Encyclopedia of Teacher Education

Living Edition
| Editors: Michael A. Peters

Catholic Religious Education, Uniqueness of

  • Gerard O’SheaEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-13-1179-6_139-1


The Catholic Church has traditionally maintained that its educational method is adapted to address the deepest needs of the human person. As such, it is intended to prepare its students for a fruitful and fulfilling life in time and eternity. Nothing authentically human is excluded from its “program.” Perhaps this can best be described in terms of the classic transcendental properties of being – a Catholic education is one that is based on an integrated pursuit of all that is true, all that is beautiful, and all that is good. To these human elements are added important further claims. By being truly human, students are prepared for a dimension that elevates them to higher, spiritual levels of reality. The pursuit of truth is the foundation for understanding truths beyond the limits of natural human understanding – the divinely revealed reality referred to as faith. The attractive power of beauty also works on a higher level than the aesthetic sense. It is meant to lead to an experience of hope and joy – a deep inner certainty that one day, the beauty sensed will be unending and more wonderful. Finally, the attraction of the good is sufficient to stimulate sentiments of justice, fairness, and love in most human experience. This experience of human love and consideration for others serves as the foundation for the higher supernatural good of caritas, the capacity to love as God loves.

The Nature and Goals of Catholic Schools

What marks an educational institution as Catholic is its reference to a Christian concept of life centered on Jesus Christ. Accordingly, the Catholic educational enterprise has three primary responsibilities: proclaiming the word, celebrating the sacraments, and exercising the ministry of charity (Benedict XVI 2005). Moreover, the Catholic school is a place of integral education of the human person, and its particular project is directed at creating a synthesis between faith, culture, and life. It works toward this goal by promoting a Christian vision of reality (Congregation for Catholic Education 2007). A genuine Catholic education must promote a wisdom-based society, which goes beyond knowledge and educates people to think, evaluating facts in the light of values (Congregation for Catholic Education 2013). The Catholic educational project seeks always to work in harmony with the nature of the human person as revealed in Christ (John Paul II 2001). Throughout their long history, most Catholic schools have had a particular concern for the poor and the weak. From the time of the Second Vatican Council, they also have an ecumenical dimension. Since the value of a Catholic education is seen as “long-term,” they resist the tyranny of “performance indicators” as there is a recognition that their success cannot always be measured in terms of immediate efficiency. Perhaps the best summing up of what is distinctive about Catholic schools was offered in a 1988 document of the Congregation for Catholic Education, which identified four distinctive characteristics of a Catholic school:
  1. 1.

    Its distinctive educational climate

  2. 2.

    Its emphasis on the personal development of each student

  3. 3.

    Its emphasis on the relationship between the Gospel and the culture

  4. 4.

    Its illumination of all knowledge with light of faith


In terms of its spiritual dimension, Christianity is self-described as the religion of God with a human face. The Catholic view is that any genuine educational philosophy must account for both the physical and spiritual powers of each individual human person, looking to Christ as the fullness of humanity. As a consequence, there is a double task that must be attended to. Reason is always in need of being purified by faith, and religion always needs to be purified by reason.

Lying at the heart of this education is a two-fold respect: for individual persons and for the authentically human values of the culture in which the person operates. This is because the religious dimension is believed to be intrinsic to culture and contributes to the formation of the person. By its very nature, Catholic education requires openness to other cultures, without the loss of its own identity. It must also be noted that there are two dimensions to a genuine relational community – one with God and the other toward one another. As such, the Catholic educational perspective can never take a position of neutrality with regard to Christian values or what it means to be human (Congregation for Catholic Education 1997). Hence, a Catholic educational project aims to bring faith, culture, and life into harmony and to guide students through a critical and systematic assimilation of culture.

Nor can a Catholic school relinquish its own freedom to proclaim the Gospel; to propose is not to impose. Nevertheless, Catholic education can also be used as a service offered to those who are not Catholic, especially in contexts where the provision of education by other authorities is deficient. This service is seen as one of practical charity – freely given. It is not pursued for any other purpose, and religious freedom must be respected for those students who do not profess the Catholic faith. Even so, for students who are non-believers, religious education assumes the character of a missionary proclamation of the Gospel and is ordered to a decision of faith.

The Primary Role of the Family

The Catholic educational project places a great deal of emphasis on the role of the family, which is seen as a divine institution that stands as the prototype of every social order. Indeed, Catholic teaching insists that it is impossible to promote the dignity of the person without showing concern for the family. Parents are seen the primary educators, and for this reason, the school is bound by the law of subsidiarity in respect of the education of their own children. Subsidiarity is a principle that insists that all decisions must be made at the most local level possible – right down to the case of the family and the individual. Schools are strongly urged to provide concrete support to parents to enable them to fulfil their role – including meetings and programs to help equip them for the educational task.

Closely connected with the importance of the family is the dimension of community or – more correctly – communio. This is not seen simply as a sociological category; it is a theological concept: an eternal mystery, revealed in Christ, of the communion of love that is the very life of God – the Holy Trinity. Families and communities are meant to strive after this goal in their day-to-day activities. It follows that a Catholic education can only be carried out authentically in the context of a relational community context its purpose is to make human beings more human and putting them in relationship with God.

From Body to Heart to Mind

The Italian Catholic educator Sofia Cavalletti has drawn attention to the typical order in which human learning unfolds, especially for younger students. She claims that the process follows a typical order: first the body, then the heart, and then the mind. Cavalletti blieved that we need to respect this order or we will find ourselves working against human nature instead of with it. Yet she did not rigidly insist on this order in every circumstance - more as a general principle. Indeed there are many instances where the starting point may be in the intellectual or the affective domains. The theological term “perichoresis” perhaps captures this best – it incorporates the idea of a dance moving between these different domains – participants may join in at any point, but must still incorporate all three dimensions during the process. The theologian, Hans Urs von Balthasar, proposed more or less the same basic progression: first beauty, then goodness, and then truth. Both Cavalletti and von Balthasar thereby articulated significant aspects of the Trinitarian analogy which Catholic teaching proposes as the foundation of the human learning process. As a consequence, some aspects of Trinitarian theology can be applied. For example, while each domain is distinct, none of them can be neatly separated from the others; they always operate together. Whatever is perceived by the senses will in some way affect the heart and then be reflected upon by the mind. Sometimes, it may seem like this is happening in the same instant of time, and at other times, each dimension may follow on from the other slowly and ponderously, with the meaning finally dawning weeks, months, or years afterward. It is for this reason that a genuine Catholic education can neither confine itself to the strictly “religious” sphere nor act as though the religious aspect is simply an optional extra. From a Catholic perspective, each dimension has its own distinctive role to play. Hence, it is never possible to propose a Catholic education in which the spiritual dimension is isolated from the rest of life.

In the remaining part of this article, I will outline the major elements of what is necessary for a Catholic education into which the religious elements are integrated by referring directly to the educational documents of the Church, published since the Second Vatican Council.

Created in the Image of God and Called to His Likeness: The Analogia Entis

A Catholic religious education is simply incomprehensible outside of its overall educational context. It is essentially holistic, and no part of it can be seen as independent of the truth, beauty and goodness that find their analogical origin in God – a concept traditionally described as the Analogia Entis – the Analogy of Being. The first chapter of the Book of Genesis lays down the consistent principle of a Catholic understanding of anthropology. Human beings are created in the image of God and called to show forth the likeness of God in their lives. Theological reflection over nearly four millennia has not yet exhausted the meaning of this idea. There are some consistent views, however, which have served as the foundation of the Catholic understanding since the time of St Irenaeus in the second century. To say that human beings are created in the image of God already makes a careful distinction between God and humanity.

The Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 outlined the principle of analogy which has been part of the Catholic understanding ever since. This principle teaches that there are relevant similarities between human beings and God, but the differences outweigh the similarities. In other words, human beings are not God, but there are aspects to human nature that indicate the hand of God. Over the centuries, commentators have largely agreed that the image of God is present in the human person through the faculties of intellect and will. Every human being bears this image, irrespective of any rupture that takes place in the individual person’s relationship with God. The likeness of God, however, is usually taken to indicate the presence of divine grace – a share in the life of God which enables the person to undertake and continually grow in the project of union with the Holy Trinity.

Educationally, this view implies that all students are to be respected for the human dignity they bear in virtue of their creation in the image of God. The Church’s educational mission, however, goes further. Those who present themselves for a Catholic education have a right to expect that they will also receive appropriate instruction in the possibility of being transformed into the likeness of God. It must be stressed, however, that while it is the duty of the Church to proclaim this understanding, it cannot and must not be imposed – with the exception of young children who do not have the full use of reason and whose parents and carers must make decisions on their behalf. Ultimately, all human beings must come to God freely. The principle of “subsidiarity” applies here as in other aspects of Catholic teaching. Parents and teachers must progressively withdraw their authority as children become competent to make sound decisions for themselves.

Another significant aspect of contemporary Catholic education is the view that every authentic mode of presentation of the Christian message must be Christocentric-Trinitarian: through Christ to the Father in the communion of the Holy Spirit (General Directory for Catechesis 1997). Christ is viewed as the starting point, since Jesus not only transmits the word of God: he is the Word of God. The project of educating in the Catholic faith is therefore completely tied to him. Christ leads the participant to the innermost mystery of God – the Holy Trinity, the central mystery of Catholic faith and life.

Instruction in the Catholic Faith: Religious Education and Catechesis

The essential instructional content of the Catholic faith centers around three liturgical celebrations that encapsulate the plan of God: Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost. The focus for the Christmas celebration is the mystery of the incarnation – that God became a man in the person of Christ. The lead up to Christmas incorporates the unfolding of the whole plan of God through the creation stories of the Book of Genesis, the covenants of God with Noah, Abraham, Moses, and David, the interventions of the prophets unfolding through the centuries and culminating in the birth of Christ in Bethlehem. All aspects of this salvation history can be included under this heading. The Easter celebration expounds the paschal mystery – the meaning of Christ’s ministry on earth and his death and resurrection and ascension into heaven. Finally, there is the celebration of the feast of Pentecost. Unlike the other two celebrations, Pentecost is the beginning rather than the culmination of the mystery. It presents the implications on Christ’s continuing presence on earth. This has two essential aspects. First, it draws attention to the belief the Christ remains on earth through the sacraments that were set up for this purpose, and the relationship of prayer that every Christian is meant to have with God. It also includes their personal vocation to spread the good news of Christ wherever they are (evangelization). The other way in which Christ remains on the earth is in the lives of Christians. Every believer is meant to commit to a process of personal transformation (moral agency), and to be an agents of change, promoting a worldview informed by Christian principles (social justice).

Catholic Religious Education and Catechesis

In more recent years, a view has emerged that makes a sharp distinction between religious education and catechesis. Religious education is essentially a systematic unfolding of knowledge, and it needs to have the status of a subject with the same systematic demands and rigor as other disciplines. Catechesis, on the other hand, is seen as an integral formation of the person – intimacy with Christ and ongoing induction into the life of the Church. In the Church’s view, the distinction between religious education and catechesis does not change the fact that a Catholic school can and must play its specific role in the work of catechesis. This argument has not yet been settled definitively, with secondary education in places like Britain and Australia emphasizing religious education and those of the United States primarily advocating catechesis.

Intercultural Dialogue

In 2014, the Congregation for Catholic Education issued a groundbreaking document, Educating to Intercultural Dialogue in Catholic Schools: Living in Harmony for a Civilization of Love. This document acknowledged the fact that Pluralism is a fact in today’s world, but it insisted that neither a relativist nor assimilationist approach can offer adequate answers. Catholic schools were encouraged to be places of genuine intercultural dialogue which is most effectively promoted by a confessional teaching of religion. The document warned against a presentation of different religions in a comparative and “neutral” way which, it said, creates confusion and generates religious relativism and indifferentism. Even so, there was a clear acknowledgement that cultural diversity must be understood within the unity of the human race and an openness to beneficial influence from other cultures. The central challenge of education for the future was identified as allowing various cultural expressions to coexist and to promote dialogue so as to foster a peaceful society.

This dialogue must begin with faithfulness to one’s own Christian identity, together with respect for the values of other cultures and religions. The dialogue referred to typically unfolds in stages:
  1. 1.

    Discovering the multicultural nature of one’s own situation

  2. 2.

    Overcoming prejudices by living and working in harmony

  3. 3.

    Educating oneself “by means of the other” to a global vision and a sense of citizenship



A genuine religious education in the Catholic tradition cannot be isolated from the context of a total human life. It is holistic, reaching not only into every dimension of the person but also into that person’s relationship with God in the community of the Church. This indicates a necessary community dimension, particularly involving the parents if the child is of school age. Foundational to any understanding of a Catholic perspective is the affirmation that all human beings have an inalienable dignity that comes from their creation in the image of God. It is also an essential part of the mission of Catholic education to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ while respecting the religious freedom of all. The Catholic view of education continues to undergo development and change while holding to the essential core of the Analogia Entis and the mysteries of the Trinity, incarnation, paschal mystery, and the continuing presence of God among human beings.


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  2. Congregation for Catholic Education (1997). The Catholic School on the Threshold of the Third Millennium.Google Scholar
  3. Congregation for Catholic Education. (2007). Educating together in Catholic schools. A shared Mission between consecrated persons and the lay faithful. Vatican City: Vaticana Libreria Editrice.Google Scholar
  4. Congregation for Catholic Education. (2013). Educating to intercultural dialogue in Catholic schools. Living in harmony for a civilization of love. Vatican City: Vaticana Libreria Editrice.Google Scholar
  5. Congregation for Clergy. (1997). General directory for catechesis. Vatican City: Vaticana Libreria Editrice.Google Scholar
  6. John Paul II. (2001). Ecclesia in Oceania. Vatican City: Vaticana Libreria Editrice.Google Scholar

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© Springer Nature Singapore Pte Ltd. 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of Notre DameSydneyAustralia

Section editors and affiliations

  • Janis (John) Ozolins
    • 1
  1. 1.School of PhilosophyAustralian Catholic UniversityMelbourneAustralia