Teaching Desire: Mimetic Pedagogy in Catholic Schools

Jesus and the Little Child … ( “unless you become like this little child…”) Painting by James Tissot.

Three important documents have emerged in the last decade of the American Catholic educational scene: Archbishop (now Cardinal) Dolan’s clarion cry to resurrect the dying “Catholic Schools We Need,” the Diocese of Lansing’s proclamation to move “From Maintenance to Mission,” and the Cardinal Newman Society’s explanation of the five “Principles of Catholic Identity in Education.” When examined carefully, these three texts show a continual deepening in understanding of the Catholic school teacher that is bold, revolutionary, and largely foreign to the bureaucratized product of contemporary certification and education programs. At the core of the development is a realization of the Church’s call to form teachers who are primarily role models for their students. In this essay, I will attempt to elucidate important conclusions from the documents’ understanding of pedagogical role modeling. Moreover, because role modeling is a form of imitation or “mimesis,” I will refer to the work of both Aristotle and René Girard, who have made significant contributions to our understanding of mimetic human relations.

Cardinal Dolan rang the alarm in 2010 with his essay in America magazine when he said that there is a “current hospice mentality—watching our schools slowly die.”1 His article challenged the faithful to breathe new life into these schools, and reminded the faithful that Catholic schools (and their teachers) are essential components of the common good of the Church: “When St. Paul describes the gifts God has given the church, he includes teaching among the most important . . . History has long taught that without teachers to announce the Gospel, and educate the young, the church struggles to survive. Evangelization through good teaching is essential to Catholic life.”2 Teachers, then, are a necessary component of the evangelizing mission of the Church.

Lansing Diocese followed suit closely afterwards and proclaimed the need to move from “maintenance to mission,”3 from a mentality of “keeping the patient alive” to one in which the full mission of the Church (the salvation of souls) is put front and center. Among the key points that this document highlights in the reform of Catholic schools is that schools “possess cultures of formation and transformation, that they be places where the Christian life is modeled, taught and ‘caught.’ It is precisely because the Christian life is more readily caught than taught that our schools must be filled with teachers, staff members, and families who embrace the faith and live Christ-like lives, worshiping God with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength.”4 Teachers certainly “teach” the faith, but their primary mode of educating is through their lived witness to the faith. In living “Christ-like lives,” they help students to “catch” the Word of God in their hearts.

It is the Cardinal Newman Society (CNS) that cements this development in the understanding of the role of the teacher by using the word “model.” They derive five principles from “Church documents related to education, including the documents of Vatican II, documents from the Vatican Congregation for Catholic Education, and the writings of various Popes.”5

The second principle is that the Catholic school “models Christian communion.” This means that “the school community is a place of ecclesial experience, in which the members model confident and joyful public witness in both word and action, and teach students to live the Catholic faith in their daily lives.”6 The CNS authors see that a synthesis of the Church’s philosophy of teaching broadens the didactic element of instruction to one of teaching-through-action. Thus, “as members of the Church community, students experience what it means to live a life of prayer, personal responsibility, and freedom reflective of Gospel values. This, in turn, leads them to grow in their commitment to serve God, one another, the Church, and society.”7 The entire ecclesial reality (buttressed by the “word and action” of teachers who follow the loving path of Christ) “leads” students to “grow in their commitment to serve.”

The point is very clear, then, that teaching is only partially about the words; the actions themselves are part of—and most fundamental to—the pedagogy. But how is it that actions teach more than words do? After all, it would seem that a well-crafted statement or argument is far more compelling than a mute and “unexplained” action. And, even though “actions speak louder than words,” it is also the case that “the pen is mightier than the sword.” How could wordless actions, in fact, teach?

A look to the Aristotelian-Girardian hermeneutic can clarify what principle is at work through which the Catholic Church most wants her teachers to teach. Actions beget imitation precisely because human beings are mimetic. Aristotle in his Poetics states that man is the most imitative or “mimetic” of the animals, and “through imitation learns his earliest lessons.”8 Pedagogical mimesis here largely refers to external copying. For example, the baby’s mother smiles, talks, and gestures in a certain way; as a result, the baby learns to smile, talk, and gesture in the same way.

However, this is not the end of the human mimetic capacity. If we allow the Aristotelian insights to develop through the work of René Girard, then a deeper understanding of mimesis in education takes place. For Girard, man is mimetic not only externally but also internally. Man desires in and through the desires of others, for his desire is mimetic.9 This means that mimetic education can actually affect not simply the actions but also the intentions of students. When teachers become role models for students, they are only accidentally becoming role models of actions; primarily they are role modeling desire.

In sum, then, when we teach, we teach at one level through didactic presentation of facts and principles;10 at a second level, we model actions. At another—even deeper—level, though, we teach by modeling desires. For example, the Catholic teacher should certainly teach that God is good and, therefore, desirable. Moreover, the appeal to good actions is also important in the work of student education. If teachers witness to a life ordered toward the various external goods of the church—i.e., frequenting the sacraments, praying in devotion, and traditional works of mercy—they will model actions that reflect the truth that God is good.

At the same time, teachers should understand that it is primarily the desire for God that must be manifested. Going to daily Mass with a look of frustration will do nothing for the desire of the student. On the contrary, it may model a desire to hate the Church. Only when teachers manifest desire for God can they fully incarnate the “lesson” that the Church wants them to “teach.”

To be sure, the call to give public witness to the desire for good actions could become a terrible moment of hypocrisy for a teacher. Faking a desire that, perhaps, at a given time one does not feel: who wants to do that? At the same time, if teachers are reminded that their entire person (in external action and internal desire) is forming the student’s own desires, then a deeper focus on manifesting the sense of the Church’s attractiveness will allow for better evangelization so that the student is “caught” more than “taught.” It is not as important that children and young adults copy the actions and motions of Mass attendance, adoration, rosary, etc., as that they “catch” the desire for God in Christ that all these actions inspire.

Is this interpretation fair to the documents being explored? A return to the three texts shows that it is. Cardinal Dolan reminds us that Christ’s primary commandment is to “go, teach.”11 This is, of course, within the “Great Commission” at the end of Matthew’s Gospel. The full sentence runs this way: Jesus commands his disciples, “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, . . . teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.”12 Thus, the Lord says: Teach as I have taught you. The commission is a commission to imitate Christ’s own desire to lead others into holiness. Moreover, since Christ is inviting his disciples to follow Him through mimesis, it makes sense, then, that He is inviting them to teach others in this way as well: that is, to manifest His desire for holiness so that it will be imitated in the disciples’ own disciples.

Making explicit this last point, the Lansing Diocese is even more emphatic that teaching is through mimetic desire. In expressing a call for teachers to work so that the faith is “caught” rather than “taught,” they envision schools filled with teachers “worshiping God with all their heart, soul, mind and strength.”13 Only in a lived worship of God from the heart—the expression of that primary desire for God—can there be an effective model of the desire for Christ; only in this way can the faith be “caught.” The Diocese of Lansing teaches us that “catching the faith” means imitating the desire for God in Christ.

Returning to the Cardinal Newman Society document, we find that “Catholic education teaches communion with Christ, by living communion with Christ and imitating the love and freedom of the Trinity.”14 Pedagogical role modeling, thus, begins at first with its own imitation: the imitation of Christ and, in particular, the imitation of divine love. Entering into trinitarian love is an entry of one’s desires into the loving self-giving will of the Lord.

Moreover, as we have seen, the CNS text continues that “the school community is a place of ecclesial experience, in which the members model confident and joyful public witness in both word and action, while teaching students to live the Catholic faith in their daily lives.” This is a pivotal description of the role modeling of communion: teachers model with joy. At the end of the day, there must be a sense in which the modeled words and actions are, in fact, the result of a desire leading to fulfillment—i.e., joy. As Saint Katherine Drexel put it: “We must attract them by joy.” It is the teacher’s confident joy that signals to students that the teacher is worth imitating, and that the goods which the teacher pursues are, in fact, desirable.

Is this a standard and traditional teaching of the Church, or have the educational documents veered away from the norm? In fact, upon examining the core Scriptural passages of the faith, it does seem that the heart of Christ’s teaching orients the disciples to know His desires and imitate them. When Christ teaches His disciples to pray, He invites them to imitate His desire for the Father in the sevenfold petition for the hallowing of God’s Name, the arrival of the Father’s Kingdom, the accomplishment of His Will, the providence of His gifts, the forgiveness of sins, and the shepherding away from—and deliverance out of—evil.

In contrast, sin itself is a bad mimetic desire. Eve copying the serpent is an imitation of its desire (or apparent desire) for the “apple.” The crowd on Good Friday is radically mimetic in its bloodlust for Christ, while Peter’s denial follows hard on the desire modeled by the woman at the fire. Moreover, the temptations in the desert are satanic attempts to model an evil desire for the Son of God.15 It is not a stretch, then, to say that the history of salvation is man’s journey from bad models of desire, to good ones by the grace of God. In fact, our redemption is based on the Incarnation in which fallen man, with sinful desire, is given a role model of the perfect man, with sinless desire, to imitate.

In summary, the Catholic teacher is called to teach and act according to the way of Christ tin order to lead students to Him. Above all, though, the goal should be to manifest desire for Christ, in word and action, that is “caught” by students who see their teachers filled with joy in their lived experience of loving Christ. Moreover, the very origin of the Catholic school teacher’s primary desire (love of God in Christ) is itself mimetic, and the foundation from which all role modeling takes place. This trinitarian love is the primary desire which should form and “catch” hold of these students’ hearts. What this means, then, is that teaching is fundamentally internal mimesis: both in its origin and nature.

As a corollary, this means that alongside—and perhaps above—the teaching of the content of a subject (theology, humanities, math, science, etc.), a class or course should be geared toward the manifestation of the teacher’s desire for that subject. Perhaps more frequently than it should, educational theory focuses too much on content and presentation of content (instructional method, differentiated instruction, curriculum mapping, etc.). How rarely it seems do we hear the gurus ask teachers to manifest desire. How different our teacher-formation “in-services” would be if we heard:

“Show your students your deep passion for the topic! Speak to the meaning of your calling to teach this material! Let your heart’s desires be known by those students whom you love and want to draw into this world of desire for the good, the true, and the beautiful!”

As a further corollary, the principle of integral formation of students’ desires necessarily presupposes an integral formation of teachers’ desires, and the means for making them manifest. Teachers must be given the chance to cultivate their faith, in and love for God, and given assistance in learning how to manifest this desire to their students. This means that schools must foster time for prayer, spiritual direction, retreat, and the sacraments in the lives of their teachers.

At the same time, teachers should be formed to articulate, and make manifest, this desire. Cultivating the “words and actions” of the “life of communion” (as CNS puts it) demands that teachers come to understand the ways of both the evangelist, and the pastor. Teachers must be aware that body language, tone, and personal encounter with students, in and out of the classroom, are all moments of teaching in which desire for God, and the joy that comes from loving Jesus, can be made manifest. Teaching teachers how to celebrate their love for Jesus (and, thus, their Christian love for their students) is vastly more important than teaching them how to write a lesson plan that fulfills a curriculum standard or two.

As a final thought, it seems that the role of the pastor can benefit quite a bit from looking at developments in the Catholic school arena. The pastor is a teacher, more often than not. He, too, is called to model the faith in action and word; but, above all, he pulls in his sheep, the sheep of his flock, through the manifestation of his desire for Jesus. In fact, it could be said that following Christ as Good Shepherd means nothing more than presenting the holy desires that can lead the sheep to sanctity: sanctity borne of mimetic desire.16

This very well may be what Pope Francis means when he defines the missionary evangelizing dynamic in his Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii gaudium. He writes, “The Church which ‘goes forth’ is a community of missionary disciples who take the first step, who are involved and supportive, who bear fruit and rejoice. An evangelizing community knows that the Lord has taken the initiative, he has loved us first (cf. 1 Jn 4:19), and, therefore, we can move forward, boldly take the initiative, go out to others, seek those who have fallen away, stand at the crossroads, and welcome the outcast. Such a community has an endless desire to show mercy, the fruit of its own experience of the power of the Father’s infinite mercy.”17 Here the Pope reminds us of the joy-signifier, the proof that something is being desired and acquired: To announce the Good News is inseparable from radiating the “Joy of the Gospel.” Moreover, he shows that the fundamental fabric of mimetic desire is at work in the Christian call: We have an endless “desire to show God’s mercy” because we have encountered the mercy of God. We imitate Christ’s desire that others would be caught up in that desire mimetically.

  1. Timothy Michael Dolan, “The Catholic Schools We Need.” America The Jesuit Review, September 13, 2010, www.americamagazine.org/issue/747/article/catholic-schools-we-need.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Fr. Steven M. Mattson, “From Maintenance to Mission: Transforming Our Catholic Schools.” The Diocese of Lansing, December 8, 2010, op. cit. fgrhs.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/maintenance_to_mission_01_11-11.pdf?1f7a0e
  4. Ibid. 6
  5. Cardinal Newman Society, “Principles of Catholic Identity in Education.” op cit. cardinalnewmansociety.org/principles-catholic-identity-education/overview/, date accessed: 2/27/18.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Lansing, “From Maintenance to Mission,” 6.
  9. There are too many sources (primary and secondary) to cite for seeing an explanation of what Girard calls “mimetic desire.” A great place to start, though, is Chapter 1 of I See Satan Fall Like Lightning. See: René Girard, I See Satan Fall Like Lightning. Translated by James G. Williams. (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2001).
  10. This statement should not be seen as a rejection of other “methods of instruction” that allow for student discovery, personal articulation of point of view, or other modes of acquiring knowledge of facts and principles.
  11. Dolan, “The Catholic Schools We Need.”
  12. Matthew 28:19-20
  13. Lansing, “From Maintenance to Mission,” 6.
  14. Cardinal Newman Society, “Principles of Catholic Identity in Education.”
  15. Again, there are many sources for seeing a “Girardian” reading of Scripture. For starters, though, I would again cite I See Satan Fall Like Lightning and point especially to the unpacking of the Greek New Testament terms, skandalon and satan, in chapters 1-3 of the text.
  16. In fact, this corollary could also be applied to any other member of the ecclesial community, as Lansing and CNS imply in their syntheses of Church teaching. Administration, staff, parents, volunteers, coaches, etc. are all called to role model desire for God in Christ.
  17. Pope Francis, Evangelii gaudium. November 24, 2013, op.cit. w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/apost_exhortations/documents/papa-francesco_esortazione-ap_20131124_evangelii-gaudium.html, 24
E. Tyler Graham About E. Tyler Graham

Dr. E. Tyler Graham has been teaching high school for 25 years and has a humanities B.A. from Stanford University, an M.A. in religion from Syracuse, an M.T.S. from Ave Maria University, and a Doctorate in Theological Studies from Pontifex University. He currently lives in Ave Maria, Florida, with his wife and children. There, both spouses teach at, and all 6 children attend or have graduated from Donahue Academy, a Catholic classical school.


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