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Vatican II on Christian Education

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Jul 14, 2010 | In On the Documents of Vatican II

The Second Vatican Council’s ninth document was the Declaration on Christian Education (Gravissimum Educationis), issued on October 25, 1965. It is one of the shorter documents of the Council, but even though it attempts to comment briefly on each aspect of education of interest to the Church, a few central principles stand out.

The first principle, established in section 1, is that all men have “an inalienable right to an education that is in keeping with their ultimate goal, their ability, their sex, and the culture and tradition of their country, and also in harmony with their fraternal association with other peoples in the fostering of true unity and peace on earth.” The purposes of this education includes the following:

  • Harmonious development of the students’ physical, moral and intellectual endowments, leading to mature responsibility, including a “positive and prudent” sexual education;
  • Instruction in the knowledge and skills necessary to discourse with others and promote the common good;
  • Motivation to appraise moral values with a right conscience and to embrace them with personal adherence, together with a deeper knowledge and love of God.

In the second section, the Council states the additional right, for all Christians, to a truly Christian education, which encompasses the following purposes:

  • That the baptized become ever more aware of the gift of Faith they have received, learn how to worship God in spirit and truth, and be conformed “to the new man created in justice and holiness of truth”;
  • That they develop ever more perfectly into “the mature measure of the fullness of Christ” and strive for the growth of the Mystical Body;
  • That they learn to bear witness to the hope that is in them and to assist in the Christian formation of the world, contributing to the good of society through natural powers redeemed by Christ.

From these outlines, it is clear that the right to an education arises from the duty, which is part of human dignity, to strive for responsible maturity, the common good, and the love of God; and that the right to the particular purposes of Christian education derives from the responsibilities of each Christian person with respect to both God and man.

This linking of rights to duties is even more obvious in the third section, “The Authors of Education”. Thus “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” (emphasis added). The Council points out that the parental role is so important that “only with difficulty can it be supplied where it is lacking,” as the family is the “first school of the social virtues that every society needs” and the Christian family is not only the first experience of wholesome human society but also of the Church.

Civil society, for its part, has certain rights deriving from its duty “to direct what is required for the common temporal good”. Thus there is a civil responsibility to “protect the duties and rights of parents and others who share in education and to give them aid” and, “according to the principle of subsidiarity, when the endeavors of parents and other societies are lacking, to carry out the work of education in accordance with the wishes of parents” and, moreover, “as the common good demands, to build schools and institutions.”

Finally, the Church “has the responsibility 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.” Hence the Church’s right to educate must be recognized.

The Council goes on in Section 5 to describe the importance of schools, but it sets out a further key principle in Section 6 on the duties and rights of parents, namely:

Parents who have the primary and inalienable right and duty to educate their children must enjoy true liberty in their choice of schools. Consequently, the public power, which has the obligation to protect and defend the rights of citizens, must see to it, in its concern for distributive justice, that public subsidies are paid out in such a way that parents are truly free to choose according to their conscience the schools they want for their children…. It must always keep in mind the principle of subsidiarity so that there is no kind of school monopoly, for this is opposed to the native rights of the human person….

The introductory paragraphs of Gravissimum Educationis had already acknowledged the particular and growing concern for education which is characteristic of modern culture. In the statement quoted here, the Council boldly proclaims that any system of public education which tends to create a State monopoly is a grave violation of human freedom. Having already seen this sort of education at full strength in the Communist world, the Council Fathers apparently anticipated what is now a nearly universal problem with public education throughout the West as well.

It would render this summary incomplete to pass over the Council’s reminder to parents “of the duty that is theirs to arrange and even demand that their children be able to…advance in their Christian formation to a degree that is abreast of their development in secular subjects” (7) and the admonition, in consequence, that they have “the duty of entrusting their children to Catholic schools wherever and whenever possible and of supporting these schools to the best of their ability” (8). Forty-five years after the promulgation of the Declaration on Christian Education it remains astonishing how few Catholic parents take their faith seriously enough to both demand and make provision for such formation for their children.

The remainder of the document touches on the need for the Church to make moral and religious education available in all schools, and on the critical importance of Catholic schools at every level and for every type of study, from general education of the young to faculties of Sacred Sciences. Perhaps the most important point made in this survey of the whole field of education is that the Church and her schools depend upon teachers “almost entirely” for the accomplishment of their goals. Thus teachers must “by their life as much as by their instruction bear witness to Christ, the unique Teacher”, and “the work of these teachers, this sacred synod declares, is in the real sense of the word an apostolate most suited to and necessary for our times and at once a true service offered to society” (8).

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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: amber3287 - Jul. 17, 2010 5:51 PM ET USA

    I have trouble with the part where it talks about the Catholic's duty to enroll their children in Catholic schools, and not doing so being a sign of lack of seriousness in the person's faith. It is because I take my faith and my responsibility for my children's education so seriously that my family chooses to home school!