Catholic parents are usually grateful that their children are enrolled in Catholic schools.  Often they punctuate their expression of thanks with the remark that “at least there I know my kids are getting some instruction in the Catholic faith.” When I hear such remarks, I get the impression that sometimes parents think that a school is Catholic because of religious instruction and that the “school part,” the rest of the curriculum, is outside of Catholic learning, only a vehicle in which catechism happens to ride as a passenger.  Now, while we certainly celebrate that Catholic schools train children in the faith, we may still caution parents not to overlook something important: a Catholic school is or should be Catholic in the whole of its curriculum, not just in the part specific to religious instruction.  For, while catechism is at the center of Catholic education, the substance of the Catholic school involves religious instruction and more besides.

This follows naturally when one considers that the aim of Catholic schooling is development of the whole person.  To fulfill its mission, a Catholic school must do justice to the complex vision of the human person emanating from the Gospels.  This vision includes our spiritual destiny, but it includes our natural state as well.  Human beings are first natural creatures, who are called by their Christian faith to a spiritual life.  But one does not rule out or defeat the other.  A basic Catholic teaching is that grace perfects nature; it does not destroy or replace it.[restrict]

This complex vision of the human person is evident when Jesus commands at Matthew 22:37 that we should love the Lord our God with our hearts, with our souls, and with all our intelligence.  Here he is saying that we are to take our natural gifts, in this case those special powers that make us human in the first place, and through the grace of the Holy Spirit convert them into powers for Christian living.  This spiritual fulfillment of our human nature is our perfection.  Here also is the fullness of education, since true education seeks to perfect us.  To play on a remark of St. Thomas Aquinas: Catholic education takes the water of human nature and converts it into the wine of Christian life.

So, whenever instruction is developing our human potentials, it is genuinely Catholic.  Accordingly, Catholic instruction does not take place only in the religious education classroom.  It also occurs in the gymnasium, the art studio, and the English class.  By perfecting any and every aspect of our human nature, we conform to God’s will.  For God’s aim is to make us his friend in the fullness of our humanity.

Another way of describing the task of Catholic education is to speak of it as a “liberation”.  The Gospel aims to redeem and save us.  But it also aims to set us free.  It prescribes an authentic sense of freedom and warns against its counterfeit.  What is that counterfeit?  It is the belief that freedom consists in pursuing whatever we want.  Christian wisdom builds on our knowledge of human nature to caution us against that mistake.  Once we know what it is to be human, we can judge how humans should live their lives.  It is a false and destructive idea of freedom to want something that undermines our humanity, a warning captured in D. H.  Lawrence’s remark that a cry for freedom misguided by ignorance “is a rattling of chains and always was.”

Accordingly, a Catholic school conveys a genuine freedom, even if it is paradoxical.  The paradox of authentic freedom is that it rests on habit formation.  Every good teacher knows what every good parent knows: children thrive in an environment of order and benevolent discipline.  These conditions protect them from maladjustment and instill self-control.  Furthermore, the cultivation of habits in general ensures a productive, not an aimless or destructive, freedom.  Freedom is not just choice; it is choice grounded in habits, learning, and skills.  Once a person is skillful, he or she is able to exercise choices in ways that are truly rewarding.  Without learning or habits, a child’s life is like a cork bobbing in the water’s surface, at the mercy of this or that wave or current.  Such a life deprives a person of the self-mastery and intelligent choice defining an autonomous life.

Catholic education aims at nothing less than a genuine “liberal education”, from the Latin, liberare, which means to be free.  Catholic education liberates our human potentials, but they can be actualized and habituated in a truly human way.  If so, we have a moral duty, a call of conscience, to realize our human potentials.  Since grace perfects our nature, our human potentials cooperate, and do not conflict, with our Christian calling.  This is a liberal education, that comprehends the whole curriculum of a Catholic school.

By appreciating that Catholic education tries to make excellent our faith-informed human nature, we can specify the tasks of teaching: to habituate the child (and later the adult) in spiritual, intellectual, emotional, moral, and physical excellence.  These aims cover the whole curriculum.  Hence, a Catholic school is truly and fully Catholic, not just because of the religious instruction, but also because of the “school part”.  Parents, educators, administrators, and students should celebrate that their school aspires to be Catholic in all its functions and programs, a school that is Catholic from the inside out.

Editor’s note: This article was first published in The Catholic Response in September/October 2005