The Church’s documents repeatedly emphasize that certain characteristics must be present if a school is to be considered Catholic. Like the “marks” of the Church proclaimed in the Creed, so, too, does it identity the principal features of a Catholic school.
As Pope Saint John Paul II reminded a group of American bishops in 2004: “It is of utmost importance, therefore, that the Church’s institutions be genuinely Catholic: Catholic in their self-understanding and Catholic in their identity. All those who share in the apostolates of such institutions, including those who are not of the faith, should show a sincere and respectful appreciation of that mission which is their inspiration and ultimate raison d’être”1.
It is precisely because of its Catholic identity that a school derives the originality enabling it to be a genuine instrument of the Church’s apostolic mission. Here are five essentials of Catholic identity proposed by the Holy See which inspire the Church’s enormous investment in schooling.
1. Inspired by a Supernatural Vision
- The enduring foundation on which the Church builds her educational philosophy is the conviction that it is a process which forms the whole child, especially with his or her eyes fixed on the vision of God.
- The specific purpose of a Catholic education is the formation of boys and girls who will be good citizens of this world, enriching society with the leaven of the Gospel, but who will also be citizens of the world to come.
- Catholic schools have a straightforward goal: to foster the growth of good Catholic human beings who love God and neighbour and thus fulfill their destiny of becoming saints.
- If we fail to keep in mind this high supernatural vision, all our talk about Catholic schools will be no more than “a gong booming or a cymbal clashing” (I Cor 13:1).
2. Founded on a Christian Anthropology
- There is an emphasis on the supernatural destiny of students, on their holiness, which brings with it a profound appreciation of the need to perfect children in all their dimensions as images of God (cf. Gen 1:26-27).
- For Catholic schools to achieve their goal of forming children, all those involved – parents, teachers, staff, administrators and trustees – must clearly understand who the human person is.
- To be worthy of its name, a Catholic school must be founded on Jesus Christ the Redeemer who, through his Incarnation, is united with each student. Christ is not an after-thought or an add-on to Catholic educational philosophy but the centre and fulcrum of the entire enterprise, the light enlightening every pupil who comes into our schools (cf. Jn 1:9).
3. Animated by Communion and Community
- The school is a community of persons and, even more to the point, “a genuine community of faith”.
- Schools should try to create a community school climate that reproduces, as far as possible, the warm and intimate atmosphere of family life. This means that all involved should develop a real willingness to collaborate among themselves.
- Teachers, Religious and lay, together with parents and trustees, should work together as a team for the school’s common good and their right to be involved in its responsibilities.
4. Imbued with a Catholic Worldview
- Catholicism should permeate not just the class period of catechism or religious education, or the school’s pastoral activities, but the entire curriculum.
- The Vatican documents speak of “an integral education … which responds to all the needs of the human person.” An integral education aims to develop gradually every capability of every student: their intellectual, physical, psychological, moral and religious dimensions. It is intentionally directed to the growth of the whole person.
- To be integral or “whole”, Catholic schooling must be constantly inspired and guided by the Gospel. The Catholic school would betray its purpose if it failed to take as its touchstone the person of Christ and his Gospel: “It derives all the energy necessary for its educational work from him.”
- The Catholic school is Catholic because it undertakes to educate the whole person, addressing the requirements of his or her natural and supernatural perfection. It is integral and Catholic because it provides an education in the intellectual and moral virtues, because it prepares for a fully human life at the service of others and for the life of the world to come.
5. Sustained by the Witness of Teaching
- Teachers play a vital role in ensuring a school’s Catholic identity. With them lies the primary responsibility for creating a unique Christian school climate, as individuals and as a community. Theirs is a calling and not simply the exercise of a profession.
- We need teachers with a clear and precise understanding of the specific nature and role of Catholic education. Men and women who enthusiastically endorse a Catholic ethos is the primary way to foster a school’s catholicity.
- If students in Catholic schools are to gain a genuine experience of the Church, the example of teachers and others responsible for their formation is crucial: the witness of adults in the school community is a vital part of the school’s identity. Children will pick up far more by example than by masterful pedagogical techniques, especially in the practice of Christian virtues.
- Educators at every level in the Church are expected to be models for their students by bearing transparent witness to the Gospel. If boys and girls are to experience the splendour of the Church, the Christian example of teachers and others responsible for their formation is crucial.
The Church sees in Catholic schools an enormous heritage and an indispensable instrument in carrying out the Church’s mission in the third Christian millennium. Ensuring their genuinely Catholic identity is the Church’s greatest challenge. Complementing the irreplaceable role of parents in ensuring the education of their children, such schools, which should be available to all, build up the community of believers, evangelize culture and serve the common good of society.
Abstracted from “The Holy See’s Teaching On Catholic Schools” by Archbishop J. Michael Miller CSB (The Catholic University of America, 14 Sep 2005). Read the full address here.
1 Address of John Paul II to the Bishops of the Provinces of Portland in Oregon, Seattle and Anchorage on their “ad limina” visit, 2004.