Catholic-Muslim Forum III Seminar

Rome, Tuesday 11 - Thursday 13 November 2014

“Working Together to Serve Others”


Working Together to Serve Youth:

A Catholic Perspective on Education

 Paolo Carozza, University of Notre Dame


  1. I.                  Introduction: the centrality of education

Although the Catholic Church attends to the well-being of young people1 in a broad variety of different ways - their physical health, their spiritual needs, and their economic opportunities, for example - the most pervasive and the most fundamental way in which it serves youth is through education. Education, as will be explained in more detail below, is understood in the Christian context to refer broadly to the formation of young people to lead lives of maturity and loving service to God and to neighbor in fulfillment of their vocational destinies. It is therefore not limited to formal schooling and instruction alone. Nevertheless, a glance at some of the basic statistics regarding the Catholic Church’s activity in providing formal educational opportunities around the world will help to give a sense of the centrality and depth of its commitment. The Church provides education through more than 95,000 elementary schools and 42,000 secondary schools,2 and well over 1,500 Catholic universities worldwide.3 Approximately 32 million elementary students and 18 million secondary students are enrolled in Catholic schools around the world today.4


Although there are no reliable data regarding the numbers of Catholic students as opposed to students of other religions [or none) in these schools, it is certain that a large number, and in some countries even a majority, of these students are not Catholic, showing tangibly that the Church's service to youth though education is not limited merely to serving the members of its own faith community. Rather, it is a response to the most fundamental human need of young people in all times and in all places.5 Similarly, the work of education in these institutions gives concrete expression to the equal dignity of both males and females and their equal participation in the universal good of education. In 1998 there were more than 21.3 million women and girls being educated in Church-run institutions; 84,194 Catholic primary schools taught 11.5 million girls; 237,640 secondary schools taught 6.2 million girls; and 3,163 Catholic colleges or universities educated 1.2 million women students.6 In short, these numbers reflect the deep commitment of the Church to the education of young people both historically and in the world today.


To grasp the source and scope of the Church's profound commitment to the education of youth, and therefore also to discern the grounds and opportunities for working together with others in this area, it is necessary first to explain more specifically what the Church understands education to entail.


2.       The nature and ends of education of young people


The profound commitment of the Catholic Church to education is not accidental. On the contrary, the Church sees itself by its very nature as "mother and teacher"7, and the phrase that Saint John Paul II used to describe Catholic universities can in fact be accurately applied to all of the Church's educational initiatives: they are "born from the heart of the church.”8 The centrality of education derives directly from the mission received from Christ of "announcing the way of salvation to all men, of communicating the life of Christ to those who believe, and, in her unfailing solicitude, of assisting men to be able to come to the fullness of this life”.9 The Church is dedicated to the education of young people because it is through education that the human person seeks truth, which in turn is necessary for salvation. A Pope Francis reminded us in Lumen Fidei, "Faith without truth does not save, it does not provide a sure footing. It remains a beautiful story, the projection of our deep yearning for happiness, something capable of satisfying us to the extent that we are willing to deceive ourselves.”10


In this context, the Catholic tradition regards the education of young people as oriented toward nothing less than helping them to live fully human, flourishing lives. It is an exercise in what Benedict XVI, addressing Catholic educators, referred to as "intellectual charity": "This aspect of charity calls the educator to recognize that the profound responsibility to lead the young to truth is nothing less than an act of love. Indeed, the dignity of education lies in fostering the true perfection and happiness of those to be educated.”11

From a Catholic perspective, education is therefore not an indoctrination of youth. On the contrary, education is the journey of searching for the truth in community through an integral inquiry guided by the light of faith.12 As Saint John Paul II clearly stated, the task of Catholic education is "to unite existentially by intellectual effort two orders of reality that too frequently tend to be placed in opposition as though they were antithetical: the search for truth, and the certainty of already knowing the fount of truth".13 Moreover, education of young people seeks to assist them in order that through their encounter with reality they can find meaning in truth.14 Consequently, education is of central relevance to the mission of the Church because is through the effort of searching for the truth in community that the human person inquires about the meaning of life and of his own being.

Through education the Church also assists young people in entering into a "fruitful dialogue between the Gospel and culture."15 This dialogue has the purpose of achieving a "better knowledge of diverse cultures, to discern their positive and negative aspects, to receive their authentically human contributions, and to develop means by which it can make the faith better understood by the men and women of a particular culture."16 Moreover, through this dialogue young people can be equipped with the criteria to discern both the positive and the negative contributions of the culture in which they live. Thus, when they reach adult life they will be able to live their lives guided by their own judgments, and not dominated merely by peer pressure or uncritical acceptance of cultural influences.

Finally, the purpose of education is to help young people to become women and men of mature character. This is a person "who thinks, judges and acts constantly and consistently in accordance with right reason illumined by the supernatural light of the example and teaching of Christ”,17 who is able to use his intellectual and moral endowments to judge right and wrong, and to seek the truth. Along the same lines, Catholic education is aimed toward the preparation of young men and women to be able to meet their responsibilities in the construction of the common good of society. This requires technical and practical knowledge of the highest quality. According to Pope Pius XI, "education consists essentially in preparing man for what he must be and for what he must do here below, in order to attain the sublime end for which he was created..."18

One may bring together these various aspects of the nature and ends of education with the concise synthesis of the Second Vatican Council’s Declaration of Christian Education: the purpose of education is the "formation of the human person in the pursuit of his ultimate end and of the good of the societies of which, as man, he is a member, and in whose obligations, as an adult, he will share".19


3.       Some distinctive features of a Catholic approach to education of youth


It quickly becomes evident in even these brief and summary comments that a Catholic perspective on education fundamentally rests on a clear and comprehensive philosophical anthropology. "In order to educate, it is necessary to know the nature of the human person, to know who he or she is,” Benedict XVI reminded us.20 That attentiveness to human nature in the education of young people leads commonly to certain distinctive characteristics of Catholic educational initiatives, including features that will sometimes diverge from understandings and practices that may be prevalent in dominantly secular educational institutions and societies.

First, in recognition of the transcendent dignity and eternal destiny of the human person, true education cannot be reduced to merely a utilitarian or technical training. Rather, it must be characterized by an integral concern for the development of the entirety of human person in every dimension - as a physical as well as spiritual being, as both intellectual and moral, as affective and social, and so forth. Education from a Catholic perspective strives "to develop harmoniously [students’] physical, moral and intellectual endowments".21 This concern with the whole person should be reflected in the means used to educate and in the priorities of schools, and leads them to a care for the person that cannot be limited to the boundaries of the scholastic environment. As Pope Benedict XVI put it in Caritas in Veritate, 'The term 'education' refers not only to classroom teaching and vocational training — both of which are important factors in development — but to the complete formation of the person."22

Just as the human person is himself a complex unity which must be understood to have an ultimate destiny, so is all knowledge of reality ultimately unified in God. Therefore another characteristic feature of Catholic education is its orientation to the unity of all knowledge. Traditionally, philosophy and theology have been understood in Catholic education to be the disciplines called to play an integrative role, providing the unifying framework within which other bodies of knowledge, including the natural sciences, find their place and their relationship to the whole. In contrast, the dominant approach of secular modernity - especially at the university level today - may be described as a fragmentation of knowledge and education into a multiplicity of different bodies of thought and different methods of knowing reality.23

In particular, faith as a method of knowledge is typically excluded from the horizon of purely secular paradigms of education and knowledge based on a reductive rationalism alone, while Catholic education regards both faith and reason as two intimately interrelated methods of knowledge. Saint John Paul II, in setting the basic orientation of Catholic universities today, called for a "dialogue between faith and reason, so that it can be seen more profoundly how faith and reason bear harmonious witness to the unity of all truth.”24

While each academic discipline retains its own integrity and has its own methods, this dialogue demonstrates that methodical research within every branch of learning, when carried out in a truly scientific manner and in accord with moral norms, can never truly conflict with faith. For the things of the earth and the concerns of faith derive from the same God. A vital interaction of two distinct levels of coming to know the one truth leads to a greater love for truth itself, and contributes to a more comprehensive understanding of the meaning of human life and of the purpose of God's creation."25

For the same reasons, a Catholic approach to education is also characterized by a sincere "dialogue between Christian thought and the modern sciences".26 This dialogue does not fear contradiction between what the Church teaches and modern scientific research. On the contrary, "...the Christian researcher should demonstrate the way in which human intelligence is enriched by the higher truth that comes from the Gospel...", and all educative communities "are called to explore courageously the riches of Revelation and of nature so that the united endeavor of intelligence and faith will enable people to come to the full measure of their humanity, created in the image and likeness of God...".27 It is important to emphasize that the deep engagement of scientific knowledge in a Catholic educational context still takes place within the context of the unity and integration of knowledge as a whole. Thus, in contrast to much of modern secular thought, Catholic education resists what can be called scientism, or in Robert Spaemann's words "the scientification of life" - that is, the reduction of authentic knowledge, and of the human person himself, to the limited horizons of the natural sciences. "An educated human being must move about in a scientific world. He must be able to use science, but he must learn anew not to try to comprehend himself in the language of science.”28

A further distinctive feature of Catholic education is that its concern for the whole person, and thus for the moral aspects of his nature, extends also to what may be referred to as the "social dimension." An integrated understanding of human nature - in this case as both an individual with a unique destiny and also as a member of a community, called to relationality - leads Catholic education to emphasize always that the formation of young people includes educating them to an awareness of their responsibility to others and to the community as a whole. Pope John XXIII in his encyclical letter Mater et Magistra affirmed that "no Christian education can be considered complete unless it covers every kind of obligation. It must therefore aim at implanting and fostering among the faithful an awareness of their duty to carry on their economic and social activities in a Christian manner.”29 Furthermore, the Compendium of Catholic Social Doctrine explains that the social teaching of the Church is "an integral part of her evangelizing ministry".30 Catholic education of young people is therefore characterized by an effort to inspire students to become protagonists of the common good.

In addressing Catholic educators in 2008, Benedict XVI synthesized these first few distinctive marks of a Catholic approach to education - and their contrast with much of the secular world's comparatively reductive understanding of both the person and of reality - with his characteristic clarity and eloquence:

With regard to the educational forum, the diakonia of truth takes on a heightened significance in societies where secularist ideology drives a wedge between truth and faith. This division has led to a tendency to equate truth with knowledge and to adopt a positivistic mentality which, in rejecting metaphysics, denies the foundations of faith and rejects the need for a moral vision. Truth means more than knowledge: knowing the truth leads us to discover the good. Truth speaks to the individual in his or her entirety, inviting us to respond with our whole being. This optimistic vision is found in our Christian faith because such faith has been granted the vision of the Logos, God’s creative Reason, which in the Incarnation, is revealed as Goodness itself. Far from being just a communication of factual data - "informative" - the loving truth of the Gospel is creative and life-changing - "performative" [cf. Spe Salvi, 2). With confidence, Christian educators can liberate the young from the limits of positivism and awaken receptivity to the truth, to God and his goodness. In this way you will also help to form their conscience which, enriched by faith, opens a sure path to inner peace and to respect for others.31

Finally, it may also be noted that the underlying understanding of human nature characteristic of a Catholic approach to education of young people can have certain important implications regarding pedagogical methods as well. In particular, a Catholic perspective on education understands human freedom both as essential to our dignity and as fulfilled in the capacity to seek, encounter, and adhere to the truth.32 This is not equivalent to a secular or liberal understanding of freedom as consisting only in the autonomy and pure subjectivity of individual preference without regard to the truth, beauty, and goodness of the object of our choices. In the educational context, this understanding entails a delicate but crucial synthesis of reliance on the community's tradition and authority with the cultivation of the individual's capacity for criticism and freedom. On the one hand, because education always takes place within a cultural context, tradition is a necessary part of education; it consists in the handing down from one generation to the next of the essential search for truth that is at the heart of every human culture. Education is also always relational; that is, there is always a need for a person who helps the student to grow in learning and in humanity, and this is the real meaning of authority (from the Latin auctoritas, "one who causes growth"). On the other hand, if the aim of true education is the generation of mature men and women capable of fully encountering the truth and of loving God and neighbor, then tradition and authority can only guide the student’s freedom but cannot substitute for the personal responsibility, verification, and appropriation by the student of what is proposed by the community through its tradition and by the authority of the teacher. This is what is meant by criticism in the Catholic tradition; it represents the path that the student must travel to reach certainty of his knowledge of reality, in contrast to the fundamental skepticism and relativism of "criticism” as understood in secularist approaches to education.33


4.       Education as a right and as a duty

The anthropological foundation of a Catholic approach to education, recognizing that the nature of the human person is inscribed with a structural and an inexhaustible thirst for finding the One who is the Truth,34 also provides a foundation for affirming that the right to education is an inherent moral right of every person.35 The right to education can be understood both as part of the more general right to search freely for the truth,36 as well as a specification of the more general right to participate in the benefits of culture.37

Because of the fundamental equality of all persons, all created in the image and likeness of God and all having the same divine calling and destiny, these rights belong to all men and women equally. Accordingly, the Second Vatican Council noted that "with respect to the fundamental rights of the person," including the right to education, "every type of discrimination, whether social or cultural, whether based on sex, race, color, social condition, language or religion, is to be overcome and eradicated as contrary to God's intent."38 Gaudium et Spes goes on to single out for particular condemnation the fact of unequal protections of the rights of women in the world, including with respect to education: "For in truth it must still be regretted that fundamental personal rights are still not being universally honored. Such is the case of a woman who is denied the right to choose a husband freely, to embrace a state of life or to acquire an education or cultural benefits equal to those recognized for men."39 This recognition of the universality of the right to education, as one of the basic requirements of a truly human life, helps to explain the deep and global commitment of the Catholic Church to those who are otherwise disadvantaged and marginalized in society, and to the comprehensive and equal education of girls and women.

As with any fundamental right, the right to education also has its correlative duties. "In human society one man's natural right gives rise to a corresponding duty in other men; the duty, that is, of recognizing and respecting that right. Every basic human right draws its authoritative force from the natural law, which confers it and attaches to it its respective duty. Hence, to claim one's rights and ignore one's duties, or only half fulfill them, is like building a house with one hand and tearing it down with the other."40

The duties correlative to the right to education begin first and foremost with the personal responsibility of the individual himself to use his freedom to seek and to use well the goods to which fundamental rights are directed. Thus, for example, "the right to live involves the duty to preserve one's life; the right to a decent standard of living, the duty to live in a becoming fashion; the right to be free to seek out the truth, the duty to devote oneself to an ever deeper and wider search for it."41 The right to education entails not only a person's duty to seek to be educated but also his duty to adhere to the truth that he encounters and his duty to use that education in the service of the common good.

The inseparable connection of the right to education to the common good, and the necessity [outlined earlier) of relationship, authority, and community to any full realization of the ends of education also lead to a set of correlative duties held by others in society, beyond the individual himself.

The first of those who have a special duty to help young people realize their educational vocations are parents. According to Gravissimum Educationis, "since parents have given children their life, they are bound by the most serious obligation to educate their offspring and therefore must be recognized as the primary and principal educators".42 It is an obligation that parents will acquit well only by imparting to their children "a sound cultural and religious formation” as well as "a deep sense of responsibility in life."43

Even in the exercise of their primary duty, however, parents cannot by themselves fulfill entirely the rights of their children to education. Especially as young people grow in their maturity and the horizons of their lives expand, it is obvious that their education can be fully realized only if parents and families are supported and supplemented in their efforts by the broader community, including the state.

The state’s duty to realize the right to education has several dimensions. The first is to respect and protect every individual's freedom to seek and to adhere to the truth, and thus to protect each person’s freedom of conscience, freedom of inquiry, and most critically his freedom of religion, as emphasized in the Catholic Church’s Declaration on Religious Freedom, Dignitatis Humanae. Secondly, the state has an obligation to support and protect the primary responsibility of parents to educate their children, and to guarantee the rights of parents to direct their children's education, "a right anterior to any right whatever of civil society and of the State, and therefore inviolable on the part of any power on earth."44 This includes acknowledging the rights of parents "to make a genuinely free choice of schools and of other means of education, and the use of this freedom of choice is not to be made a reason for imposing unjust burdens on parents, whether directly or indirectly.”45 Third and finally, the state has the duty to create and support those institutions and systems of education that are needed to supplement what can be achieved in the family alone, in order to provide for a good general education, technical or professional training (consistent with a country's level of development) and advanced studies for those members of society who are capable of attaining them.46 These several levels of state responsibility in realizing the right to education are to be kept in harmony with one another through the principle of subsidiarity. This requires that the state first supports those natural associations closest to the human person [such as families), then that the state provides assistance insofar as the smaller communities are incapable of achieving the goods of human flourishing by themselves, and that the form of state support or subsidium does not replace or usurp the primary freedom and responsibility of the parents and family.47

In the globally interdependent condition of the contemporary world, realization of the right to education, especially in "the many parts of the world which are still suffering from unbearable want”, will frequently require also that the community of nations cooperate in solidarity to help foster the economic and social conditions that allow states to fulfill their duties with respect to the education of their peoples.48

Lastly, the Church herself, in her condition as "mother and teacher", has a special responsibility to participate in the realization of the individual's right and duty of education.49 She has the duty to "give to these children of hers an education by which their whole life can be imbued with the spirit of Christ and at the same time do all she can to promote for all peoples the complete perfection of the human person, the good of earthly society and the building of a world that is more human."50 As mentioned at the beginning, this responsibility follows the mission received directly from Christ to his Church, and thus cannot be renounced.


Conclusion: Working Together to Serve Youth


This interdependent set of responsibilities to ensure and fulfill the universal right to education of every person provides the basis for all of us to work together to serve youth, across different religious traditions and political communities. In fostering the freedom all young persons to educate and to be educated, in protecting the primary roles of families in educating youth and providing them with the necessary assistance to be able to live up to those responsibilities, and in collaborating in the establishment and maintenance of those educational institutions and systems that serve to provide the education necessary to equip young people to know and love God and serve their neighbors, we can all work together to construct the common good. "Above all the education of youth from every social background has to be undertaken, so that there can be produced not only men and women of refined talents, but those great-souled persons who are so desperately required by our times."51




1 In the following, "youth" is understood to mean persons roughly between the age of adolescence and the age at which they would typically enter the workforce and marry. In the context of educational institutions, this will mean focusing primarily on secondary and tertiary levels.

2 http://cara.georgetown.edu/caraservices/requestedchurch.stats.html

3 This figure is 10 years old, so the figure may in fact already be substantially higher.

Congregation for Catholic Education, Index: Universitates et Institute* Studiorum Superiorum Ecclesiae Catholicae (Vatican City: Vatican Press, 2005]. In the United States alone there are over 225 universities in which more than 787,000 young people study. http://cara.georgetown.edu/caraservices/requestedchurchstats.html

4 http://cara.georgetown.edu/caraservices/requestedchurchstats.html

5 As recently noted by Pope Francis, "In fact, Catholic schools and universities are attended by many non-Christian students as well as non-believers. Catholic educational institutions offer everyone an education aimed at the integral development of the person that responds to right of all people to have access to knowledge and understanding." Address of Pope Francis to Participants in the Plenary Session of the Congregation for Catholic Education, Thursday, 13 February 2014.

6 Holy See statement before the UN Commission on the Status of Women (1998), available at


7 Pope John XXIII, Mater et Magistra (1961].

8 Pope John Paul II, Ex Corde Ecclesiae (Apostolic Constitution on Catholic Universities) (1990).

9 Second Vatican Council, Declaration on Christian Education: Gravissimum Educationis (1965),

No. 3.

10 Pope Francis, Lumen Fidei (2013), No. 24.

11 Pope Benedict XVI, Address to Meeting with Catholic Educators, Conference Hall of the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., Thursday, 17 April 2008.

12 Pope Francis, Lumen Fidei (2013), No. 24.

13 Pope John Paul II, Ex Corde Ecclesiae (Apostolic Constitution on Catholic Universities) (1990), No. 1.

14 Ibid., No. 7.

15 Ibid., No. 43.

16 Ibid., No. 44. In the same document, John Paul II states that a "Catholic University must become more attentive to the cultures of the world of today, and to the various cultural traditions existing within the Church in a way that will promote a continuous and profitable dialogue between the Gospel and modern society. Among the criteria that characterize the values of a culture are above all, the meaning of the human person, his or her liberty, dignity, sense of responsibility, and openness to the transcendent. To a respect for persons is joined the preeminent value of the family, the primary unit of every human culture." Idem., No. 45.

17 Pope Pius XI, Christian Education of Youth: Divini Illius Magistri (1936), No. 96.

18 Second Vatican Council, Declaration on Christian Education: Gravissimum Educationis (1965), No. 1.

19 Ibid.

20 Pope Benedict XVI, Caritas in veritate (2009), No. 61.

21 Second Vatican Council, Declaration on Christian Education: Gravissimum Educationis (1965), No. 1.

22 Benedict XVI, Caritas in Veritate (2009), No. 61.

23 The philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre provides a comprehensive critique of this phenomenon, and contrasts it with a traditionally Catholic approach to education and to knowledge, in Catholic Universities: Dangers, Hopes, Choices, in Robert E. Sullivan ed., Higher Learning and Catholic Traditions (University of Notre Dame Press, 2001).

24 Pope John Paul 11, Ex Corde Ecclesiae (Apostolic Constitution on Catholic Universities) (1990), No.17.

25 Ibid.

26 Ibid.

27 Ibid., No. 7.

28 Robert Spaemann, The Courage to Educate, in Communio: International Catholic Review, vol. 40:1, pp. 48-63 (2013).

29 Pope John XXIII, Mater et magistra, No. 228 (1961).

30 Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church. (Citta del Vaticano: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2004), No. 66

31 Pope Benedict XVI, Address to Meeting with Catholic Educators, Conference Hall of the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., Thursday, 17 April 2008.

32 Second Vatican Council, Declaration on Religious Freedom: Dignitatis Humanae (1965), No.2-3.

33 For a comprehensive discussion of pedagogical methods informed by a Catholic philosophical anthropology, which discusses the interrelationship of freedom, community, authority, tradition, and criticism, see Luigi Giussani, The Risk of Education (New York: Crossroad Publishing Co., 1995).

34 "Thou didst create us, 0 Lord, for Thyself, and our heart is restless till it rest in Thee." St. Augustine Confesions, I, I.

35 Second Vatican Council, Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World: Gaudium et Spes (1965) No. 21; see also Pope John XXIII, Pacem in terris (1963), No. 13.

36 Pope John XXIII, Pacem in terris (1963), No. 12-13.

37 Ibid., No. 44.

38 Second Vatican Council, Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World: Gaudium et Spes (1965), No. 29.

39 Ibid.

34 "Thou didst create us, 0 Lord, for Thyself, and our heart is restless till it rest in Thee." St. Augustine Confessions, I, I.

35 Second Vatican Council, Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World: Gaudium et Spes (1965) No. 21; see also Pope John XXIII, Pacem in terris (1963), No. 13.

36 Pope John XXIII, Pacem in terris (1963), No. 12-13.

37 Ibid., No. 44.

38 Second Vatican Council, Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World: Gaudium et Spes (1965), No. 29.

39 Ibid.

40 Pope John XXIII, Pacem in terris (1963), No. 13.

41 idem., No. 28-29.

42 idem., No. 3.

43 Pope John XXIII, Mater et Magistra (1961), No. 195

44 Pope John XXIII, Pacem in terris (1963), No. 17; see also Pope Pius XI Christian Education of Youth: Divini IUius Magistri (1936).

45 Second Vatican Council, Declaration on Religious Freedom: Dignitatis Humanae (1965), No. 5.

46 Pope John XXIII, Pacem in terris (1963), No. 13.

47 Ibid.

48 Second Vatican Council, Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World: Gaudium et Spes (1965), No. 84.

49 Pope Pius XI, Christian Education of Youth: Divini Illius Magistri (1936).

50 Second Vatican Council, Declaration on Christian Education: Gravissimum Educationis (1965), No. 2.

51 Second Vatican Council, Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World: Gaudium et Spes (1965), No. 31.