One of the most important documents for understanding the role of Catholic education in the modern world is Vatican II’s Declaration on Christian Education. This document explains and defends the various ways in which students should be formed in Catholic schools, seminaries, colleges, and universities.
The Declaration affirms that Catholic colleges are an extension of the Church’s mission to evangelize the world. “Evangelization” is not relegated to colleges where a majority of the students are practicing Catholics. The Gospel is meant for everyone.
Consequently, a teacher’s love for his students will prompt him to propose and defend the Gospel in the classroom. Love speaks the truth to the beloved. Schools that wish to highlight a “student centered education” should ensure that every student has the opportunity to understand the rationale for Catholic teaching. As Pope Benedict XVI declared in his 2008 address to educators at Catholic University of America: “The profound responsibility to lead the young to truth is nothing less than an act of love.”
Catholic Education and Religious Pluralism
Now, as a significant percentage of students are not Catholic, there is an ongoing concern about how Church teaching can be presented without excluding, marginalizing or offending anyone’s beliefs. Undoubtedly there are many students at Catholic colleges who are not Catholic or even Christian.
Be that as it may, these circumstances should not become an excuse for educators to merely teach about Catholicism and other religions. Rather, given these pluralistic circumstances, educators need to take the New Evangelization even more seriously.
In these circumstances, professors should at least try to foster a mindset in students that becomes open to the possibility of evangelization. Courses that center on the theme of “pre-evangelization” need to be seriously considered. As the Congregation for Catholic Education observed:
We have already referred to the fact that, in many parts of the world, the student body in a Catholic school includes increasing numbers of young people from different faiths and different ideological backgrounds…. In these situations, however, evangelization is not easy—it may not even be possible. We should look to preevangelization: to the development of a religious sense of life…. It is fertile ground which may, at some future time, be able to bear fruit.
Notice that the presence of other religions and secular outlooks on campus is not supposed to brush the school’s evangelical concerns to the side. Although educators should highlight commonalities between Catholicism and other religions, such a concern should not override an evangelical presentation and defense of the faith.
What About Proselytism and Religious Freedom?
Critics may object that evangelization would violate the students’ religious freedom. This objection badly misunderstands the notion of freedom. Freedom is not the ability to do as one wants, but the ability to do as one ought. As one abides in the truth, he or she becomes freer to live in accordance with human nature. Freedom is not a goal in and of itself, but a necessary condition for knowing the truth.
Perhaps a sharp distinction should be made between knowledge and faith. In Catholic schools, students are required to grasp the reasons for faith. Some type of “conversion” is required: going from a state of ignorance to a state of understanding. That’s what education is all about. However, students do not have to personally appropriate the faith as a part of their lives. To force students to believe in Jesus and then grade them on that basis would be a violation of religious freedom. (And could students really be forced to believe anyway?)
To give an example: all students are required to enroll in an English course. Whether the students are interested in or even speak English, they will have to write papers that conform to the proper rules of grammar. A temporary adherence to the rules of grammar for the purpose of passing the course would not mean that students must use English when they leave the classroom. Perhaps English is not the student’s native language. So although students should learn enough English to pass the course, they may choose to abandon what they learned after the course is completed.
A second major criticism is that evangelization is an attempt to proselytize the students. Here critics confuse evangelization with proselytism even though the two terms have very different meanings. Proselytism is an attempt to strip away the cultural identity of Christians and non-Christians in the attempt to further evangelize them. Proselytism should always be avoided.
However, proper attempts to evangelize try to persuade others to absorb Catholic Christianity (what is believed) in a way that retains each individual’s uniqueness (how the faith is believed, or how it is expressed in a certain culture). There are different ways of being faithfully Catholic. Catholic educators should recognize a legitimate plurality within the parameters set by orthodoxy.
Unfortunately, many teachers and administrators―both seemingly unaware of the Declaration and the post-conciliar documents that have nuanced its teaching in different contexts―seem to be confused about how to implement a Catholic vision of education, especially as it pertains to the broader concern of the New Evangelization in the face of different religions. Instead of respecting the different religions, too many educators seem to celebrate them. These educators present the faith as just one among many “options in the marketplace of ideas.” While this approach may be appropriate for courses in religious studies at public institutions, the Congregation affirmed in 2013 that it “creates confusion or generates religious relativism and indifferentism.”
Teaching evangelistically is not an easy task in the current cultural milieu. What is required, I submit, is courageous and innovative fidelity to the Church’s vision of education.