The Problem with Patron Saints in Education

The Sisters of Charity, founded by St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, took care of orphans. They were not homeschooling mothers or private schoolmasters.

Today is the memorial of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, an American woman known for her work in early American Catholic education. 

With Seton, we encounter a problem that is common in Catholic education today, as regards the saints.

If we were to gather together the saints from Church history who worked in Catholic education, we would find two different groups.  The first group would be those learned saints who studied philosophy and worked in classical Catholic education, teaching in academies, universities and seminaries or writing on such subjects.  These include men like St. Jerome, St. Ambrose, St. Augustine, Boethius, St. Dominic, St. Albert the Great, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Ignatius of Loyola, and so on.  The second group would be saints who worked among the poor, seeking to provide basic education to those in need.  These include saints like St. Vincent DePaul, St. John Baptiste de la Salle, St. John Bosco and St. Elizabeth Ann Seton.

As Catholic homeschooling parents, we should not be interested in the educational works of the second group of saints because their ideas, works, etc., were not for children like ours.  They were intended to serve the basic needs of children who lacked parents or educational opportunities. 

Catholic parents often latch on to quotes or stories from the lives of saints without considering their context.  For example, I have had parents disagree with my advice about parenting and education even though it was offered with Sacred Scripture as its source (not my opinion).  The advice was objected to with quotes from St. John Bosco about teaching boys without any punishment or discipline–what has been called the “preventive method”.  These quotes sound very nice, but the problem is that they were not intended for Catholic parents raising their own children.  They describe methods used by John Bosco as he worked to educate street children who were not his own in a generation when there were no public schools.  He had no authority to punish them and they had no responsibility to attend his lessons.  He attracted boys by a positive, “anything is better than nothing” attitude towards helping them get off the streets.  What he did with those boys was not appropriate for parents, but was necessary because the boys didn’t have parents to discipline them.

The educational works of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton were of a similar kind, and must be understood in their historical context.

First of all, Elizabeth Ann Seton died in 1821.  The American public schools were started in the 1850s.  In other words, the poor in America were on the streets and there were no education laws requiring that they be in school.  Children in educated and comfortable Christian families were not in need of schools but learned as Seton herself did–privately.  The children who were in need were the children of the poor who had no Catholic educational opportunities.  

Second, St. John Neumann, considered the father of the Catholic school system, didn’t arrive in America until 15 years after Seton had already died.  He did not start a school until after he was elected bishop of Philadelphia in 1853 (30 years after her death).  The Baltimore Council that ordered parishes to start Catholic schools took place 60 years after Seton’s death.  There were no Catholic schools yet in America when Seton was working and her work was intended to provide something for those with nothing.  She founded St. Joseph’s Academy and Free School as a charity school for Catholic girls in 1809.  Her work in education helped to lay the foundation for the parish Catholic or “parochial” schools that would start in the late 1800s, which were intended to serve as an alternative to the non-Catholic public schools in America.  

St. John Bosco was not a homeschooling father or private schoolmaster, but ministered to street children.

While we should admire the works of those saints who worked to “instruct the ignorant”, as workers of mercy in society, we should not look to them for curriculum and parenting advice because they were not serving children with the opportunities our children enjoy.  While they were working among the poor, as their unique “charism”, children in Catholic families who had means to provide for their children’s education were given the classical Catholic education that marked the Church throughout history.  As parents, this is the education we should be concerned with, and we should be following advice from saints like St. Augustine, St. Benedict, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Ignatius of Loyola, etc..  

To raise our children according to the principles of saints who were working with street children or children who were given charity school lessons is unreasonable.  Elizabeth Ann Seton and John Bosco were not raised with the education they offered to the children they worked with.  They used their privileged education to learn the Catholic faith and then serve God in mercy ministry as adults.  Our duty, as Catholic parents, is to provide our children with a classical Catholic education that they may be educated well to serve the Church as wise teachers and ministers.  For example, when St. Thomas More sought a teacher for his daughter, he hired John Colet, a classical schoolmaster, to tutor her privately in Latin and Greek. She was not given a common school education. 

We thank God for the example of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, and should imitate her charity in thinking of the needs of those chlidren who don’t enjoy the benefits our children enjoy.  We should not, however, raise our children as we would minister to those.  The basic education that the American parochial schools were established to provide for poor Catholic students is not the education homeschooled Catholic children should be receiving.  This is the great error of Catholic homeschooling families and why, for all of the Catholic children who have been homeschooled, there are so few religious vocations.  They are being raised as poor workers rather than as Catholic ministers and contemplatives.  

Children in wealthier Catholic families, families who can afford to homeschool their children, should be provided with the classical Catholic education available in the Classical Liberal Arts Academy, not a modern K-12 education that was intended for the poor.  It makes even less sense to pay thousands of dollars for a Catholic version of a public school (i.e., free) education that was intended to serve the poor because they didn’t have money to afford a classical Catholic education.

God bless,
William C. Michael, Headmaster
Classical Liberal Arts Academy

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