The Core of a Catholic Curriculum

As the lead evaluator of institutions applying for Newman Guide recognition, I often get asked what makes a “Newman Guide” academic program. I want to highlight here some of the most important aspects, drawing from our resources on the K-12 school with principles relevant to all levels of education.

Traditionally, the curricula of Catholic schools and colleges were much more uniform, often guided by systems developed over centuries by the Jesuits, Benedictines, Dominicans, and other teaching orders and saints. With the rise of public secular education and emphasis on student choice, curricula in the United States have generally became disintegrated with a wider selection of courses, including core liberal arts and sciences but also a variety of electives. The Catholic faith is taught in catechesis and theology courses, but its relevance to other subjects is often tenuous.

So what meaning does “Catholic education” still have today? Can we identify key elements for every faithful school or college?

The Cardinal Newman Society’s answer to these questions begins with our Catholic Curriculum Standards. First developed in response to the Common Core Curriculum Standards—which were intended for public secular education but were adopted by many Catholic dioceses—our Catholic standards help shape school curricula for English, history, math, and science and are part of the criteria for school recognition in The Newman Guide.

But there are also broader principles for Catholic education. These are found in the Church’s many documents on education and in the experience of exemplary institutions.

Rooted in mission

When evaluating an institution’s application for The Newman Guide, the first thing I look at is its mission statement and philosophy of education. What is the purpose or goal of education and what does the school believe about the human person? Do its foundational documents describe what education is for and how a student learns best? These are important, because all curricular offerings should flow from the school’s mission and what it hopes to achieve.

Key aspects of the mission of Catholic education are articulated in Church documents: “To make disciples of all nations”; to assist the Church in her salvific mission and to evangelize and proclaim the good news; to provide a “critical, systematic transmission of culture in the light of faith”; integral formation of each student’s physical, moral, intellectual, and spiritual faculties; teaching responsibility and the right use of freedom; and preparing students to fulfill God’s calling in this world, so as to attain the eternal kingdom for which they were created.

More than preparing students for college and career, Catholic education aims for a deeper incorporation into the heart of the Church and the even higher calling of an eternal destiny with God in Heaven. Man was made to worship God in this world to live with Him in the next, and that is what Catholic education is called to help do.

This point should be evident in an institution’s documents and programming. School leaders should hold firmly to an eternal telos when deciding courses, activities, and events for the institution. Bringing this into programs and courses brings students closer to their full human flourishing and helps them be leaven in this world and joyful apostles for the Lord.

Human education

Schools and colleges included in The Newman Guide hold an educational philosophy based on a clearly articulated Christian anthropology. If they don’t understand the human person, they won’t get their educational programming right. It’s important first to articulate what beliefs the school holds about the human person and how students learn best, and to see how these beliefs align with Church teaching and proven educational practice.

Is each student valued as a person for their inherent worth, made in the image and likeness of God and invited into communion with Him? How is this lived out daily in the school or college? A fallible nature, elevated by God’s grace and personal fortitude, should be the starting point for student formation. Each student should be viewed as a unified body, mind, and spirit with an intellect and a will capable of improvement and growth. Other questions to consider:

  • Are there activities and programming that address all the faculties of the human person: the emotional, physical, spiritual, moral, as well as the intellectual?
  • Does the school or college employ habituation of rules for both behavior and academics to aid student learning and the development of virtue?
  • Does the school or college reject learning theories that disregard the complexities of the human person’s abilities?
  • Does the school embrace theories with underlying metaphysical premises that deny objective reality?

Catholic education should embrace learning theories that attend to the abilities of students as creative, imaginative, logical, emotional, adaptable, and spiritual human beings capable of finding and entering into the truths about reality. Students should also be taught that that faith is a valid way of knowing.

Thinking with faith

St. John Paul II taught that:

“Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth; and God has placed in the human heart a desire to know the truth—in a word, to know himself—so that, by knowing and loving God, men and women may also come to the fullness of truth about themselves.”

Catholic education looks to both faith and reason to attain understanding beyond simple knowledge. “What does our faith have to teach us about this or that?” should be an instructional methodology included in all academic disciplines, which still retain their own particular methods of inquiry. The pursuit of truth is a hallmark of Catholic education, and contemporary educational methodologies designed to confine students to only thinking about an author’s position and not how that position relates to Church social and moral teaching, or how it makes us feel, or contrary positions, or personal experience are to be avoided.

As students in Catholic education are taught to think with the certainty of faith, they are also being formed in the acquisition of moral and intellectual virtue, even at the college level. Some Catholic schools choose to incorporate virtue programs as separate curricular offerings, while others incorporate virtue through content-rich literature including the Good and Great Books—texts that have stood the test of time, because of their consideration of the perennial triumphs and foibles of man. Catholic colleges include virtue formation in student life programming, such as holding Theology of the Body seminars or promoting households that exemplify saints and their qualities.

In whatever way, the moral virtues taught to students stem from the cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance as elevated by God’s grace and the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love. These are distinctively different from the qualities and characteristics of the learner taught in public education. For instance, the International Baccalaureate program’s learner profile is designed to make students “inquirers, knowledgeable, thinkers, communicators, principled, open-minded, caring, risk-takers, balanced, and reflective.” There’s nothing wrong with any of that, but it’s insufficient for Catholic education’s purpose of training students in virtue so as to attain the eternal kingdom and not just maintain amiable relationships in the here and now.

Catholic education also cultivates the intellectual virtues, including art, prudence, understanding, science, and wisdom. This is what makes a Catholic education unique—it reaches toward the transcendent, especially in teaching wisdom and asking life’s deepest questions. All courses can employ philosophical questioning, such as, “Why is man the only rational creature? What is man’s place in the universe? Why is this or that the way it is?” These help students grasp the relationship between humanity and existential realities. Methodologies should provide opportunities for students to wonder about higher things, and philosophical questioning helps with this. It fosters student engagement and, to paraphrase St. Thomas Aquinas, the water of philosophy brings out the wine in theology. Philosophical questioning leads us to the truth of a thing, and that ultimately leads us to Truth Himself, Jesus Christ.

Integrated curriculum

All courses should be taught, as much as possible, in an interdisciplinary fashion. This means that when a subject or concept under discussion moves beyond the confines of the discipline, it is not tossed aside as inconsequential but explored for the understanding it can bring to the subject at hand. St. John Henry Cardinal Newman stated in Idea of a University, “All branches of knowledge are connected together, because the subject-matter of knowledge is intimately united in itself, as being the acts and the work of the Creator.” Being open to transcendent truth and objective reality allows each discipline to bear on others for comparison, correction, completeness, and adjustment. Catholic education should include the humanities such as drama, music, and the arts to lift artificial silos of learning and satisfy the aesthetic sense of the human soul.

Academic disciplines within Newman Guide-recognized schools include specific content standards unique to Catholic education and laid out in The Cardinal Newman Society’s Catholic Curriculum Standards, such as “Describe the importance of thinking with images informed by classic Christian and Western symbols and archetypes” and “Explain the history of the Catholic Church and its impact in human events.” These curricular standards are derived from Church teaching and the expectations of exemplary Catholic colleges. When examining Church documents for aspects of curricular design, we noted that many documents looked to the formation of the student more than specific Catholic content.

For example, mathematics should help a student develop the acuity of precision, determination, inquiry, reasoning, and an appreciation of beauty and God’s orderly design. Science standards include, “To exhibit a primacy of care and concern about all stages of life” and to “display a deep sense of wonder and delight about the natural universe.”

Of course, a curriculum cannot be delivered without a prepared and spiritually formed teacher, who is faithful to the teachings of the Church and practices those teachings daily. Many teachers in the exceptional Newman Guide institutions see teaching as a personal means of sanctification and an answer to a call, not just a profession. They are willing to build a relationship with students and to journey with them as they discover life’s many challenges and delights. It is through a face-to-face, “incarnate education” in an environment that is simple yet beautiful that these relationships are best forged. With a successful curriculum, students are encouraged to wonder, gain wisdom, and worship the one true God.

Secular Resources Can Be Dangerous to Catholic Education

There are many popular academic programs and resources available to Catholic educators, but most are secular, designed primarily for public schools.

Does “secular” mean that they are unsuitable for Catholics?

So long as the content does not oppose Catholic teaching, it may seem appropriate to use secular materials and programs. Catholics do not hide from the world. There is no conflict between the truths of our faith and the truths of science, math, history and other human studies. We are not afraid to explore every branch of knowledge, and we respect the methods appropriate to each academic discipline.

Still, there is more to consider when evaluating secular resources. Do they positively advance the mission of Catholic education? Does their use crowd out authentic Catholic formation and learning? Do they implicitly teach relativism and falsehood?

These are questions addressed in The Cardinal Newman Society’s reviews of secular resources including Advanced Placement courses, the Common Core State Standards, the International Baccalaureate program, the Habits of Mind program and secular character development programs.

Recently, we also published Policy Standards for Secular Materials and Programs in Catholic Education, an overview of Catholic principles and recommended standards for Catholic school policies.

“Catholic educators teach and do more,” write the Newman Society’s Dr. Denise Donohue and Dr. Dan Guernsey. “This means they must ask more of any material or program imported into the educational environment and be ready to heavily adapt it toward a greater end.” They also must recognize that “some resources will be woefully insufficient, and others may have elements that actually work against the Catholic mission.”

Three missing elements 

Secular education is never complete and can be dangerous, if not enlightened by our Catholic faith. It always lacks three things of the greatest importance:

1) Secular education refuses to admit the insights of Catholic teaching. An education that ignores God withholds understanding from its students.

The lack of catechesis is only part of the problem. Secular education restricts understanding in every course of study by eclipsing the light of the Church’s teachings, and it allows distortions and falsehoods to creep into every classroom. While subjects can be taught without reference to God, the approach is backward and narrow, deliberately limiting a student’s understanding of reality as fashioned by God according to His reason. Ignoring the truths of our faith implicitly denies the unity of knowledge, and it prevents a truly integrated education with God as the common thread.

Concerning the role of theology in education, St. John Henry Newman asked, “How can we investigate any part of any order of knowledge, and stop short of that which enters into every order? All true principles run over with it, all phenomena converge to it; it is truly the First and the Last.”

2) Secular education also lacks a sure moral and ethical foundation. An education that ignores God’s law withholds wisdom from its students.

While natural law and common sense allow people of very different religious faiths to come to some agreement on moral values, these are often skewed by personal biases and manipulated into ideologies. Today public education is dominated by moralistic claims that are often false or lack foundation in a true understanding of human dignity.

Again, according to Newman: secular education has the tendency of “throwing us back on ourselves, and making us our own center, and our minds the measure of all things.” The best scholar can “become hostile to Revealed Truth” and an “insidious and dangerous foe” of the Church. Therefore, while religion may not be essential to studying many subjects, nevertheless a true moral perspective rooted in Catholic teaching is necessary to preserve the “integrity” of education and the human person.

3) Secular education lacks the ecclesial mission of Catholic education, tied to the Church’s mission of evangelization and man’s purpose of seeking full communion with God. An education that ignores God withholds assistance toward sainthood.

Secular materials and programs in math, literature and even virtue development may appear suitable to Catholic education, because they include much of the same content. But mission drives Catholic education before content. Catholic education forms young people to use their unique human gifts of reason, free will and selfless charity toward the end for which they were created.

Whereas secular education helps students accumulate information and perhaps even develop skills of reasoning, Catholic education “ascends” above knowledge toward transcendental reality—another Newman insight—to better understand and appreciate God’s truth, goodness and beauty as found in creation and in the Church.

Ultimately, then, the gulf between secular and Catholic education is much wider than it may first seem, and secular resources are never as suitable as those designed with an authentic Catholic perspective. Only a faithful Catholic education can integrally form young people in both mind and soul, as God intends.

It is important that Catholic educators remain confident in the superior formation that a faithful Catholic education provides. Secular programs and materials should be examined cautiously, with a preference toward resources that are built upon a Catholic foundation.

Habits of Mind 

An example of the dangers of secular programs can be found in the Habits of Mind program, which is popular in public schools and is making inroads in Catholic schools. Developed by Arthur Costa and Bena Kallick, Habits of Mind teaches 16 intellectual behaviors to help students make productive choices, especially when faced with dichotomies, dilemmas or uncertainties.

Catholics will find much to like in the program. “Many of the Habits of Mind correlate to moral virtues, such as: taking responsible risks (prudence), finding humor (affability), thinking interdependently (circumspection), remaining open to continuous learning (docility), managing impulsivity (temperance) and persisting (fortitude),” explains Dr. Denise Donohue in the Newman Society’s review.

Nevertheless, we have serious reservations about the program. It attempts to brand a set of virtues that have been promoted since ancient times, and it can tend to overshadow other and even more important habits that should be central to Catholic education, such as the Beatitudes and other Christian dispositions such as humility, gentleness, patience, faithfulness, goodness, godliness, joyfulness, modesty and love.

With regard to intellectual virtues, the Habits of Mind have a limited focus on problem-solving. They are less helpful in developing the “philosophical habit of mind” that St. John Henry Newman proposes as the aim of education. A graduate of Catholic education should be able to “ascend” above knowledge to seek truths that are foundational to reality and larger than experience, as in contemplating the natural and eternal law. The Habits of Mind, designed primarily for public schools, are focused on observation and experience but not transcendental truths leading to God the Creator. They also neglect the development of sound reasoning in support of a thesis and respect for authoritative sources, including the Catholic Church.

A good Catholic education should have no need for a program like Habits of Mind. In a Catholic curriculum, virtues overlap and occur throughout all levels and types of student formation. More than problem solving, Catholic education teaches truth and forms students for a lifetime of inquiry that leads to Truth Himself.

We offer recommendations for adapting the Habits of Mind program to Catholic education, but it would be better to adopt to the Newman Society’s Catholic Curriculum Standards. Our review of Habits of Mind includes a “crosswalk” to show how each of the program’s virtues are already included in the Catholic Curriculum Standards—and so much more.

Common Core

The Common Core State Standards are another secular remedy intended to improve public education yet adopted by many Catholic schools. Their focus on college and career is inadequate to serve the evangelical mission of Catholic education.

In 2013, the Newman Society’s Dr. Dan Guernsey offered 10 Critically Important Adaptations to the Common Core for Catholic Schools—an important aid to schools attempting to work with the new standards. But Guernsey warned that such adaptations ultimately fail to address “the fundamental conflict” between the Common Core and the “integral formation of students.” Catholic education teaches truth, goodness and beauty across the entire curriculum. “And, since the object of every academic discipline is truth, the Catholic curriculum should be based on the conviction that all truths ultimately converge in their source—God.”

Other Newman Society analyses helped clarify concerns about the Common Core. Guernsey and Donohue found that the standards’ “close reading/new criticism” approach to literature is contrary to Catholic education’s emphasis on the “real, rich and wonderful world outside the text.” The standards suggest that “the value of literature is not so much what it teaches us about how to live well, but that it teaches us how to read well (e.g. Just tell me what’s in the report, Johnson!).”

Guernsey was lead author of the Pioneer Institute’s 2016 report, After the Fall: Catholic Education Beyond the Common Core, which celebrates “the tremendous insight the Catholic intellectual tradition has always offered into the wonder, value, and glory present in all of God’s creation. Authentic academic inquiry and a fuller understanding of the human experience are completely fulfilled in the Catholic educational experience.”

Today many dioceses are still using the Common Core, part of a tradition of adopting state standards. As states shift to new standards, it is a good time to consider an alternative like the Newman Society’s Catholic Curriculum Standards, which fully embrace the mission of Catholic education.

International Baccalaureate

Recently it seems the International Baccalaureate (IB) program has been making inroads into Catholic schools, if the IB ads in Catholic publications are any indication. But when the Newman Society published its review of the IB program last year, Catholic schools were only about 2 percent of the 1,800 American schools adopting the program.

The Geneva-based program says it “aims to develop inquiring, knowledgeable and caring young people who help to create a better and more peaceful world through intercultural understanding and respect.” Specialties include its college-directed “diploma program” in the last two years of high school and the foundational Theory of Knowledge course.

According to the Newman Society’s reviewers Dr. Denise Donohue and Dr. Dan Guernsey, the IB “takes a relativistic approach to truth” and “insists upon the exclusive use of the constructivist learning approach to the exclusion of other proven instructional methodologies.” This can encourage a constructivist philosophy, suggesting “that man constructs his own knowledge—even of reality —and that nothing exists that is not constructed in one’s own mind.”

Like other secular programs, the IB can crowd out more fully Catholic education. For instance, it requires schools to adopt its learner profile: “All IB learners strive to be Inquirers, Knowledgeable, Thinkers, Communicators, Open-Minded, Caring, Risk-Takers, Balanced, Principled, and Reflective.” But Donohue and Guernsey warn that these can be limiting and fail to incorporate many Christian virtues that are essential to Catholic formation.

The Newman Society recommends that schools not adopt the IB program. But for those that already have done so, our review recommends many steps that can be taken to adapt the IB program to be more suitable to Catholic education. These changes to the program are extensive and may conflict with IB resources and teacher training.