For most Catholic families who identify as “traditional Catholics”, the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) is judged to be the dividing mark between the traditional and modern Catholic Church. While this may be true for matters of worship and liturgy, it is not true for education. In fact, the problems that led to the controversies of the Seccond Vatican Council, go back much further in time.
Many Catholic families have made an attempt to go back to education before the Second Vatican Council, by restoring Catholic education of the 1950s in their homeschool choices. Modern textbooks are replaced with books that contain the same content and serve the same subjects, but have Catholic images on the covers. Maybe books from the “old days” are used in place of modern books, but the “old days” means the mid-1900s. The problem with this is that the Catholic education of the 1950s had already been modernized. To give our children a traditional Catholic education, we must go back much further. Please allow me to explain.
First, before 1900, most American families lived on farms. Children worked to help their parents with their work and understood that their adult life would likely consist of continuing the work they were already doing as children. They did not go to school. Priests and parents worked to provide these Catholic children with catechism lessons to prepare them for the sacraments and for the Christian life in general, but very few students received formal schooling. Some students were sent away from home to be apprenticed by craftsmen with whom the parents had connections. A smaller number of intellectually gifted boys might be invited to study with private Catholic teachers, most of whom were monks or priests, and they were educated, primarily, for religious vocations.
In the 1850s, the movement began in America to make tax-funded, “public” education a goal—and to make such education mandatory for all Americans. America was, at the time, under strong anti-Catholic influence and the public schools being established were not good for Catholic students. Therefore, at the Second Plenary Council of Baltimore (1866), the Catholic bishops of the United States of America insisted that Catholic parishes provide catechesis for all Catholic children in public schools, and work to start Catholic “parochial” (parish) schools to make an alternative “Catholic” option for Catholic students. This Council, by the way, gave us the “Baltimore Catechism” for this purpose.
This was how the Catholic school system in America was started, but it had one fatal flaw. Rather than follow the model of small, private classical schools, which served Catholic students for centuries, Churches chose to imitate the K-12 model of the public schools. While the Catholic schools lacked the state funding to pay the school’s expenses, they had access to immigrant nuns who were willing to work for free. By the 1960s, there were over 3 million students in Catholic schools, but the K-12 model was doomed to fail. The Church could not reproduce the Catholic nuns and the quality of the schools was a mirage. K-12 Catholic education is not sustainable and does not serve the goals of Catholic education. It certainly didn’t produce priests, monks and nuns, which killed it. Turning back the clock to Catholic education before the Second Vatican Council is not enough.
Second, at the turn of the 20th century, two saintly Popes warned that Christian philosophy was under attack. In 1879, Pope St. Leo XIII, who gave us the prayer to St. Michael the Archangel, warned that Scholastic philosophy was being abandoned in Catholic circles and published an encyclical calling for The Restoration of Christian Philosophy. In this document, he urged:
“We exhort you, venerable brethren, in all earnestness to restore the golden wisdom of St. Thomas, and to spread it far and wide for the defense and beauty of the Catholic faith, for the good of society, and for the advantage of all the sciences.”
Thirty years later, despite these warnings, Pope St. Pius X found the Church in even greater danger, as the ideas he called “Modernist” moved rapidly through the Catholic schools, colleges and seminaries, even into the clergy itself. He wrote in his encyclical, Against the Modernists,
“With regard to studies, we will and ordain that scholastic philosophy be made the basis of the sacred sciences…and let it be clearly understood above all things that the scholastic philosophy we prescribe is that which the Angelic Doctor has bequeathed to us…On this philosophical foundation the theological edifice is to be solidly raised.”
Thus, resetting Catholic education to the time before the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) does not address the problem of Modernism, which was already spreading through the schools and seminaries 50 years earlier. We must go back further to ensure that we are free from these influences.
Third, beyond the problems in education caused by imitating the K-12 public school model, and the influence of Modernism, we must go back further still to the time of the Scientific Revolution. False philosophical ideas became widespread in the 1500s that have shaped education ever since. The most important of these was the “Scientific Method”.
Now, the idea of the Scientific Method sounds innocent when we consider it by itself, without any historical context. No Catholic would object to the idea of proposing possible solutions to problems, experimenting to see if the solution is true and then proposing new solutions based on the results of those experiments. However, when we look a little deeper, we find some problems.
We saw above that the Catholic Church approves of the philosophical teaching of St. Thomas Aquinas, which is called “Scholasticism”. This philosophy is based on a method of investigation by which we seek the truth in all subjects. The method is that which was taught by Aristotle in ancient Greece in his work titled Organon, which means, “The Method”.
When Francis Bacon published his work on the “Scientific Method” in 1620, he titled the book Novum Organum, which means “The New Organon” or “The New Method”. Bacon did not see the Scientific Method to simply be a means of studying the natural sciences. He saw it as the only way to learn the truth in any subject. He specifically targeted the “Schoolmen”, that is, the Catholic teachers who employed the Scholastic Method in their investigations.
Bacon’s intentions were understood clearly by his followers, who embraced the “New Method” as the standard for all study and teaching. Beginning in 1620, and continuing today, this modern naturalist method of truth-seeking, which denies the existence of any supernatural (i.e., metaphysical) influences, has taken over education, politics, research, business and religion, and is the source of the “Modernism” that the Church warned of in the late 19th century, and the foundation of the anti-Catholic K-12 school model that was established by the state in America. This, I argue, is the real issue and true cause of the problems in modern Catholic education and culture.
Catholic families must root this naturalistic worldview out of their minds and not raise their children under its influences. The “Scientific Method”, as granted above, is excellent as a means of investigating problems that are material in nature, but it cannot be allowed to move beyond its limits into questions that can only be understood in the light of spiritual and supernatural influences.
Most importantly, when Catholic families choose a curriculum for their children’s studies, it must be a study program that focuses on training a child to know, love and serve God in this world, and to be happy with Him forever in the next. It cannot allow mathematics or natural sciences to bump the classical liberal arts, moral philosophy and theology out of the curriculum as modern schools do.
Now, when we look at modern curriculum options, including those offered by Catholic schools and publishers, what do we find? K-12 study programs based on math and science? If so, then these cannot be considered “traditional” Catholic study programs, no matter how they attempt to decorate themselves with Catholic imagery. We must go back not to the 1950s, or the 1860s, nor to the 1620s, but further still, to the time when a truly Catholic philosophy of education was in place, which aimed to fulfill the true goals of Catholic education.
A good place to start is the Ratio Studiorum, or “Rule of Studies” published by the Jesuits shortly after they were founded by St. Ignatius of Loyola in the late 1500s. Aware of the philosophical errors at work at the time, the Jesuits fought against the modern developments of their day by re-committing to classical Catholic education. They established schools that taught the classical liberal arts, Christian philosophy and Catholic theology. The program followed by these schools are explained, in detail, in the Ratio. This work helps us to see what Catholic education looked like before the modern influences described in this article.
Beginning from the Ratio and working backwards, we can trace out the history of true Catholic education, moving from the Jesuits back to the Scholastics, to the Church Fathers and, ultimately, to the Apostles and Christ himself, and still further through the ancient Gentile wise men and Hebrew prophets. I have discussed this history in detail in my book Understanding Classical Catholic Education, which is available for free.
In conclusion, if you are a parent that identifies as a traditional Catholic, you have likely worked to restore many aspects of traditional Catholic worship, liturgy and culture in your family. You may not, however, have made similar improvements in the area of Catholic education. You cannot settle for something that is merely older because the problems go far back into history. You must seek out the educational program that is founded on the true philosophy of Catholic education. This educational program is that which is available to your family in the Classical Liberal Arts Academy.
God bless your studies,
William C. Michael, Headmaster
Classical Liberal Arts Academy
Mr. William C. Michael is the founding headmaster of the Classical Liberal Arts Academy. He graduated from Rutgers University with an honors degree in Classics & Ancient History and is a member of Phi Beta Kappa. Mr. Michael has worked in private education as a Classics teacher and administrator for over 20 years. He is a Roman Catholic, married to his highschool sweetheart, a homeschooling father of ten children, and keeper of a quiet family farm in North Carolina. Mr. Michael enjoys studying ancient natural philosophy, gardening and running.