The Theological Foundation of Catholic Education

The annual Cardinal Winning Lecture on Catholic Education, sponsored by the St. Andrew’s Foundation, was delivered on February 6, 2016, at the University of Glasgow in Scotland by Tracey Rowland, the Australian theologian and Director of the John Paul II Institute in Melbourne. Rowland is the author of two books on Benedict XVI and of Thomism and Modern Culture. The lecture was at the same time common-sensical, practical, intellectual, and, yes, theological. Rowland has much experience teaching teachers who teach in a Catholic ambiance. She also has much insight into ideas that are not, in fact, Catholic.

It is a common experience, not just in Scotland (which has state aid for Catholic schools), Australia, or the United States, that someone can attend years of ostensibly Catholic schooling yet end up knowing little of what it is all about and often not knowing that one does not know. So the obvious question that Rowland asks is: “Well, then, what is it all about?” A Catholic education is not just about getting a job or making a living, though such things are not to be neglected. But no necessary opposition exists between working for our living and saving our souls. Indeed, as all recent popes have indicated, working is itself a dignity. It can also be a sacrifice, as well as something artistic. St. Paul, who seems to have earned his own keep, said in a famous passage: “He, who will not work, neither let him eat” (2 Thessalonians 3:10). The notion that the purpose of education is to supply workers for the work-force is an idea both Marxists and many free marketers maintain. The Catholic vision of education, Rowland affirms, “is fundamentally theological, not economic.”

Rowland likes the German word, Bildung, to describe what education ought to be. “Education is about the formation of human character or personality.” What education is follows what man is. If man is created in the image of God, as he is, then his dignity requires that we see him, like all of creation, as “marked by the form of the Trinity.” Rowland did not want her lecture to sound like a “doctoral dissertation,” but the fact is Catholicism should not hesitate to speak the complete truth to everyone. It assumes that all its members have minds; that they want to know the truth even when it needs precise wording and careful thinking. They want to be confident in it even if they do not fully understand it. The learned are fellow members of the Church. But no one wants a watered-down Catholicism.

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Thus, Rowland does not hesitate to say that the basic Catholic approach to education is that there “exists a relationship between the human intellect, the theological virtue of faith, and the transcendental of truth; there also exists a relationship between the human will, the theological virtue of love, and the transcendental of goodness, and there exists a relationship between the human memory, the theological virtue of hope and the transcendental of beauty.” The transcendentals—one, being, good, true, beautiful—are predicates we can apply to everything that is. They reflect in our being the inner relation of the three persons within the Trinity.

It is possible to pass through schools, even at the graduate level, and not really learn much of truth or of what is important. This result can happen also in Catholic schools. Thus, we need graduates who actually have “Catholic intellects, Catholic wills, Catholic imaginations, and Catholic memories.” They need to be conjoined in a proper order of soul. We want actually to know the truth, to control our own disorders, to imagine what can enlarge our vision. A Catholic memory will know of its saints and their foibles, of glories and tragedies.

Rowland knows that not everyone has the same capacities or interests. This is not an evil, but an aspect of a common good that makes it possible to participate in a broad range of goods and fruits of labor, and insights of others. Some will be more gifted intellectually than others. Some will have greater hearts, be more insightful, or possess skills or virtues that are good. Not everyone is a genius. Indeed studies show that only about twenty percent of students are able to grasp subtle abstract points of knowledge. The teachers and schools must know and attend to the differences.

An educational egalitarianism that presupposed that all students have the same capacities, talents, and discipline will probably end by teaching very little to neglect the real needs and skills of actual students. Some students will be more attracted to truth, others to goodness, others to beauty, and still others to all sorts of practical and unexpected things. “Human lives can turn into narrative wrecks if educators produce people who can think at high levels of abstraction but are emotionally retarded or who lack sapiential experiences, or who conversely are emotionally sensitive but have no intellectual framework with which to make judgments about their inner life.”

We must appreciate that the Christian God is “Trinitarian.” Often our students are quasi-Unitarians. They have never heard an intelligent explanation of the Trinity and why it is important. Rowland amusingly noted that the German philosopher Kant once remarked that it made no difference whether there were three or ten persons in the Trinity. The only response to this is: “Kant was not a Catholic.” To see this importance spelled out, Rowland recommends the three encyclicals of John Paul II on the Father, Redeemer, and Holy Spirit, along with Pope Benedict’s three encyclicals on charity, hope, and faith (the latter under the name of Pope Francis).


What is most incisive in Rowland’s lecture is her analysis of how “values” become separated from Christology only to end up being opposed to any true understanding of Catholicism’s importance. She had already remarked on how Calvinism’s rejection of beauty had such devastating cultural effects in terms of destruction of Christian buildings and a rejection of the normal life of a free people. We hear Catholic schools praised because they have good “values” or “build character.” In an age hostile to Catholicism, these “values” can be separated from Christ. We find a temptation to “distil the Christian values from Christ and to offer the world a package of values stripped of any need of a personal relation with Christ and the other persons of the Trinity.” Virtues without Christ constitute a plagiarism, a “we can do it all by ourselves.”

Rowland has many fine things to say of the two most prominent Catholic intellectuals that come from Scotland—Alasdair MacIntyre and John Haldane. MacIntyre was particularly concerned about the background or culture in which we live, with its own habits and ways of doing things, all of which are usually rooted in religion or some intellectual construct. “One cannot make any sense of the contemporary cultural wars without some knowledge of contending philosophical systems.” MacIntyre thinks that the “contemporary government funded university no longer provides an interpretive community” in which the inter-related things can be seen as a whole. All academic departments and schools live in their own world. No universal principles or final causes exist. All things are free and disparate precisely as a means to prevent any thought of a coherent order to which the human mind is open. Rowland cites MacIntyre to the effect that “structures of the contemporary research university are deeply inimical to the project of a non-fragmented approach to scholarship.” Things do not seem much better in Catholic circles: “The most prestigious Catholic universities often mimic the structures and goals of the most prestigious secular universities and do so with little sense of something having gone seriously amiss.”


Does all of this have some intelligible root? MacIntyre finds it in the seventeenth century Spanish Jesuit, Francisco Suarez, whom he thinks lies at the origin of modern thought even more perhaps than Descartes. How so? It has to do with a thesis about the subjective origin of “rights,” but more especially about the proposition that man has “two ends,” a natural one and a supernatural one. Man, as we know him in Catholic thought, has but one end and that is supernatural. No purely natural end ever existed. The factual end man was given was something above what might be his nature had God first created a natural world, which he might have, but did not.

We can, however, think of a “natural” world as an object of philosophical speculation. There are grounds for this. But “with the idea of a separate natural end of the human person came the project of seeking philosophical agreement about these ends without any reference to Christian revelation.” It was in revelation that the only real end of each person, that is, “eternal life,” was explained to us. This confusion of natural and supernatural is where we eventually get the various notions of economic and political utopianism with no reference to a given created order that includes the actual being of existing men, each of whom has a transcendent end. This is also the origin of ecological theories that propose that the purpose of the human race is to keep itself going in this inner-worldly cosmos for as long as possible. This position ends in giving the state absolute power over all aspects of human life beginning with begetting and population control. Eventually, often following Nietzsche, no coherent natural end can be found in a world that had already jettisoned any transcendent end. Everything is fluid; nothing is stable. Only power is left.

Rowland has a good thing to say of the numerous small Catholic colleges and institutes that have unexpectedly arisen in recent decades. Often these institutions were founded by laymen who do not “want their children spending their late teens and early 20’s writing essays for people who don’t believe in truth or objective moral goodness, let alone something as quaintly medieval as the notion of a Trinitarian God.” (Rowland can be amusing.)

However, many older Catholic institutions, as John Haldane notes, have “sought to model their curricula on the current secular fashions in social and cultural studies. The end result is a situation where Catholics know little about the history of their faith, its distinctive content, its theological, philosophical, literary, and artistic products, or its tradition of spirituality.” This is what results when a natural end of “values” that are self-defined becomes the sole purpose of education, especially higher education.

Some people seem to think we need only to calm down and be nice. Everything will be fine. We do not, it is said, have to confront the intellectual roots from whence it all has arisen.

We need something more than anti-bullying policies and the promotion of kindness and tolerance. We need educational institutions that have as their foundation a deep understanding of Trinitarian Christocentric anthropology with pedagogical methodology tied to that anthropology. And we need to avoid falling into the trap of dualism such as making sharp separations between the secular and the sacred, between religious education and so-called secular subjects, and between religious education understood as intellectual input and catechetical education understood as affective formation.

Rowland’s thought always circles around to include the whole reality of human existence. It sees the purpose of education as a consequence of why man exists in the first place, a major component of which is that he knows the full truth of himself. And she cites John Paul II’s encyclical which tells us that we cannot know what we are if we do not know who Christ is.

In conclusion, Rowland’s interest in culture, in the habits and presuppositions that most often influence us do not allow us to see out time as anything but dangerous. “The fights in the battlefield in which we have been borne are currently fights over the meaning of the human person. The fact that the American Facebook system recognizes over 50 different gender orientations and that of the British Facebook system recognizes over 70 means that we are in the midst of a profoundly deep cultural crisis.” Basically, what Professor Rowland told the Scots in her lecture was that there is intelligibility to this crisis of culture. It can only be resolved if we know the Trinitarian origins of our being and destiny which, for each of us, transcends this world.


  • Fr. James V. Schall

    The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.

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