What a Catholic Education Owes Its Students

As our students—big and small—begin to return to school, it is good to be reminded of what a truly Catholic education owes its students. For most of human history, education was a private affair between (usually) a young boy and his tutor. In the West, small schools began in Greece with an accomplished docent opening up his doors for those boys in the neighborhood whose parents could afford to pay an agreed upon fee. In Athens, the more famous teachers arose: Plato (d. 348 BC) beginning his school, The Academy, and his best student, Aristotle (d. 322 BC), starting his Lyceum shortly thereafter. The aim of these relatively tiny gatherings of “lovers of wisdom” was to master the virtues, and thus come to know the ultimate cause of things.

The first Christians continued this kind of system. Those who desired a formal education would place themselves under a catechist and learn, not only theology, but other disciplines as well. We know that some Christians began very early on to teach in the equivalent of the Roman “public school” system, but often found themselves at odds with the administration—Julian the Apostate even forbade professed Catholics from lecturing in the imperial schools, arguing they must expound people and principles with which they must disagree (namely the pagan poets like Homer and Virgil), and so he “graciously” released them from their official teaching duties. This censure did not last long (AD 361-63) and soon Christians were on the ascendancy. A bishop surrounded by aspiring clerics was the earliest model of Catholic schools, with the monasteries as the outgrowth of this progression. From this collection of monastic schools came the larger cathedral schools, the precursors of today’s modern universities. Isn’t it bewildering to think that places like Bologna, Paris, Padua, and Oxford, not to mention Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, all came into existence to teach young men to serve mainly at the ambo and at the altar?

Today, most Catholic schools are largely indistinguishable from their secular counterparts. Readers of these pages will surely see the small, but very bright lights—Christendom College, Franciscan University, Thomas More, and Thomas Aquinas College—shining with a uniform mission that is clear and Catholic. I have also seen how more and more pockets of strong Catholic learning are forming in the larger schools now run in the “tradition” of whatever religious order once operated these schools. Overall, I tend to think that really good things are happening. But it does raise the question of what a Catholic education should be, and I argue that there must be at least the three following factors at the heart of any serious education: (1) that things exist, (2) the need for docility, and (3) the cultivation of interiority and conversion.

At the foundation of Catholic education must be something commonsensical, but countercultural: things exist and can tell us something about a world independent from our own limited perspectives and, oftentimes, faulty opinions. This is the beginning of true, wild-eyed wonder—that there is something, rather than nothing, and this world judges me, I don’t create it. The human person was created to discover, not determine, the Truth. The myriad acts of existence around us are all reflections of the one great Existent, and our wonder at this world of men and mountains, ants and angels, is what Aristotle called the beginning of wisdom. Even the pagans knew it was an act of God that there was something, rather than nothing! Yet, at the beginning of the Modern Era, professional philosophers, like René Descartes (d. 1650) and Immanuel Kant (d. 1824), told us we had to impose our own thoughts on things to make them really real. This revolution was radical: the human person had now become the center of things, the final arbiter of what things would be.

Not only are the secrets of God’s Kingdom revealed to the childlike, but so are even the simplest of this world’s truths. G.K. Chesterton reacts against this “Cartesian Revolution” by calling us all back to the simplicity of the child-like wonder we were never meant to grow out of:

Now, what I found finally about our contemporary mystics was this. When they said that a wooden post was wonderful (a point on which we are all agreed, I hope), they meant that they could make something wonderful out of it by thinking about it. … But the mind of the modern mystic, like a dandy’s dressing-room, was entirely made of mirrors. Thus, glass repeated glass like doors opening inwards forever; till one could hardly see that inmost chamber of unreality where the post made its last appearance. … But I was never interested in mirrors; that is, I was never primarily interested in my own reflection … or reflections. I am interested in wooden posts, which do startle me like miracles. I am interested in the post that stands waiting outside my door, to hit me over the head, like a giant’s club in a fairy tale. All my mental doors open outwards into a world I have not made. My last door of liberty opens upon a world of sun and solid things, of objective adventures. The post in the garden; the thing I could neither create, nor expect: strong plain daylight on stiff, upstanding wood: it is the Lord’s doing, and it is marvellous in our eyes. (“Wonder and the Wooden Post,” 1912)

To wonder so, demands docility. St. Augustine often preaches on how our sins make us old, but grace returns us to the youthful innocence which is meant for eternity. The second component of a Catholic education, therefore, is docility. We must all remember that there is only one Teacher (Mt 23:8) because the rest of us make up only various levels of learners. Augustine also realized that true learning—not when a young person simply parrots what his teacher holds to be true, regardless of how many learned societies and advanced degrees surround that teacher’s name. To learn is to come with the teacher to the Truth. In his early work on teaching, then, Augustine writes:

Who is so foolishly curious as to send his son to school to learn what the teacher thinks? … When the teachers have expounded by means of words all the disciplines they profess to teach (the disciplines of virtue and wisdom), then their pupils take thought within themselves whether what they have been told is true, looking to the inward truth insofar as they are able. … And in this way they learn. (De Magistro §14.45)

Even one like Bishop Augustine, who made his living off words and moving others, realized that he, too, was learning as he taught. What a joy it would be, if our undergraduates insisted to know, not just what the media reports or what their campus fads dictate. What a shock it would be, if they demanded to come to the Truth as the Truth is, and not as the “spin doctors” of our schools filter it.

The third and final gift a Catholic education needs to impart to its students is their awareness of their own interiority and need for conversion. We run our schools, not simply to impart data or having kids amass catechetical formulae, but having them go deeply within to realize both how little they understand themselves and, more importantly, how wonderfully and beautifully they are made. The goal of Catholic education is, not just knowledge, but wisdom; it’s not just about solving problems, but encountering a person: “Father, this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only True God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” (Jn 17:3). “God, our Savior, desires all men to be saved, and to come to the knowledge of the Truth” (1 Tim 2:4) All of our lectures and classes are ultimately meant to bring students to come to gratitude for all that exists, and, thus, to realize the joy available in coming to Christ.

As this school year begins, let us all remember students and teachers in our prayers—especially those Catholic teachers who owe the one great Teacher so, so much. Christ is the only Truth who can bring us into freedom and joy; his is the Spirit who alone can guide our schools into the fullness of life, where God can be met in every classroom, and in every laboratory. Let us pray, let us study, and let us trust that the Truth still continues to scatter our darkness by the brilliance of his light.

David Vincent Meconi About David Vincent Meconi

David Meconi served as editor of Homiletic & Pastoral Review from 2010 to 2022.


  1. Thank you, Fr. Meconi. This article is a drink of cool, clear water in the midst of a desert wasteland of modern disedification and malformation. Reality! What a concept! Sanity, amidst the absurdities and contradictions of this age. Yes, Truth deserves to be taught and preached, and persons deserve nothing less, and His Cross proves it.

    I think you summarized the essentials well: “… there must be at least the three following factors at the heart of any serious education: (1) that things exist, (2) the need for docility, and (3) the cultivation of interiority and conversion.” I know that my own education did not begin until (1), and the miracle of being was manifested to me. I know that the Being of God and the being a creature together demand humility, the mother of (2) docility. And I know that the life of prayer, communion with Him who calls us, is an unfolding relationship – fruitfulness in the inner garden (3), cultivated interiority and conversion. Such a curriculum far, far outshines the temporal, passing concerns that consume so much of what is presently called “education.”

    Thank you! May the article help guide and form many Catholic educators, perhaps in a re-visioning and reform of the foundations of their work.

  2. Avatar John Boyce says:

    Catholic teachers outside of New Zealand might find our bishops’ statement on Catholic schools a straightforward and worthwhile read: “The Catholic Education of School-aged Children” can be found at http://www.catholic.org.nz/news/fx-view-article.cfm?ctype=BSART&loadref=51&id=322