What is Catholic Liberal Education?
Catholic liberal education is the cultivation of faith and reason for full human flourishing. Based in the liberal arts and sciences, this educational vision that was developed by the Catholic Church was the gold standard of formation for centuries. The proof of its success? It formed many of the holiest saints and keenest minds in history, including such greats as St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Thomas More, St. John Henry Newman, and Pope Benedict XVI.
Today, secular models dominate education, and most Catholic educators have been cut off from this rich heritage. But there is good news: this is rapidly changing. Catholic schools across the U.S.—in fact, across the world—are recovering the Church’s time-tested tradition of education and reversing the narrative of their decline.
A Vision, Not a Model
The growing renewal is not about adopting a new “model” or “program”; it is about infusing a Catholic vision of reality, which is both visible and invisible. It is about raising students who have eyes to see and ears to hear the presence of the Creator in the truth, goodness, and beauty in the world around them. It is an education for joyful hope.
Freedom in Christ
“Classical education” speaks to the philosophical origins of this ancient tradition that was taken up and refined by the Catholic Church. It can be a helpful term, but it does not capture the Christocentric nature of its application in Catholic education.
A more complete term is “Catholic liberal education,” which speaks to the end–the purpose–and expresses the irreplaceable role of the Church. Liberal comes from the Latin liber, which means free. Catholic liberal education, then, is an education for freedom: freedom in Christ as he reveals Himself through His Church. This formation does far more than prepare a student for a job. It frees us to know, to love, and to live joyfully in the Truth of Jesus Christ.
All of the Catholic schools in this renewal, while they may use different labels, are seeking the same thing: the recovery of the Church’s rich heritage in the formation of the whole person in the image of God. And although some private and charter schools have looked to the classical tradition, too, those efforts are incomplete without Christ, the Logos, at the center.
An Education for the Mind, Heart, and Soul
Catholic means “universal,” and Catholic liberal education is an education for everyone. Students of all abilities and backgrounds flourish as they develop tools of thinking and discover wondrous connections across the curriculum and within the world God made. It is as powerful in the 21st century as it was in the 16th, because it is based in the nature of reality and the nature of the human person.
These students are forming habits of mind and heart that will serve them through life, helping them grow in the theological, intellectual, and moral virtues. Parents want their children to thrive. They grasp the value of this deeply human formation that nurtures the souls, not just the minds, of their children.
“For education to be complete, our knowledge of things must lead to the meaning behind those things and ultimately to their Creator. The goal of true education, then, is to be drawn into relationship with God who created the world and gave it meaning.”
– Rev. Robert Bolding, President-Rector of St. Mary’s High School, Phoenix, ICLE Member School