Today we take another look at the 1929 encyclical of Pope Pius XI Divini Illius Magistri, or "On Christian Education." What is education? What is its purpose? What are its appropriate means? Most, if not all, public schools and a good many churches as well would argue that religious and secular education are two different things, and never the twain should meet. Religious education is about the particulars of whatever faith you practice. Secular education is about 2+2 equaling 4 and subject-verb agreement. Many people have accepted this dichotomy without any reflection, but as has been said, Jesus is either Lord of all, or not Lord at all. If, as John 1:3 states, "Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made," then we must take another look at this dichotomy, one Pope Pius XI refused to accept.
With regard to the educational theorists, he writes that "many of them...pretend to draw education out of human nature itself and evolve it by its own unaided powers. Such easily fall into error, because, instead of fixing their gaze on God, first principle and last end of the whole universe, they fall back upon themselves, becoming attached exclusively to passing things of earth; and thus their restlessness will never cease till they direct their attention and their efforts to God...." (Divini Illius Magistri, 6)
Anyone who has been in education for even ten years will know the truth of this. A theory that is presented in a faculty meeting and on which you are trained during staff development this year will fall by the wayside inside five years, only to be brought back under a new name sometime later. There is an endless, indeed restless, grasping for what is new. We cast about like drowning victims, desperate to educate our children better, and so we are more gullible than people taken in by advertisements for the latest gimmick to improve the golf swing.
As the old saying goes, if you don't know where you're going, any road out of town will do. We grasp for the new because we do not know the true purpose of education. Pope Pius XI does. "[S]ince education consists essentially in preparing man for what he must be and for what he must do here below, in order to attain the sublime end for which he was created, it is clear that there can be no true education which is not wholly directed to man's last end, and that in the present order of Providence, since God has revealed Himself to us in the Person of His Only Begotten Son, who alone is 'the way, the truth and the life,' there can be no ideally perfect education which is not Christian education." (Divini Illius Magistri, 7)
Most educators stop at the first part of the opening sentence, that education is about preparing students for what they must be and do in the here and now. The word "must," however, requires reference to some ordering principle, and in the absence of God, we are thrown back upon nothing more authoritative than personal desire. If you want to be an artist or a millionaire, we can help you achieve that be teaching you certain things. Yet Pope Pius correctly identified the true authoritative reference in "the sublime end for which he was created." It may indeed be your end, your purpose, to be an artist. If so, you will likely desire this. Yet it is not because of your desire that we train you in the arts, but rather because this is your divine calling. Any education, as the pope writes, that is not wholly directed to the primary end of the person is not true education. Without such direction, we are left, as C.S. Lewis put it, making mud pies in a slum.
Ah, but surely this applies well and good to the realm of religious education, not to the secular, says our contemporary educational expert. Not so, replies Pope Pius. "From this we see the supreme importance of Christian education, not merely for each individual, but for families and for the whole of human society, whose perfection comes from the perfection of the elements that compose it." (Divini Illius Magistri, 8) In his exquisite book Death on a Friday Afternoon, Fr. Richard John Neuhaus wrote, "If what Christians say about Good Friday is true, then it is, quite simply, the truth about everything." Christianity is the most evangelistic of any religion because Christians know that the truth about everything has been revealed for everyone in the person of Jesus Christ. By its very nature, Christianity cannot be a private faith. It makes the broadest claims of any religion or philosophy. Despite that the present culture has made it awkward to say so, the Christian faith is better than any other religion or philosophy because it is grounded in the One Who is Truth. Those who follow this Man Who is Truth will become better people, and as simple logic shows, the group of which such people are part must of necessity become better as well. Do you want a better business, a better school, a better community? Have more Christians!
Of course, this sounds horribly, embarrassingly triumphalistic, and it would indeed be the acme of pride were Christians saying that they themselves were so wonderful. We make know such claims. Rather, we say that it is God, living in us through the Holy Spirit, Who sanctifies us and makes us better. It is He Who brings about the perfection of society by perfecting its members, and since this is true, Pope Pius is correct when he acknowledges the "supreme importance of Christian education."