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The Magna Carta of Christian Education

When Pius XI promulgated his encyclical Divini Illius Magistri on December 31, 1929, it became the most important papal document to date on the Christian education of youth—a distinction it has retained to this day. With good reason did contemporaries dub the encyclical the “Magna Carta” of its subject, admiring its thoroughness, penetration, and lucidity.

All who are sincerely concerned with the education of youth, says Pius XI, realize that human happiness is not automatically procured by an abundance of material goods or by their mere enjoyment; character formation is required, with a view to abiding goals beyond the fleeting present. The pope’s citation of the famous opening line of Augustine’s Confessions, “Thou didst create us, O Lord, for Thyself, and our heart is restless till it rest in Thee,” could be taken as the encyclical’s motto. The modern world is like a drawn-out experiment in cultivating this restlessness and directing it to as many creatures as possible, with no connection to their Creator, and with predictable results.

All educational theories, congresses, reforms, programs, and budgets will be fruitless until they recognize this elemental truth about man’s nature, fashioned after the divine image, fallen into misery, restored to grace by Jesus Christ. Since good education forms the whole person in reference to things that will truly fulfill him, culminating in the vision of God, “there can be no ideally perfect education which is not Christian education” (7; cf. 58), having as its aim “to cooperate with divine grace in forming the true and perfect Christian, that is, to form Christ Himself in those regenerated by baptism” (94). Christian education thus concerns not only the content of what is handed down, but also the method by which it is given, the supernatural means drawn upon for assistance, and the intention behind the activity (cf. 93ff.). The devoted Christian educator imitates Christ, who loved children with a special affection and wished to lead them safely into His kingdom (1, 9, 88).

Pius XI divides his treatment into specific questions: “who has the mission to educate [11–57]; who are the subjects to be educated [58–69]; what are the necessary accompanying circumstances [70–92]; what is the end and object proper to Christian education according to God’s established order in the economy of His divine providence [93–100]” (10).

The document’s crystal-clear teaching on the relationship of family, civil society, and the Church is especially valuable, illustrating concretely the harmony between nature and grace, reason and faith, as solemnly defined at Vatican I (11ff.; 51ff.). The individual person is born into a family and a civil society, and by baptism he is born into the Church. Each of these societies is succession is nobler than the preceding, because it pursues a greater common good. However, in no way does the greater contradict the nature of the lesser or thwart its rights (41ff.). The Church does not take away from civil society anything rightfully belonging to it, but rather defends and strengthens it (cf. 97–99); likewise, civil society usurps nothing that belongs to the family, but sustains its endeavors (cf. 77). That one type of society should come into conflict with another can arise only from an abuse of rights, an overstepping of authority—when, for example, the State claims powers over person, family, or Church that it does not and cannot possess.

Two truths of the social order above all occupy the pope’s attention.

First, the encyclical asserts and defends throughout the fundamental, inviolable right of parents to educate their own children (31ff.) and of the Church to educate the whole of mankind, especially those who are already her children by grace (15ff.). This right belongs naturally to the parents and supernaturally to the Church, and only by parental or ecclesiastical permission to the State or its officials. Policies of compulsory public education that slight parental will or disadvantage the family are contrary to natural law and constitute grave violations of justice (48; the State owes financial support to the schools chosen by parents: 81–83). The pope has in mind the violations of parental rights characteristic of liberalism in its diverse forms—the masonic, anticlerical regimes descending from the French Revolution as well as the regime of atheistic communism in Russia, which endorse in common an explicit or implicit totalitarian State control over every aspect of civic life, including the training of children (cf. 35ff.). A secular regime that insists on a strictly “secular” formation of children is, in this sense, acting tyrannically. On the contrary, the State should do everything in its power to support parents and the Catholic Church in their task of educating youth (46; 53–54; pluralist States are by no means excluded: cf. 81).

This leads the pope to a second major point: the encyclical’s emphasis on the invariably religious nature of all education, and the teacher’s duty to instill sound morality and piety in his or her pupils. An education without reference to unchanging religious truths and moral standards is nothing other than a training in impiety and lax morals, fueling the propensities of fallen nature (cf. 24; 57ff.). A purely secular or neutral education is impossible in principle, and an educator who “brackets off” ultimate questions is, in reality, habituating his students to think and live as if questions of truth and falsehood, good and evil, do not matter, have no meaning or cannot be resolved (cf. 79). Such an education is in fact a malformation; the pupil ends up worse than if he had never been educated at all.

Catholic parents and their pastors have therefore a solemn obligation to see to it that children receive a solid formation in faith and morals, whether in the home, in the classroom, or at the parish (34, 74; one can tell the age of an encyclical by the confidence with which it recommends parochial education!). Moreover, a small supplement of Catholic instruction—a weekly CCD class where kids read stories and glue pasta and beans to colored paper—is inadequate; in a school worthy of educating souls purchased by the Precious Blood of Christ, “it is necessary that all the teaching and the whole organization of the school, and its teachers, syllabus, and text-books in every branch, be regulated by the Christian spirit, under the direction and maternal supervision of the Church, so that religion may be in very truth the foundation and crown of the youth’s entire training” (80). 

Divini Illius Magistri makes for sobering reading today, when many of the pope’s anxieties (e.g., that the technology of mass media would corrupt youth, 89–92) have been confirmed to an extreme, and when the Catholic faithful seem less aware than ever of the deepest roots of the problem. At the same time, by confidently showing the way to authentic educational renewal, Divini Illius Magistri is a document more timely than ever for the army of homeschoolers as well as for a thankfully growing number of authentically Catholic private and independent schools. May their efforts flourish by the grace of Jesus Christ, the supreme Teacher.

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