is, our loving union with God in heaven. Yet the school to which the participants claimed allegiance, does not acknowledge this “end” in its vision and mission statements. The focus of the statements is the centrality of Jesus and of the mission to transform the world through service as well-rounded, responsible citizens who take care of those in need. My one hope is that at some point in their time in their school community, each will say to others (as a Principal once said to me), “Surely, there must be an easier way to get into heaven.”
Dialogue an integral part of Catholic Education
Dialogue and Jesus’ Code of Dignity
I had a dream. Whatever happened in my dream, I awoke with the grim realisation that Ishmael from Daniel Quinn’s novel of the same name, was not a gorilla, but a robot. Moreover, his owner, a Jewish merchant named Walter Sokolow, who communicated with his gorilla, ultimately became Ishmael’s research assistant. It was only a dream and the protagonist in Quinn’s novel was his creation. Yet, I am still left with my questions about the role Catholic education can play in a world increasingly complicated by the use of AI. In a recent post to Cardijn Reflections, Richard Pütz wrote:
The future of work and skills is from efficiency and optimization to agility, resilience, and creativity. Our ultimate job is to be human on this planet. What will it take to make that understood?
He was intent on alerting his readers to the use of Catholic Social Teaching principles to critique the use of AI and the Autonomous Revolution.
The agility, resilience and creativity of the worker need to be at the service of human dignity and the common good. And even though there is evidence of a robotic workforce, which uses artificial intelligence to learn how to operate as if it possesses these same characteristics, the awareness of self as a fellow human being is not possible for a machine. And the achievement of the common good is not a matter of checks and balances, so to speak. The common good will be achieved through the judicious exercise of other virtues related to moral and intellectual virtues. So, what can Catholic education bring to this argument and to the future of humanity?
David Albert Jones and Stephen Barrie in their book on Catholic education, have defined education as
the integral formation of the human person, through the cultivation of the moral and intellectual virtues, for the good of the person and for the common good of society (p.53).
While agility, resilience and creativity are part of what people require to operate efficiently in society, the formation of the whole person, which is the aim of education, involves much more than these characteristics. As Jones and Barrie state, people are formed through the cultivation or development of moral and intellectual virtues.
These virtues are developed through “the critical and value-oriented communication of culture”. It is the task of teachers to “initiate the appropriate dialogue between culture and faith”, which are “intimately related”, for the purpose of the integral formation of each student (Lay Catholics in Schools, 29). Richard Pütz wrote recently about the dignity code of Jesus. He used the parable of the vineyard (Matthew 20:1-15) to convey Jesus’ “understanding of the worthiness of the workers and the human dignity of people.” The dignity of the human person is ensured through the development of moral and intellectual virtues.
What does this look like in a Catholic school? One teacher said when asked about the mission of his school that “it’s because of the values that we teach them, their Catholic identity, the story of Jesus, their understanding of God in their lives and how we view human beings” that the school is valued as a place of dialogue between culture and faith. Teachers will agree that part of the culture of a school encompasses those times of disagreement and conflict between teachers and students. One teacher, reflecting on this aspect of school life, made the following comment:
In the big scheme of things, these messages, reflections, experiences that keep coming to me are all part of a plan too, I guess, to mellow me out, to broaden my understanding. That's the mission of the school: it’s not just about the students. It’s about the whole community ….
The experience of being mellowed and of broadening one’s understanding of what it means to belong in a school is part of that dialogue between culture and faith. The mellowing and broadening is common to all who are involved in Catholic education and who engage in dialogue. And that dialogue, for it to be effective, must begin from the premise that each person is a child of God and this is the source of each person’s dignity.
The purpose of the dialogue that takes place in a Catholic school is encapsulated in the school’s mission statement. Another teacher, when asked about the school’s mission replied:
… our mission is to get a child at the start of Year Seven and to put out a better person at the end of Year Twelve, academic and spiritual and sporting and any other aspect.
The teacher reflected at length on the primacy of relationship in education: a relationship built on mutual respect will promote the dialogue that is required for a school to complete its mission. He explained his role as a vocation, a life-calling to create a safe and happy place for students so that “they can challenge themselves, that they can grow in my class.”
In a Catholic school, everyone is encouraged to live by Jesus’ code of dignity. In reality, this is not achieved without suffering, as those who were interviewed in my research revealed. And any sense of satisfaction experienced by staff in the school was often retrospective. One staff member spoke of the sacredness of the time spent with graduating students in the moments before their graduation ceremony. Others spoke of encounters with students post-school and of the gratitude expressed by ex-students for the commitment of the staff to their well-being.
To conclude, let us return to Richard Pütz’s statement: “Our ultimate job is to be human on this planet. What will it take to make that understood?” The web of relationships that characterise the Catholic school is based on the belief that all are created in God’s image and therefore have dignity. The dialogue that is created in this environment will lead to the cultivation and development of moral and intellectual virtues that promote the integral formation of each person in the school community and the common good of all. This is the essence of the dignity code of Jesus and the mission of the Catholic school.
Author: Pat Branson
Jones, D.A., Barrie, S. (2015). Thinking Christian Ethos: The Meaning of Catholic Education. London: Incorporated Catholic Truth Society.
Richard Pütz: Is Catholic Social Teachings (CST) the correct answer if everyone in our politics is different? A look at CST and the Dominant Economic Paradigm. Cardijn Reflections, 7 October, 2023.
Richard Pütz: The Dignity Code of Jesus. Cardijn Reflections, 29 October,
Quinn, D. (1992). Ishmael. New York: Bantam Books.
Sacred Congregation for Catholic Education (1982). Lay Catholics in Schools: Witnesses to Faith
Dialogue an integral part of Catholic Education
Teaching and learning: bidirectional streams of attention
Art imitates life. Science fiction writers often point their readers and society in the direction of scientific breakthroughs and developments. Isaac Asimov (1920-1992) wrote The Fun They Had, a short story, which was published in 1951. Set in 2155, the protagonist, a girl named Margie, who is 11 years old, longs for school experiences recounted by her grandfather of a time when ‘all stories were printed on paper’ and learning was a social experience. At school, Margie’s focus was on the screen that was part of her robot teacher, but her heart was elsewhere: “Margie was thinking about how the kids must have loved it in the old days. She was thinking about the fun they had.”
Margie was drawn to the interaction that was conveyed through the book she read. Human interaction in the classroom was what she lacked. Stanislas Dehaene, one of Europe’s leading neuroscientists, made the observation: “Any healthy pedagogical relationship must be based on bidirectional streams of attention, listening, respect, and mutual trust” (2020, p.173). Margie’s teacher was a robot and her experience of being in class could not be described as “bidirectional streams of attention.” The robot did not interact with her. Instead, as Asimov writes, “Her mechanical teacher had been giving her test after test in geography and she had been doing worse and worse ….”
The irony of this writing action, that is, this text you are reading, is not lost on the writer, who sits with his eyes glued to a screen as he types the words that you read at another time and in another place. His computer is his robot, which, for the most part, does his bidding. Learning is reflexive, that is, the writer and the writing are both outcomes of the process of learning; the writer’s identity is revealed to the writer and others through the text that the writer constructs; and this writer gains insights into what it means to learn as he crafts the text to share ideas and insights with like-minded people. That intention to share is human and it lies at the heart of the search for truth and is an indispensable part of dialogue.
One of the participants in my research into Catholic school staff members’ perceptions of the mission of their school, recalled an incident in one of his classes. A student was studying drones and became excited about the development of aircraft between World War 1 and World War 2 and shared his discovery with his teacher. The participant commented:
Anyway, this kid was passionate and then ... If you’re not interested, if there’s no excitement for you, how’s that gonna be passed on to kids, …? If you’re not excited about your lessons, then why should they be?
Dehaene reflects on the importance of social signals in the pedagogical relationship between student and teacher and identifies “social attention sharing” as being essential to learning. This is relevant to Catholic education as it is in every other form of education that values dialogue.
Fr Seán McDonagh, a Columban missionary priest, views education from a Catholic perspective. In chapter four of his book Robots, ethics and the future of jobs (2021), he rejects the use of robots as the solution to the problem of teacher shortage. Robots might have a place in training people and in skill development, but they cannot empower students “to build a just, caring and sustainable society where everyone is welcomed.” Dehaene’s “bidirectional streams of attention” carry values that are conveyed through dialogue.
Another participant shared a good news story about a student who struggled with the regimen of school life, but who was treated fairly and in a caring way by the participant. When a family emergency occurred, the student asked the participant about it and was given a simple, but truthful explanation. A few weeks later, the student asked after the participant’s family member. The participant shared the following observation:
… this kid can't do anything but, oh my goodness, even our kids that we struggle with they really care. He’d been thinking about this. He’s been worried and he’s been thinking and he really cares. That's what blows me away about this school and that's what I love.
The relationship between teacher and student in this instance is generalised: there are students who struggle and their teachers struggle with them. What the teachers identity is what Dehaene argues as being central to learning: social sharing characterised by “attention, listening, respect, and mutual trust.”
Author: Pat Branson
Asimov, Isaac (1951). The fun they had.
Dehaene, S. (2020). How we learn: the new science of education and the brain. London: Penguin Books.
McDonagh, S. (2021). Robots, ethics and the future of jobs. Dublin: Messenger Publications.
Dialogue an integral part of Catholic Education
Humility is essential
Being so caught up in the detail of my research into Catholic school staff members’ perceptions of their school’s mission, I failed to see the many signs of the humility of each participant. It was only as I reflected on their stories about their school that I came to appreciate the power of humility to create a good school.
Humility is integral to Catholic education. The task of proposing a worldview, which has Christ at the centre will fail if those who take responsibility for the integral formation of the young are arrogant people. Without humility, dialogue is impossible and the education of the whole person fails.
Paulo Freire (1921-1997), a Brazilian educator and theorist of critical pedagogy, sees humility as an essential ingredient of dialogue in education. He states in Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1970) that “... dialogue cannot exist without humility. The naming of the world, through which people constantly re-create the world, cannot be an act of arrogance.”
Freire places humility (a virtue to be possessed by all involved in education) in opposition to arrogance (the state of mind of the oppressor, the one who claims control of knowledge and truth). He argues that humility (in partnership with love and faith) makes possible the “horizontal relationship of which mutual trust between dialoguers is the logical consequence.” It is only in mutual trust that dialogue can lead to truth.
Humility is that habit of mind, which is grounded in the recognition and acceptance that each person is created in God’s image and has dignity. Humble people are down-to-earth in their orientation to life. Their focus is relational in character and intent. They are motivated by familial love. For instance, the participants in the research project spoke about the importance of creating a learning environment that is familial in character. One participant said: “… if you look at that servant leadership that Jesus lived and you look at the example he made of his two commandments, especially the second of them, we embed that into our culture as a school.”
Another participant described the school as “a strong community” that is “a very large family.” All the participants, in one way or another, spoke about placing themselves at the service of the students. One participant focused on the students in the school who experience learning difficulties and praised the staff of the Learning Support Centre, who “provide such amazing support to these students, teaching them the educational basics as well as life skills, and you can really see that they are going to be okay when they leave school.”
While it might be argued that the examples given above are really about compassion, nevertheless, compassion cannot exist where there is arrogance. Humble people respond compassionately to the needs of others, whether they believe in God or not. Hopefully, those who have been blessed with the divine gifts of faith, hope and charity, will recognise in the signs of humility in the life of a school, the presence of the One who loves unconditionally and whose Spirit guides all of creation on the path to union with God.
If I was to be blessed with the opportunity to converse with Paulo Freire, I would offer a Christian view of his explanation of the place of humility in education: that it is the Holy Spirit who stirs in people the desire to join others in learning how to be God’s co-creators; and this community of learners, with Christ in its midst, helps to free itself and others from the oppression of those who usurp God’s power for personal gain.
Dialogue an integral part of Catholic Education
Christ at the centre
As part of my research into Catholic school staff members’ perceptions of their school’s mission, I conducted interviews with seven teaching and administration staff members in a Catholic secondary school in the Archdiocese of Perth, Western Australia. When asked about the school’s mission, one participant explained,
I was led to believe that Christ is at the centre of every Catholic school and this is what differentiates us from non-Catholic schools, that Christ is present here and is present in everything we do.
I wonder what this means. Is Christ not present in all schools? I am certain that Christ being present is a meaningless statement for many, but for me? What does it mean for me to say that Christ is present here in this school, the school where I conducted the interview?
What does the word ‘presence’ mean? I recall an experience in the distant past, with the roll being taken by a teacher, who called out the names of the students. Sometimes a student would answer, ‘Present.’ Other students would answer, ‘Here.’ Occasionally, there would be the response, ‘Absent.’ Someone was trying to be helpful; the person whose name was announced was not present. So the opposite of ‘presence’ is ‘absence.’ The word ‘presence’ has a certain physicality attached to it. But how can someone who died almost two thousand years ago be present today?
The Church teaches that Jesus is present, not only in the Eucharist, but also in the priest, in the Word that is proclaimed, and in the people gathered in prayer and worship. These four manifestations of the presence of Christ point to the spiritual nature of his presence, which is no less real than his physical presence almost two thousand years ago. Pope Francis wrote in his encyclical about the light of faith:
Those who believe, see; they see with a light that illumines their entire journey, for it comes from the risen Christ, the morning star which never sets (Lumen Fidei, 2013, #1).
The risen Christ accompanies each and every believer. Catholic schools display signs of his presence, however, not all people associated with Catholic schools interpret those signs as reminders that Jesus is present in the school community. For instance, the participant spoke of the college crest as an indicator of the values promoted by the school, ‘the values that they wear on their chest every day, the crucifix and the crest that’s there every day.’ The participant did not refer to the relationship with Jesus that every Christian has through Baptism. In fact, the word ‘Jesus’ was not used in the interview, the participant preferring, instead, to speak about ‘Christ’ in the context of the values of the school.
The Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor has described how the perception of self has changed over time from 1500 to 2000. Over that period of 500 years, people have moved from not choosing to imagine the world without God to choosing to live without awareness of the presence of God. The ‘enchantment’ that characterised the perception of life in the 1500s has been replaced by ‘disenchantment.’ In that period of time, we have come through the Agrarian Revolution, the Industrial Revolution, and are now entering the Automation Revolution via the rapid expansion of artificial intelligence (AI). The certainties of the past have been supplanted by the uncertainties of the present. We now live in an ambivalent world in which the symbolic value of religious images and artifacts has been challenged and discarded by many.
And so we find ourselves on the Emmaus road (Luke 24:13-35), confused and questioning the significance of our lives. I continue to ponder the meaning of the statement of the participant, which signals the hope that the values promoted by the school are the values that lead people along the road to Emmaus, where those who want to believe, who want to be enchanted will realise that they have been accompanied by Jesus.
Pope Francis (2013). Lumen Fidei.
Taylor, C. (2007). A secular age.