Challenges and Ambiguities at the World Congress on Education

I write this on a plane somewhere over the Atlantic flying home from the Church’s World Congress on Catholic Education held November 18-21 at the Vatican and Castel Gandolfo.

More than 2,000 educators from Catholic schools and universities gathered in celebration of the 50th anniversary of Vatican II’s Gravissimum Educationis and the 25th anniversary of Pope Saint John Paul II’s Ex Corde Ecclesiae at the Congress titled: “Educating for Today and Tomorrow: A Renewing Passion.”

The Congress concluded Saturday with a talk by Pope Francis. He was introduced by Archbishop Vincenzo Zani, the secretary of the Congregation for Catholic Education, who, after four days of meetings, summarized several functions of Catholic education: First, educating is love—it is an issue of the heart which involves knowledge and relationship. Second, education is dialogue: it is an open house, a project that has Christ at its center. Third, education is service: offered in the search for truth, beauty, and what is right and good.

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

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A series of brief presentations and music punctuated the rest of the event, with Francis speaking several times in response to prepared questions asked by representative educators from around the world. The Holy Father is quoted below from the live translations received during the event. His remarks were later published in Italian on the Vatican website.

In what many have come to expect from Pope Francis, while there appeared to be some notes available, he also seemed to speak at length off-the-cuff. It’s worth noting that his comments made no mention of Gravissimum Educationis or Ex Corde Ecclesiae, whose anniversaries were the genesis of the meeting.

Also, true to form, his comments were significantly pastoral, sometimes ambiguous, and stressed themes including the promotion of human values and transcendence, radical openness to others and to other cultures, decrying (reproaching) any form of exclusion or exclusivity, a concern for the poor, a warning against rigidity and an emphasis on mercy.

Pope Francis first stressed that education involves introducing students to the fullness of truth. Catholic identity, he said, is about God becoming man and our efforts to teach attitudes and values that are fully human. He suggested that focusing on authentically human things—transcendent things shared by all men—opens the door to the Christian seed, and then the faith can be received and grow:
So we must educate in us all that is human. It is not just catechetical (although that is a part) and it is not proselytization. Don’t do that. Never. Education in a Christian manner is formation and progress in human values in reality, especially the value of transcendence.
This last point of teaching to the transcendent was again emphasized as critical to preparing the hearts and seeking out a radical openness: “Every sort of closure is not what we need in education.”

He next decried that
Education has become too selective and elitist. It seems that the only ones who have a right to education are those who have a certain level of ability or skills, but undoubtedly it seems that not all children have access to education. This is shameful. It is a reality which takes us in a direction of human selectivity. Instead of bridging the gap between people, it widens it. It creates a barrier between poor and rich.
Although he twice mentioned the work of St. Don Bosco among the poor of Northern Italy in the late 1800s, the pope was adamant that entirely new ways of educating are needed. He also suggested the benefit of informal education, and warned against all forms of education that emphasize simply the head or acquisition of knowledge, especially if only for the sake of money:
We need new horizons and new models. We need to open up horizons for an education that is not just in the head. There are three languages: head, heart, and hand. Education must pass through these three pathways. We must help them to think, feel what is in their hearts, and help them in doing. So these three languages must be in harmony with each other.
His most significant criticism was of schools that are in any way exclusive:
We select the most intelligent and the best and leave the others outside. We cannot go on like this with a selective type of education. Because there is not a social pact that unites everyone. No one should be denied. We must leave the places where we are as educators and go to the outskirts, to the poor… The challenge is going there to make them grow in their humanity, intelligence, values and habits so that they can bring to others experiences that they do not know.
In response to the question, “What is the biggest temptation today for educators?” he replied, “It is walls. The greatest failure for an education is to educate within the walls: the walls of selective culture, the walls of a culture of security, the walls of a social class.”

He also brought up his continued concerns about any teachers who are rigid:
Another thing that helps is a healthy informality; this is good in an educator. We sometimes mix formalities with rigidity. Where there is rigidity there is no humanity; where there is no humanity, we cannot let God in because the doors are shut. The tragedy of closure begins in rigidity. All families and all people want something else. They want to live together and have a dialogue.
He again returned to the theme that schools today are too focused on selectivity, not on unity. He encouraged educators to respond to this crisis by taking risks: “An educator who does not know how to take risks has no business in education. But of course they must take risks in a rational way.” He concluded his talk by inviting educators to rethink the task of education using the 14 works of mercy.

Inspiration, Confusion, Frustration
By way of personal reflection, while Francis’s rhetorical style can be inspiring, it can also lead to some confusion and frustration as to what exactly one is supposed to do.

He told the story of how he suggested to some nuns in Patagonia that they shut half of their schools for the rich and serve the poor, and also further suggested that everywhere Catholic schools should shun elitism and where there are many educators that at least half of our resources should be serving the poor. Does he mean half of all Catholic schools in the West should focus on serving the poor, and should suburban schools’ resources be transferred primarily to the poor? Does the suffering of the spiritually impoverished in the West also merit compassionate attention, or just the financially poor? Can elite Catholic universities turn away the less academically gifted? Francis does not answer these questions, but does stir things up.

What exactly is “rigidity,” and what does it look like so that it can be avoided by the faithful? So too, proselytism needs to be properly defined so that it can be avoided. A footnote to the documents of Vatican II defines proselytism as “a corruption of the Christian witness by appeal to hidden forms of coercion or by a style of propaganda unworthy of the Gospel. It is not the use but the abuse of the right to religious freedom.” How significantly is this a source of the educational emergency facing Catholic schools? How many universities and high schools seem to be coercing their students with unworthy Catholic propaganda?

These last questions highlight the danger of a lack of clarity. For how many well-meaning Catholic educators are unaware of this definition? In the context of the significant efforts to promote extensive multicultural dialogue and openness, might the term proselytism be misconstrued to mean rather that one should tone down the emphasis on Jesus as the Truth, the way and the life and the source of all salvation?

This is in no way to suggest that this is what Francis himself wants. However, the radical multiculturalism that is part and parcel of what Pope Benedict called the “dictatorship of relativism,” that is in complete control of so many cultures, especially our American culture, might lead some otherwise sincere Catholic educators and their beleaguered students to fall into this more dominant worldly understanding, unless they are given clear terms and directions anchored in tradition and centered in Christ. 

Few Appeals to Church Tradition and Scripture
The larger conference, which preceded the pope’s talk, helped to keep everything in perspective, and provided significant context to better understand the vital mission and value of authentic Catholic education, but there were deficiencies here, as well. While the impetus was the 50th anniversary of Vatican II’s Gravissimum Educationis and the 25th anniversary of Ex Corde Ecclesiae, there was remarkably little mention of Gravissimum in the sessions set up for K-12 Catholic schools. The tenor of the meetings and talks was how to respond to present and future challenges (after all “Educating Today and Tomorrow” was the conference title), but they often failed to adequately address the present “educational emergency” with elements from Church tradition and scripture.

With over 2,000 years of teaching, training, and reflection, no other body than the Catholic Church has as deep a wealth of knowledge and experience related to human formation from which to draw upon, and, as necessary, adapt. Yet, sometimes the Congress seemed to slip into the mindset that today we alone know how best to address our current situation on our own. But Christ is the Lord of yesterday, today, and tomorrow, and to the Trinity belongs all glory “as it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be.”

We need not march blindly forward, unarmed, into challenges, that we cannot fully appreciate. We need to look forward, backward, up, down, and sideways and take in all possible knowledge and facets of reality in order to lead our children.

To untether ourselves from our rich Catholic heritage, patrimony, and intellectual tradition, and abandon ourselves to the prevailing multicultural and potentially relativistic zeitgeist, seems neither prudent nor necessary. Our current efforts, including this education Congress, will only be stronger if we anchor ourselves explicitly in the Church’s long tradition and specifically in Gravissimum Educationis, which in section two describes six key elements of Catholic education: 1. Teaching the faith and knowledge of salvation; 2. Praying; 3. Growing in virtue; 4. Modeling Christ; 5. Building up the Church; and 6. Evangelizing and assisting the human culture.

Many of the presenters made a distinct effort to reference the centrality of Christ in Catholic schools. But, quite clearly, the most significant focus of the Congress and the related Instrumentum Laboris (working document) was on the last point above: evangelizing the culture and what was consistently referred to as “serving the common good.”

While this is all well and proper, there is more to Catholic education than developing warm and socially useful relationships. It may be helpful to speak of what seems sometimes too often unspoken: our salvation and that of others is also at stake. We are also counting on our students to grow the Church, which will best happen when accompanied by an active and Eucharistic prayer life.

There was another key theme of the conference related to serving the common good: advancing a pedagogy of accompaniment. Meeting people where they are and welcoming and accepting them is viewed as a key part of the pedagogical process. This is a significant and important concept, one that both St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict also recommended, and upon which Pope Francis is building. However, it matters where we accompany them to, and whether they are on the road to happiness and salvation or not. There is an end, a telos, an abiding joyful truth to discover, one we must remember to propose—and the answer (or non-answer) has an eternal consequence.

The evangelizing emphasis of the schools highlighted during the Congress was clearly and universally presented via Pope Francis’ particular pastoral approach to evangelism: According to one interpretation offered during the first General Assembly of the Congress, Professor Fiorin from LUMSA in Rome claimed:
There are two attitudes related to two images of evangelization. One is to see the faith as a rock, a fortress, a defensive engagement of preserving traditions from relativism and the winds of secularization. Pope Francis says this is not a good idea, to protect oneself in a small world. Rather the image is of a well-spring where we use tradition to generate new ideas, re-launch our identity as new ways of being missionaries, new meanings of being a school.
I do not know if Professor Fiorin accurately reflects the full views of Pope Francis here, but I do not think it wise to divide evangelical efforts into camps, nor do I think it prudent to limit the scope or nature of one’s evangelical efforts to one method or, even worse, one metaphor.

We must be all things to all men, and cue into the individual or cultural context when determining where to focus our emphasis. While the Instrumentum Laboris twice says that the current education mission calls for a redefinition of Catholic education, that (thankfully) was apparently hyperbole. What was actually being sought seems to be new ways of making Catholic schools more effective. Among the key efforts (most of which are not entirely new, but certainly now a particular focus) are:

Integral education—we educate the full human person: intellectually, spiritually, physically, and morally.
A deep respect and openness to others, broad ecumenism, and multicultural celebration.
A pedagogy of accompaniment—with a focus on warm relationships and personal presence to the others where they are.
Seeing the students as protagonists—not objects of education.
Christ as the foundation of Catholic schools.

Participants Call for Fidelity to Tradition
Finally, the Congress and its documents emphasize three critical elements about Catholic schools that speak to the current age: First, Catholic schools are primarily communities and not just working organizations. Second, Catholic schools are educational communities and not simply providers of instruction and training services, because of the force of the mission which concerns the integral formation of young people. Third, Catholic schools are educational communities of evangelization because they deliberately set themselves up to be instruments that provide an experience of the Church (2014, Educating Today and Tomorrow: A Renewing Passion Lineamenta, p. 189).

The international conference was an amazing and rich experience. It was a truly multicultural gathering of thoughtful men and women who love the Lord and are dedicated to the students they serve and to the Church. There is hope that its efforts will bear significant fruits, but this will be possible only if those efforts are rooted clearly in Church tradition.

And it is on this point that I am so grateful to have met an energetic group of participants—lay, religious, and bishops—who are committed to a renewal of Catholic education that is in complete harmony with the Church’s Magisterium and rich tradition. It was a great sign to see many of them rise during the limited question and comment periods to remind the Congress of the critical importance of moving forward in complete fidelity to the Church and her long history of excellence in education.

When all is said and done, Catholic schools are a great (and essential) ministry of the Church and its mission to “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20, NIV). And as the Instrumentum Laboris reminds us: “At the heart of Catholic education there is always Jesus Christ: everything that happens in Catholic schools and universities should lead to an encounter with the living Christ.”

Editor’s note: In the above photo, educators take pictures with mobile phones and tablets as Pope Francis arrives to lead a November 21 audience for participants in a world congress sponsored by the Congregation for Catholic Education at the Vatican. (Photo credit: CNS photo/Stefano Rellandini, Reuters)


  • Daniel Guernsey

    Dr. Daniel Guernsey is a senior fellow at The Cardinal Newman Society.

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