Online Education Is Not Fully Catholic Education


I am a Catholic high school teacher, and, by May 1st, I will have taught five weeks of online education. This is an act of obedience to various authorities so that, instead of having nothing available for my quarantined high school students, they will have something. I have already explored “group chat,” “shared screen,” and “simultaneous writing documents”; I have successfully communicated to various teenagers some key facts about calculus, Virgil, and economic theory. But I have not — and cannot — fully offer them Catholic education.

There are three fundamental reasons why this is the case. First, Catholic education demands access to the sacraments, and this necessarily demands presence; moreover, the Church’s own sacramentality, in which the Catholic school participates, is maximized in “real” reality rather than virtual reality. Second, Catholic education is an encounter with Christ in and through the encounter with teachers. Catholic education works through a student’s imitation of the teacher whose words and actions draw out young people to see, know, and desire the way, the truth, and the life. Virtual screens truncate the fullness of one’s modeling to others. Finally, Catholic education follows the divine pedagogy. We meet students where they are; we see them and know them, and this unlocks the fullness of education. No screen can fully manifest the person whom I am teaching.

Catholic Education Is an Ecclesial Act

The Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church begins with the claim that “the Church is in Christ like a sacrament or as a sign and instrument both of a very closely knit union with God and of the unity of the whole human race.”1 Thus, every Catholic school teacher participates in the sacramentality of the Church and must strive through the cultivation of natural and supernatural virtues (by grace and free will) to image the truth of this union.

Now, it is a constant teaching of the Church that sacraments but be done with ministers present. No one can receive virtual communion. Confession cannot allow for any medium. Baptism must touch person to water, and so on. The Pontifical Council for Social Communications in 2002 is very clear on the necessity of presence over virtual reality: “Virtual reality is no substitute for the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, the sacramental reality of the other sacraments, and shared worship in a flesh-and-blood human community. There are no sacraments on the Internet; and even the religious experiences possible there by the grace of God are insufficient apart from real-world interaction with other persons of faith.”2 Thus, the highest form of sacramentality is when an outward sign of holiness is given by a person fully present.

One might argue that the Church’s call to evangelize through television (ETWN), youtube (Word on Fire) or Papal twitter suggests a new face of the sacramentality of the Church in social media. However, the priority of presence in church evangelization cannot be underscored. Because the goal of evangelization is to bring Christ’s real presence to another and Catholic schools exist to do this through the integral formation of youth, it cannot be said that tele-Angelica, e-Barron or tweeted-Pope is in any way equal to meeting them in person. At best, virtual realities of saints are signs pointing to the actual realities of these persons.

Thus, the same Council quoted above states, “Although the virtual reality of cyberspace cannot substitute for real interpersonal community, the incarnational reality of the sacraments and the liturgy, or the immediate and direct proclamation of the gospel, it can complement them, attract people to a fuller experience of the life of faith, and enrich the religious lives of users.”3 We cannot rule out the role of the Holy Spirit in using these quasi-sacramental realities to help people encounter Christ. Nevertheless, reliance on God’s initiative alone risks a presumption that is immoral. We must work to make manifest the full sacramentality of the Church as best we can, and this happens only when we make present those members of the apostolate whose holiness is visible and tangible to others. At the core of the universal call to holiness4 is a call to make Christ really present to others in and through ourselves; this cannot be fully accomplished if it is only virtually practiced.

Catholic Education Is Mimetic

The second reason that Internet instruction can never be fully Catholic education is that education is intrinsically a mimetic experience based on the student’s imitation of the teacher. Students can imitate ideas and ways of thinking for sure; this is the didactic style of mimetic education. But students also imitate the entire way of being, the hopes and desires of their teachers. Listen to the Sacred Congregation for Catholic Education in 1972:

“A teacher who is full of Christian wisdom, well prepared in his own subject, does more than convey the sense of what he is teaching to his pupils. Over and above what he says, he guides his pupils beyond his mere words to the heart of total Truth.”5 Furthermore, “the nobility of the task to which teachers are called demands that, in imitation of Christ, the only Teacher, they reveal the Christian message not only by word but also by every gesture of their behaviour. This is what makes the difference between a school whose education is permeated by the Christian spirit and one in which religion is only regarded as an academic subject like any other.”6

This text is the first “follow-up” document to Gravissimum educationis, the Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on Catholic Education.7 It is part of the heart of the Church’s self-reflection on Catholic education in the modern world. The insight is striking: the student’s personal encounter with the teacher, even watching his/her very gestures, is essential to their formation, their authentic Catholic education.

One is reminded of the influence that St. Ambrose had on the pre-saint Augustine in his early Milan days. The young man encounters the holy Bishop and is drawn in to his way of study and prayer. He notes the following: “But while reading, his eyes glanced over the pages, and his heart searched out the sense, but his voice and tongue were silent.”8 Every detail of the role model is key for the student who sees in each little gesture a commitment, a desire, a way of being that either does or does not point to Christ. Trying to communicate the fullness of one’s way of being over Zoom-chat is a fruitless venture. The person is truncated by the virtual experience, and the capacity for conveying the fullness of Catholic truth is, thus, weakened.

Catholic Pedagogy Follows the Divine Pedagogy

The personal dimension of teaching goes the other way, too. If students need to encounter the full person of their teacher who brings them Christ, it is also the case that teachers need to encounter the full person of their students. One of the key elements of pedagogical instruction is the process of assessment, evaluating how much a student has gleaned from a lesson or experience. Sometimes assessment can be in the form of a test or project, but by far the most effective form comes from watching the body language of a student in a day-to-day situation. Once a teacher gets to know a student, it is easy in person to determine how effectively that child is or is not picking of the material, staying on task, remaining focused, enjoying the work, responding to the truths, etc. Catholic teachers must follow the divine pedagogy which meets students where they are in their developmental stage or learning capacity with respect to a given topic. This means that we meet them in person and intuit from “the language of the body” (that is, a sacramental understanding of the person who is a union of physical body and spiritual soul) what is going on their inside by observing their outside. It is absurd to think that the subtle — or even not-so-subtle — clues of our students’ gestures could be communicated through the internet.

Further Research

Thus, sacramental presence, mimetic instruction, and divine pedagogy all demand in-person non-mediated teacher-student interaction for authentic Catholic education to take place. These are only a few of the principles that demand that we not attempt to replace in-person Catholic schools with virtual schools. Anecdotally, I can report that, after one day of full-time online teaching, I and many of my students had significant headaches and fatigue. This testimony suggests that more needs to be done in neuroscientific and biophysical research into the effects of various forms of internet-based pedagogies. This research is especially important for young people, in whom development is much more rapid and influential.

The internet can certainly assist in our journey as individual humans and society to achieve our last end in God. However, inasmuch as its use goes contrary to our nature, against our created purpose, we must reject it as failing to help us become fully human. The glory of God is man fully alive — not merely virtually attendant.

Conclusion

At the core of the move to online education is a set of different factors that all can be reduced to the principles of efficiency, ease, and convenience. How do we bring together different people who, for safety, political, or geographical reasons cannot be together? We use the internet, the online imaging resources. Yes, there are many areas in human life in which the strictly utilitarian value of such gathering is key. However, the demands of a religion centered around a real presence of God-made-man demand that we carefully discern when certain aspects of our faith life can be substituted by this tool, however much it “saves us” in cost, time, or suffering. Catholic education is one area of our religious life that maintains fundamental connections to the sacramental life and being of the Church such that key areas of its nature and function can never be substituted by online activity. The one thing I hope we all learn from the internet-based “coronavirus classroom” is that we need to get back in the real Catholic classroom, fully present to one another, as soon as possible.

  1. Paul VI, The Second Vatican Council, Lumen gentium, 1.
  2. Pontifical Council for Social Communications, “The Church and Internet,” 9.
  3. Pontifical Council for Social Communications, “The Church and Internet,” 5.
  4. See, for example, Lumen gentium, 39.
  5. Sacred Congregation for Catholic Education, “The Catholic School,” 41.
  6. Sacred Congregation for Catholic Education, “The Catholic School,” 43.
  7. This 1965 text noted in its preface that its brief reflections would “have to be developed at greater length by a special post-conciliar commission.”
  8. Augustine, Confessions VI:3.
E. Tyler Graham About E. Tyler Graham

Mr. Tyler Graham has been teaching high school for 20 years and has a Master's in Theological Studies from Ave Maria University. He currently lives in Ave Maria, Florida, with his wife and 6 children. There, both spouses teach at — and all 6 children attend — Donahue Academy, a Catholic classical school dedicated to forming minds to see the integration of knowledge in light of the Truth.

Comments

  1. I found your connection of Freud’s mimetic desire and Catholic teaching incredibly deep. As a Catholic student, I can say that during this time in quarantine, I have felt many times that my online education is somewhat lacking. For what is Catholic school and teaching without the sacraments to guide them.

  2. Avatar Caitlin Kadlec says:

    I thought this was a powerful article. I strongly agree with this article and I found the part about Catholic education being memetic to be the most compelling.

  3. Avatar Quentin Fairchild says:

    There has always been a sense that there is something de-huminizing about computers and the virtual world. We can see it from various arguments as well as from movies and literature where technology-gone-wrong is the end of human kind. This article shows that, experiencing the necessary reliance on computers due to Coronavirus, this intuition of a degraded humanity has some truth to it. Humans are made for social interaction, and while communication through computers or phones is certainly preferable to none at all, it cannot even compare to face-to-face communication. Mr. Graham talks about the body language of students. This is a way for the teacher to teach, but also for the students to interact with each other. The real prescence of other students necessarily increases learning over learning on a computer. Instead of distractions on the computer, in person, we are distracted by each other, but since everyone is trying to learn, we can refocus on the instruction. It is much more human to learn and communicate truly with each other than to do it through a computer screen.

  4. Avatar Abbey Lawe says:

    Education, especially in its rhetoric stage, has little to do with facts. Sadly, learning facts is almost all that the ‘zoom’ classroom allows. Catholic education properly forms the whole person. The real danger which students face is not lower SAT scores but a gap in such an important developmental time.

  5. This is a very relevant and honest depiction of the virtual learning environment in relation to a Catholic education. The necessity of online classrooms at this time is apparent, and it is incredible that the nation is able to successfully communicate this way, despite it’s apparent flaws. All your points are valid and the need for teacher-student interaction is not only necessary for a Catholic education, but also at any type and level of education, or any job that has person to person interaction for that matter. As a high school student I am thankful that I am able to continue my education despite quarantines and lock-ins, but there is no denying the superiority of an in-class education, especially a Catholic one.

  6. Avatar Jack Byrne says:

    This is very true. While the humanities and catholic education cannot be done effectively through the computer, I have seen that science and math anew not as hard to do. This is probably because math and science can get away with students learning from lectures and doing problems themselves. Even then in Science there is a need for experience through experimentation with students and teachers and learning by application in the ‘real world’.

  7. Avatar Dante Cruz says:

    I agree. The online classroom in many ways is more convenient, but It lacks the teacher to student connection that only happens in a normal classroom setting.

  8. These past couple of weeks on online school began well my learning and want to learn didn’t to seem to be impacted it was only until the middle of the second week that I felt that my inclination to pay attention started to dwindle. My theory is that the consistency of looking at the screen and lack of social connection through the real world has made a big impact in my education.

  9. Avatar Nick Guernsey says:

    As a current student using online distance learning, I know more than most that understanding reality from a person who is not even with you in reality makes is difficult to learn.

  10. We are truly blessed to have Mr and Mrs Graham as teachers of our children at Donahue Academy. In addition to great teachers, they are a great parents, neighbors and devout Catholics, powerful live examples for our children to imitate. I completely agree that these life examples and faith transmission experiences cannot be done remotely by tech or by using written materials to homeschool. A good school is the most important investment we can do for our children. Saving money in this line to afford other much less important expenses or lifestyles ir very bad judgement.

  11. I couldn’t agree more. I hope you can convince the community, both K-12 and AMU, that it’s in the best interests of all to have regular school in the fall. In a small community like Ave Maria, it would be easy to quarantine and care for anybody who falls ill and is in danger.
    Of course, I must also add, that having our adults kids home with us–they are both students at AMU–has been a great blessing. Schoolwork isn’t ideal but our home life is greatly enriched.
    God bless you.

  12. Avatar Neil Kane says:

    This article is phenomenal and spot on. Christianity is incarnational not virtual!

  13. Avatar Chris Collins says:

    Mr. Graham,
    All education fails in various ways. We are using imperfect forms of fallen human communication to allow students to encounter the ideas in the fallen and imperfect minds of teachers, which of course are still further in the mind of God. Online education is only incidentally failing at being Catholic. When it does fail, it does so principally because it often fails to be properly educative – student feedback is harder, teachers manipulating multiple interfaces or devices becomes awkward, visual and kinesthetic teaching/learning are muted, etc. I will grant that it is less than ideal for really getting to know students and exposing them to the deep truths of reality. But it is what we have at our time and place. At one time Lindisfarne and Aachen were far from ideal learning environments, too. So, it is our job to baptize it, not to eshew it. Finally, the complaint that students and teachers have headaches after looking at a computer after one day is unlikely to be a great evangelical message for however many millions of Americans do this every day because they are trying their best to provide for their families. Adapting to new modalities is difficult. Patting ourselves on the back for only having the right tastes is unhelpful, especially when the world and our students need teachers to be excellent right now.

    • The last sentence is an important takeaway.

      I love the language in the original article, and do convey breadcrumbs of it to my own children. But the vast majority of kids will never have access to direct classical education (and not because of my bad attitude). In a way, they are the “crowds” of this story.

      Keep it simple, efficient, and thus scalable (something that anyone with intent can implement – no theology degree required).

      And facts /are/ important. They are the raw material of thought.

  14. Avatar Jill Kerekes says:

    Amen.

  15. This is a truly compelling article on the needs of Catholic education.

  16. Avatar Christopher Thelen says:

    Based upon your reasoning, I would also argue that act of watching virtual Mass is not fully Catholic.

  17. Avatar Donna Ruth says:

    Well written and very thoughtful. Much to contemplate. Thank you!
    But consider this: You have been teaching for 20 years now. I think you would readily agree that the teacher you are now is not the one who first stepped in front of a classroom in the year 2000. Teaching, as we know, is a massive learning curve, and we never stop growing in skills, knowledge, methods and end-runs.
    While what you are doing now may seem sterile and less fruitful, the creative, innovative teacher within you will find what is good in the online mode and capitalize on it. If this goes on – and we pray it does not – you will surely think outside the box and find ways to make it work better. I would suggest that one of the bennies is the one-on-one that may occur – especially the opportunity to communicate back and forth with a student within your platform. The written word can be more succinct and direct, and it does not have a tone of voice. Words written can be read and re-read, while a face-to-face in- person encounter may have attendant emotions and distractions.
    I know online teaching may seem discouraging at this point, but there is opportunity for growth and innovation. While all your concerns are very accurate and real, it will get better if you are forced to continue much longer. You are, after all, a teacher, and with that title comes zeal, enthusiasm and creativity.

  18. Mr. Graham: You can take solace that you are not expected to be the primary educator of Catholic students. That’s the job of the parents. We as parents are the primary educators…or should be. The Church has affirmed that time and time again. Parents should be providing all that you mentioned. Your role should be complimentary and not a substitution. God Bless you for caring so much.

  19. The value Catholics are upholding where I live is that education is so important that doing it badly is better than not doing it at all. I am a teacher in a Catholic school and I really hate online teaching, perhaps for the reasons you articulate so well. Or perhaps not. But where I live some of the public schools have given up and will do nothing until next year. That is not a good lesson about anything.
    I suppose anyway I’m convinced that closing the churches is far worse than closing the schools. As long as we are worrying about personal presence….

  20. Thanks for this insightful article.
    I note also that the lack of eye contact, when you are either looking at a face or looiing into a camera so as to appear to look at a face, is but one more aspect of the discarnate character of online conversation. And if you keep your mask on when you do get back together, it has the effect of masks throughout history — to muffle personal identity and diminish personal contact.
    Blessings always
    Mary Daly

  21. Avatar DJ Johnson says:

    Thank you for a very interesting article. Virtual education, remote learning, e-learning, however it is described, is a tool. It works well for some and not so well for others: some students will fail in this learning environment but others will thrive. Right now all of us in education have been forced to use this computer form of mediated teaching to reach our students. I have taken many college level courses online myself; I have used online resources for my own children while homeschooling them; and I am using online resources for the special needs high school students with whom I work in an institutional school. The computer, internet, documents, videos, and audio are all tools; how effective and suitably Catholic they are, depends not just on the teacher and the student but the parents, as well. As a homeschooling parent, I say the computer is, once again a tool, whereas I provide the sacramental experiences through prayer at home, catechesis, teaching in discernment, etc; modeling Christian virtues and behavior, and taking my children to church for Mass, adoration, and reconciliation. Right now, the missing component is finding a church to attend Mass. We have been able to attend–in a church–adoration and benediction and receive reconciliation during this quarantine. Don’t forget that the parent is the primary educator–and many primary educators will need to adjust to this new style of learning. A possible blessing from the forced closure of schools and abrupt switch to online instruction and learning is that parents are now forced to reclaim, or at least we hope, become aware of their authority, rights, and duties as primary educators–a commission they receive in the sacrament of matrimony. The role of the institutional teacher is to serve families. For the Catholic teacher, it is a spiritual work of mercy to serve families. For public schools, perhaps this experience may make them aware of the limits to their authority. The response to the pandemic may bring about a much needed societal correction.

  22. I would definitely agree with this article. The abilities of computer communication and teaching is far more difficult to learn than in a classroom setting. I also think that being at home on a computer can also be a distraction since it is easy to do anything else not related to education.

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