Catholic schools offer students a ‘coherent view of human rights’

By Ryan Mayer

In his essay “Why I Am a Catholic,” the British writer and convert G.K. Chesterton explained that one of the things that drew him to the Catholic faith was that “it is the only large attempt to change the world from the inside; working through wills and not laws.” He was making an important point about freedom and virtue. There are only two ways for people to be governed: from without and from within, from the outside through laws and from the inside through virtue. Only a free people can govern themselves but only a virtuous person is truly free.

The framers of the Constitution envisioned its principles for people of a certain kind. The better governance, they thought, comes from within. This is precisely what our second President John Adams meant when he wrote that “our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other” (Letter to Massachusetts Militia, 1798). He knew the American system would fail except for a virtuous people.

Both Christian morality and the kind of governance Adams envisioned seek to operate not primarily from the outside, but from the inside – not merely through laws, but through virtue. As the author of the classic Narnia books and Christian thinker C.S. Lewis said, “We might think that God wanted simply obedience to a set of rules: whereas He really wants people of a particular sort” (“Mere Christianity,” book III, chapter 2). Catholic schools do this in two ways: by forming a young person’s ability to practice the habit of virtue and by forming an understanding of what the good actually is.

Through education in virtue, Catholic schools develop this capacity in young people. The mission of Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of San Francisco is “to cultivate the virtuous life, nurture Christian community and nourish a Catholic worldview.” Education in virtue is not merely an intellectual exercise. While they may seem like happy accidents to Catholic education, aspects of Catholic school life that are often synonymous with Catholic schools are some of the very ways that the habit of virtue is developed.

Even something as simple as a school uniform can foster the cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, temperance and fortitude. For example, if justice means treating things as they ought to be treated, then attention to dress code can foster a recognition of personal dignity and the sense that what we are doing here at school matters. I am reminded of the lone reference to dress code in the syllabus of Brother Ansgar, a Benedictine monk and one of my undergraduate philosophy professors at Mount Angel Seminary, “You will dress as a child of God partaking in a serious activity in common.”

Athletic and academic excellence are not “extras” for Catholic schools. They are among the arenas in which virtuous souls are molded and in which young people sharpen and direct their freedom in pursuit of excellence. Incorporating prayer and liturgical practices into the daily life of the school develops the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity, as well as the highest form of justice, the justice of giving God what is due to God.

We said earlier that formation in virtue is not merely an intellectual exercise. True enough, but we cannot pursue what is good unless we know what is good. Catholic schools not only form and sharpen students’ ability to direct their freedom, much like building up a muscle, but they also develop their understanding of what is worthy of directing that freedom toward. In short, what actually is good.

In contrast to the pervasive, relativistic “you do you” mentality of secular culture, Catholic schools form a right understanding of what our freedom is actually for. An open-ended freedom without reference to any object to pursue is not authentic freedom. We are not free simply because we lack constraints. Our freedom begins once constraints are removed. Freedom seeks an object to pursue and invites the question, “toward what will I direct my freedom?”

Catholic education affirms that the true and the good are and that they are knowable through both reason and revelation. This happens in theology classes, of course, but it also happens through the study of literature and history as students evaluate and learn from the choices of characters both fictional and historical. It happens in math and science classes when students discover with wonder the beauty of the created world and hear the call to care for our common home. And it happens in the arts when students come to see that “art, like morality, consists in drawing the line somewhere” (to quote Chesterton again) and use their natural propensity to be co-creators with God to make something beautiful.

Finally, a Catholic worldview affirms, with the American founders, that human rights are inalienable, that they are inscribed in human nature and that they have their origin in nature’s God and not the state. A view of rights untethered from God as their origin devolves into individualism, arbitrariness and tyranny. Catholic education offers young people, whose hearts tend to be so open to the call for justice, a coherent view of human rights that is grounded in God as its origin, affirmed by our faith and defensible by reason. This last point is so important in a world in which authentic dialogue is becoming more and more difficult.

St. Charles Borromeo said, “In (forming virtuous people) it helps at the same time to form good citizens and prepares them to meet their obligations as members of a civil society. … A good citizen and a virtuous person are absolutely one and the same thing” (“The Christian Education of Youth,” I, 43). In teaching young people to know and love what is good and in forming their ability to direct their freedom toward it through the habit of virtue, Catholic schools serve the common good by forming the very kind of people – virtuous people – that the founders of our nation knew would be required to carry out the American experiment in freedom.

Ryan Mayer is the director of Office of Catholic Identity Formation & Assessment, Archdiocese of San Francisco.