Catholic Culture News
Catholic Culture News

Catholic vs. Secular Classical Education: What’s the Difference?

by Ethan Tyler Graham


The rise in classical education in America is not insignificant. It cuts across public and private school divisions; secular and religious commitments; Protestant, Orthodox, and Catholic denominations; and even school building/homeschool arenas. This essay offers a comparison between Catholic and secular classical schools in light of Magisterial teachings on Catholic education.

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Homiletic & Pastoral Review

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Ignatius Press, February 29, 2016


The rise in classical education in America is not insignificant. It cuts across public and private school divisions; secular and religious commitments; Protestant, Orthodox, and Catholic denominations; and even school building/homeschool arenas. Christopher Perrin’s blog post notes some of the hundreds of new classical schools in the last 30 years.1 Within the Catholic fold, these schools can all seem so appealing that the differences among them may be lost to the minds of parents, and the pastors who counsel them. This essay offers a comparison between Catholic and secular classical schools in light of Magisterial teachings on Catholic education.

Two Websites: Two Ends in Mind

Let us begin by considering the websites of two classical schools: one secular and the other Catholic.2

The first explains that the core of classical education:

  1. Values knowledge for its own sake.
  2. Upholds the standards of correctness, logic, beauty, weightiness, and truth intrinsic to the liberal arts.
  3. Demands moral virtue of its adherents.
  4. Prepares human beings to assume their places as responsible citizens in the political order.

The Catholic school, similarly, explains that classical education:

  1. Introduces students to transcendent realities reflecting Truth, Beauty, and Goodness.
  2. Is structured and integrated, not only in the transmission of knowledge, but also in the integration and synthesis of information.
  3. Focuses on the acquisition of knowledge through reading by focusing, whenever possible, on original texts and classics.
  4. Presents various academic disciplines in a sequence corresponding to a pupil’s developing ability to think abstractly, and in an age and developmentally appropriate manner.
  5. Studies not simply individual academic disciplines, but also specifically essential truths that transcend the disciplines—especially those truths emphasizing human dignity and worth.
  6. Develops a sense of wonder and a love for learning. Assists students to become self-motivated and self-correcting learners.

A cursory comparison of these two explanations of classical mission suggests that there are fundamental similarities in the way that both approaches understand the realm of the transcendent: classical education in both schools is ordered to truth, goodness, and beauty or other transcendent realities (logic or correctness, e.g.). Moreover, the pursuit of knowledge is more than something merely practical. Knowledge for its own sake is to be sought—and even loved—with a reverent wonder. Furthermore, both missions clearly entail a respect for moral commitment on the part of the learner, either explicitly so, or with an emphasis on “truths emphasizing human dignity and worth.”

However, a deeper look at the Catholic mission in the second school (more fundamental than its classical mission) sheds light on an aspect of the educational set-up that is not, in any way, present at the secular school. The Catholic classical school seeks “to allow students to encounter the living God in Christ by frequenting the sacraments (daily Mass and regular confession), studying Scripture, serving others, and learning about Truth as it manifests itself in every subject taught. As students develop an authentic personal and loving relationship with Jesus, their love for one another is the sign of our mission reaching fulfillment.” The mission is, thus, ineluctably Jesus Christ himself. There is no doubt that the logos (which Christian faith holds is incarnate in Christ; cf. Jn 1:14) is the same thing as the transcendentals sought and taught at secular classical schools. However, something larger than this end is at work in the encounter with Christ, the Word made flesh.

At the same time, the secular school website proclaims the following: “In the public charter school setting, we leave questions of faith up to the students and their parents.” This suggests that there is no higher end than preparing “human beings to assume their places as responsible citizens in the political order.”

Thus, the primary difference between a secular school and Catholic classical school is in its end, or purpose. The secular school does not form the student for anything higher than “this-worldly” ends, while the Catholic school aims to lead students to Jesus Christ for the eternal salvation of their souls. From a Catholic standpoint, it is important to clarify what this distinction entails and ask if Church teaching has anything to say on this matter. In what follows, I offer an introductory reflection on the theology and teaching of the Church with respect to the meaning and purpose of Catholic education as it relates to secular education, in an attempt to shed light on the distinction between the two models of classical schools.

The Second Vatican Council and Gravissimum educationis

We begin our reflection with the Second Vatican Council’s declaration on Christian education: Gravissimum educationis. At first, the document suggests a universal definition of education itself: “a true education aims at 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” (GE 1).This definition corresponds to what the Catholic philosophical tradition might call “natural” theology or even anthropology. It is a definition of education “naturally” knowable by the “natural light of reason” in the human person. Because all agents act for an end, the human person must have an end according to his nature. Moreover, because he is rational, he can come to know this end and choose means to attain it, as he lives in society with others. Education of all humans, therefore, pertains to the assistance required in helping humans know more clearly their end, and how to get there.

In the next section, the document defines Christian education:

A Christian education does not merely strive for the maturing of a human person as just now described, but has, as its principal purpose, this goal: that the baptized, while they are gradually introduced to the knowledge of the mystery of salvation, become ever more aware of the gift of Faith they have received, and that they learn, in addition, how to worship God the Father in spirit and truth (cf. John 4:23), especially in liturgical action, and be conformed in their personal lives according to the new man created in justice and holiness of truth (Eph. 4:22-24); also that they develop into perfect manhood, to the mature measure of the fullness of Christ (cf. Eph. 4:13) and strive for the growth of the Mystical Body; moreover, that aware of their calling, they learn, not only how to bear witness to the hope that is in them (cf. Peter 3:15), but also how to help in the Christian formation of the world that takes place when natural powers, viewed in the full consideration of man redeemed by Christ, contribute to the good of the whole society (GE 2).

In this passage, the Council Fathers define Christian education as something much larger than “natural” education itself. Here, the domain of Christian revelation is at work, and we enter the realm of we might call “supernatural education.” The phrase “mystery of salvation” and other terms reflecting what the theological tradition calls “supernatural life” suggest a dimension of education significantly—if not essentially—higher than natural education.

Moreover, it is important to note the use of the words “aim,” “strive,” “end,” and “goal” in this document. The text understands that the nature of the thing is determined by its end. This is a Thomistic principle important to the Council Fathers and the document itself, which reminds Catholic educators (at least in colleges) to aim for “investigations carefully made according to the example of the doctors of the Church and, especially, of St. Thomas Aquinas” (GE 10).

It is important, then, to examine how Gravissimum educationis strikes forth with several elements on the end and meaning of Christian education. Summarizing the second paragraph of the document, we can say that the text highlights the following elements:

  1. Knowledge of the mystery of salvation (orthodoxy).
  2. Proper worship (orthopraxis).
  3. Right living (holiness).
  4. Christ will live in them.
  5. They will build the Body of Christ.
  6. Evangelization.
  7. Sanctification and betterment of culture (GE 2).

For the Council, then, every aspect of Christian education is, not surprisingly, linked to Christ. The primary goal of knowledge acquisition is knowledge of Christ (“the mystery of salvation” and “the gift of faith”) or knowledge of how to worship him. Moreover, deepening the natural need for education to form people living the natural virtues, the Council proposes that the students of Christian education are “conformed in their personal lives according to the new man. …” It is this ontological grounding in Christ that then gives forth to bearing “witness to the hope” that is in them while sanctifying{3} the world (“the Christian formation of the world”) which manifests itself in contributing “to the good of society” {my emphasis added in quotes}. In short, where the secular classical academy will encourage all aspects of natural virtue (the Catholic tradition would name them temperance, fortitude, justice, prudence), Christian education strives ultimately to form faith, hope, and love (without, of course, leaving aside the natural virtues). Thus, Catholic education, not only perfects natural education (making clear what natural virtue looks like in the humanity of Christ), but also it introduces the supernatural life, an aspect of education essentially new and different from anything natural education can provide.

Pius XI

That being said, the Second Vatican Council does not stand alone with its two paragraphs on natural and supernatural education. One of the key precursor documents, Pope Pius XI’s 1929 encyclical, Divini illius magistri, had already elucidated these points and developed something, perhaps, even more profound for our reflection on the classical academy.

First of all, Pope Pius XI makes it clear that “it is, therefore, as important to make no mistake in education, as it is to make no mistake in the pursuit of the last end, with which the whole work of education is intimately and necessarily connected. In fact, since 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, it is clear that there can be no true education which is not wholly directed to man’s last end” (DIM 7). Clearly, Pius XI has the “end” in mind as he defines education.

Moreover, following Pope Leo XIII (who, in a sense, resurrected Thomism for the Church at the close of the 19th century), Pius XI points out that there are two forms of education based on Church and State. “Its nature and extent can only be determined by considering, as we have said, the nature of each of the two powers, and, in particular, the excellence and nobility of the respective ends. To one is committed, directly and specifically, the charge of what is helpful in worldly matters; while the other is to concern itself with the things that pertain to heaven and eternity” (52). Here, the link between nature and end is spelled out in light of the two orders of education, natural and supernatural; moreover, this distinction points toward one that would be found in comparing the secular (the “State”) and Catholic (the “Church”) schools respectively.

The encyclical culminates with a clear vision of Christian education identical to what we have seen in the Council. Pius XI offers “the true nature of Christian education, as deduced from its proper end” (DIM 93).He explains that the “proper and immediate end of Christian education is to cooperate with divine grace in forming the true and perfect Christian, that is, to form Christ himself in those regenerated by Baptism” (DIM 94). Thus, Pius XI, in 1929, has already made the distinction between natural and supernatural education (secular vs. Catholic schools) and defined the Christian distinction as that which leads students to perfect their formation in Christ.

However, it could be said that Pius XI goes further here. In a passage surprisingly relevant to this study, Pius XI seems to take these reflections into the area of classical education itself. His reflection on “the study of the vernacular and of classical literature” is worth reading in-depth. The Pope explains that, “if, when occasion arises, it be deemed necessary to have the students {in Catholic schools} read authors propounding false doctrine, for the purpose of refuting it, this will be done after due preparation and with such an antidote of sound doctrine, that it will, not only do no harm, but will {be} an aid to the Christian formation of youth. In such a school, moreover, the study of the vernacular and of classical literature will do no damage to moral virtue. There, the Christian teacher will imitate the bee, which takes the choicest part of the flower and leaves the rest, as St. Basil teaches in his discourse to youths on the study of the classics. … Hence in accepting the new, he will not hastily abandon the old, which the experience of centuries has found expedient and profitable” (DIM 86-87). The Pope makes clear, then, that classical education has great value for the education and formation of young people, but it needs the right teachers to help it form Catholics correctly.

If we hold that the Second Vatican Council did not change any doctrine but only worked to prepare the substance of the faith more fittingly for the modern world, then Pius XI’s statements are as relevant today as ever. And what do they really imply? They imply two key things: first, Catholic schools can gain great goods by seeking to find the kernels of truth in the secular and classical texts of the world. This is encouraged by no less than St. Basil! Second, this must be done by teachers who are trying either to refute errors of the ancients (or non-Catholic contemporaries), or to draw forth key truths from them. But, in the event that the teacher is not Catholic, the class—or even the school—can be dangerous for the young student who is not led by the correct teacher. Pius XI implies that there very well might be danger to moral virtue in the case of the wrong teacher teaching the classics. After all, “Perfect schools are the result not so much of good methods as of good teachers” (DIM 88).

At the same time, the Holy Father is not simply “implying” dangers involved in sending Catholic students to secular schools. In another part of the document, he argues that “the so-called ‘neutral’ or ‘lay’ school, from which religion is excluded, is contrary to the fundamental principles of education. Such a school, moreover, cannot exist in practice; it is bound to become irreligious” (DIM 79).

The Constant Teaching of the Church?

Having considered the pre-conciliar and conciliar texts, we might ask whether these insights into Catholic education are reflected in post-conciliar documents. In fact, the Catechism of the Catholic Church (p. 902) explains (in direct reference to the Code of Canon Law 835 §4) that “parents share in the office of sanctifying ‘by leading a conjugal life in the Christian spirit and by seeing to the Christian education of their children.’” Obviously, according to these texts (the Code and the Catechism), the idea of a mere “natural” education is not an authentic fulfillment of the duties of Catholic parenthood.

Above all, it is important to note that the Code of Canon Law makes very clear that “Catholic parents also have the duty and right of choosing those means and institutions through which they can provide more suitably for the Catholic education of their children, according to local circumstances” (CIC 793 §1). In other words, Catholic education is mandated by the post-conciliar Church. Moreover, this is a “duty” so sacred that it confers rights to the parents.

Finally, the Code proclaims that “parents are to entrust their children to those schools which provide a Catholic education. If they are unable to do this, they are obliged to take care that suitable Catholic education is provided for their children outside the schools” (CIC 798). There can be little doubt that the post-conciliar Magisterium holds to a necessary formation of Catholic children in Catholic education.

Putting these continuous teachings of the Church together, we find, in conclusion, that:

  1. Catholic education offers supernatural life and virtue which secular education cannot give.
  2. Catholic education corrects errant philosophy and thought to put both natural virtue and supernatural virtue on the right path.
  3. Providing a Catholic education is the duty of Catholic parents.
  4. Civic or secular classical schools can be helpful to the common good of society; however, Catholic parents need to understand the dangers involved in sending their children to schools that engage the classics without the right guide.

The Teacher

This discussion points to the most important conclusion of this study: Catholic education is vitally dependent on the role of the teacher and school in witnessing to Christ.

Pius XI describes the perfect teachers as “teachers who are thoroughly prepared and well-grounded in the matter they have to teach; who possess the intellectual and moral qualifications required by their important office; who cherish a pure and holy love for the youths confided to them, because they love Jesus Christ and his Church, of which these are the children of predilection” (DIV 88). Can these teachers be secured in the secular classical school?

The Second Vatican Council states: “Intimately linked in charity to one another, and to their students, and endowed with an apostolic spirit, may teachers, by their life as much as by their instruction, bear witness to Christ, the unique Teacher” (GE 8). How can the secular teacher bear witness to Christ without backlash from administrators?

The Code of Canon Law states that “teachers are to be outstanding in correct doctrine and integrity of life” (CIC 803 §2). How can doctrine and the effect of lived witness to the faith be revealed in a climate where the faith is bracketed off (left, as it were, to the parents)?

And, even if we admit special circumstances in which secular classical schools hire Catholic teachers in an atmosphere of relative religious tolerance, can this situation really achieve what the Church is calling for in schools? According to the Council, the “proper function” of a Catholic school “is to create for the school community a special atmosphere animated by the Gospel spirit of freedom and charity, to help youth grow according to the new creatures they were made, through baptism, as they develop their own personalities, and finally, to order the whole of human culture to the news of salvation so that the knowledge the students gradually acquire—of the world, life, and man—is illumined by faith” (GE 8). Can such an atmosphere possibly grow in a garden that leaves faith up to the parents and students alone?

Finally, it should be noted that classical education, like reason itself, can err without the guidance of Church teaching. Is it really the case that a secular school ordered to truth, goodness, and beauty, under the guidance of reason, will necessarily conclude all the tenets of the natural law that the Church teaches are essential for salvation? St. Thomas Aquinas begins the Summa with a clarification of this point: “Even as regards those truths about God which human reason could have discovered, it was necessary that man should be taught by divine revelation; because the truth about God such as reason could discover, would only be known by a few, and that, after a long time, and with the admixture of many errors” (ST I q.1 a.1). It is very difficult to learn the fullness of the truth without him who is the Truth.

A Final Thought: The Desire for Jesus and the Desire for God

The lived experience of teaching in schools—especially high schools—suggests that a final line of inquiry is worth pursuing in seeing into the fundamental distinction between Catholic and secular classical schools. The life of the seminar, the life of the collective study of great works—classical works—is ultimately much more than ideas competing in a marketplace of ideas. In the classrooms, where children and adolescents meet adults, the drama of discovery and wrestling for the truth plays out in ways that allow this teacher or that teacher to shine and attract the student. The teacher becomes a role model of knowledge, virtue, and ultimately, life itself. It is the infectious nature of desire that then allows the teacher’s passion for learning and encountering Christ to pass on to the students who come to share in this hunger. Over and over, in my 16-plus years of teaching high school, I have seen this. Young people care little about the prizes that the world bestows on this or that adult (degrees, publications, certifications, etc.). They care more about whether the teacher takes an interest in their lives, has something real and important to offer, and lives a life consistent with the message they preach.

And so it comes down to this: if the coolest, sharpest, and most influential teacher in the secular classical school is a rational skeptic, you may find your child is a rational skeptic by the end of his high school career. However, if only one teacher in a Catholic classical school grabs the heart of your child, you can be sure that your Catholic faith will be strengthened in the heart of your child.

A further proof of this point would require an unpacking of the anthropology of René Girard and his biblical anthropology of mimetic desire, that sheds light on the dramatic effect of role modeling for fashioning desire in others. Nevertheless, it should be plain to common sense that the model who desires Jesus will allow the heart to open to that desire. And this desire is the first seed of faith, or the stirring of the Holy Spirit in the baptized, that Holy Mother Church longs for in her children.

  2. For the sake of charitable exchange, the names of the two schools will not be disclosed.
  3. Sanctification in the Second Vatican Council is linked to the perfection of charity (see Lumen Gentium 39).

Ethan Tyler Graham is Academic Dean and humanities instructor at Rhodora J. Donahue Academy in Ave Maria, Florida. He holds a BA in humanities from Stanford University, an MA in religion from Syracuse University, and an MTS from Ave Maria University's Institute for Pastoral Theology. He and his wife, Cassie, have six children.

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