Catholic Culture Solidarity
Catholic Culture Solidarity

An Elementary and Practical Catholic Education

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Aug 22, 2011

I’m still proceeding bit by bit through Newman’s The Idea of a University. Most recently, I was particularly impressed by what the great and recently beatified Cardinal recommended by way of “general religious knowledge” of the Catholic Faith in the section on “elementary studies” (at the university level). Recall that in Newman’s day, the idea of a Catholic university in the British Isles was relatively new; the Church hierarchy in England was reestablished only in 1850, following long years of suppression beginning with the national establishment of the Church of England in the sixteenth century.

So Newman faced a considerable debate over what, in the course of a liberal education, a Catholic should learn of his Church and his Faith. Many in England argued that religion really had no significant place beyond mere sentiment in a university education in general—a point of view, of course, which Catholics cannot accept, and which Newman answered earlier in the book (see Mindless Ways of Limiting God). But others feared that the theology which could be studied in a broad liberal arts program for lay persons would be so little as to be dangerous. In the section I am considering here, Newman sets out to allay that fear.

If one is tempted to snicker at the confusion of Newman’s contemporaries on this score, one has only to note the near total disarray of Catholic religious education in our own colleges and universities today to realize once again how difficult it seems to be to get things right. In any case, Newman is eminently practical in his approach. First, he notes that “one great portion of the knowledge here advocated is…historical knowledge, which has little or nothing to do with doctrine.” He continues:

If a Catholic youth mixes with educated Protestants of his own age [for, after all, the dominant English culture of the day was that of educated Protestants], he will find them conversant with the outlines and the characteristics of sacred and ecclesiastical history as well as profane: it is desirable that he should be on a par with them, and able to keep up a conversation with them.

Under this heading, Newman conceives that students should know “the great primitive divisions of Christianity, its polity, its luminaries, its acts, and its fortunes; its great eras, and its course down to this day.” In addition, they should have a general idea of the propagation of the Faith to various regions, in what order and at what times. They should recognize the Church Fathers and other great Christian writers, and the topics of their works; also the great heresiarchs and the great leaders of orthodoxy, their influence, their rise and decline. They should know something of the religion of the barbarians who overran the Roman Empire, something of the Crusades, something of the great religious orders. They should know the basic history of the Holy See and its role in the spread of learning. And they should know the broad history of Christian thought, and the spread of learning under the influence of Christianity, at least in the British Isles.

He takes a similar approach to Biblical knowledge:

It is desirable that, while our students are encouraged to pursue the history of classical literature, they should also be invited to acquaint themselves with some general facts about the canon of Holy Scriptures, its history, the Jewish canon, St. Jerome, the Protestant Bible; again, about the languages of Scripture, the contents of its separate books, their authors, and their versions. In all such knowledge I conceive no great harm can lie in being superficial.

Then Newman turns to doctrine and theology itself, in which lies the chief fear of superficiality—for indeed, here a little knowledge can sometimes be a dangerous thing. Therefore he would exclude from the general program deep theological study or the study of dogma in and of itself. Instead, he would content himself with “enforcing such a broad knowledge of doctrinal subjects as is contained in the catechisms of the Church, or the actual writings of her laity. I would have students apply their minds to such religious topics as laymen actually do treat.” Once again we see a very practical approach, and Newman is very much worth quoting at length so that we can more easily grasp his point:

I should desire, then, to encourage in our students an intelligent apprehension of the relations, as I may call them, between the Church and Society at large; for instance, the difference between the Church and a religious sect; the respective prerogatives of the Church and the civil power; what the Church claims of necessity, what it cannot dispense with, what it can; what it can grant, what it cannot. A Catholic hears the celibacy of the clergy discussed in general society; is that usage a matter of faith, or is it not of faith? He hears the Pope accused of interfering with the prerogatives of her Majesty, because he appoints an hierarchy. What is he to answer? What principle is to guide him in the remarks which he cannot escape from the necessity of making? He fills a station of importance, and he is addressed by some friend who has political reasons for wishing to know what is the difference between Canon and Civil Law, whether the Council of Trent has been received in France, whether a Priest cannot in certain cases absolve prospectively, what is meant by his intention, what by the opus operatum; whether, and in what sense, we consider Protestants to be heretics; whether anyone can be saved without sacramental confession; whether we deny the reality of natural virtue, or what worth we assign to it?

This series of almost random examples drives home the need for such a basic knowledge, an education in the questions lay persons face frequently in their own circles. And then Newman explains more fully his reason for recommending this approach:

Questions may be multiplied without limit, which occur in conversation between friends, in social intercourse, or in the business of life, when no argument is needed, no subtle and delicate disquisition, but a few direct words stating the fact, and when perhaps a few words may even hinder most serious inconveniences to the Catholic body. Half the controversies which go on in the world arise from ignorance of the facts of the case; half of the prejudices against Catholicity lie in the misinformation of the prejudiced parties. Candid persons are set right, and enemies silenced, by the mere statement of what it is that we believe. It will not answer the purpose for a Catholic to say, “I leave it to theologians,” “I will ask my priest;” but it will commonly give him a triumph, as easy as it is complete, if he can then and there lay down the law. I say “lay down the law;” for remarkable it is that even those who speak against Catholicism like to hear about it, and will excuse its advocate from alleging arguments if he can gratify their curiosity by giving them information. Generally speaking, however, as I have said, what is given as information will really be an argument as well as information.

Of course, in our more enlightened age, in which every basic element of Catholicism is challenged by Modernist theologians as if the entire foundation of the Faith really were in grave doubt, it may seem simplistic and naive to insist that the Catholic laity should be taught how to “lay down the law”, that is, to state clearly and without confusion exactly what Catholics believe and what they do not or, in other words, what the Catholic Church teaches and what she does not. Or to know the outline of their Church’s history. Or to understand the basic elements of Scripture and, as we may say in our more secular age, the basic and inevitable differences not only between Catholicism and Protestantism but between the Christian and the secular or pagan worldviews.

Simplistic and naive? And yet we must consider, if only we were to give Catholic students precisely what Newman calls an elementary and eminently practical understanding of their religion—in history, in Scripture, in doctrine and discipline, and in the overall tenor of Catholic thought as compared with its contraries—then how much better educated would they be than they are now!

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: Defender - Aug. 22, 2011 7:39 PM ET USA

    I still maintain that the earlier a child learns their Faith the better. The basis for deeply understanding our Faith should begin with a basic appreciation of its principles. For instance, the Cardinal (Deadly) Sins, the Cardinal Virtues, etc, can be learned early and their application reiterated as each student progresses. Students can and do understand this concept.