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  • Writer's pictureDavid Gockowski

The Virtues of the Catholic Student

What is School For? 


What are Catholic schools for? Some propose they are for teaching 21st century skills: critical thinking, technological literacy, social-emotional intelligence or “real-world” learning. Certainly, teaching students who will be able to be active and productive citizens in the modern world is a lofty goal, especially in a time of demise for mores majoram of Western Civilization. But how is this achieved, and to what end? A superintendent in Iowa recently wrote, “The education community has applied the terms ‘real world learning’ to problem-solving activities in the classroom. It makes sense: schools are tasked with teaching students to be assets to organizations, government, business and industry by the time they graduate.” But is this the purpose of Catholic education, to train future assets to bureaucracies? 


What does the Church herself say about the purpose of education? Pope Benedict XVI echoed what many other Popes have said through the centuries, “first and foremost every Catholic educational institution is a place to encounter the living God who in Jesus Christ reveals his transforming love and truth.” First and foremost! In other words, Theology isn’t another subject but the framework for the whole culture of the school. In this sense, the knowledge acquired in a Catholic school is aimed at a personal relationship with God, and a life of service to others. 


These two visions seem to be radically different and possibly completely opposed to each other. The Church does not use the language of training future “assets” but emphasizes the humanity of students, educated not simply for a job but for a vocation. Certainly, an education that trains students to be assets seems to be too narrow to include the transcendent experience of which Pope Benedict is speaking. Is it also true that an encounter with the living God in education does not allow for professional preparation? Is it the case that teaching students with the purpose of “an encounter with the living God” is mutually exclusive of giving them “real-world” education? Is it a zero sum game in which we either teach our students to be saints or we teach them to be useful to their future employers?


The Sacred Congregation of Catholic Education declared that education “includes the development of all the human faculties of the students, together with preparation for professional life.” In other words, Catholic schools can and should do both: they can give their students an encounter with the living-God, cultivate their students to be a leaven for the sanctification of the world, to encourage the faith of others, and to evangelize the culture through their work. The professional ends of the educated person then are not reducible to profit margins, but are “marked and raised to, a supernatural Christian vocation.” The Catholic school cultivates the minds and hearts of students to make a gift of his or her life, firstly to God, and then to others through a vocation in which professional endeavors play an essential, but tempered, role.


How do schools strike this balance between the supernatural and natural ends of an education? Pope Pius X has wisdom to offer for this question: “Christian teaching not only bestows on the intellect the light by which it attains truth, but from it our will draws the ardor by which we are raised up to God and joined with Him in the practice of virtue.” That last word sounds strange to our modern sensibilities, after all the language of virtue has fallen out of popularity in our society, or at least has been conflated with the trite and sterile “values statements.” Virtue sounds either stuffy and antiquated or overly moralizing to our ears. But the idea of virtue, understood classically, is a far cry from mere corporate values.  And yet, as Saint Pius X reminds, if our students are to be both a leaven for the culture in their vocations and useful to their employers, more than anything they need to be virtuous. 


The encounter with the living God in a Catholic school by which students are “joined with Him in the practice of virtue” presents a problem: can virtue be taught? If so, how? Anyone who has been in a freshman philosophy course is familiar with the debate: Socrates changed his mind about the question and seems to have conflated virtue with wisdom. Socrates, through the writings of Plato, seemed to think virtue could at least be learned. Aristotle made a helpful distinction between the intellectual and moral virtues, but as Saint John Henry Newman and Russel Kirk reminds us the mere conflation between intellectual development and the acquisition of moral virtue corrupts both pursuits. After all, if liberal education is only about the acquisition of virtue, then, as John Creech recently wrote, “that would subordinate such education to some extrinsic good, and the essential characteristic of an education that makes it liberal is precisely its intrinsic good, the fact that its value does not depend on some good outside itself.” Yet, intellectual knowledge divorced from the virtuous life easily falls into a dehumanizing corruption of that very knowledge. An apt illustration of this is the modern nursing programs which attempt to teach the value of “caring” to healthcare professionals. Any person who has been in a hospital recently would sympathize with this goal: after all, what good does the technical skill of placing an intravenous syringe serve without a sense of care for the human person, the patient? But can a nursing program really teach a medical profession to care? Can a school teach virtue? 


The Catholic school, receiving its purpose from the Lord, as an extension of the ministry of the Church, has been charged with allowing students to encounter the living God and to live the virtuous life. The Catholic school is also a place of the leisurely pursuit of learning. Teachers must keep in mind the danger of conflating virtue and knowledge. However the Catholic school, as a help to parents, the primary educators of their children, must work with the family and propose the virtuous life through the reading of great books, the lives of the saints, the study of history, the teaching of the intellectual virtues (the learning of virtue through study), and primarily through the ministry of bearing witness. As Pope Paul VI said, if people listen to teachers “it is because they are witnesses.” A teacher must be not only knowledgeable, skilled, but virtuous and articulate about the virtues. What a difficult and lofty calling!  But take hope: Christ is the only teacher and the good shepherd that can carry us in this adventure. The Church has reiterated that “in imitation of Christ, the only Teacher, they reveal the Christian message not only by word but also by every gesture of their behavior.`` Finally, the cardinal virtues are helped and the Theological virtues are infused and increased through the grace of the Sacraments. The Catholic teacher cannot live or model the virtuous life alone, but in the community infused with the Sacramental imagination. 


There is good news in that every year, more Catholic schools are rediscovering the language and importance of virtue for their students. Catholic schools, like Saint Agnes in Saint Paul, MN, are not merely teaching students about the vocabulary of virtue but cultivating the moral imagination of students through imitation, Liberal education, and reliance on God’s grace. At a recent visit to the school, students were leading a “virtue assembly.” The students led the whole school body in prayer, a guided study about the virtue of justice, dramatized the Eucharistic miracles and lives of the saints to demonstrate this virtue, and organized games and challenges to live the virtue of justice in school and home. In schools like Saint Agnes, the virtues are more than a stuffy set of rules, or a merely academic vocabulary, but the lifeblood of the culture. The graduates of these schools will certainly add value to their future employers, but ultimately they will know how to live the good life, and to draw others to the fountain of life. The Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia in Nashville, and Mary, Mother of the Eucharist in Ann Arbor have been of great assistance in helping Catholic schools regain a vision of the the virtuous life to become places of encounter with the living God, I encourage the reader to look into their virtue resources.

David Gockowski is a husband, father and teacher. He delights in dedicating his professional life to the continued flourishing of Catholic Schools as a faculty member of the Institute for Catholic Liberal Education. He, his beautiful wife Bernadette, and their five children reside in the Twin Cities of Minnesota.



Quiz for Parents:

How "Catholic" is your child's

Catholic school?

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