catholic education

Catholic Curriculum Standards: Faithful to the Core

When Jill Annable began her role as assistant superintendent in the Diocese of Grand Rapids, the staff was working on rewriting its curriculum standards for all subject areas and all grades, to try to integrate Catholic identity across all content areas.

Educators who have worked on school standards know that it’s no small task. Fortunately for Annable and the Diocese of Grand Rapids, timely help provided just what they needed.

“We were drafting and drafting,” Annable recalled in a recent podcast produced by the National Catholic Educational Association (NCEA), where she now serves as the executive director of academic excellence. She remembers when her superintendent walked into her office and excitedly shared, “It was published, you can use it!” She meant the Catholic Curriculum Standards, which had just been released by The Cardinal Newman Society.

“When I opened it up, I realized that it was the missing piece,” Annable told Dr. Denise Donohue, the Newman Society’s deputy director of K-12 programs, who was also a guest on the podcast. “It was the language I needed to use without trying to invent it ourselves.”

The Diocese of Grand Rapids isn’t the only diocese to find our Catholic Curriculum Standards helpful.

“Since, in every school, the curriculum carries the mission, these Catholic Curriculum Standards are an invaluable contribution to Catholic schools everywhere,” says Father John Belmonte, S.J., superintendent of the Diocese of Venice.

“Catholic schools have benefited from the standards-based reform movement in education with one notable exception: the absence of rigorous standards rooted and grounded in our Catholic tradition,” Fr. Belmonte continues. “Implementation of the Catholic Curriculum Standards will provide a renewed sense of mission for our Catholic schools operating within the increasingly secularized world of education today.”

Today, at least 28 diocesan school systems and many other Catholic schools across the United States—serving more than 270,000 students—use the Catholic Curriculum Standards to replace or supplement their existing diocesan standards.

Common Core concerns 

Over the last decade, many public and Catholic schools across the country have adopted the Common Core State Standards. But the Common Core is a secular program designed with utilitarian goals—to lift up under-achieving public school students for success in college and careers. Aside from disagreements about its embrace of controversial methods and educational theories, the Common Core was never intended for the fullness of human flourishing that the Church demands of Catholic education.

Giving voice to the concerns of many Catholic families, the Newman Society’s “Catholic Is Our Core” program has informed Catholic educators about shortcomings of the Common Core. It began with a campaign by mail, email, social media and web outreach to educate Catholic families, leaders and educators and to urge Catholic schools to reject or at least radically adapt the Common Core standards to the mission of Catholic education. Our analyses have been featured in national Catholic publications and on Catholic radio and television.

In 2013, consistent with many of the Newman Society’s concerns, a cadre of Catholic college professors (132 altogether) signed a joint letter stating they were “convinced that Common Core is so deeply flawed that it should not be adopted by Catholic schools” and that those who had adopted it “should seek an orderly withdrawal.” The following year, the education office of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a statement warning that the Common Core standards alone are insufficient for Catholic schools.

Today it is clear that the Common Core has failed to produce the promised improvements in both public and Catholic schools, and states and dioceses are pulling back from the misguided standards. What now should replace them? The Common Core experience, though messy, helped spark widespread interest among Catholic bishops, educators and families for something better. It is toward that goal that the Newman Society’s staff turned, striving for a uniquely Catholic set of standards.

Providing a solution 

In 2015, the Newman Society resolved to answer a question posed by several bishops and diocesan superintendents: “If Catholic education is distinct from secular education, then where are the standards for Catholic educators?”

Our response is the Catholic Curriculum Standards, rooted firmly in the Church’s teaching on Catholic education and her long tradition of liberal arts formation in truth, goodness and beauty.

“The first time I read them, I thought this isn’t the ‘Catholic Common Core.’ This is the why and the how, and gives the beauty to why we teach math, why we inquire in science. You wouldn’t just slap these standards on top of Common Core,” said Annable.

The standards specifically cover the core subjects of English, history, scientific topics and mathematics, but Annable says her diocese was able to apply the standards to elective courses as well, which she says was a “true gift.”

Developing the Catholic Curriculum Standards was a labor of love. The Newman Society staff spent two years analyzing Church documents to identify key elements the Church expects to find in all Catholic schools. Those were distilled into the Newman Society’s Principles of Catholic Identity in Education, which are similar to Archbishop Michael Miller’s “essential marks of Catholic schools,” but capturing more of the language and balance of Vatican documents.

For the standards project, the Newman Society’s Dr. Dan Guernsey and Dr. Denise Donohue studied these Principles, Church documents, scholarly works related to Catholic education and the Catholic intellectual tradition, and books articulating the nature of liberal arts and classical education. They also met with more than a dozen professors from faithful Catholic colleges to consider what knowledge and formation one should expect from a Catholic school graduate.

A Catholic foundation 

The Catholic Curriculum Standards include “dispositional” standards for each academic discipline, along with expected “content” or “intellectual” standards.

As Guernsey and Donohue were reviewing Church documents for curricular application, they noticed much discussion about the formation of dispositions within students. That topic was much more prominent than concerns about course content. For example:

The Catholic school aims at forming in the Christian those particular virtues which will enable him to live a new life in Christ and help him to play faithfully his part in building up the Kingdom of God. (The Catholic School, 1977, 36)

Creating the dispositional standards has proven beneficial for Catholic schools needing to address the National Standards and Benchmarks for Effective Catholic Elementary and Secondary Schools (NSBECS) for accreditation purposes. Schools using the Catholic Curriculum Standards, along with a solid virtue program, are able to address numerous benchmarks required for accreditation.

For the mathematics standards, the Catholic perspective is primarily dispositional. The Catholic Curriculum Standards expect students to identify truth and falsehood in relationships and to acquire the mental habits of “precise, determined, careful and accurate questioning, inquiry and reasoning.”

Examples of English literature standards include, “Explain how Christian and Western symbols and symbolism communicate the battle between good and evil and make reality visible” and “Demonstrate how literature is used to develop a religious, moral and social sense.” The English standards especially earned high praise from Sandra Stotsky, Ed.D., who is a national consultant in standards development and author of the highly regarded Massachusetts Academic Standards. She proved very helpful to the Newman Society’s work as well.

“The K-12 standards and suggested readings in Appendix C for the reading/literature curriculum in Catholic schools reflect more than the uniqueness of their intellectual tradition,” Stotsky said. “They also provide the academic rigor missing in most public-school English language arts curricula.”

Inspiring and crucial 

The impact of the Catholic Curriculum Standards over the past five years has been exciting.

“The Catholic Curriculum Standards are EXACTLY what I have been wanting—specific in the areas of faith formation and the pursuit of goodness, truth and beauty, but broad enough to give the teachers latitude in their instructional methods,” said Lynette Schmitz, the principal of St. John Paul II Preparatory School, a Catholic classical hybrid school in St. Louis, Mo.

Derek Tremblay, headmaster of Mount Royal Academy in Sunapee, N.H, agrees. “I thoroughly love the Standards that The Cardinal Newman Society has put out and have yet to find anything comparable.”

Another Catholic school principal, Janice Martinez, principal of Holy Child Catholic School in Tijeras, N.M., said: “I find the standards of education you have recently publicized to be inspiring. I believe the work you do is crucial and support your mission.”

Despite the great success of the Catholic Curriculum Standards, there’s much more work to be done. Standards help establish a school’s priorities and promote the right outcomes of truly faithful Catholic education. But curriculum standards alone can never determine what happens in the classroom.

We hope that the Catholic Curriculum Standards will promote greater integration of the faith in every academic discipline, leading eventually to new and improved textbooks, lesson plans, teacher training and school evaluation.

The complete Catholic Curriculum Standards are available to educators at no cost on the Newman Society’s website, together with helpful appendices and resources to support implementing the standards. Feel free to reach out to The Cardinal Newman Society if you are interested in knowing more about the standards and how they might be used in your diocese, school or homeschool program.

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Educating to Truth, Beauty and Goodness

Editor’s Note: The following essay appears in Appendix A of The Cardinal Newman Society’s Catholic Curriculum Standards.1

The world, in all its diversity, is eager to be guided towards the great values of mankind, truth, good and beauty; now more than ever…Teaching means to accompany young people in their search for truth and beauty, for what is right and good.  — Educating Today and Tomorrow: A Renewing Passion, 2014 2

We want our students to maximize their human potential and to both be good and do good in authentic freedom. In order to do this, our students need to be able to know how to wisely and fully apprehend and interrogate all aspects of reality from a solid Christian intellectual tradition. This intellectual tradition involves not just teaching facts and skills, but is also essentially focused on seeking to know the value and nature of things and in appreciating the value of knowledge for its own sake.

One method of assisting students to keep focus on these aspects of Catholic intellectual inquiry is to use the lenses of truth, goodness, and beauty to evaluate a subject under consideration. These three elements are often understood as being among the transcendentals. Transcendentals are the timeless and universal attributes of being.3 They are the properties of all beings. They reflect the divine origin of all things and the unity of all truth and reality in God. These elements are among the deepest realities. They help unite men across time and culture and are often a delight to explore and discuss, because they are substantive to our very nature.

The transcendentals of truth, beauty, and goodness are closely intertwined. Dubay (1999) observed that, “Truth beauty and goodness have their being together, by truth we are put in touch with reality which we find is good for us and beautiful to behold. In our knowing, loving and delighting the gift of reality appears to us as something infinitely and in-exhaustively valuable and fascinating.”4 In seeking to discuss one, the others are naturally and organically brought into the conversation.

The following simple definitions and essential questions are provided as a general framework to help facilitate a discussion on any topic in any subject. The goal is not to generate easy questions for easy answers, but to generate foundational questions for deep inquiry into the value and nature of things, to instill a sense of the intrinsic value of knowledge, and to elicit a sense of wonder.


Beauty can help evoke wonder and delight, which are foundations of a life of wisdom and inquiry.5 Beauty involves apprehending unity, harmony, proportion, wholeness, and radiance.6 It often manifests itself in simplicity and purity, especially in math and science.7 Often beauty has a type of pre-rational (striking) force upon the soul, for instance when one witnesses a spectacular sunset or the face of one’s beloved. Beauty can be understood as a type of inner radiance or shine coming from a thing that is well-ordered to its state of being or is true to its nature or form.8

Beauty pleases not only the eye or ear, but also the intellect in a celebration of the integrity of our body and soul. It can be seen as a sign of God’s goodness, benevolence and graciousness, of both His presence and His transcendence in the world.9 It can serve as re-enchantment with the cosmos and all reality10 and assist in moving our students to a rich and deep contemplative beholding of the real.11

Some essential questions related to beauty:

  • Is “X” beautiful? How so? Why not?
  • Which of these (i.e., poems, experiments, proofs, theories, people, functions, concepts) is more beautiful and why? Why might others have thought this beautiful?
  • How does this person/thing attract? Is this person using their God-given gifts to attract in a way that pleases God and draws others closer to God? What can happen when beauty is not used for the glory of God?
  • What is delightful, wondrous about this person/thing?
  • How does this shine? Radiate?
  • How is faithfulness to form or nature powerfully evident here?
  • What does this reveal about the nature of what is seen?
  • Where is there unity and wholeness here?
  • Where is there proportion and harmony here?
  • How does this reveal God’s graciousness, presence, and transcendence?
  • What does my response to this reveal about me?
  • Is this also Good? Is this also True?


When we explore issues of goodness with our students, we are fundamentally asking them to consider questions of how well someone or something fulfills its purpose. Goodness is understood as the perfection of being. A thing is good to the degree that it enacts and perfects those powers, activities, and capacities appropriate to its nature and purpose. A good pair of scissors cuts, a good eye has 20/20 vision, and so forth. We have to know a thing’s purpose, nature, or form to engage in an authentic discussion of “The Good.” When we get to questions of what is a good law, a good government, a good father, or a good man, the discussion quickly grows richer, deeper, and more complex.

As Catholic educators, our goal is to help our students to become good persons. Among those qualities we deem good are wisdom, faithfulness, and virtue. Virtue is a habitual and firm disposition to do the good.12 We are free to the extent that with the help of others, we have maximized these goods, these proper powers and perfections as man.13 Such efforts raise fundamental questions of what it means to be human and our relationships with each other, the created world, and God.

God, through reason and revelation, has not left us blind on these issues, nor has He left us up to our own subjective devices. It is a fundamental responsibility of the Catholic school to teach and pass on this Catholic culture, this Catholic worldview, this cultural patrimony, these insights, and these very fundamental truths about the good and what constitutes the good life.14 Particularly, in this and all our efforts as Catholic educators, we build our foundation of the good on Jesus Christ, who is the perfect man, and who fully reveals man to himself.15

Some essential questions related to goodness:

  • What is this thing’s purpose/end? What do we know from our senses and reason? From nature and natural law? What do we know from revelation?
  • What is this thing’s nature? What do we know from our senses and reason? From nature and natural law? What do we know from revelation?
  • What perfections are proper to this thing in light of its purpose?
  • To what degree does the particular instance we are considering possess or lack these perfections?
  • What, if anything, would make this better?
  • What would make this worse?
  • How well does this work? Is “X” a good “Y”? What makes “X” a good “Y”? (e.g., Is Odysseus a good husband? Is the liver we are diagnosing a good liver? Is the theory of relativity a good theory? Is Picasso a good artist?)
  • How does this measure up in terms of a Catholic worldview and values?
  • How does this measure up in terms of Catholic morality and virtue?
  • How does this measure up to God’s plan or expectations of it as revealed in Christ?
  • Is this also beautiful? Is this also true?


A simple definition for truth is the mind being in accord with reality.16 We seek always to place our students and ourselves in proper relationship with the truth. Nothing we do can ever be opposed to the truth, that is, opposed to reality which has its being in God. Catholics hold that when our senses are in good condition and functioning properly under normal circumstances, and when our reason is functioning honestly and clearly, we can come to know reality and have the ability to make true judgments about reality. Through study, reflection, experimentation, argument and discussion, we believe that an object under discussion may manifest itself in its various relations, either directly or indirectly, to the mind.17

We believe that Man tends by nature toward the truth. Even though due to our fallen nature we may sometimes seek to ignore or obfuscate the truth, we are nonetheless obliged to honor and bear witness to it in its fullness. We are bound to adhere to the truth once we come to know it and direct our whole life in accordance with the demands of truth.18 As Catholics, we believe that reason, revelation, and science will never be in ultimate conflict, as the same God created them all.19 We oppose scientism which without evidence makes the metaphysical claim that only what can be measured and subject to physical science can be true. We oppose relativism, not only because its central dictum “there is no truth” is self-contradicting, but also because in removing objective truths from any analysis, this also removes the possibility of gauging human progress, destroys the basis for human dignity, and disables the ability to make important moral distinctions such as the desirability of tolerance20 and wisdom of pursuing truth, beauty, and goodness as opposed to their opposites of error, ugliness, and sin.

Some essential questions related to truth:

  • Is it true?
  • Is our mind/concept in accord with reality?
  • Are we looking at this clearly and with our senses and reason properly attuned?
  • Is the thinking rational and logical?
  • Is the information and reasoning clear and precise?
  • Is the approach fair and balanced?
  • How does this square with what we know from revelation? If there is a disconnect, where further shall we explore?
  • On what intellectual, moral, or intuitive principle are we basing this?
  • Can the knowledge or situation under consideration be integrated with or expanded by the knowledge from another academic discipline?
  • Now that we know this particular truth about a thing, what other questions does that raise? What more do we want to know?
  • Is this also beautiful? Is this also good?


New Catholic Curriculum Standards Put Focus on Faith

Catholic education experts are hailing The Cardinal Newman Society’s new Catholic Curriculum Standards as a “splendid” and “invaluable” new resource to help Catholic schools focus on their mission.

With the help of leading Catholic scholars like Jesuit Father Robert Spitzer, Anthony Esolen and Joseph Pearce, the Newman Society’s Dr. Denise Donohue and Dr. Dan Guernsey have produced a new tool to help families and teachers regain their focus on what matters most in Catholic education.

Amid growing discontent with the Common Core State Standards, these truly Catholic standards go to the heart of what students should be learning in a faithfully Catholic education from kindergarten through high school.

The standards cover English language arts, math, science and history, and they complement the U.S. bishops’ and diocesan standards for religious instruction. Each academic discipline’s standards are broadly grouped into two grade levels, K-6 and 7-12. They express outcomes according to which learning should be measured, with the goal of leading educators to assign or develop materials and choose subject matter that truly serve the mission of Catholic education.

Praise from Educators

A couple of dioceses are already working with the standards, which have received strong approval.

“Since, in every school, the curriculum carries the mission, these Catholic Curricular Standards are an invaluable contribution to Catholic schools everywhere,” said Fr. John Belmonte, S.J., superintendent of Catholic schools in the Diocese of Joliet and a national expert in Catholic school administration.

“Catholic schools have benefited from the standards-based reform movement in education with one notable exception: the absence of rigorous standards rooted and grounded in our Catholic tradition,” said Fr. Belmonte. “Implementation of the Catholic Curricular Standards will provide a renewed sense of mission for our Catholic schools operating within the increasingly secularized world of education today.”

“A splendid achievement,” said Dr. Ryan Topping, author of The Case for Catholic Education and a fellow at Thomas More College of Liberal Arts in Merrimack, New Hampshire. “Amidst widespread confusion about the nature and aims of the curriculum, these K-12 standards off educators structured guidance on how to deliver a robust Catholic intellectual formation.”

Dr. Sandra Stotsky, developer of the highly respected Massachusetts Academic Standards, said the Catholic Curriculum Standards “reflect more than the uniqueness of their intellectual tradition. They also provide the academic rigor missing in most public school English language arts curricula.”

For parents and educators seeking more practical assistance, the Catholic Curriculum Standards are accompanied by lists of recommended resources and even suggested literature for Catholic students at different grade levels.

The Cardinal Newman Society developed the standards with adaptability in mind. Educators are invited to amend and fit them into their own standards and curriculum guides to focus on the complete formation of students in the rich, Catholic intellectual heritage. We also anticipate developing practical tools to help educators work toward the standards in their classrooms.

Serving a Need

Today, many parents rightfully ask why Catholic schools often appear similar to public schools. Beyond religion class, the textbooks, reading assignments and even discussions of sensitive topics can seem very secular in many Catholic schools.

Have you ever wondered if there is a Catholic approach to teaching science? If you attended Catholic school decades ago, you’d have no doubt that there is such a thing. But today, many parents and students lack appreciation for what is special about a faithful Catholic education.

On topics like creation, nature, reproduction, behavior, scientific method, environment and technology, does Catholic education have something more important to teach than facts and figures?

What about literature? Good Catholic educators reject the Common Core’s emphasis on technical reading, preferring to instead focus on great literature — the epic tales, classical plays, poetry, biographies, persuasive essays and more that spark wonder, imagination and reasoning in young minds. Such literature prepares them to transform culture and renew it in the light of Christ.

And history! Too long has textbook history been dominated by Protestant distortions and emphases. A true grounding in history couldn’t be more important for young Catholics today: Christianity’s role in Western civilization, the rise of Islam, the glories of the Middle Ages, America’s founding principles and so much more.

The sad truth, however, is that many Catholic schools have looked to public school standards as measures of success in education. The defective Common Core and other government standards are secular and oriented to college and career. If Catholic educators measure success by these standards, they lose sight of their mission to evangelize and form young people in mind, body and spirit.

Renewed Purpose

The Cardinal Newman Society anchored its Catholic Curriculum Standards on principles of Catholic identity in education:

  1. Involves the integral formation of the whole person—body, mind and spirit—in light of the individual’s ultimate end and the good of society.
  2. Seeks to know and understand objective reality, including transcendent Truth, which is knowable by reason and faith and finds its origin, unity and end in God.
  3. Promotes human virtues and the dignity of the human person, as created in the image and likeness of God and modeled on the person of Jesus Christ.
  4. Encourages a synthesis of faith, life and culture.
  5. Develops a Catholic worldview and enables a deeper incorporation of the student into the heart of the Catholic Church.

These elements of Catholic education are quite different from the philosophy and objectives that drive secular education. As Drs. Guernsey and Donohue explain in their introduction to the standards:

The mission and goals of Catholic education are significantly different from the college and career goals that guide public schools. Because the mission of a school should guide its choice of standards, the unique and broader mission of Catholic education requires additional, and foundational, standards that include specific Catholic modes of intellectual reasoning as well as accompanying dispositions.

While Catholic education has many similarities to secular education, “Catholic education is uniquely positioned to offer guidance on issues of values and morality as well as to provide life-giving and definitive answers related to questions of human purpose, human dignity, and human flourishing.”

Designed for Change

It is our own mission at The Cardinal Newman Society to help restore excitement among educators and Catholic families about the great value of faithful Catholic education. This requires agreement about what makes Catholic learning unique and … well, “Catholic.”

We believe that our new Catholic Curriculum Standards can be pivotal in the renewal of Catholic elementary and secondary education. Diocesan school leaders, independent educators and homeschoolers alike can make use of them — and even modify and improve them — to ensure an emphasis on student formation that is largely missing from modern evaluations of school success.

Of course, ours is not the only effort toward improved Catholic education. Many dioceses have done important work toward refocusing classroom instruction, and our standards rely heavily on the conceptual work of many experts in Catholic education.

But that’s precisely why we believe that our Catholic Curriculum Standards will have such a tremendous impact. We worked with more than a dozen leading Catholic scholars to develop the standards, and we even had the great honor of working with Dr. Stotsky. Several Catholic school leaders also provided valuable input.

The standards were composed using research from Church documents, the educational philosophies of Newman Guide colleges, and many books and articles on Catholic education, liberal arts education and classical education.

The time is ripe for the Catholic Curriculum Standards. Thanks in part to the Newman Society’s steady drumbeat for 23 years, calling for renewed attention to Catholic identity — but even more because of the leadership of Saint Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict in urging reforms, and the quiet work of many bishops and school leaders — we find much eagerness among Catholic families and educators for serious improvement.

Catholic Schools Need Catholic Standards

The Cardinal Newman Society presents our new Catholic Curriculum Standards to help Catholic educators strengthen their core mission of evangelization and forming young people for God.

The Newman Society has long promoted and defended faithful Catholic education, and increasingly this work is turned toward helping schools study, embrace and implement the Church’s vision for Catholic education. Our new Standards are central to this work.

We want to help, to propose a path forward that is more appropriate for Catholic schools than the problematic Common Core and other secular options,” says Dr. Dan Guernsey, director of K-12 education programs for The Cardinal Newman Society and co-author of the Catholic Curriculum Standards with deputy director Dr. Denise Donohue.

The Standards point Catholic education in the right direction,” Dr. Donohue says. “We expect and in fact encourage more innovation, continued efforts to delve into the mission of Catholic schools and further develop authentic Catholic standards of education so that Catholic identity thrives.”

With emphasis on literature, science, history and math, the Catholic Curriculum Standards incorporate Catholic insights into these curricular areas and indicate what students should be learning beyond the accumulation of useful skills and knowledge. The standards are grouped into two grade levels, K-6 and 7-12, to help educators assign or develop materials and choose subject matter that serve the unique mission of Catholic education.

For too long, many Catholic schools have relied heavily on secular government standards like the Common Core to measure school success and on similarly focused standardized tests to measure student outcomes. These distract Catholic educators from their core mission, because they ignore key aspects of human formation and often depend on philosophies of education that are contrary to the Catholic faith. Still, Catholic schools have far outperformed public schools because of the genuine concern of their leaders and teachers for students’ personal formation.

Good intentions, sadly, are not enough.

Catholic education’s road to renewal will be paved with genuine Catholic standards, resting on the solid foundation of Catholic teaching and the Church’s vision for Catholic education.

What are standards? Consider the grand promises of the Common Core State Standards: “These learning goals outline what a student should know and be able to do at the end of each grade. The standards were created to ensure that all students graduate from high school with the skills and knowledge necessary to succeed in college, career, and life, regardless of where they live.”

Standards indicate levels of student achievement. They help determine curriculum, testing, and measures of school success. When developed rightly, they are a wonderful tool for educators and have become fundamental to American schooling.

But if standards are fundamental to modern education, then it should be obvious that Catholic schools need Catholic standards. If we measure Catholic school success by standards that do not serve the authentic mission of Catholic education, we fail to attend to Catholic identity — and eventually, our schools simply fail.

But that doesn’t have to be the fate of Catholic education. It cannot be the fate of Catholic education, on which we rely for the reform of Catholic life and American society.

“Even amid growing challenges in today’s society, Catholic schools and homeschool programs that embrace and celebrate the mission of Catholic education continue to thrive across the United States,” write Drs. Donohue and Guernsey in their online letter introducing the Catholic Curriculum Standards. “The Cardinal Newman Society makes this free resource available to all educators, including parents, the primary educators of children, in hopes of continuing this renewal of Catholic education for the benefit of our children, our Church, and the common good they serve.”

Savior of the World

Is There Such a Thing as Catholic Math?

Is there a Catholic way of learning something?

Math? Science? History?

It’s an intriguing question. We wrestled with the question this past year at The Cardinal Newman Society, while developing proposed Catholic curriculum standards for Catholic education.

It’s easy to understand that Jesus is the Master Teacher. “Rabbi,” His disciples called Him. A Catholic teacher should emulate Christ and should lead young people to Him.

But saying there’s a Catholic approach to mathematics evokes a vision of Jesus writing in the sand at the Sea of Galilee, attempting to teach pre-calculus to a school of fishermen. Oh, if only Catholics did have a divinely simple method of advanced mathematics! It’s not, at least, in my translation of the Bible.

I’ve never heard a historian suggest that Catholics should learn only about their own experience while neglecting other important world events. Salvation history deserves priority in Catholic education. But within the particular academic discipline of history, studying the Nazi Holocaust is arguably as necessary as studying the Exodus.

I’ve also never heard a scientist suggest that the scientific method works better for Catholics, or that the Old Testament is a textbook for scientific knowledge.

So what’s “Catholic education,” then? Is it a secular education on which we sprinkle prayer, catechesis and Christian values?

The promise seems much larger. Certainly there’s not much point of Catholic standards for curricula in math, history, science and English language arts, if the “education” in Catholic schools is not uniquely Catholic.

The truth is, there is indeed something very special in Catholic education about how and what a student learns. That’s in every subject — not just religion. It doesn’t mean rejecting knowledge that is truthful and worthy of a secular education. But Catholic education has priorities that are uniquely suited to human development and to the needs of the soul, and so our expectations for student learning are always and substantially different … and better!

A Catholic education is evangelical; it is one of the Church’s chief means of teaching the faith and bringing people to Christ. We find God in all things, inside and outside religion class.

A Catholic education is formational; it strives not only to teach useful knowledge and skills, but to prepare the whole person — body, mind and soul — for service to man and God. We want our students to be saints.

A Catholic education is empowering; it teaches students the knowledge and ability to think critically about the world and about human culture, so that our graduates can go forth and help transform family, society, business, government and Church in accord with the Holy Spirit.

Therefore, we expect students to come away from mathematics with something more than a means of engineering and astronomy. By studying math, we want our students to:

  • “Demonstrate the mental habits of precise, determined, careful and accurate questioning, inquiry and reasoning.”
  • “Respond to the beauty, harmony, proportion, radiance and wholeness present in mathematics.”
  • “Recognize how mathematical arguments and processes can be extrapolated to other areas of study, including theology and philosophy.”
  • “Propose how mathematical objects or proofs (such as the golden mean, the Fibonacci numbers, the musical scale and geometric proofs) suggest divine origin.”

These are just some of the student outcomes identified by my colleagues, Dr. Dan Guernsey and Dr. Denise Donohue, in developing Catholic curriculum standards. They had help from some of the best minds in the Church, like Fr. Robert Spitzer, S.J., Anthony Esolen, Joseph Pearce and several others.

Such a project, of course, could go on forever and still bear much fruit. But the point is made: there is a uniquely Catholic approach to teaching math and other subjects, because God’s revelation opens up wonderful new ways of looking at the same data and methods. The world is so much more exciting and meaningful, given the gift of faith.

Therefore, science becomes more than the observations obtained by our five senses and “proved” (always uncertainly) by the weight of evidence. Paired with divine revelation, science becomes a means of better knowing God, by the analogy of His creation.

Graduates of Catholic education who study science should be able to, “Demonstrate confidence in human reason and in one’s ability to know the truth about God’s creation and the fundamental intelligibility of the world.” They should, “Relate how the human soul is specifically created by God for each human being, does not evolve from lesser matter, and is not inherited from our parents.”

And at the very least, they should be aware of the great Catholic contributions to science. They should know “Copernicus, Mendel, DaVinci, Bacon, Pasteur, Volta, St. Albert the Great, and others and the witness and evidence they supply against the false claim that Catholicism is not compatible with science.”

Upon learning history, a student from a Catholic school should know “the historical impact of the Catholic Church on human events” and “how Christian social ethics extend to questions of politics, economy, and social institutions and not just personal moral decision-making.”

And every student in Catholic education should have experienced great works of literature! By reading good literature, a student comes to a better understanding of “the proper nature of man, his problems, and his experiences in trying to know and perfect both himself and the world.”

There’s so much more to a Catholic education — indeed as much as completes the perfection of man, which of course is limitless. But unless Catholic families and educators seek answers to the question — What is unique and essential to Catholic education? — we will surely fail to prepare our young people according to the vision of the Church.

After considering all that should be present in Catholic education, the Catholic school or homeschool becomes more exciting and inviting than ever before. If the Church wants a renaissance in Catholic education, faithful Catholic standards are a great starting point.

This article first appeared at The National Catholic Register.