Liberating Catholic Adolescents

Freedom is a prominent theme of the Second Vatican Council and the teachings of the Church in the modern world; it thus plays a significant role in the contemporary Church’s reflection on education. The Church does not merely wish to reinforce the traditional understanding that “freedom is the power, rooted in reason, and will, to act or not to act, to do this or that, and so to perform deliberate actions on one’s own responsibility. By free will, one shapes one’s own life. Human freedom is a force for growth and maturity in truth and goodness; it attains its perfection when directed toward God, our beatitude.”1 She also looks to impart to today’s youth an ability to harness this freedom amidst the challenging pressures of modern ideologies.

Thus, the Sacred Congregation for Catholic Education asserts that the Church’s children “will be capable both of resisting the debilitating influence of relativism and of living up to the demands made on them by baptism.” Moreover, “the Church is prompted to mobilize her educational resources in the face of the materialism, pragmatism and technocracy of contemporary society.”2

Perhaps, then, the secret to teaching Catholic adolescents is to provide a laundry list of refutations of modern anti-Christian ideologies combined with a lengthy summary of what the Church teaches and how her teaching answers all the modern objections. However, the Church, perhaps surprisingly, does not endorse such an apparently simple solution. Instead, she speaks of the goal of education in light of “integral formation by means of systematic and critical assimilation of culture”3 which happens when, among other things, a school helps a student “spell out the meaning of his experiences and truths.”4 And then this sobering reminder from the Congregation: “Any school which neglects this duty and which offers merely pre-cast conclusions hinders the personal development of its pupils.”5 Or, more precisely, students “should be encouraged to develop a taste for historical truth, and therefore to realize the need to look critically at texts and curricula which, at times, are imposed by a government or distorted by the ideology of the author.”6

How then do we liberate our children from harmful modern ideologies without offering pre-cast conclusions? The answer to this question is most easily found in exploring the concept of the “hypothesis of meaning” in the pedagogical work of Msgr. Luigi Giussani.

Dr. Dan Guernsey summarizes this hypothesis (or “proposal”) thus:

Giussani’s solution is to ensure that Catholic teachers and ministers act as stabilizing witnesses of a lived Catholic worldview and culture. This interpretive framework helps provide meaning to all reality and gets young people to commit to Christ as they progress into ever greater autonomy and authentic freedom based in truth.

His process works like this:

  1. The adult correctly sets up a proposal of a total meaning of reality via a Catholic “tradition” or worldview that is coherent and lived by the adult. This is the best way of providing certainty to the young person.
  2. The adult stimulates the young person to confront and personally commit to the verification of the proposal in his own life and test it against reality. This is the best way of ensuring free and true conviction.”7

Thus, the truth of the Catholic faith and Catholic “way of seeing the world” is held up as a hypothesis, not a requirement. The teacher witnesses to the truth of this worldview and is a role model for living it, but the student is invited to test this proposal before accepting it.

Guernsey concludes: “In presenting this Catholic worldview in word and deed, the adult must not be indecisive, indifferent, neutral, or hesitant but offer it simply, clearly, and naturally, in full knowledge that the adolescent may still exercise his freedom to reject what he is offered. This is what Giussani calls ‘the risk of education.’”8

The Risk of Education is the title of Giussani’s great work on high school education and was the culmination of his work as a high school teacher as he developed the great apostolate Communion and Liberation. And Giussani is very clear about the goal of his method: “What we want — and this is our purpose here — is to free the young generation from mental slavery and from the tendency to conform, which mentally enslaves them to the forces of society.”9 His insights — along with his clear influence on the last three popes10 — should, thus, be considered by any Catholic educator concerned with the liberation of young people from the clutches of anti-Christian propaganda.

Let’s hear Giussani in his own words: “From my very first day as a teacher, I’ve always offered these words of warning to my class: ‘I’m not here so that you can take my ideas as your own; I’m here to teach you a true method that you can use to judge the things I will tell you. And what I have to tell you is the result of a long experience, of a past that is two thousand years old.”11

Now, from the above, it appears that Giussani’s method entails one and only one hypothesis of meaning: the truth of the faith and the corresponding Catholic worldview. However, upon closer examination, another aspect of Giussani’s own method of teaching emerges that challenges that claim. Implicit in Giussani’s invitation to his students is also the proposal that there is, in fact, a method that can be used for verifying the overarching and unifying hypothesis. Moreover, there is an implicit claim about the nature of the human person — the anthropology of the adolescent — at work in the invitation to “judge.” That is: you are a rational animal with the capacity to search for, find, and know the truth: the mind’s correspondence with reality. Finally, then, with freedom to judge, you can accept or reject the proposal.

But it does not seem as obvious that Giussani is holding out these principles of Catholic anthropology as part of the proposal to be accepted or rejected. He says, I am going to teach you this method.12

To be sure, someone could reject the “method” itself and choose to play Cartesian skepticism on epistemology, or rationalist rejection of the supernatural. Giussani himself recounts his very first day in the high school encountering skepticism that was being bolstered by one of the other philosophy teachers.13 He had, then, to work hard to ground the very possibility of a use of reason to understand the faith. Inasmuch as the students had already accepted a counter-proposal, he had to “fight” back for the use of reason in a theology class. Obviously, he would not be able to even begin to teach Christianity if the very ground of opening up to it through reasonable means was excluded a priori.

Thus, there may be multiple proposals that teachers have to offer students, some of them requiring others to have already been accepted (or even demanded by the teacher). How are they distinguished? The main proposal is asserted as the truth of tradition and the lived call of the educator. It is held up as a claim to be tested by the student. The second is to be accepted no matter what. In this way the teacher can allow student freedom to emerge and grow gradually.

It is from this important distinction (imposed mode of thinking and proposed new truth) that we as teachers of adolescents in high school, youth group, or confirmation catechesis classes can develop more effective methods of pedagogy, ones that truly liberate our adolescents to become mature adults in the faith, not swayed by the winds of fashion and ideology.

Giussani’s method is largely directed to theology teachers in high school, but the implications of his discovery of the “risk” of educating adolescents is worth extending to all facets of teaching teens. What might this tension between the demanded truth and the proposed truth look like in various disciplines?

A math teacher is often bound to lecture and present ways of thinking that are accepted from “on high,” as it were. Nevertheless, illuminating the proof of a new theorem — or challenging students to derive one themselves — can be a helpful way to invite them to a verification of the proposed truth. For example, after teaching the quadratic formula and other algebraic skills (like completing the square), show how the formula is derived or challenge them to derive it on their own.

The same can be said of science theories which, if they have experimental verification, can allow the student to enter into the dream of scientific discovery, verification or rejection of hypotheses. For example, after teaching aspects of the Periodic Table it is helpful to explore the life of, say, Marie Curie, and how she discovered radium. Revisiting the drama of discovery sheds light on why Ra is there in the Table at all.

In the humanities (literature, history, and philosophy), the facts on the table are what this or that author wrote or what events actually took place. Grounding education in the great works of the human tradition helps to have an easily accepted set of truths to work with; history teachers, too, should strive to use primary documents and objective facts when effective. Whenever we move toward secondary sources, we run the risk of imposing a particular view or interpretation on young people; if these sources are necessary, we should challenge our students to examine them critically.

The proposal of truth in these cases must be done very subtly by a well-formed teacher who understands the connection between the various disciplines and how they relate to Catholic worldview. Different interpretations may emerge through student feedback or discussion. If an interpretation is offered that is contrary to the faith, he/she should carefully note to the class, “The Church teaches . . .”

In the dicey areas of morality or controversial Church teaching, the catechist, teacher or youth group leader should discern for both a collective group and an individual privately what first principles are still unclear and work to get acceptance of those first principles before proposing the bigger truths. Thus, it makes no sense to tell students that supporting laws that allow abortion is bad if, in fact, the students do not know why abortion is bad in the first place. And, as many educators face today, it is difficult to prove that anything is bad universally when students do not hold that there is such a thing as universal truth (this is my truth, that’s your truth, etc.). The art of pedagogy is in finding or establishing some truth from which to build to the next truth.

But is the goal of forming adolescents in the fullness of freedom only about leading them to the truths that we ourselves hold? Doesn’t that run the risk, finally, of distorting the full drama of human inquiry into the truth? Who can claim to know all the answers to every question?

What emerges, in fact, in the daily life of any educator intent on opening up the freedom of inquiry of the student is the realization that many questions have no established answer. For example, the Church teaches that abortion and deceit are wrong, but can someone licitly deceive Planned Parenthood to obtain damning evidence of their corrupt practices? Another tricky question: the Trinity is true, but whose model best evangelizes, Patrick’s shamrock or Augustine’s metaphor of the soul? An example from a class I taught in moral theology: Which text is better for educating the teaching on contraception, Christopher West’s Theology of the Body or Humanae vitae? The Catholic school cannot challenge the teaching on contraception, but school is a very good place to debate the best method of teaching about it.

The Congregation for Catholic Education in 1988 concurs: “No one should think that all of the problems of religion and of faith will be completely solved by academic studies; nevertheless, we are convinced that a school is a privileged place for finding adequate ways to deal with these problems.”14 By implication, all educators of Catholic adolescents must accept that they are teaching a way of inquiring into the truth even when the answer is not there as proposal.

Nevertheless, it is worth clarifying in cases such as these: What exactly is the hypothesis of meaning if, in fact, we are not giving the answer — or meaning — of a specific inquiry? If we are serious about pushing our students to encounter reality and know the truth, then we must be honest that, in many cases, there is no given proposal of the answer. Something else is at work, then, when we lead our students into the gray areas of thought and life.

I argue that, in these cases, the proposal — the hypothesis of meaning — becomes simply the proposal of the great dignity of the human person who, in achieving adulthood, harnesses his freedom in a way that gives him independence in the inquiry into reality.

Listen to the Congregation for Catholic Education: “Students should be helped to see the human person as a living creature having both a physical and a spiritual nature; each of us has an immortal soul, and we are in need of redemption. The older students can gradually come to a more mature understanding of all that is implied in the concept of ‘person’: intelligence and will, freedom and feelings, the capacity to be an active and creative agent; a being endowed with both rights and duties, capable of interpersonal relationships, called to a specific mission in the world.”15

Moreover, this proposal of Christian anthropology also entails certain aspects of the person’s relationship to truth itself. The Congregation lists several of these criteria:

  1. Respect for those who seek the truth.
  2. Confidence in our ability to attain truth
  3. Trust that God will not deprive us of the truth necessary to orient our lives.
  4. The ability to make judgments about what is true and what is false
  5. Making use of our philosophical heritage, with which to find the best possible human responses to questions regarding the human person, the world, and God.16

Thus, in light of the proposal of human freedom, we can move forward to a gradual immersion of our adolescents into the challenging complexities of thought and life, not presenting answers per se but rather offering the proposal of the dignity of the human person who can seek, find, and know reality.

It is incumbent on educators to allow adolescents, as they move toward adulthood, to gain greater and greater mastery when encountering difficult questions, wrestling with different sides of the questions, taking a stand, and defending it. Our job is to help clarify how the laws of truth demand clarity in definitions, validity in deduction, and elimination of contradiction, but we must simultaneously encourage and challenge them to inquire into the various aspects of a challenging problem and then take a stand on issues for which different solutions present themselves without contradiction.

For example, it is worthwhile for high school math teachers, who are most often teaching “un-arguable” facts, to seek diligently for moments in their curriculum when debated topics arise. Which proof of the Pythagorean theorem is most beautiful? Is it a breach or embrace of “math etiquette” to leave fractions with radicals in the denominator? Is i (the proposed imaginary square root of negative 1) a number? What significance level is required to reject a particular hypothesis when analyzing given data in a statistical context? These are questions which allow the math student a maximal experience of freedom of inquiry; they do not offer immediate answers as many of their normal “problem sets” do. If the nuts and bolts are in place (that is, if the teacher has equipped them with sufficient knowledge to address the question), then the pursuit of the answer amidst difficulty and disagreement with others becomes a rewarding experience of learning how to seek the truth even when it does not immediately grant answers.

For science teachers: what does random mean? When is a hypothesis finally verified? Can a scientist experiment on an animal in this or that circumstance? Human? Which element discovery was most amazing? Is the theory of the Big Bang a motive of credibility for the doctrine of Creation ex nihilo?

For humanities classes, so many questions are up for grabs. Why hasn’t Hamlet killed the king by the end of act IV? Should the American conflict of the 1860s be called a Civil War or a war between two nations? Does Aristotle’s Poetics sufficiently answer Plato’s objection to theater? And so on.

I listed some good theology questions earlier in the essay. In that light, catechists and youth group leaders of adolescents should seek moments when they can move beyond the “data-dump” of imparting factual standards and requirements for sacramental preparation programs. Propose the reign of God in Christ, for sure, but trust that there are specific questions emerging in the hearts of your teens that are worth addressing. If students want your defense of the faith, then offer expert apologetics. But remember, teaching them a way of thinking is just as important — if not more important in most cases — than teaching them what to think.

In general, allowing moments when the freedom of the student is engaged to pursue the truth on his or her own is helpful for allowing him or her to own the material. This is the final corollary to Giussani’s hypothesis of meaning: a mature adult discovers the meaning of things himself.

Now, the language of freedom and self-determination gets a lot of us uncomfortable, especially in the area of theology or education. Rightly so! Freedom, as we know, is badly defined and not correctly embraced in many circles of contemporary society. However, the negative consequences of not allowing full freedom to develop are no less grave. Giussani offers a prophetic note to pedagogical proposal:

Starting at about the age of fourteen, for the next four or five years we must be persistent in a systematic work of helping the teenager to draw the connections between what he has received (“tradition”) and life. Lacking this, new experiences will lead him to adopt one of the following three attitudes, all hostile to Christianity: indifference, where he will feel abstracted from everything that does not directly touch him; traditionalism, where good-natured or less lively people hide behind rigid beliefs to avoid being threatened in their faith from the outside world; and hostility, because an abstract God is certainly an enemy, someone who at the very least is a waste of time.17

This is a sober warning, and the Monsignor saw it first hand. Are we not seeing the dangers of rampant indoctrination in our youth today? Who has more authoritative presence in the minds and hearts of the young: the cell-phone news feed or the latest Magisterial pronouncement?

Only an attention to the necessary gradual independence of the student can allow for a new generation of liberated Catholic adults. In fact, Pope Pius XI, in his landmark encyclical on education, Divini illius magistri, while clearly spelling out the danger of pedagogical naturalism, confidently asserted “the necessity of a gradually more active cooperation on the part of the pupil in his own education” for this “would mean only what has been taught and reduced to practice by the Church in traditional Christian education, in imitation of the method employed by God Himself towards His creatures, of whom He demands active cooperation according to the nature of each.”18 God takes a risk with our freedom; imitating the divine pedagogy means we must take a risk with the freedom of our students. Gradual active cooperation of every student in his/her own education is synonymous with gradual cultivation of freedom of inquiry into the truth.

Of course, the properly formed Catholic adult accepts the proposed truths of faith and morals from the Magisterium in concert with Scripture and Tradition. However, in many areas, this “depositum fidei” holds forth only principles and no particular answer to all the countless little questions and decisions of daily life. Thus, Holy Mother Church also says: cultivate prudence. The capacity to apply principles, especially ones in tension given difficult circumstances, is the hallmark of the prudent, and thus virtuous — and thus saintly! — person. Just as adolescents who are not given any hypothesis of meaning will end up abusing freedom and end up in the world of skepticism or even fanaticism, so will adolescents who are not allowed to engage their emerging freedom end up slave to a kind of dogmatic thinking that is easily swayed by propaganda and ideology, an inability to discern truth from falsehood in various internet-generated “anti-proposals.”

An excellent example of well-formed Catholic inquiry into the truth is manifested by the late Cardinal Avery Dulles in his farewell address as McGinley Professor at Fordham University. Remembering the many years of his theological work, he recalled:

In general I have begun my investigation by asking what others, especially authoritative voices, have had to say about pertinent questions. I want to learn before I speak. If all the witnesses agree, and if there are no unanswered objections, it will be sufficient to note the consensus. But because I have deliberately selected controversial topics, I have generally found both agreements and disagreements. After ascertaining the spectrum of opinions, I search out the best arguments in favor of each major position. To present and classify the existing opinions is, I take it, a service to theology, but I think it necessary also to criticize views that are inadequate. Feeling a responsibility to reach a judgment, I draw conclusions that bring me into conflict with some of my colleagues. In my conclusions I try to incorporate the valid insights of all parties to the discussion, rather than perpetuate a one-sided view that is partial and incomplete. I think of myself as a moderate trying to make peace between opposed schools of thought. While doing so, however, I insist on logical consistency. Unlike certain relativists of our time, I abhor mixtures of contradictions.

I mentioned above that I speak as a theologian. By that term I mean that I draw conclusions from what I believe as a Catholic Christian. The church teaches, and I firmly believe, that the Son of God became man some 2,000 years ago, died to redeem us and rose for the sake of our salvation. Christ the Redeemer, who has given the fullness of revelation, has also made provision for the revelation to be kept alive in the church without corruption or dilution. These basic teachings of our faith, held in common by all believers, are presupposed by Catholic theology. The faith takes nothing away from what I can know by my native reasoning powers, but it adds a vast new light coming from on high.19

Isn’t this quote much like what Aquinas would say about his own method? The Angelic Doctor also begins with a debatable question, examines what most established and/or accepted views have said before on the topic, answers the question himself, and then responds to each competing claim as an objection; meanwhile, he gives, with full charity, as much ground to the opposition as truth concedes. And he always remains a son of the Church, never veering outside of the established teachings on faith and morals.

Students who are formed properly in the scholastic model of St. Thomas (exemplified in the Dulles speech) are, thus, marked by an openness to the truth, a confidence in their ability to pursue it, a trust in the core principles of reason and faith, and a manifest love for all who agree and disagree with them. The well-formed Catholic is not simply slave to what others say; in the end, he will finally assert: respondeo: I answer that . . .

Let us conclude with a contemporary test-case, very important for many educators in America today: Critical Race Theory (CRT). This theory seems to present an approach to American history that highlights racist power dynamics during American origins that, it argues, are systematically woven into the fabric of contemporary society. A cursory look at the political landscape reveals that the federal government is pushing this theory in schools and several states are rejecting it.20 It is tempting, as educators, to think that we have only two choices: A) teach that America is racist or B) teach that America is not racist.

But this is a terribly inaccurate assessment of the pedagogical needs in the current cultural climate. No one should be teaching either of those conclusions to teenagers! What should be taught are the founding documents of America, the facts surrounding American origins, Catholic social teaching about race and racism as well as Catechetical teaching on virtues such as patriotism, and any other relevant background for understanding the questions that are emerging in the CRT debate. For eleventh and twelfth graders, background reading in the big ideas of modernity (such as Marxism) and the Church’s response to these ideas (such as Rerum novarum) can allow students the framework for understanding how some of these theories are historically conditioned. Finally, it is helpful to read defenders and critics of CRT. Only when these kinds of fundamentals are established can high school students begin to discuss in a well-run seminar: Is America a racist country?

And even here one must pause. Is that, in fact, the right question? Perhaps the discussion should pursue whether America is capable of ending racism or whether a racist person can make an un-racist law — or even found an un-racist country. We might, instead, ask: Was the abolition of slavery and the end to segregation consistent with the intention of the founders? What would Lincoln say? Douglas? King? Do you agree with that argument? Why or why not?

And even here one must pause again! Is it the right time for these questions? Do all the students trust each other to have a reason-driven and respectful discussion? Teachers must first build the framework of trust and respect and the skills of discussion before entering into a difficult and challenging topic that will possibly touch people deeply.

But if all the right things are in place and sufficient information has been given to the students, then the hard questions should be asked. And, in these cases, the teacher should not give his or her answer to these questions! The teacher should lead the students with information that is relevant, documents that are pertinent, and, perhaps, offer different views from various scholars on question. Nevertheless, the great witness that the adult leader gives in this moment could be completely lost if he or she were to “take sides” in the matter.

In her text on Giussani’s method, Princeton professor Margarita Mooney cogently explains, “It’s important for teachers to acknowledge that we communicate with our students through our being, our presence, our gaze, our wonder, and our excitement at the educational endeavor. To take that responsibility seriously is to embrace the most important part of education: awakening the desire in our students to embark on the quest for truth. This awakening must be truly personal, a communication of desire from teacher to pupil.”21 As teachers of teens in discussions of highly sensitive topics about which the Church teaching has no specific answer, our job is to model the desire for the answer, a hunger for the truth, a trust in the method of discovery; however, we cannot force the answer upon them. It must be determined by each student individually in full freedom.

Whether a Catholic high school student answers yes or no to the question of American systematic racism is largely irrelevant to the work of education. The real “meat and potatoes” comes when a student justifies his or her claim with proper use of logic, showing familiarity with multiple texts from the American founding documents, Supreme Court decisions, past and present federal and state laws, critics he or she has read, and relevant Church documents. That is what Catholic education looks like. Such a student “owns” a position after careful analysis of the data; such a student is no longer seduced and manipulated by sound-byte blips from his or her cell phone.

In the end, a fundamental aspect of the Catholic hypothesis of meaning is that God has created us to be free, and adolescence is the time when this freedom matures into adult independence: the adolescent is then liberated. Proposing this truth is equivalent to proposing that, in many areas of life, the student will not be able to get his answer from dogma or law or even his or parents, teachers, or role models. Proposing this truth means helping students understand the primordial and regal status of conscience, which, if well-formed, is the only final guide in difficult and complex moments of life-decision or truth-discovery.

Forming Catholic adolescents in the fullness of faith alongside the fullness of freedom is the proper path to establishing well-formed consciences so that, liberated from the bondage of childhood and strengthened to resist the dangerous ideologies of their time, Catholic adults can walk in confidence even where God alone speaks to them, in the depths of their heart. As the Second Vatican Council beautifully asserts: “Conscience is the most secret core and sanctuary of a man. There he is alone with God, Whose voice echoes in his depths.”22 And there, in that place where we are alone with God, we are, in a sense, truly liberated.

  1. Catechism of the Catholic Church, §1731.
  2. Sacred Congregation for Catholic Education, The Catholic School, 12.
  3. Sacred Congregation for Catholic Education, The Catholic School, 26.
  4. Sacred Congregation for Catholic Education, The Catholic School, 27.
  5. Sacred Congregation for Catholic Education, The Catholic School, 27.
  6. Sacred Congregation for Catholic Education, The Religious Dimension of Education in a Catholic School, 58.
  7. Dr. Dan Guernsey, “Authentic Accompaniment: A Better Way for the Synod,” Cardinal Newman Society, Sept. 25, 2018,
  8. Guernsey, “Accompaniment.”
  9. Giussani, Risk, 11.
  10. Guernsey, “Accompaniment.”
  11. Luigi Giussani, The Risk of Education, trans. Rosanna M. Giammanco Franco, PhD. (NY: Crossroad Publishing, 2001), 11.
  12. Hence, Rothschild argues that in Giussani’s risk “the specifically Christian element here is real but mostly implicit,  and even philosophically contingent. The effective proposal of truths of faith presumes minds already seeking truths that are absolute, universal, and personal.” Joshua P. Rothschild, “Adventures in Learning” Commonweal (Nov. 5, 2019),
  13. Giussani, Risk, 15–18.
  14. Sacred Congregation for Catholic Education, The Religious Dimension, 52.
  15. Sacred Congregation for Catholic Education, The Religious Dimension, 55.
  16. Sacred Congregation for Catholic Education, The Religious Dimension, 57.
  17. Giussani, Risk, 72.
  18. Pope Pius XI, Divini illius magistri, 61.
  19. Avery Cardinal Dulles, April 1, 2008,
  20. See, for example,
  21. Margarita Mooney, “Tradition and Authority in Luigi Giussani’s Educational Method,” Public Discourse, April 15, 2019,
  22. Pope Paul VI, Gaudium et spes §16.
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.