Analysis of the Habits of Mind Program

The following is part of The Cardinal Newman Society’s series of analyses of secular materials and programs used in Catholic education. Such materials and programs must be carefully evaluated to ensure that their underlying philosophies, content, approaches, and activities are not contrary to the mission of Catholic education and, if used, what adaptations might be needed.

The Newman Society’s “Policy Guidance Related to Secular Materials and Programs in Catholic Education” offers a framework for such evaluation and is the basis for this particular analysis.[1]


Catholic education integrally forms students in mind, body, and soul so they might know and love God and serve their fellow man. Because of this mission, Catholic education has a long tradition of excellence in harmoniously forming students’ intellects and characters through instruction in knowledge and formation in virtue. Nevertheless, Catholic educators may find some benefit in adapting parts of secular programs, while continuing to emphasize Catholic intellectual and moral traditions.

The “Habits of Mind” is one such secular program that has attracted the interest of Catholic educators and accrediting agencies. However, it is important to recognize the limited scope of the Habits of Mind program and to avoid making it central to a Catholic school’s curriculum. The Habits of Mind program is not designed for Catholic education and, while it bears resemblance to several virtues that are important to Catholic formation, it substitutes its own framework for authoritative Catholic sources and neglects other important virtues. It also does not address the Catholic educator’s commitment to modeling virtue as a Christian witness to students. Therefore, while Catholic educators might usefully adapt elements of the program, we cannot recommend it; their primary inspiration should remain firmly based in the Catholic academic and moral tradition, especially as supported by Catholic academic resources such the Newman Society’s Catholic Curriculum Standards.[2]

The Habits of Mind program, whose materials are promoted by the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, originates from The Institute for Habits of Mind, which has several organizations in the U.S., United Kingdom, New Zealand, and Singapore.[3] It is built on a set of 16 intellectual behaviors to help students make productive choices, especially when faced with dichotomies, dilemmas, or uncertainties.[4] The emphasis is on helping students discover new knowledge “under those challenging conditions that demand strategic reasoning, insightfulness, perseverance, creativity, and craftsmanship to resolve a complex problem.”[5]

Originally formulated in 1991 by Arthur Costa, the collection started out as 12 attributes of “Intelligent Behavior.” The list has since grown to 16 intellectual behaviors identified by Costa and collaborator Bena Kallick, and they invite educators to add additional behaviors.[6] The Habits of Mind, as presented in Costa and Kallick’s Cultivating Habits of Mind,[7] include:

  1. Persisting – Stick to it! Persevering on a task through to completion; remaining focused. Looking for ways to reach your goal when stuck. Not giving up.

  2. Managing impulsivity – Take your time! Controlling yourself; thinking before acting; remaining calm, thoughtful and deliberative.

  3. Listening with understanding and empathy – Understand others! Devoting mental energy to another person’s thoughts and ideas.
    Make an effort to perceive another’s point of view and emotions.

  4. Thinking flexibly – Look at it another way! Being able to change perspectives, generate alternatives, consider options.

  5. Thinking about thinking – Know your knowing! Being aware of your own thoughts, strategies, feelings and actions and their effects on others.

  6. Striving for accuracy – Check it again! Always doing your best. Setting high standards. Checking and finding ways to improve constantly.

  7. Questioning and posing problems – How do you know? Having a questioning attitude; knowing what data are needed and developing questioning strategies to produce those data. Finding problems to solve.

  8. Applying past knowledge to new situations – Use what you learn! Accessing prior knowledge; transferring knowledge beyond the situation in which it was learned.

  9. Thinking and communicating with clarity and precision – Be clear! Striving for accurate communication in both written and oral form; avoiding over generalizations, distortions, deletions and exaggerations.

  10. Gathering data through all senses – Use your natural pathways! Pay attention to the world around you. Gather data through all the senses; taste, touch, smell, hearing and sight.

  11. Creating, imagining, innovating – Try a different way! Generating new and novel ideas, fluency, originality.

  12. Responding with wonderment and awe – Practice being excited! Finding the world awesome, mysterious and being intrigued with phenomena and beauty.

  13. Taking responsible risks – Venture off! Being adventurous; living on the edge of one’s competence. Try new things constantly.

  14. Finding humor – Laugh a little! Finding the whimsical, incongruous and unexpected. Being able to laugh at oneself.

  15. Thinking interdependently – Work together! Being able to work in and learn from others in reciprocal situations. Teamwork.

  16. Remaining open to continuous learning – I have so much more to learn! Having humility and pride when admitting we don’t know; resisting complacency.

These behaviors are not displayed in isolation but may be integrated as needed by students to answer questions and solve problems. To acquire habits that support these behaviors, students are instructed in the 16 Habits of Mind and strategies to achieve them.

The Habits of Mind program is concerned with behaviors that students use to find answers to challenging problems. Teachers present each Habit of Mind to students through explicit instruction, definition, and examples. Students are asked to identify each of the Habits of Mind and recall them easily when presented with a problem. This type of knowledge is called explicit, declarative knowledge, or the ability to recall knowledge about the facts of things.[8]

Next, the teacher instructs the student in ways to actuate each Habit of Mind. These strategies are considered types of procedural knowledge which involve “knowing how to do things” and knowing “how to respond under different circumstances.”[9] For instance, when teaching a student to use the habits of “thinking flexibly” and “communicating with clarity and precision,” a student might be instructed to use a visual thinking map as a process or task organizer. To teach the behavior of “applying past knowledge to new situations,” a student might be trained to use a set of thought-provoking questions or follow a procedure of thinking about a similar past situation and identifying the components of similarity with their causes and consequences. Training a student to “think interdependently” might involve having them employ the skill of refraining from speaking or refraining from dominating conversations to allow everyone an opportunity to share their ideas.

Once these skills, capacities, or strategies are learned, through repetition they can become “pattern[s] of intellectual behaviors that lead[s] to productive actions”[10]—which is how the program defines “habits.” For instance, once the procedure is learned for “thinking flexibly”—perhaps through the use of visual schema, thought-provoking questions, or simply looking at issues from different perspectives—then through practice the habit of flexible thinking can be acquired and strengthened.

Situating Habits of Mind Within a Catholic Paradigm

The branded Habits of Mind, intended to promote “productive” behavior, is not the only available compilation of intellectual behaviors. In recent years, these include Robert Marzano’s “productive habits of the mind” for “self-regulated,” critical, and creative thought[11] and even the “studio habits of the mind” proposed by the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Project Zero.[12] Decades earlier, Father Antonin Sertillanges, O.P., wrote more substantively of the habits and behaviors of the Christian intellectual in his important work, The Intellectual Life.[13] St. John Henry Newman in the 19th century described education as cultivation of the “philosophical habit of mind,” developing greater understanding of both the parts and the whole of knowledge. And St. Thomas Aquinas in the Middle Ages reflected on the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle’s writings on habits, both moral and intellectual.

In the Catholic paradigm—and indeed in the classical terminology that has been foundational to both secular and Christian education for more than two millennia—we call good habits “virtues” and distinguish them from vices, which are consistent bad habits. The Catechism defines virtue as “a habitual and firm disposition to do the good.”[14] The development of virtue leads a student to both human flourishing and to Heaven. Sertillanges identifies “studiousness” as the key intellectual virtue, but it is a part of temperance; indeed all the virtues that support academic and intellectual work flow from the cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance and the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity.

The Habits of Mind are not moral habits in the sense of the virtues, but instead behaviors that can be helpful to education—and in some circumstances, they may not be virtuous at all. Many of the Habits of Mind do tend to 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). However, finding humor in things is not always affable, prudent, or charitable. Docility may invite more learning, or it might require abiding by a known truth that a teacher denies. Persistence might display fortitude but is not always prudent. In general, there is a danger in the Habits of Mind program’s emphasis on celebrated behaviors without a deeper formation in moral virtue.

The act of selecting and using any one or several of the Habits of Mind to solve a dilemma falls under the virtue of prudence as applied to the intellectual life, by which reason is habitually trained to choose the proper path. Prudence means not only knowing the right thing to do but also doing the right thing habitually.

In Catholic education, virtues overlap and occur throughout all levels and types of student formation. Learning a “pattern of intellectual behavior that leads to productive actions”[15] may have some utility, but a liberal education aims for much more, and even productive actions have an ethical dimension.[16] These virtues help students do more than problem-solve; they help students seek and find the truth of a thing. In Catholic education, this inquiry into the truth ultimately leads to Truth Himself: God. This is a path which secular education cannot fully pursue. Our nature is designed to pursue truth through the inquiry of things, but in Catholic education, this truth is embodied in the person of Jesus Christ. When illumined by God’s grace, we not only understand and determine the interconnection of things, but we also learn something of the higher causes of things.

There is a superficial correlation between the Habits of Mind and the formation of a student in Christian virtue, but the latter project is more encompassing and designed to lead students on the right path not only for this life, but also the next. It requires much more than a focus on 16 Habits of Mind. In Catholic education, the formation in moral virtue is not only part of the written curriculum[17] but is modeled and taught through the lives and witness of its teachers and others who exhibit virtues such as faithfulness, docility, humility, piety, gentleness, compassion, and kindness, among others. Catholic schools are all about formation in virtue, as these dispositions are considered the means of gaining heaven. Our Lord made explicit to us in his teaching of the beatitudes the result of acquiring specific dispositions: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven…Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied…Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God” (Matthew 5:3-10).

A Catholic school can attempt to adopt the 16 Habits of Mind and then make sure to link them back to the virtues at some point, or it can make a concerted effort to teach the virtues and carefully structure intellectual training around them. While either course is possible, it would be much better to invest time in a solid virtue framework in keeping with the Catholic intellectual tradition. This conforms to the holistic approach of Catholic education, which seeks integral education of mind, body, and soul.

Catholic education forms young people with a Catholic worldview and shows them that virtue has positive real-world consequences in this life and real teleological value concerning the true end of man. It teaches that virtues such as prudence are applicable to intellectual, moral, and physical challenges that may come their way. Most important, Catholic education teaches the virtues as the way of Christ and guides along the path to sainthood.

Situating Habits of Mind Within Intellectual Virtues

The Catholic intellectual tradition—developed by St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, and many others—distinguishes intellectual virtues. They focus on what one knows and how that knowledge is used, always with moral purpose. These five virtues are art, prudence understanding, science, and wisdom.

Art and prudence are considered practical virtues because they are concerned with two forms of action: making and doing. Art directs the intellect in the application of certain rules or methods to make things which can be useful, practical, beautiful, and pleasing. It is the capacity of knowing how to do something or knowing different techniques of how to do something, such as knowing how to use a computer program or how to make a kite fly. Prudence directs the intellectual powers toward knowing what is best and assessing what ought to be done. It involves analyzing and evaluating the proper means of action and is the foundational intellectual virtue necessary for all the moral virtues. According to St. Thomas, prudence is the “form” of the moral virtues, and the human passions and actions are the “matter.”[18] Thus, in any particular situation, “it is prudence that determines what the just, temperate and brave act is.”[19]

Understanding, science, and wisdom are considered speculative virtues which are connected by nature to man’s desire to seek and know truth. Understanding cultivates knowledge of first principles or truths that are self-evident. This knowledge is intuitive and easily attainable, such as the law that something cannot both exist and not exist at the same time under the same conditions.[20] Science uncovers “knowledge of conclusions acquired by demonstration through causes or principles which are final in one class or other.”[21] Science therefore is the evident knowledge of something through demonstration, but much more, it is human reason acting upon knowledge to draw conclusions from sound premises and thereby multiplying knowledge of creation, humanity, and God. Wisdom is the knowledge of conclusions to life’s deepest questions. Its object is truth and is generally identified as the study of philosophy or metaphysics. It seeks the answers to the questions of humanity’s existence and that of the universe, such as, “Why is man the only rational creature?” and “Why are the planets ordered the way they are?”

Although the Habits of Mind include a category of “wonderment and awe” which comes into play at this point, the program takes a simplistic and emotional approach to wonder which does not move beyond natural law or even simple fascination. This falls short of the type of wonder which Aristotle called the beginning of a love of wisdom—the highest understanding of things, their first causes and principles. Wonder begins, he says, “in the first place at obvious perplexities, and then by gradual progression raising questions about the greater matters too, e.g., about the changes of the moon and of the sun, about the stars and about the origin of the universe.”[22] Wonder is about ascending. But authentic wonder should not artificially stop in the material world. St. John Henry Newman points out that while materialists can experience fascination, wonder is fully experienced when it causes us to “Rejoice with trembling”[23] and focus not just on creation but also the Creator. There is a depth and mystery to creation and reality and to our relationship to God which evokes “a feeling of awe, wonder, and praise, which cannot be more suitably expressed than by the Scripture word fear; or by holy Job’s words, though he spoke in grief, and not as being possessed of a blessing. ‘Behold, I go forward, but He is not there; and backward, but I cannot perceive Him: on the left hand, where He doth work, but I cannot behold Him: He hideth Himself on the right hand, that I cannot see Him. Therefore, am I troubled at His presence; when I consider, I am afraid of Him’ [Job xxiii. 8, 9, 15].” [24]

Wonder should lead reason to “ascend,” as Newman says, above the actual fact or experience and above the strictly material. It should look not only to material causes, comparisons, relationships, classification, and principles, but should also evoke a sense of humility and a sense of our powerlessness and adoration before the glory of God, the author and end of all that is true, good, and beautiful. Catholic education teaches students the use and skills of reason to rise toward the transcendent. We teach students to be formed in habits of reasoning that elevate thought above information and experience. Secular education leaves students short of ascent, and a Catholic school that teaches religion but fails to form students with skills and habits of philosophical reason is leaving students unable to contend with the issues of post-modernity, where they can quickly fall prey to ideology despite conflicts with their consciences and sense of natural law. They can have years of experiencing God’s love and mercy in Catholic education, the sacraments, and the family, but then they turn away because their inadequately formed minds cannot find God in reality, and they are lost in confusion.

The Habits of Mind fails to meet the more targeted speculative intellectual virtues championed by authentic Catholic education and the nature of human learning that ascends toward wisdom. A greater emphasis on these true Catholic intellectual and moral virtues and on the transcendent can help ensure development of habits to assist in the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake and cultivating wisdom for human perfection in the light of faith. These are critical goals in Catholic education, which understands that human nature is oriented toward unity with God the Creator, and man’s gift of reason is intended to serve the free search for truth about God, humanity, and creation. Without appeal to truth, man’s free will and reason lack purpose, and human dignity is not respected. The Habits of Mind, by their emphasis on problem solving, serve public education’s mission of preparing students to be useful workers and citizens, to “move beyond the test or the final exam to find application in other subjects, in their future careers, and in their lives,”[25] but they are inadequate by themselves to achieve Catholic education’s goal of virtuous living and sainthood.

Additionally, Catholic educators should ensure that their curricula and course plans form students in the many habits of thinking that include but go well beyond the Habits of Mind and promote complete formation that respects students’ dignity and purpose. These may include, but are not limited to, memorization, seeking knowledge from sound testimony, identifying first principles, asking about essence, asking about causes, division and composition of ideas, classification, analogical thinking, communicating with proper language, communicating with elegant language appropriate to the circumstances, discerning the unity of knowledge and bearing of knowledge upon other knowledge, following the methods that are proper to each academic discipline, right use of freedom in intellectual pursuits, and concern for the common good. There are, in other words, important habits of the mind and intellectual goals that the branded Habits of Mind leave unaddressed.

Including Additional Catholic Habits of the Mind

If Catholic educators choose to use the Habits of Mind program, they should at minimum add three more habits to the existing list to protect the mission of Catholic education.

  1. Thinking with Faith

An area in which the secular Habits of Mind program does not venture is faith as a valid way of knowing. Faith is the trust we have in something we do not see, based on the authority and credibility of the source, which is generally a person.[26] An example of human faith is to believe that Alaska exists without ever having been there, based on the credibility of others and their testimony. Certitude is not personally confirmed, but the will and the intellect join to assent to the truth that Alaska is a place based on the credibility of witnesses.

Faith becomes supernatural when we are disposed to it through the sacraments and grace, and the matter is based on Divine Revelation from God Himself. Here the will and the intellect are turned toward God, the evidence being the witness of holy men and women, the prophets, the saints, the Apostles, and Jesus Christ. St. John Paul II in his discussion of St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans writes:

According to the Apostle, it was part of the original plan of the creation that reason should without difficulty reach beyond the sensory data to the origin of all things: the Creator. But because of the disobedience by which man and woman chose to set themselves in full and absolute autonomy in relation to the One who had created them, this ready access to God the Creator diminished. (Fides et Ratio, 1998, 22)

While we have not seen the eternal kingdom, we believe, with the supernatural help of grace through faith, that it exists and so we continue to journey toward that deeper, fuller understanding of God’s plan for us as imparted in Divine Revelation. In faith, the indivisible unity between the intellect and will is more easily discerned. It was St. Augustine who is credited with saying, “believe so that you may understand.”[27] This is the goal of a Catholic education: to open the door of faith for students to behold the transcendental realities through learning, discussion, experience, service, and sacraments. It is essential that students cultivate the intellectual and moral habits of being that predispose them to an encounter with faith through learning opportunities and discussions of the importance and validity of faith as a way of knowing. 

In public education, the discussion of faith is limited. The material sciences are held up as the highest and most privileged ways of knowing, and students are taught that knowledge of truth is limited to what can be physically seen, weighed, or measured. While this is a valid way of knowing, it is not the only means of knowing.

Whereas modern society and most of secular education today define truth according to consensus and experience, especially in the course of scientific investigation, the Catholic educator understands that truth is the conformity of the mind and reality and all truth proceeds from God. The human intellect is intended to be ordered to truth, and reason allows the intellect to rise above consensus and experience to better know God, His ways and His creation.

Aquinas says that both the light of reason and the light of faith come from God, and both work to contribute to the understanding of Divine Revelation and ultimate truth. St. John Paul II writes:

Faith therefore has no fear of reason, but seeks it out and has trust in it. Just as grace builds on nature and brings it to fulfillment, so faith builds upon and perfects reason. Illumined by faith, reason is set free from the fragility and limitations deriving from the disobedience of sin and finds the strength required to rise to the knowledge of the Triune God. (Fides et Ratio, 43)

What more fitting place to champion faith as a means of knowing than in a Catholic school? Enlightened by faith, Catholic education teaches habits that form students not only for knowing but also for apprehending the transcendental realities that give ultimate meaning to this life as souls are prepared for the next.

  1. Thinking Philosophically

Saint John Henry Newman taught that the essence of education is cultivation of the intellect for its own sake. He argued that education should cultivate a “philosophical habit of mind” that reasons upon knowledge, rather than simply accumulating information from experience and creatively expressing one’s feelings and desires. Education teaches the student to “ascend” above knowledge to new levels of understanding by the right use of reason. He wrote, “…in order to have possession of truth at all, we must have the whole truth; and no one science, no two sciences, no one family of science, nay, not even all secular science, is the whole truth…” (Discourse 4). Instead, God is “a fact encompassing, closing in upon, absorbing, every other fact conceivable.”

Reason needs to be cultivated not only as a logical tool for problem solving, but also as a means of attaining truths that are foundational to reality and larger than experience—as in contemplation of the natural and eternal law. The Habits of Mind promote collaboration to find solutions, and communication is judged by clarity, but a Catholic school will want to put additional emphasis on dialectic[28] and persuasion for the purpose of reasoning toward higher truths.

Many of the Habits of Mind align with the Topics of Invention, a method taught in classical rhetoric of examining all aspects of a subject in the context of its circumstances and attributes and in relation to other subjects. But the Habits of Mind neglect the development of sound reasoning in support of a thesis, and they also lack emphasis of knowledge from authoritative sources—not least the Catholic Church. Adding the habit of thinking philosophically allows for rational dialogue and “ascending” to the higher truths of God, which ought to be the outcome of an integrated Catholic education.

  1. Valuing and Seeking the Transcendent

Catholic education should also ensure that student thinking is oriented toward assigning value and meaning to what is being considered, and students should recognize that transcendent realities are among those things. Pope Francis has noted that:

For me, the greatest crisis of education, in the Christian perspective, is being closed to transcendence. We are closed to transcendence. It is necessary to prepare hearts for the Lord to manifest Himself, but totally, namely, in the totality of humanity, which also has this dimension of transcendence.[29]

Traditionally, in Catholic education, subjects are taught not merely as vehicles for the conveyance of content knowledge and technical skills. Catholic education helps “the pupil to assimilate skills, knowledge, intellectual methods and moral and social attitudes, all of which help to develop his personality and lead him to take his place as an active member of the community of man.”[30]

In Catholic education, the Catholic faith increases students’ understanding, and moral formation increases learning. Processes and methodologies should not thwart the opportunity for students to go beyond the pragmatic, utilitarian, and material world. Church documents are filled with discussions regarding the formative value of all education. For instance:

The Catholic teacher, therefore, cannot be content simply to present Christian values as a set of abstract objectives to be admired, even if this be done positively and with imagination; they must be presented as values which generate human attitudes, and these attitudes must be encouraged in the students. Examples of such attitudes would be these: a freedom which includes respect for others; conscientious responsibility; a sincere and constant search for truth; a calm and peaceful critical spirit; a spirit of solidarity with and service toward all other persons; a sensitivity for justice; a special awareness of being called to be positive agents of change in a society that is undergoing continuous transformation. (Lay Catholics in Schools: Witnesses to Faith, #29-30)

Catholic education focuses on the formation of the intellect, will, and soul of the student. It allows opportunities for students to ponder God’s omnipotence and love and His personal relationship with them. It is a specific charge for Catholic teachers to teach to the transcendent in a way that goes beyond abstraction, naming, listing attributes, and so forth and prepares a human soul for an encounter with real things—something secular schools cannot do.

The integral formation of the human person, which is the purpose of education, includes the development of all the human faculties of the students, together with preparation for professional life, formation of ethical and social awareness, [and] becoming aware of the transcendental, and religious education. (The Catholic School, #17)

The transcendentals of truth, beauty, and goodness can assist in determining value. Transcendentals are timeless and universal attributes of being. They are the properties inherent to all beings.[31]

The pursuit of truth, defined as the mind in accord with reality,[32] is a foundation of Catholic education and is a significant component of the Newman Society’s Catholic Curriculum Standards. From the Congregation for Catholic Education (1997) we read, “Various school subjects do not present only knowledge to be attained, but also values to be acquired and truths to be discovered. All of which demands an atmosphere characterized by the search for truth” (#14). Man, by his nature, is made to seek the truth.[33] While the Habits of Mind are simply focused on the process of discovery, they fall short of the disposition championed in Catholic education. For instance, the Catholic Curriculum Standards expect students to “Analyze how the pursuit of scientific knowledge, for utilitarian purposes alone or for the misguided manipulation of nature, thwarts the pursuit of authentic Truth and the greater glory of God.”

What is true is also beautiful. As a timeless and universal attribute of being, beauty helps evoke wonder, awe, and delight of the soul leading to philosophical and theological questions like, “How can something so beautiful exist?”  “Is this beauty only meaningful to me?” “Who created all of this?” and so forth. Catholic education—with its focus on the transcendentals of truth, beauty, and goodness—already teaches the Habit of Mind of “responding with wonderment and awe,” but it is much more than an emotional response; it is an invitation to think beyond creation and seek the reality and wisdom of God, who created all that we know and experience.

Finally, in Catholic education we know that the true and the beautiful are also related to all that is good. A thing is “good” when it exercises the powers, activities, and capacities which perfect it. In Catholic education, we also call human action good when all components of the action are noble and virtuous. Habits of Mind tends toward some of these same ends in an aspirational sort of way, but a robust Catholic education can thoughtfully and wholly fulfill the mission of intellectual formation within its own paradigm that looks to the transcendent.

Consideration of the Catholic Curriculum Standards

Catholic educators who may be interested in using the Habits of Mind might first consider incorporating the intellectual and dispositional standards from the Catholic Curriculum Standards. As shown in the Crosswalk below, the Catholic Curriculum Standards, in addition to a Catholic school’s virtue and catechetical program, cover all the Habits of Mind and then some. The Catholic Curriculum Standards purposefully include content for transmission of Catholic traditions and a Catholic worldview. Standards such as, “Evaluate how history is not a mere chronicle of human events, but rather a moral and meta-physical drama having supreme worth in the eyes of God,” and, “Display personal self-worth and dignity as a human being and as part of God’s ultimate plan of creation,” elevate a student’s thought from the here and now to the eternal.

Catholic schools choosing to highlight the transcendental concepts of truth, beauty, and goodness, which are also embedded in the Catholic Curriculum Standards, will naturally use and develop many of the intellectual behaviors in the Habits of Mind list, particularly striving for accuracy and questioning and posing problems. The Catholic Curriculum Standards have 10 specific standards that address these two Habits of Mind (see crosswalk below).

In addition to covering the 16 Habits of Mind within the higher context of virtue and the Catholic intellectual tradition, the Catholic Curriculum Standards seek to form dispositions in the following overarching categories:

  • demonstration of Catholic moral virtues;

  • ardent pursuit of the truth of things and the rejection of relativism;

  • value of the human body as a temple of the Holy Spirit;

  • dignity of the human person and primacy of care and concern for all stages of life;

  • care and concern for the environment as part of God’s creation;

  • appreciation of the beauty of well-crafted prose and poetry, historical artifacts and cultures, the order of creation, and the proportion, radiance, and wholeness present within mathematics; and

  • appreciation for the power of literature, the story of history, and the discoveries of science and how through interaction with them one can identify and choose the personal and collective good.[34]


When choosing specific approaches to Catholic education, it is important to understand the nature of the human person and use that understanding as the foundation for any education program.[35] Humanity has been gifted with faculties that work in specific ways. Education works best when it follows a natural order and engages the student’s will and emotions in the learning endeavor. As an embodied soul, it is essential that the whole person—the intellectual, emotional, physical, and spiritual—be ordered so that students can better understand themselves as effective and flourishing human beings, made in the image and likeness of God, brothers and sisters in Christ, and heirs to the eternal kingdom.

The Habits of Mind program, on its own, is not designed to accomplish this end—and even when used as a supplemental program, it can tend to overshadow or even contradict habits that should be central to Catholic education, such as the dispositions articulated by our Lord in His Sermon on the Mount (the Beatitudes) and other dispositions advanced in the Bible such as humbleness, gentleness, patience, faithfulness, goodness, godliness, joyfulness, modesty, and love (see Gal 5:22, 2 Peter 1:5 and Eph 4:2). Generations of Catholic educators, having partaken in the Catholic intellectual tradition and Catholic virtues have successfully formed students toward greater heights, and future generations of educators can rely confidently on this experience without seeking faddish secular programs. The goals of the Habits of Mind program are surpassed by education that is firmly grounded in the Catholic academic and moral tradition. Educators can find guidance in Catholic academic resources such the Catholic Curriculum Standards that embrace the full mission of Catholic education.

Catholic schools using elements of secular programs such as Habits of Mind should consider adaptations to the program as recommended below.

  • Use the Catholic Curriculum Standards, including the elements encouraged by the Habits of Mind and other habits and emphases which are appropriate to a Catholic education, in lieu of a supplemental program or in its support.

  • Institute a school-wide virtue program or curriculum to ensure that moral and intellectual virtues are taught, developed, and applied. Focus especially on the virtue of prudence to inform intellectual development.

  • If using the Habits of Mind or a similar program, tie each habit back to its virtue (see crosswalk).

  • Ensure the engagement of a student’s emotion and will, in addition to their intellect, in the formation of habits.

  • Institute the habit of “Thinking with Faith.”

  • Institute the habit of “Thinking Philosophically.”

  • Institute the habit of “Valuing and Seeking the Transcendent.”


Crosswalk Between Habits of Mind, Catholic Curriculum Standards, and Virtues Commonly Taught in Catholic Education Programs

 Habits of Mind

 Catholic Curriculum Standards and Virtue Program


M.K6.DS4, M.712.DS3; virtue of fortitude: perseverance under trial, overcoming fear, effort

Managing Impulsivity

Virtue of prudence: right reason in action, taking time to seek counsel before acting, subordinating the passions to the right use of reason.       

Listening with Understanding and Empathy

ELA.K6.IS7, ELA.K6.IS14, ELA.K6.DS1, ELA.K6.DS8, ELA.712.DS2, ELA.712.IS14, ELA.712.DS6, H.K6.DS2, H.K6.DS3

Thinking Flexibly

ELA.712.GS3, ELA.712.IS6, ELA.712.IS11, ELA.712.IS14, H.K6.GS2, H.K6.IS11, M.712.DS3, H.K6.DS3, H.712.IS7, H.712.IS10, H.712.IS14

Thinking about Thinking

M.K6.DS5, M.712.DS3, M.712.DS7, M.712.DS8, M.712.DS9

Striving for Accuracy

Not just accuracy, but truth in all disciplines; M.K6.DS4, M.712.DS1, M.712.DS5

Questioning and Posing Problems

M.712.DS4, M.712.DS9, M712.IS1, M.712.IS2, M.712.IS3, M.712.IS7, M.712.IS8

Applying Past Knowledge to New Situations

ELA.K6.DS6, ELA.712.DS6, ELA.712.IS11, H.K6.IS9, H.712.DS4, H.712.DS5, H.712.IS11, H.712.IS12

Thinking and Communicating with Clarity and Precision

ELA.K6.WS2, ELA.K6.IS12, ELA.712.WS2, ELA.712.WS3, ELA.712.WS4

Creating, Imaging, Innovating

M.K6.GS2, M.712.GS2, M.712.IS3, M.712.IS4

Gathering Data Through All Senses


Responding with Wonderment and Awe

ELA.K6.DS7, ELA.712.DS7, S.K6.DS1, S.712.DS1, M.K6.DS1, M.712.DS1

Taking Responsible Risks

Virtue of prudence

Finding Humor

ELA, K6.DS7, ELA.712.DS7; virtue of affability

Thinking Interdependently

S.712.GS2, S.K6.GS2; virtue of docility, Catholic social teaching on dignity of the person

Remaining Open to Continuous Learning

M.K6.DS3, M.712.DS3; virtue of docility


Denise Donohue, Ed.D., is Vice President for Educator Resources at The Cardinal Newman Society. Patrick Reilly is President of The Cardinal Newman Society.



[2] See the Catholic Curriculum Standards available at

[3] See (accessed on Jan. 5, 2021).

[4] Arthur L. Costa, “Describing the Habits of Mind,” in Arthur L. Costa and Bena Kallick (eds.), Learning and Leading with Habits of Mind (Alexandria, Va.: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 2008), par. 6 at (accessed on Oct. 15, 2020).

[5] Arthur L. Costa, “What Are Habits of Mind?” at (accessed on Sept. 18, 2020).

[6] Costa (2008) par. 3. See also the Habits of Mind Institute chart of the 16 Habits of Mind at (accessed on Oct. 15, 2020).

[7] Arthur Costa and Bena Kallick, Cultivating Habits of Mind (Alexandria, VA: ASCD, 2018) 2.

[8] Jeanne Ormrod, Human Learning (5th Ed) (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson, 2008) 233-235.

[9] Ormrod (2008) 182, 234.

[10] Costa (2008) 16.

[11] Robert Marzano and Debra Pickering, Dimensions of Learning: A Teacher’s Manual (2nd Ed) (Alexandria, VA: ASCD, 1992), Ch. 5, Dimension 5: Habits of Mind.

[12] See (accessed on Jan. 21, 2021).

[13] A. D. Sertillanges The Intellectual Life (Westminster, MD: The Newman Press, 1960) at (accessed on Jan. 21, 2021).

[14] Catechism of the Catholic Church (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1993) 1803.

[15] Costa (2008) 16.

[16] St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, Q. 57, Art.1 at (accessed on Jan. 21, 2021).

[17] See the Dominican Sisters of Mary Mother of the Eucharist, Disciple of Christ: Education in Virtue program’s list of virtues to learn in a Catholic school at (accessed on Jan. 21, 2021).

[18] St. Thomas Aquinas, De veritate 27, 5 ad 5.

[19] Sr. Teresa Auer, O.P., Called to Happiness: Guiding Ethical Principles (Third ed.) (Nashville, Tenn.: St. Cecilia Congregation, 2013), 163.

[20] See Auer (2013) 156 for examples.

[21] See Martin Augustine Waldron, “Virtue,” The Catholic Encyclopedia Vol. 15 (New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1912) at (accessed on Oct. 23, 2020) for definitions of the intellectual virtues.

[22] Aristotle, Metaphysics 1.982b.

[23] Newman frequently references this passage from Psalm 2:11 in his works.

[24] St. John Henry Newman, “Sermon 2: Reverence, a Belief in God’s Presence” 26 at (accessed on Jan. 21, 2021).

[25] Costa (2008) 45.

[26] St. John Paul II, Fides et Ratio (1998) 33.

[27] Fr. David Pignato, “The Primacy of Faith and the Priority of Reason: A Justification for Public Recognition of Revealed Truth,” The Saint Anselm Journal, 12.2 (Spring 2017) 52-65.

[28] Dialectic is a method of dialogue that aims to arrive at truth instead of defeating or persuading an opponent. It is associated with the Socratic method and the methods of medieval scholastics including St. Thomas Aquinas.

[29] “Pope’s Q and A on the Challenges of Education,” ZENIT (Nov. 23, 2015) at (accessed on Jan. 21, 2021).

[30] Sacred Congregation for Catholic Education, The Catholic School (Vatican, 1977) 39.

[31] See “Educating to Truth, Beauty and Goodness” from The Cardinal Newman Society at

[32] Aquinas, De Veritate, Q.1, A. 1-3; cf. Summa Theologiae, Q. 16.

[33] See Fr. Robert Spitzer, New Proofs for the Existence of God (Grand Rapids: MI.: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 2010) 259-266.

[34] As the Catholic Curriculum Standards are primarily dispositional, the reader is invited to view the Standards in their entirety on the Cardinal Newman website at

[35] For further reading, we recommend the following resources: Auer (2013); Luigi Guisanni, The Risk of Education: Discovering Our Ultimate Destiny (New York, NY: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1995); Curtis Hancock, Recovering a Catholic Philosophy of Elementary Education (Mount Pocono, PA: Newman House Press, 2005); and St. John Paul II, Fides et Ratio (1998).

catholic education

Procedure and Checklist for the Evaluation and Use of Secular Materials and Programs in Catholic Education

Instruction in Catholic education should not be driven by any particular text or program, but rather by rich and comprehensive standards that are informed by Catholic priorities. Resources such as the Catholic Curriculum Standards and Standards for Christian Anthropology can assist in this effort.

With proper standards in place, the first goal should be to seek out excellent Catholic programs and materials to aid in instruction. Should these not exist, or if available Catholic programs and materials are found insufficient, secular programs might be considered but should be carefully evaluated for their congruence with the mission of Catholic education. The following checklist, derived from The Cardinal Newman Society’s Policy Standards on Secular Academic Materials and Programs in Catholic Education, may be helpful.

Keep in mind that all secular programs, no matter how effective, will need to be supplemented with materials that present a Catholic worldview and understanding of the subject at hand.

Procedure for Considering the Use of Secular Materials and Programs

  1. Identify and validate (especially in terms of mission impact) the motivation behind the change.
  2. Research best practices in Catholic education and available means to address program needs.
  3. Seek out faithfully Catholic programs and materials for initial review, and only if they are insufficient or non-existent, explore other types of programs.

Checklist for Evaluating the Use of Secular Materials and Programs

Determine whether the program or material:
Yes / No
advances positions contrary to Church teaching, causes scandal, or could be a source of confusion about Catholic teaching.
Yes / No      
promotes or encourages atheism, agnosticism, scientific materialism, or a false ideology about the human person.
Yes / No
promotes or encourages relativism or denies the existence of transcendent truth, which is knowable by reason and revelation.
Yes / No
obstructs the goal of uniting faith and reason, synthesizing faith with life and culture, and developing a Catholic worldview or a Catholic understanding of the human person.
Yes / No
is promoted or written by a person or group who might bring scandal to the Catholic institution through formal or material cooperation.
Yes / No
places excessive demands on testing, teacher formation, or another process that crowds out priorities of Catholic education (such as daily theology classes) and a strong Catholic culture.
Yes / No
encourages political and social activism that is not supported by Catholic principles or social teaching, such as subsidiarity or the universal destination of humanity in God, or suggests the permissibility to do evil or commit an injustice so that a perceived good may result.
Yes / No
suggests that man is capable of solving all his problems or attaining heaven through natural virtues and effort, without God’s grace, mercy, and salvation.
For any Yes response:
  • If the materials explicitly and positively raise challenges in this area, reject the program.
  • If the materials only tangentially or in a minor way raise challenges in this area, heavily supplement with Catholic instruction and provide teacher training.
  • If the materials subtly and in a minor way raise challenges to a Catholic understanding, either through omission or unevaluated assumptions, supplement with Catholic instruction or eliminate the particular area of concern.
If all responses are “No,” the program is a possibly valid resource. Regardless, it still should be supplemented with instruction to provide for a Catholic understanding of the subject at hand.

Policy Standards on Secular Academic Materials and Programs in Catholic Education

Catholic education fulfills a divine mission, to provide for the common good of humanity and the Supreme Good of those being educated.[1] To accomplish this mission, Catholic schools and colleges create authentic, faith-based communities which educate students’ intellectual, moral, emotional, physical, and spiritual gifts within a rich Catholic worldview.[2]

Faithful Catholic education draws upon the best available programs and materials to aid in instruction that fulfills its Catholic mission. Books and programs which are specifically designed to foster a Catholic worldview are a natural choice for Catholic education, but sometimes secular materials and programs—which may include textbooks, lessons, and activities—can also fulfill the requirements of providing content to an already enriched Catholic curricular (e.g., math and science textbook series) and extracurricular foundation.

Such materials and programs must be carefully evaluated to determine if their underlying philosophy, content, and activities are aligned to the mission of Catholic education and, if used, what adaptations might be needed.

The success of Catholic education is not dependent on doing a better job of teaching secular texts or programs or getting higher test scores on standardized tests than public institutions. Catholic educators teach and do more. 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. Catholic educators must also be quick to realize that some resources will be woefully insufficient, and others may have elements that actually work against the Catholic mission.

This guide presents principles, standards, and resources to assist Catholic educators in the evaluation of prospective secular materials and programs. The Cardinal Newman Society also has a series of analyses applying these principles and standards to particular secular resources frequently found in Catholic education, including Advanced Placement (AP) courses, International Baccalaureate (IB) programs, and secular character development programs. The Cardinal Newman Society’s Catholic Curriculum Standards[3] and Standards for Christian Anthropology (with Ruah Woods Press)[4] are also available to provide guidance in ensuring that critical elements central to Catholic elementary and secondary education are being delivered throughout the academic program.


Principle 1: A fundamental element of Catholic education is the evangelization, catechesis, and sanctification of the student.

Catholic education is an expression of the Church’s mission of salvation and an instrument of evangelization:[5] to make disciples of Christ and teach them to observe all that He has commanded,[6] preparing students to fulfill God’s calling in this world so as to attain the eternal kingdom for which they were created.[7]

Principle 2: A fundamental element of Catholic education is that it forms Christian communion and identity.

As a faith community in unity with the Church and in fidelity to the Magisterium, students, parents, and educators give witness to Christ’s loving communion in the Holy Trinity.[8] The Catholic school or college is a place of ecclesial experience, in which the members model confident and joyful public witness in both word and action and teach students to live the Catholic faith in their daily lives.[9] The community itself is a means of education and formation[10] and is nurtured by the consistent and public witness of employees and volunteers who abide by Church teachings and the moral demands of the Gospel.[11]

Principle 3: A fundamental element of Catholic education is the integral formation of the human person: body, mind, and spirit.

Catholic education promotes the integral formation of the human person by developing each student’s physical, moral, intellectual, and spiritual gifts in harmony, teaching responsibility and right use of freedom.[12]

The religious, aesthetic, and creative senses are developed along with formation of the will and dispositions.[13] Catholic education is rooted in a Christian understanding of the dignity of the human person who, created in the image and likeness of God,[14] is at once corporal and spiritual,[15] made in perfect equality and complementarity as male and female,[16] with a fallen nature redeemed by Christ’s death on the cross.[17]

Principle 4: A fundamental element of Catholic education is that it imparts a Christian understanding of the world.

Catholic education seeks to integrate faith with reason and synthesize faith with life and culture. In the light of faith, Catholic education critically and systematically transmits the secular and religious “cultural patrimony handed down from previous generations,” especially that which makes a person more human.[18] Both educator and student are called to participate in the dialogue of culture and to pursue “the integration of culture with faith and of faith with living.”[19]

Catholic education imparts “a Christian vision of the world, of life, of culture, and of history,” ordering “the whole of human culture to the news of salvation.”[20] A hallmark of Catholic education is to “bring human wisdom into an encounter with divine wisdom”[21] and prepare students for the evangelization of culture and for the common good of society.[22]

Standards for Policies Related to Secular Materials and Programs

In Catholic education, policies involving the use of secular materials and programs (including textbooks, lessons, and activities):

  • support and protect Catholic schools and colleges as educational communities of evangelization that promote the salvation of students and service to the common good;
  • ensure that the school or college environment, staff, and leadership remain fully committed to faithful Catholic education;
  • place priority on the selection of Catholic materials and programs over secular options, whenever possible, and with due consideration of the mission and objectives of Catholic education;
  • ensure fidelity to the magisterium of the Catholic Church in all lessons, activities, and programs;
  • ensure that secular materials or programs do not cause scandal, conflict with Catholic teaching, or cause confusion about the truth of Catholic teaching, including promotion of atheism, agnosticism, relativism, materialism, or false ideology about the human person;
  • ensure that secular materials and programs help students develop their intellectual, moral, emotional, physical, and spiritual talents harmoniously without contradiction to Catholic teaching and Christian anthropology;
  • ensure that secular materials and programs do not impede students’ development of a Catholic understanding of the world and the human person or obstruct the goal of uniting faith and reason and synthesizing faith with life and culture;
  • ensure that secular materials and programs are adapted or richly augmented as necessary with resources and opportunities to integrate Catholic teaching and practice and transmit a Catholic understanding of the human person and the world; and
  • prevent formal cooperation or illicit material cooperation with evil by the use of secular materials and programs, including any collaboration with a secular organization or publisher that causes scandal or confusion about the Catholic faith or causes doubt regarding the school or college’s faithful commitment to the mission of Catholic education.

Operationalizing the Standards

To meet these core standards, policies and practices such as those below can be of assistance:

  • The school or college uses curriculum standards, such as the Newman Society’s Catholic Curriculum Standards and Standards for Christian Anthropology (with Ruah Woods Press) for grades K-12, to specifically target and address the integration of faith and reason and the synthesis of faith and life and culture.
  • The curriculum is designed to facilitate an understanding of objective reality, including transcendent truth, which is knowable by reason and revelation. It specifically counters any secular programs that may seem to promote atheism, agnosticism, relativism, materialism, or false ideology about the human person.
  • The school or college ensures that secular materials and programs do not place excessive demands in testing, teacher formation, or curriculum that crowd out the priorities of Catholic education and a strong Catholic culture.
  • Secular history programs and texts which espouse political or social activism should be avoided, but if used, they are supplemented to ensure that the principles of Catholic social teaching are taught, compared, and understood.
  • Secular science materials and programs are carefully examined for any philosophies, positions, and statements, either explicit or implicit, that may run counter to Church teaching. Such materials and programs should be avoided, but if used, they are countermanded with clear Church teaching and thorough explanation to ensure that students understand the differing philosophies and appreciate the harmony of faith and reason and God and nature.
  • Secular human sexuality programs—and those elements of human sexuality addressed in science, psychology, literature, and history—should always further discussion and Christian understanding of the human person, should be integrated with Catholic religious and moral instruction, and taught in collaboration with parents at the K-12 level.
  • Programs promoting global citizenry should not be allowed to mask the more profound reality and Catholic emphasis on the transcendent and universal destination of humanity in God. The principle of subsidiarity should be emphasized to counter a false globalism. The assumption that human ills are solvable by human programs and human self-mastery alone, rather than reliance on God’s grace, mercy, and salvation, are held in check.
  • Courses in philosophy accompany but do not replace catechesis and theology courses.
  • Instruction in virtue and morality must not pre-emptively surrender or silence religious insight and revelation, by attempting to ground morality and dignity on entirely secular grounds.

Catholic educators should unleash the entirety and integrity of human wisdom, including and especially the Church’s inspired wisdom, in their efforts to equip students to attain and practice heroic virtue in the post-modern world.

Possible Questions

For questions about particular materials and programs—including Advanced Placement courses, the International Baccalaureate program, the Meeting Point sexual education program, and secular character development programs—The Cardinal Newman Society publishes separate reviews with detailed recommendations. See the Newman Society website for these reviews.

Question: The best and most up-to-date materials and the programs with the most resources and supports—especially in science, math, grammar, and social studies—are all secular. They are the only reasonable choices for most Catholic schools and colleges. So why even bother worrying about any of this? There is no “Catholic” math, grammar, or science.

Response: Like secular education, Catholic education studies reality using the appropriate methods for the subject at hand and delves deeply into each specific academic discipline on its own terms. So, yes, Catholic educators can use secular materials in these and other areas. But Catholic education is also specifically and distinctly open to the uncovering of transcendent truths which surpass and integrate the disciplines.

For example, Catholic educators can use secular science materials but will also want to, at some place in the curriculum, ensure that students can confidently explain and promote the relationship and unity of faith and reason. They should know the reality that the God of nature and the God of the Catholic faith are one and the same God. They should develop the ability to evaluate the errors present in the belief system of scientific naturalism, which incorrectly claims that scientific exploration and explanation are the only valid sources of knowledge.

In another example, the study of math can also be better pursued by highlighting its transcendent dimension as a reflection of the good, true, and beautiful. Students should develop the ability to reveal qualities of being and the presence of God in mathematical order. Catholic educators also want their students to evaluate the ongoing nature of mathematical inquiry, its inexhaustibility, and its opening to the infinite. Students should develop a sense of wonder about mathematical relationships and confidence in mathematical certitude, and they should understand the unique nature of that certitude, which is not directly transferable to other areas of inquiry into the truth of things.

There is much more that Catholic educators are doing and exploring in most academic disciplines, so while they can and sometimes must use secular materials and programs, they must not limit inquiry or teaching to secular perspectives alone.

Question: Parents demand and colleges respect secular programs such as the Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate (IB) programs and tests. If a Catholic school does not compete with other schools and provide such opportunities to students, it may suffer in its reputation and enrollment. Shouldn’t Catholic schools go all in and work on the terms of the secular programs, for the good of the school and the students?

Response: Without dismissing the prestige of such tests and their impact on college admissions, it is critical for Catholic schools to remember that their core purpose is not to deliver access to college and credit. Their purpose is the dissemination and discovery of truth, the salvation of students, and service to humanity. Testing need not get in the way of these ends, but if not carefully managed, it can. Catholic schools must protect against this to ensure that authentic learning and the dissemination of a Catholic worldview is not negatively impacted.

Catholic education is expansive and holistic. It teaches things which cannot be easily measured, tested, or translated to academic credit. So, while Catholic schools can offer high-stakes testing and credit, they must ensure that these do not hinder the flexibility, freedom, discovery, and awareness that enkindles a love for truth wherever it might be found.

Question: Why can’t a Catholic school use a secular program focused on virtue, character development, or sexual ethics that is based on the natural law and does not emphasize religion? The ability to construct a universal set of human values based on reason and nature may even make it more palatable and attractive to modern students.

Response: While such programs can be used when necessary, they must be supplemented with biblical and magisterial guidance. Reason and humanity alone are not sufficient, since we also have a religious nature which cannot be denied without peril. The humanism of the best ancient Greeks and Romans, the civic virtues of Confucianism, or the science of human reproduction are not enough to build a complete human character or consistent moral framework consonant with the way and the end for which we were created.

Humanity cannot be saved and find happiness based on programs and ideas of its own making. There is no simple human-based fix or program or series of insights to the problem of original sin and humanity’s weakness. Christ alone fully reveals man to himself and unlocks the keys to virtue and happiness. He cannot be left out of human formation without consequence in any school, let alone a Catholic school, whose very function is to lead students to their destiny and salvation in Him.


This document was developed with substantial comment and contributions from education, legal, and other experts. Lead authors are Denise Donohue, Ed.D., Director of the Catholic Education Honor Roll at The Cardinal Newman Society, and Dan Guernsey, Ed.D., Senior Fellow at The Cardinal Newman Society and principal of a diocesan K-12 Catholic school.


Appendix A: Selections from Church Documents Informing this Topic

…the Catholic school tries to create within its walls a climate in which the pupil’s faith will gradually mature and enable him to assume the responsibility placed on him by Baptism. It will give pride of place in the education it provides through Christian Doctrine to the gradual formation of conscience in fundamental, permanent virtues—above all the theological virtues, and charity in particular, which is, so to speak, the life-giving spirit which transforms a man of virtue into a man of Christ. Christ, therefore, is the teaching-centre, the Model on Whom the Christian shapes his life. In Him the Catholic school differs from all others which limit themselves to forming men. Its task is to form Christian men, and, by its teaching and witness, show non-Christians something of the mystery of Christ Who surpasses all human understanding.

Congregation for Catholic Education, The Catholic School (1977) 47


Since true education must strive for complete formation of the human person that looks to his or her final end as well as to the common good of societies, children and youth are to be nurtured in such a way that they are able to develop their physical, moral, and intellectual talents harmoniously, acquire a more perfect sense of responsibility and right use of freedom, and are formed to participate actively in social life.

Holy See, Code of Canon Law (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1983) 795


Students should be helped to see the human person as a living creature having both a physical and a spiritual nature; each of us has an immortal soul, and we are in need of redemption. The older students can gradually come to a more mature understanding of all that is implied in the concept of “person”: intelligence and will, freedom and feelings, the capacity to be an active and creative agent; a being endowed with both rights and duties, capable of interpersonal relationships, called to a specific mission in the world.

Congregation for Catholic Education, The Religious Dimension of Education in a Catholic School (1988) 55


The human person is present in all the truths of faith: created in “the image and likeness” of God; elevated by God to the dignity of a child of God; unfaithful to God in original sin, but redeemed by Christ; a temple of the Holy Spirit; a member of the Church; destined to eternal life.

Congregation for Catholic Education, The Religious Dimension of Education in a Catholic School (1988) 84


Not a few young people, unable to find any meaning in life or trying to find an escape from loneliness, turn to alcohol, drugs, the erotic, the exotic etc. Christian education is faced with the huge challenge of helping these young people discover something of value in their lives…We must cultivate intelligence and the other spiritual gifts, especially through scholastic work. We must learn to care for our body and its health, and this includes physical activity and sports. And we must be careful of our sexual integrity through the virtue of chastity, because sexual energies are also a gift of God, contributing to the perfection of the person and having a providential function for the life of society and of the Church. Thus, gradually, the teacher will guide students to the idea, and then to the realization, of a process of total formation.

Congregation for Catholic Education, The Religious Dimension of Education in a Catholic School (1988) 13, 84


A school uses its own specific means for the integral formation of the human person: the communication of culture… if the communication of culture is to be a genuine educational activity, it must not only be organic, but also critical and evaluative, historical and dynamic. Faith will provide Catholic educators with some essential principles for critique and evaluation; faith will help them to see all of human history as a history of salvation which culminates in the fullness of the Kingdom. This puts culture into a creative context, constantly being perfected.

Congregation for Catholic Education, Lay Catholics in Schools: Witnesses to Faith (1982) 20


Catholic schools provide young people with sound Church teaching through a broad-based curriculum, where faith and culture are intertwined in all areas of a school’s life. By equipping our young people with a sound education, rooted in the Gospel message, the Person of Jesus Christ, and rich in the cherished traditions and liturgical practices of our faith, we ensure that they have the foundation to live morally and uprightly in our complex modern world. This unique Catholic identity makes our Catholic elementary and secondary schools “schools for the human person” and allows them to fill a critical role in the future life of our Church, our country, and our world.

U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Renewing Our Commitment to Catholic Elementary & Secondary Schools in the Third Millennium (2005)

From the nature of the Catholic school also stems one of the most significant elements of its educational project: the synthesis between culture and faith. The endeavor to interweave reason and faith, which has become the heart of individual subjects, makes for unity, articulation, and coordination, bringing forth within what is learned in a school a Christian vision of the world, of life, of culture, and of history.

Congregation for Catholic Education, The Catholic School on the Threshold of the Third Millennium (1997) 14


Literature and the arts are also, in their own way, of great importance to the life of the Church. They strive to make known the proper nature of man, his problems and his experiences in trying to know and perfect both himself and the world. They have much to do with revealing man’s place in history and in the world; with illustrating the miseries and joys, the needs and strengths of man and with foreshadowing a better life for him. Thus they are able to elevate human life, expressed in multifold forms according to various times and regions.

Saint Paul VI, Gaudium et Spes (1965) 62


Teachers should guide the students’ work in such a way that they will be able to discover a religious dimension in the world of human history. As a preliminary, they should be encouraged to develop a taste for historical truth, and therefore to realize the need to look critically at texts and curricula which, at times, are imposed by a government or distorted by the ideology of the author… they will see the development of civilizations, and learn about progress…When they are ready to appreciate it, students can be invited to reflect on the fact that this human struggle takes place within the divine history [of] universal salvation. At this moment, the religious dimension of history begins to shine forth in all its luminous grandeur.

Congregation for Catholic Education, The Religious Dimension of Education in a Catholic School (1988) 58-59


Every society has its own heritage of accumulated wisdom. Many people find inspiration in these philosophical and religious concepts which have endured for millennia. The systematic genius of classical Greek and European thought has, over the centuries, generated countless different doctrinal systems, but it has also given us a set of truths which we can recognize as a part of our permanent philosophical heritage.

Congregation for Catholic Education, The Religious Dimension of Education in a Catholic School (1988) 57


The curriculum must help the students reflect on the great problems of our time, including those where one sees more clearly the difficult situation of a large part of humanity’s living conditions. These would include the unequal distribution of resources, poverty, injustice and human rights denied.

Pope Pius XI, Divini illius Magistri (1929), 21


Literary and artistic works depict the struggles of societies, of families, and of individuals. They spring from the depths of the human heart, revealing its lights and its shadows, its hope and its despair. The Christian perspective goes beyond the merely human, and offers more penetrating criteria for understanding the human struggle and the mysteries of the human spirit. Furthermore, an adequate religious formation has been the starting point for the vocation of a number of Christian artists and art critics. In the upper grades, a teacher can bring students to: an even more profound appreciation of artistic works: as a reflection of the divine beauty in tangible form. Both the Fathers of the Church and the masters of Christian philosophy teach this in their writings on aesthetics—St. Augustine invites us to go beyond the intention of the artists in order to find the eternal order of God in the work of art; St. Thomas sees the presence of the Divine Word in art.

Congregation for Catholic Education, The Religious Dimension of Education in a Catholic School (1988) 61


The Catholic school should teach its pupils to discern in the voice of the universe the Creator Whom it reveals and, in the conquests of science, to know God and man better.

Congregation for Catholic Education, The Catholic School (1977) 46


…help their students to understand that positive science, and the technology allied to it, is a part of the universe created by God. Understanding this can help encourage an interest in research: the whole of creation, from the distant celestial bodies and the immeasurable cosmic forces down to the infinitesimal particles and waves of matter and energy, all bear the imprint of the Creator’s wisdom and power, The wonder that past ages felt when contemplating this universe, recorded by the Biblical authors, is still valid for the students of today; the only difference is that we have a knowledge that is much more vast and profound. There can be no conflict between faith and true scientific knowledge; both find their source in God. The student who is able to discover the harmony between faith and science will, in future professional life, be better able to put science and technology to the service of men and women, and to the service of God. It is a way of giving back to God what he has first given to us.

Congregation for Catholic Education, The Religious Dimension of Education in a Catholic School (1988) 54


Furthermore, when man gives himself to the various disciplines of philosophy, history and of mathematical and natural science, and when he cultivates the arts, he can do very much to elevate the human family to a more sublime understanding of truth, goodness, and beauty, and to the formation of considered opinions which have universal value. Thus mankind may be more clearly enlightened by that marvelous Wisdom which was with God from all eternity, composing all things with him, rejoicing in the earth and delighting in the sons of men. In this way, the human spirit, being less subjected to material things, can be more easily drawn to the worship and contemplation of the Creator. Moreover, by the impulse of grace, he is disposed to acknowledge the Word of God, Who before He became flesh in order to save all and to sum up all in Himself was already “in the world” as “the true light which enlightens every man” (John 1:9-10). Indeed today’s progress in science and technology can foster a certain exclusive emphasis on observable data, and agnosticism about everything else. For the methods of investigation which these sciences use can be wrongly considered as the supreme rule of seeking the whole truth. By virtue of their methods these sciences cannot penetrate to the intimate notion of things. Indeed the danger is present that man, confiding too much in the discoveries of today, may think that he is sufficient unto himself and no longer seek the higher things.

Saint Paul VI, Gaudium et Spes (1965) 57


Catholic schools strive to relate all of the sciences to salvation and sanctification. Students are shown how Jesus illumines all of life—science, mathematics, history, business, biology, and so forth.

U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, National Directory of Catechesis (2005) p.233

16. Integration of knowledge is a process, one which will always remain incomplete; moreover, the explosion of knowledge in recent decades, together with the rigid compartmentalization of knowledge within individual academic disciplines, makes the task increasingly difficult. But a University, and especially a Catholic University, “has to be a ‘living union’ of individual organisms dedicated to the search for truth … It is necessary to work towards a higher synthesis of knowledge, in which alone lies the possibility of satisfying that thirst for truth which is profoundly inscribed on the heart of the human person”(19). Aided by the specific contributions of philosophy and theology, university scholars will be engaged in a constant effort to determine the relative place and meaning of each of the various disciplines within the context of a vision of the human person and the world that is enlightened by the Gospel, and therefore by a faith in Christ, the Logos, as the centre of creation and of human history.

17. In promoting this integration of knowledge, a specific part of a Catholic University’s task is to promote dialogue between faith and reason,so that it can be seen more profoundly how faith and reason bear harmonious witness to the unity of all truth. While each academic discipline retains its own integrity and has its own methods, this dialogue demonstrates that “methodical research within every branch of learning, when carried out in a truly scientific manner and in accord with moral norms, can never truly conflict with faith. For the things of the earth and the concerns of faith derive from the same God”(20). A vital interaction of two distinct levels of coming to know the one truth leads to a greater love for truth itself, and contributes to a more comprehensive understanding of the meaning of human life and of the purpose of God’s creation.

18. Because knowledge is meant to serve the human person, research in a Catholic University is always carried out with a concern for the ethical and moral implications both of its methods and of its discoveries. This concern, while it must be present in all research, is particularly important in the areas of science and technology. “It is essential that we be convinced of the priority of the ethical over the technical, of the primacy of the person over things, of the superiority of the spirit over matter. The cause of the human person will only be served if knowledge is joined to conscience. Men and women of science will truly aid humanity only if they preserve ‘the sense of the transcendence of the human person over the world and of God over the human person”(21).

23. Students are challenged to pursue an education that combines excellence in humanistic and cultural development with specialized professional training. Most especially, they are challenged to continue the search for truth and for meaning throughout their lives, since “the human spirit must be cultivated in such a way that there results a growth in its ability to wonder, to understand, to contemplate, to make personal judgments, and to develop a religious, moral, and social sense”(23). This enables them to acquire or, if they have already done so, to deepen a Christian way of life that is authentic. They should realize the responsibility of their professional life, the enthusiasm of being the trained ‘leaders’ of tomorrow, of being witnesses to Christ in whatever place they may exercise their profession.

28. Bishops have a particular responsibility to promote Catholic Universities, and especially to promote and assist in the preservation and strengthening of their Catholic identity, including the protection of their Catholic identity in relation to civil authorities. This will be achieved more effectively if close personal and pastoral relationships exist between University and Church authorities, characterized by mutual trust, close and consistent cooperation and continuing dialogue. Even when they do not enter directly into the internal governance of the University, Bishops “should be seen not as external agents but as participants in the life of the Catholic University”(27).

32. If need be, a Catholic University must have the courage to speak uncomfortable truths which do not please public opinion, but which are necessary to safeguard the authentic good of society.

33. A specific priority is the need to examine and evaluate the predominant values and norms of modern society and culture in a Christian perspective, and the responsibility to try to communicate to society those ethical and religious principles which give full meaning to human life. In this way a University can contribute further to the development of a true Christian anthropology, founded on the person of Christ, which will bring the dynamism of the creation and redemption to bear on reality and on the correct solution to the problems of life.
General Norms, Article 4

§ 4. Those university teachers and administrators who belong to other Churches, ecclesial communities, or religions, as well as those who profess no religious belief, and also all students, are to recognize and respect the distinctive Catholic identity of the University. In order not to endanger the Catholic identity of the University or Institute of Higher Studies, the number of non-Catholic teachers should not be allowed to constitute a majority within the Institution, which is and must remain Catholic.

§ 5. The education of students is to combine academic and professional development with formation in moral and religious principles and the social teachings of the Church; the programme of studies for each of the various professions is to include an appropriate ethical formation in that profession. Courses in Catholic doctrine are to be made available to all students.

St. John Paul II, Ex corde Ecclesiae (1990)



[1] For more on this topic see Pope Pius XI, Divini illius Magistri (1929).

[2] For more on this topic see Principles of Catholic Identity in Education by The Cardinal Newman Society at



[5] Congregation for Catholic Education, The Catholic School (1977) 5-7; Saint Paul VI, Gravissimum Educationis (1965) 2; United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, To Teach as Jesus Did (1972) 7.

[6] Matthew 28:19-20.

[7] Holy See, Code of Canon Law (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1983) 795; Congregation for Catholic Education (1965) Introduction; Congregation for Catholic Education, Circular Letter to the Presidents of Bishops’ Conferences on Religious Education in Schools (2009) 1.

[8] Congregation for Catholic Education, Educating Together in Catholic Schools: A Shared Mission Between Consecrated Persons and the Lay Faithful (2007) 5, 10; Congregation for Catholic Education, The Religious Dimension of Education in a Catholic School (1988) 44.

[9] Congregation for Catholic Education (2007) 5; Congregation for Catholic Education, Educating in Intercultural Dialogue in the Catholic School: Living in Harmony for a Civilization of Love (2013) 86; Congregation for Catholic Education, Lay Catholics in Schools: Witnesses to Faith (1982) 18; U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Renewing Our Commitment to Catholic Elementary & Secondary Schools in the Third Millennium (2005).

[10] Congregation for Catholic Education (1977) 26; Congregation for Catholic Education (1972) 23, 108; Congregation for Catholic Education (2007) 12.

[11] Saint Paul VI (1965) 8; Code of Canon Law 803 §2; Congregation for Catholic Education (1972) 104.

[12] Code of Canon Law 795; Saint Paul VI (1965) Introduction; Congregation for Catholic Education (2009) 1.

[13] Congregation for Catholic Education (1982) 12.

[14] Catechism 355; Gen. 1:27.

[15] Catechism 362.

[16] Catechism 369.

[17] Catechism 402.

[18] Congregation for Catholic Education (1982) 12; Congregation for Catholic Education (1977) 26, 36; Congregation for Catholic Education (1988) 108.

[19] Congregation for Catholic Education (1977) 15, 49; Congregation for Catholic Education (1988) 34, 51, 52.

[20] Congregation for Catholic Education, The Catholic School on the Threshold of the Third Millennium (1997) 14; Congregation for Catholic Education (1988) 53, 100; Saint Paul VI (1965) 8.

[21] Congregation for Catholic Education (1988) 57.

[22] Saint John Paul II, Ad limina visit of bishops from Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin (May 30,1998); U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (2005); Congregation for Catholic Education, Educating Today and Tomorrow: A Renewing Passion (2014) II-1.

Analysis of Advanced Placement Courses

The following is part of The Cardinal Newman Society’s series of analyses of secular materials and programs used in Catholic education. Such materials and programs must be carefully evaluated to determine if their underlying philosophy, content, and activities are aligned to the mission of Catholic education and, if used, what adaptations might be needed.

The Newman Society’s “Policy Guidance Related to Secular Materials and Programs in Catholic Education” offers a framework for such evaluation and is the basis for this particular analysis.


The College Board currently has 38 Advanced Placement (AP) Courses for schools to choose from,[1] leading to exams in May. Some colleges will award credit toward an undergraduate degree if a student’s exam score is high enough.

The benefits of AP courses are sometimes exaggerated. College credit for a good exam score is not guaranteed and eighty-six percent (86%) of the top 153 U.S. colleges ranked by U.S. News and World Report restrict the credit awarded.[2] Additionally, research suggests there is no correlation between taking AP courses and success in college.[3] And students can sit for the exams without ever taking an approved course.

Nevertheless, some educators and parents are attracted to potential college savings and the rigor of AP courses, which suggests academic seriousness. The academic value deserves to be scrutinized: while the workload is heavy and the amount of information is often very large in AP courses, this emphasis may not allow much time for valuable classroom dialogue and critical analysis of the material. Students and teachers may have little time to focus on cultivating good habits of judgment and reasoning. AP course emphasis on skill development or memorization may prevent substantial integration of Catholic teaching, culture, worldview, and anthropology.

To carry the AP label, a course must meet the College Board’s institutional standards—especially the inclusion of a host of names, dates, concepts, events, and critical skill sets—but there is flexibility with instructional approaches and content selection. If a Catholic educator plans judiciously and carefully, it is possible to infuse an AP course with material and approaches to conform it to the mission of Catholic education. A school should carefully monitor whether this supplementary teaching is sufficient for a serious Catholic education, which demands substantial effort.


  • Begin with the mission of Catholic education in mind, which recognizes Christ as the foundation of the school.

  • Incorporate the Newman Society’s Catholic Curriculum Standards into the academic discipline, then include the AP standards.

  • Since AP does not prescribe the specific use of texts or textbooks, carefully select these materials to ensure their alignment with the mission of Catholic education and the presentation of a Catholic worldview or perspective while aligning with AP requirements.

  • Consult the course descriptions and class syllabi of faithful Catholic schools[4] and colleges[5] for ideas on texts and textbooks.

  • Materials including or espousing political or social activism (history, literature, science, and so forth) should be used with care, ensuring that the principles of Catholic social teachings are taught, compared, and understood.

  • Books should not be taught simply because they are “on an AP recommended list.” Choose the books that best fulfill the course objectives and allow for the presentation of a Catholic worldview.

  • For AP literature classes, closely follow The Cardinal Newman Society’s “Policy Guide Related to Literature and the Arts in Catholic Education.” This can help ensure that the selected works aid the student in a right ordering of the imagination, passions, and emotions and allow for teacher-led evaluation of content in terms of Catholic norms, values, and worldview.

  • Be aware that the AP World History exam is focused on history after 1200.[6] Ensure that adequate coverage of pre-history and the ancient world is required in the curriculum to avoid historical gaps.

  • Avoid an over-emphasis on the memorization of dates, names, and events. Take concrete steps to ensure that the “story” in history and man’s place in the world remains in focus. The use of the Catholic Curriculum Standards and its taxonomy for questioning will help toward this end.

  • Ensure that the course is not just focused on teaching to the AP test. Deep and meaningful learning must not give way to extensive but shallow reading and memorization done for test purposes only. Focus should be on the intrinsic value and wonder of the academic discipline, cultivating habits of good reasoning, and evangelization. The pursuit of the true, good, and beautiful[7] is what motivates and inspires the academic enterprise in a Catholic school. Our mission is to educate and inspire; it is not simply to deliver advanced college credit. The credit should not lead but will likely follow.

  • Ensure that the instructor is both a content expert and a knowledgeable and practicing Catholic who can impart an engaging Catholic worldview related to the discipline.


Denise Donohue, Ed.D., is Director of the Catholic Education Honor Roll at The Cardinal Newman Society.

Dan Guernsey, Ed.D., is Senior Fellow at The Cardinal Newman Society and principal of a diocesan K-12 Catholic school.


[1] See (accessed on June 6, 2020).

[2] Kelli B. Grant, “Study Up: Scoring AP Credit for College Isn’t Easy,” CNBC (May 4, 2017) at (accessed on June 6, 2020).

[3] See (accessed on June 12, 2020).

[4] See

[5] See

[6] Colleen Flaherty, “More Criticism of AP World History Timeline,” Inside Higher Ed (July 25, 2018) at (accessed on June 12, 2020).

[7] Dan Guernsey, “Educating to Truth, Beauty and Goodness” (Oct. 17, 2016) at (accessed on June 12, 2020).

Analysis of International Baccalaureate Program

The following is part of The Cardinal Newman Society’s series of analyses of secular materials and programs used in Catholic education. Such materials and programs must be carefully evaluated to determine if their underlying philosophy, content, and activities are aligned to the mission of Catholic education and, if used, what adaptations might be needed.

The Newman Society’s “Policy Standards on Secular Materials and Programs in Catholic Education” offers a framework for such evaluation and is the basis for this particular analysis.


The International Baccalaureate (IB) program is used in about 5,000 schools in more than 150 countries,[1] including more than 1,800 schools in the United States.[2] The IB program has steadily increased its presence in the U.S., adding about 100 new schools a year in recent years.[3] Catholic schools currently comprise 2 percent of that total.[4]

Originally designed to instruct the children of international diplomats, the IB Diploma Program (IBDP) and its foundational Theory of Knowledge course were officially registered in Geneva in 1968. As the program slowly acquired global recognition, the Middle and Primary Year Programs were introduced, followed by a program geared toward students on a career-related track.

The mission statement reads:

The International Baccalaureate® aims to develop inquiring, knowledgeable and caring young people who help to create a better and more peaceful world through intercultural understanding and respect. To this end the organization works with schools, governments and international organizations to develop challenging programmes of international education and rigorous assessment. These programmes encourage students across the world to become active, compassionate and lifelong learners who understand that other people, with their differences, can also be right.

The learner profile was developed in 2006 to actualize the mission statement and to ensure the development of dispositions within the student characteristic of “international-mindedness”:[5]

The profile aims to develop learners who are: inquirers, knowledgeable, thinkers, communicators, principled, open-minded, caring, risk-takers, balanced, and reflective.

The IBDP is the oldest and best-known component of the IB. It aims to facilitate entry into college by offering specialized coursework during the student’s last two years of high school. The program is divided into six subject areas of language and literature, language acquisition, individuals and societies, sciences, mathematics, and the arts. Students are required to choose one course from each area and either an additional art course or a second course from one of the first five areas. While teachers have some say in course coverage (content and time spent on each concept), the mandatory externally graded exams drive the instruction. Students must also complete an extended essay (a research project begun in the junior year), a service project, and the foundational Theory of Knowledge (TOK) course.

The goal is to ensure a structured, academically rigorous, internationally focused program. It attempts to secure this goal through extensive teacher training, high levels of accountability, and strict testing regimens. Like AP, the IB uses its intensive testing programs in an attempt to stake out a position as a reliable indicator of college readiness so as to gain the notice of college admissions counselors and families.

Forty-one (41) Catholic elementary and secondary schools in the United States have adopted one or more of the IB’s programs.[6] These schools see the IB’s reputation for academic excellence, focus on the integration of knowledge, and emphasis on global solidarity and service as working in harmony with their school’s Catholic mission.[7] However, the existence of some important commonalities does not translate into a significant fit between IB and Catholic education.


  • IB takes a relativistic approach to truth. This is evident in its insistence upon exclusive use of a constructivist learning methodology (see discussion below), and it can be interpreted in its mission to help students “understand that other people, with their differences, can also be right.” The latter statement is certainly correct if understood to support the universality of truth, and matters of taste and opinion in some areas allow for multiple interpretations. Nevertheless, Catholic thought holds that there is much in the universe that is real and exists apart from our tastes, opinion, and often limited insight, whereas the IB program is often too focused on cultural differences. Math, science, and morality are not subject to human whim and limitation. Even though due to our fallen nature we might not always see the truth and may even at times seek to ignore or obfuscate it, we are nonetheless obliged to honor and bear witness to it in its fullness and direct our whole life in accordance with the demands of truth when discovered.

  • IB insists upon the exclusive use of the constructivist learning approach[8] to the exclusion of other proven instructional methodologies.[9] A constructivist learning approach “is a view of learning suggesting that learners use their own experiences to create understandings that make sense to them, rather than having understanding delivered to them in already organized forms.”[10] Key features of a constructivist approach center on the learner as an active participant in the creation of new understanding, building upon their current understanding of a topic under consideration. Social interaction, or collaboration, is an essential component as is the centering of the learning tasks within real-world, meaningful settings.[11] This is a relatively new instructional approach with roots dating back to the early 1900s and the research of developmental psychologists Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky and educational researcher John Dewey.[12]

    Constructivist learning theory tends to bleed over into a constructivist philosophy which states that man constructs his own knowledge—even of reality[13]—and that nothing exists that is not constructed in one’s own mind. Piaget, Vygotsky, and Dewey all rejected an objectivist or realist “view of knowledge and the possibility of attaining truth as it actually exists.”[14] This is something quite contrary to the Catholic perspective,[15] by which man is viewed as capable of knowing and entering into an objective reality. A constructivist philosophy leads to a subjectivist and relativistic view of reality since reality, according to this theory, is based upon each person’s perception.

    Catholic schools must be cautious about an exclusive use of any one instructive methodology. All content and subject areas should be infused with a Catholic worldview, oftentimes requiring a variety of methods of instruction[16] depending upon the learner’s experience and background knowledge of the faith. Embracing a pure method of inquiry alone guarantees that only a partial connection or no connection to the Catholic faith will be made. Catholic schools using the IB program should insist on using other proven instructional approaches[17] such as direct-instruction, lecture-discussion, guided-inquiry, and “learning by heart” (which has a special place in effective catechesis).[18] These methodologies are also valid and hold a place in Catholic school pedagogy.
  • IB has wide-ranging and costly licensing and program requirements, insists upon extensive teacher training in an overwhelming and indiscriminate group of teaching practices and contemporary learning theory, and controls the cumulative tests which drive the curriculum. There is real danger that a Catholic school’s own unique program and specific Catholic teacher training needs could get overwhelmed and crowded out.

    To be approved as an IB school, governing boards must agree that initial and future budgets will include funding for IB course instructors to receive IB professional development, that there is at least one designated IB coordinator in the school, and that teachers teaching IB courses have within their schedule a dedicated collaborative planning session and reflection time.[19] IB standards also highlight the central role of library and multimedia availability, so the program can “ensure access to information on global issues and diverse perspectives.”[20]
  • To onboard the IB program, Catholic schools have included language in their mission statement to describe students as global learners and have changed their graduate profiles to include the required characteristics of the learner profile: All IB learners strive to be Inquirers, Knowledgeable, Thinkers, Communicators, Open-Minded, Caring, Risk-Takers, Balanced, Principled, and Reflective. Catholic schools seek to instill a host of virtues in students as well as attitudes and dispositions described by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. Many schools already have graduate profiles that include attributes of service and life-long learning as well as outcomes of living one’s faith and becoming a witness and evangelist for Christ, but when worldly qualities and characteristics become equally or more important to the formation of a student as a disciple for Christ, a school’s Catholic identity can be compromised.

    The IB program requires that each grade level focus upon prescribed concepts and that these concepts are explicitly documented in classroom practice and lesson plans. Oftentimes in Catholic classrooms, pride of place is given to the formation of a specific weekly virtue, including the theological virtues, which is used as a cross-curricular strand for formation purposes. In contrast, some Catholic schools have been moving to the use of philosophical questions such as “What is goodness?” or “How is this beautiful?” as overarching essential questions. The IB program, in demanding a school-wide understanding of concepts such as change, global interactions, systems, continuity, and perspective and how these concepts are viewed from a local, global, and national level, focuses primarily on man and his manipulation and interaction within the world, rather than on the person and his relationship with God.

    With so many requirements from an outside organization, the mission focus of Catholic education may easily be crowded out. This violates the Catholic social principle of subsidiarity, which maintains that a state or larger society not “substitute itself for the initiative and responsibility of individuals and intermediary bodies.”[21] Much like recently failed national education reform movements in the United States, which attempted to drive local efforts, the IB places international, secular humanist requirements created by outside groups upon local schools.
  • IB’s emphasis on creating a globalist and relativist conception of the common good lacks what must be a Catholic school’s evangelical mission to spread the Kingdom of God on earth. Because Catholic education also pursues the common good, it may be tempting to assume a close match with a shared sense of philanthropic nobility and friendliness. But the nature of the common good and the means to advance it are approached differently in the relativistic and secular IB program than in the truth and faith-based focus of a Catholic school.

    IB literature states, “The aim of all IB programmes is to develop internationally minded people who, recognizing their common humanity and shared guardianship of the planet, help to create a better and more peaceful world.”[22] While this is a laudable goal, it excludes the need for strong local culture, the dignity of each human person as made in the image of God and the need to avoid a shared guardianship that increases the subservience of local peoples and cultures to globalist solutions which compromise individual liberty and national sovereignty in ways that contravene.

    IB’s emphasis on global citizenry conflicts with the Catholic social justice principle of subsidiarity, which favors a capable, smaller, and localized institution over dominance by a larger institution.[23]

    IB’s emphasis on a global citizenry can also mask the more profound reality of Catholic emphasis on the transcendent and universal destination of humanity in God.


Given the problems, complexities and dangers of integrating the IB program into a faithful Catholic school, it is best to not attempt to do so. Instead, Catholic schools should develop their own instructional programs to ensure a strong Catholic identity, an integral and harmonious Catholic liberal arts program, and solid teacher training that specifically includes designated opportunities for faith formation as well as the best of both traditional and contemporary educational practices.

However, if a Catholic school has already incorporated the IB and circumstances do not allow for a transition away in the short term for prudential reasons, we recommend that school leaders ensure that their use of IB exemplifies the five Principles of Catholic Identity in Education,[24] paying particular attention to the concerns identified for each principle below.

Principle I: Inspired by a divine mission. A Catholic school seeks to secure the supreme individual good of the students, that is their union with God, and to help serve the common good, the maximum of well-being possible for human society.

  • The Catholic school must be up front and explicit that the eternal salvation of its students is the primary goal, and the secondary goal of service pursues the common good. The Catholic school’s goal of service is of a different order than the IB’s service orientation and is particularly concerned with preparing students “for service in the spread of the Kingdom of God, so that by leading an exemplary apostolic life they become, as it were, a saving leaven in the human community.”[25] Service in a Catholic school has an evangelistic strand for the individual who is serving as well as those who are served.

  • The Catholic school must ensure that it does not fall into IB’s secular humanism with its errant anthropocentrism. This can lead to the assumption that all human ills are solvable by wholly human programs and human self-mastery rather than a reliance on God’s grace, mercy, and salvation. It can also result in a worldview where the manipulation of things and people supplant contemplation and an authentic interpretation of a thing or person’s meaning and proper end as intended by God.

  • The IB mission statement must be interpreted with mental reservation. The IB Mission element which states, “other people, with their differences, may also be right” must be interpreted as “other people may actually be right about some things” or “other people may be closer to the truth than I am on this matter.” Such a proposition is always worthy of consideration and determination; whether or not there are “differences” involved is irrelevant. Assuming that “differences” provide privileged access to the truth or that there are multiple truths so that others can also be right at the same time risks descent into intellectual cowardice and relativism. There is no room for relativism in Catholic schools, as their goal involves truth and freedom, and as St. John Paul II stated, “once the truth is denied to human beings, it is pure illusion to try to set them free. Truth and freedom either go together hand in hand or together they perish in misery.”[26] The ardent pursuit of truth, indicative of Catholic education, should lead all to Christ, who is truth incarnate, and not be left to a relativistic mindset for the purpose of inclusivity and collaboration.

  • The Catholic school must expand the limited profile of an IB graduate to fulfill the mission of Catholic education, not just the mission of international-mindedness, to include aspects of the Beatitudes, fruits of the Holy Spirit, and other dispositions advanced in the Bible such as humbleness, gentleness, patience, faithfulness, goodness, self-control, perseverance, godliness, joyfulness, peace, modesty, and love (see Gal 5:22, 2 Peter 1:5 and Eph 4:2).

Principle II: Models Christian communion and identity. A Catholic school is a faith community united in service and fidelity to the local and universal Church. A warm family-oriented climate pervades the school, where employees model faithfulness to Christian truth and service is oriented in Christian love.

  • The Catholic school must ensure that a globalist mindset does not replace the Catholic principle of subsidiarity—to address needs and concerns at the lowest level possible.

  • The Catholic school must ensure its deeper sense of community. More than just globalist humanistic citizens of the world, Catholic schools develop “universal” citizens with an eternal destiny in the communion of saints.

  • The Catholic school must transcend the IB’s limited and errant understanding of community and community service. If this point is missed, it could lead the school to think it is adequately fulfilling its communal function when it simply helps others through secular human aid projects. A Catholic school’s sense of community and service is called to go deeper. As the Church reminds us, “Every human being is called to communion because of his nature which is created in the image and likeness of God. Therefore, within the sphere of biblical anthropology, man is not an isolated individual, but a person: a being who is essentially relational. The communion to which man is called always involves a double dimension, that is to say vertical (communion with God) and horizontal (communion with people).”[27] We do not serve others to be cosmopolitan, politically correct, or impress colleges and potential employers. We bond with others and humbly serve others—always starting with those closest to us and moving outward—because we and they are made in the image and likeness of God.

  • The Catholic school must ensure that its own teacher training[28] in Catholic identity is strong and effective and does not simply cede teacher training to the extensive IB requirements.

Principle III: Encounter Christ in prayer, scripture and sacrament.  Catholic education, rooted in Christ, is continually fed and stimulated by Him in the frequent experience of prayer, scripture, and the Church’s liturgical and sacramental tradition.[29]

  • The Catholic school, interfacing with IB, must increase its spiritual elements explicitly, given that IB has removed religion from its mission.

Principle IV: Integrally forms the human person. A Catholic school harmoniously forms student’s bodies, minds, hearts, and souls in an environment where there is no separation between time for learning and time for formation.

  • As with the AP test, the IB tests are such high-stakes affairs that they can drain the joy from learning and limit it to the intellectual and to the testable. More holistic Catholic education also teaches things which cannot be easily measured or tested or translated to academic credit. To do this requires an academic atmosphere characterized by flexibility, freedom, discovery, and awareness that enkindles a love for truth wherever it might be found, especially if it manifests itself in un-testable glory.

  • The Catholic school must ensure the well-rounded education of the student, not just a specific focus on how to apply knowledge to “novel situations for which there are no ready-made answers.”[30]

  • The Catholic school must ensure that students continue to grow in physical ability and skill, since the last two years of the Diploma program heavily emphasize the acquisition of academic content along with sociological projects.

  • The Catholic school must ensure the teaching and practice of Catholic social teaching, specifically the dignity of the person as made in the image and likeness of God—and not the dignity of the person simply because he has the ability to think and make his own choices and establish his own community. The Catholic school will teach the right to life and the sanctity of marriage and the family.

Principle V: Imparts a Christian understanding of the world. A Catholic school critically and systematically imparts a Christian vision of the world, of life, of culture, and of history, ordering the whole of human culture to the news of salvation. It also ensures the illumination of all knowledge with the light of faith and allows formation to become living, conscious, and active.

Two specific IB areas need to be addressed: literature selection and the Theory of Knowledge Course.

Literature selection: In any high school literature course, the IB requires that roughly half of all works taught must come from a prescribed list of authors (any work from an author can be selected). This list is large enough that a savvy and well-formed Catholic educator, who knows the works and authors to emphasize and avoid, can piece together an acceptable curriculum.

  • A Catholic IB school should carefully study and implement the Newman Society’s Catholic Curriculum Standards for Language Arts[31] and “Policy Guidance Related to Literature and the Arts in Catholic Education” in its program.

Theory of Knowledge (TOK) Course: This is the keystone IB course which attempts to unify the IB diploma curriculum, and it is the only course of study that all IB Diploma students must follow.[32] It is a general overview of epistemological theories of how humans come to know anything. It is a type of secular metaphysics course which raises fundamental philosophical questions about truth, meaning, certainty, relativism, reality, theology, morality, freewill, freedom, perception, logic, language, and a host of other philosophical and theological concerns. Significantly, this is all done in an ostensibly neutral way, which simply lists claims and counterclaims for each critical element while avoiding a position on the truthfulness or accuracy of the claims.

This is a particularly dangerous and presumptive approach and can pose a grave threat to the intellectual and spiritual lives of students, who may not be in a position to adequately process and assess philosophical conundrums and crises which humanity has been debating for centuries. The material may be too weighty to be adequately digested by some teen minds. The dangerous combination of being overwhelming, oversimplified, and unresolved can lead to confusion, overconfidence, or despair. Ideas which students are not yet equipped to process on their own can risk leaving them adrift in a sea of relativism, rather than anchored in reality.

Natural philosophy requires a dynamic union with faith in order to purify it and liberate it from presumption and despair.[33] In many cases the Catholic Church has provided definitive answers to these questions through centuries of reflection using both reason and revelation. Clear Catholic presentation on these topics is absolutely critical. In reality there is no neutral position, as every textbook or instructor presents a course through a particular worldview or lens, and a Catholic curriculum demands that its courses be taught from a Catholic worldview.

When one tries to be everything to all people, one can be nothing to anyone—a truth that is evident in the presentation of the Ethics and Religious Ways of Knowing (WOK) sections. The morality subsection of the TOK course bends to proportionalism and consequentialism, inferring that the use of a deontological system of rules is backward—thus the following of the Ten Commandments as one of many ethical systems is inferred as an unadvanced way of knowing. It is also suggested that morality has many “matrices,” all of which can be correct depending upon your point of view.

According to one of the TOK textbooks, “It is not easy to know where to draw the line between one’s self and the groups we identify with… It is in this sense that we recognize that while there are multiple views on nearly all issues of importance—morality being central to our thought just now—no one can decide for you what is right and what is wrong no matter how tight the community bond is.” The very humanist view of morality is evidenced here, “At the very least, we can give our best thinking to important issues and one way to do this is to continue to ask questions of ourselves, thereby revising, rejecting, or reaffirming our own moral views.”[34]

It is the responsibility of Catholic educators to present cogent, compelling, and lived answers to the greatest of life’s questions, such as when discussing the difference between intelligent design of creation and the theory of evolution. Unfortunately, in one TOK text a faith-based answer to this type of discussion is met with incredulity:

The fundamental flaw in this argument is that a designer must logically be more complex than his or her design—a proposition which also needs explaining. Despite this, this line of thinking survives in what is known as ‘intelligent design’—proposed as an alternative explanation to evolution. Unfortunately for the ‘theory’, intelligent design amounts to little more than an admission of ignorance when faced with a phenomenon that is not understood. Most of the favourite examples (e.g. blood clotting mechanisms, the structure of the bacterial flagellum, the functionality of the eye) used by the advocates of intelligent design have been shown to have credible origins and developmental pathways through evolutionary processes (italics not in the original).[35]

To the contrary, Catholic educators are not neutral or disinterested spectators about these topics or the morality of these issues in the lives of their students. Teachers must be both passionate about the truths they discover and about the freedom and responsibility of their students to engage with these truths with growing independence. It is the student’s responsibility to probe and test the insights presented in their classes in their own lives. Students are ultimately free to reject the truths and reality which confront them, but teachers must in charity and freedom provoke the confrontations with reality whose ultimate source is Christ, the Word—the Logos—and Truth incarnate.

Catholic schools should heed Pope Leo XIII, who warned, “we must avoid at all costs those unfortunate schools where religious beliefs are indifferently admitted with equal treatment, as if, in the things that regard God and divine affairs, it matters little to have or not to have the right doctrine, or to embrace truth or error.”[36] Secular TOK courses are deeply prone to this danger. Catholic IB schools must do all they can to counter it.

Therefore, if choosing to use the IB program:

  • The Catholic school must ensure that the TOK teacher is deeply and faithfully trained in Catholic metaphysics and philosophy and has sound theological insight and training. It cannot be left to chance or simply handed off to a person of deep intellect and sincerity; the instructor must possess and be able to powerfully share a deep and felt Catholic intellectual worldview to counter the secularism and relativism saturating TOK texts.

  • The Catholic school must ensure the use of its own supplemental textbooks to present relevant materials and objections from a Catholic philosophical and theological tradition. A Catholic TOK program must ensure that significant readings or insights from Fides et Ratio, Veritatis Splendor, Redemptor Hominis, Dei Filius, and Gaudium et Spes (Part 1, Ch. 1-4) are included when “faith” is discussed as a required “Way of Knowing (WOK).”

  • The Catholic school must ensure that the TOK course does not supplant catechesis and theology courses and must accompany a standard four-year, full-credit Catholic religion regimen. Because of the distinct secular philosophy driving so much of the curriculum, it is essential that the school double down on Catholic instruction, including the teaching, comparison and understanding of Catholic social justice principles, and be even more explicit in its Catholic identity than other schools.

  • The Catholic school must challenge the IB perspective that theology and religious knowing are just other possible ways of knowing. Some texts condescendingly say that religious knowledge should not be rejected out of hand by IB students, as it is theoretically one of many possible ways of knowing that some may find helpful. This is a far cry from a Catholic understanding of theology as the queen of sciences.

  • The Catholic school must ensure that its teachers are prepared to counter the relativism which saturates TOK texts with clear teaching that the universe is human-friendly and was made for humanity. Reality is not unknowable or a trick of uncaring nature (materialist assumption) or of a god who wants to fool us.

  • The Catholic school must be aware that the relativism which informs the TOK course is also present in the critical pedagogy and constructivist elements required by the IB program. Such ideologies are founded on the notion that reality is a product of the mind or of the culture, and by changing the culture we can change reality and the truth. The IB program celebrates, “Teaching and learning in the IB celebrates the many ways people work together to construct meaning and make sense of the world. Through the interplay of asking, doing and thinking, this constructivist approach leads toward open, democratic classrooms.”[37]

  • The Catholic school must ensure that the “Areas of Knowledge” of religion and ethics, subsets of the TOK course, are not taught from secular textbooks but from the Catholic perspective, as incorporated in a traditional Catholic world religion class or Catholic morality course and based on the Catechism of the Catholic Church.


Denise Donohue, Ed.D., is Director of the Catholic Education Honor Roll at The Cardinal Newman Society.

Dan Guernsey, Ed.D., is Senior Fellow at The Cardinal Newman Society and principal of a diocesan K-12 Catholic school.


[1] See (accessed on June 12, 2020).

[2] See (accessed on June 12, 2020).

[3] “International Baccalaureate: Guided by a Mission” at (accessed on June 12, 2020).

[4] See (accessed on June 12, 2020).

[5] See (accessed on June 12, 2020). See also Bastian, S., Kitching, J., & Sims, R., Theory of Knowledge, 2nd Ed. (Harlow, Essex: Pearson Education Limited, 2014) 11. 

[6] See (accessed on June 12, 2020).

[7] John White, “The International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme in U.S. Catholic High Schools: An Answer to the Church’s Call to Global Solidarity,” Catholic Education: A Journal of Inquiry and Practice (Vol. 15, No. 2, March 2012) 179-206 at (accessed on June 12, 2020).

[8] While the philosophy of the IB program as articulated within its Standards and Practices suggests the use of a “range and variety of strategies” and the use of differentiated instruction to meet student needs (see, Section A: Philosophy: Standard A, 3 (c) for the Primary Year Program states “The school is committed to a constructivist inquiry-based approach to teaching and learning that promotes inquiry and the development of critical-thinking skills.” The professional instruction webinar series titled Strengthening programme implementation: Collaborative practice (2016) advances that a school commits to a constructivist approach to teaching and learning. See slide “Action Plan, A: Philosophy: The school’s educational beliefs and values reflect IB philosophy. 3c. The school is committed to a constructivist, inquiry-based approach to teaching and learning that promotes inquiry and the development of critical-thinking skills” at (accessed on June 12, 2020). The middle school and Diploma Program build on this constructivist approach with required collaborative, action-oriented, community-based projects.

[9] Kirschner, P.A., Sweller, J., & Clark, R.E., “Why minimal guidance during instruction does not work: An analysis of the failure of constructivist discovery, problem-based, experiential, and inquiry-based teaching,” Educational Psychologist 41(2) (2006) 75-86.

[10] Eggen, P. and Kauchak, D., Learning & teaching: Research-based methods (6th ed.) (Boston: Allyn & Bacon, 2012).

[11] Eggen and Kauchak (2012) 313.

[12] “Constructivism” at (accessed on June 12, 2020).

[13] See Gerard O’Shea, Educating in Christ: A Practical Handbook for Developing the Catholic Faith from Childhood to Adolescence (Brooklyn, NY: Angelico Press, 2018) 82-85.

[14] O’Shea (2018) 83.

[15] See Saint John Paul II, Fides et Ratio (1998) 82.

[16] U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, National Directory for Catechesis (Washington, DC: USCCB, 2005) 96.

[17] See O’Shea (2018), Chapter 13 for a discussion of effective and ineffective instructional approaches to use when infusing the Catholic faith into subject areas.

[18] O’Shea (2018) 102-103.

[19] “Resources and Support,” Programme standards and practices (2014) at (accessed on June 12, 2020).

[20] “Resources and Support,” Programme standards and practices (2014).

[21] Catechism of the Catholic Church (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1993) 1894.

[22] Programme standards and practices (2014).

[23] Catechism of the Catholic Church (1993) 1894.

[24] The Cardinal Newman Society, Principles of Catholic Identity in Education Overview (2017) at

[25] Saint Paul VI, Gravissimum Educationis (1965) 8. 

[26] Saint John Paul II (1998) 90.

[27] Congregation for Catholic Education, Educating Together in Catholic Schools: A Shared Mission Between Consecrated Persons and the Lay Faithful (2007) 8.

[28] See

[29] Saint John Paul II, Redemptor Hominis (1979) supra note 39, at 59.

[30] International Baccalaureate, Theory of Knowledge (2nd Ed) (2015) 8.

[31] The Cardinal Newman Society, Catholic Curriculum Standards for English/Language Arts 7-12 (2016) at

[32] Theory of Knowledge (2nd Ed) 7.

[33] St. Pope John Paul II, Fides et Ratio (1998) 75-76.

[34] Theory of Knowledge (2nd Ed) 302.

[35] Theory of Knowledge (2nd Ed) 321. .

[36] See (accessed on June 12, 2020).

[37] This quote originally came from “What is an IB education?” (2013) 4 at (accessed on June 12, 2020). The updated version at eliminates this claim yet retains the emphasis on critical pedagogy and addressing real-world problems through educational projects.

Analysis of Secular Character Development Programs and Materials

The following is part of The Cardinal Newman Society’s series of analyses of secular materials and programs used in Catholic education. Such materials and programs must be carefully evaluated to determine if their underlying philosophy, content, and activities are aligned to the mission of Catholic education and, if used, what adaptations might be needed.

The Newman Society’s “Policy Guidance Related to Secular Materials and Programs in Catholic Education” offers a framework for such evaluation and is the basis for this particular analysis.


By their very nature, schools form character; as long as schools have existed, there have been character development programs and materials. Many are designed for public schools and are therefore secular in orientation.[1]

Because public schools cannot directly address the theological foundations of virtue, morality, and character, they primarily rely on cultural, psychological, or philosophical assumptions to ground their efforts. Unfortunately, many programs and materials designed primarily for public schools have been tainted by atheistic humanism or relativism. Other resources are more promising, based on concepts of natural law and a traditional Western understanding of the human person without explicitly teaching traditional Christian norms.

The latter approach may be a good choice for public schools seeking stronger, more thoughtful, and more compelling character education. However, Catholic schools should be wary of using such resources; if used, they should be adapted significantly.

Programs and materials written from a “morally neutral,” purely humanistic, or relativistic perspective should only be used after an extensive integration of Catholic values and morals to make them suitable for Catholic school use. Such adaptations will help counter the modern culture’s assumptions that humanity, on its own, can figure out and achieve human perfection and excellence without God’s guidance and grace. Such a humanistic sense is antithetical to the fundamental mission of Catholic education.

St. John Paul II reminds us that, “In Christ and through Christ man has acquired full awareness of his dignity, of the heights to which he is raised, of the surpassing worth of his own humanity, and of the meaning of his existence.”[2] In a Catholic school, any attempt to discuss humanity, morality, and goodness without final reference to Christ, who fully reveals man to himself, is unthinkable. The very reason we have Catholic schools is to address these critical issues in the fullness of truth and with the guidance of Christ’s teaching and grace. To import a secular program which a priori was forced to surrender these truths to suit an international or public-school restriction is inadvisable.

One of the critical functions of a Catholic school is to impart a Christian understanding of the world, which allows students to interpret and give order to human culture in the light of faith.[3] Unadapted use of secular programs and materials related to human formation violates this principle of Catholic education. The Catholic school is called to transmit an understanding of humanity that is inspired by Catholic wisdom and scriptural insight. This understanding is not meant to remain theoretical but is meant to be put into practice in a student’s life, so as to provide for the integration of culture with faith and faith with living. Human wisdom is not enough in considering issues of humanity and human excellence; divine wisdom must also be carefully considered and applied. Secular efforts which are limited to defining human beings through their relationships with other human beings and with nature do not offer a complete answer to the unavoidable, fundamental question of, “Who is man?”

For Catholic schools, all routes must always explicitly end with Christ. This is because all human values find their fulfillment and unity in Christ. This awareness expresses the centrality of the human person in the educational project of the Catholic school, strengthens its educational endeavor, and renders it fit to form strong personalities.[4]

A strong personality and a mature faith will be able to integrate both natural and supernatural elements related to human nature and activity.

It is true that natural law cases can be made for things such as justice, loyalty, compassion, marriage between a man and woman, chastity, and honesty. It is also true that some of the writings of Catholic thinkers such as St. John Paul II can be marshalled to assist with natural law arguments. However, the strength of the thought of St. John Paul and the fullness of an understanding of these things cannot be presented without reference to the divine. John Paul beautifully proclaims, “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.”[5] 

Even if natural law and Christian value-based programs are inspired by Catholic thought or the philosophical or anthropological insights of St. John Paul II, to attempt to convey such teaching without uniting faith and reason ultimately obfuscates these critical teachings. Catholic schools must unleash the entirety and integrity of human wisdom, including the Church’s inspired wisdom, in their efforts to equip students to attain and practice heroic virtue in the post-modern world.

Similarly, attempts to protect and promote human dignity cannot be fully advanced without grounding such dignity in a transcendent and objective source. Humanity simply affirming its own dignity does not guarantee that dignity. There has to be something outside of humanity guaranteeing this dignity and the freedom which it protects from hostile forces. Vatican II affirms that it is God’s revelation which discloses and affirms the dignity of the human person in its full dimensions.[6] Human dignity is ultimately anchored in man’s status as being made in the image of God and being redeemed by Him through the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Christ. St. John Paul II’s sense of human anthropology is built on the centrality of this notion which inspires his teaching, “God so loved the human being that, in the Incarnation, human flesh was divinized. The act of the Incarnation, in which the eternal Word of God took on human flesh, reveals the ‘greatness, dignity, and value’ of the human being.”[7]

Catholic schools must ensure that their students fully appreciate that they, and all whom they meet and serve, are made in God’s image and redeemed by Him. The fullness of this teaching can help them better understand their individual significance and the significance and dignity of all others as well. Simply teaching them that man has dignity de facto is not enough to withstand the massive and complex assaults on human dignity taking place all around them.

While good-willed secular character and dignity programs fight the good fight as best they can within the limitations placed on them by national and international government entities, Catholic schools must use their freedom to dig much deeper in preparing their students for the intensity of the battles ahead. They must assert their autonomy and the broader worldview such autonomy currently allows. They must not pre-emptively surrender or silence themselves by attempting to simply ground morality and dignity on secular grounds. This is sandy soil which cannot support the edifice of human dignity, which must be built on Christ. Efforts limited to natural reason alone are not only unfaithful to Catholicism’s broader insights but are also destined to fail if left on their own. Pope Leo XIII warns about strictly secular youth formation efforts:

Let nobody easily persuade himself that piety can be separated from instruction with impunity. In fact, if in no period of life, whether in public or private affairs, can religion be dispensed with, much less can that inexperienced age, full of life, yet surrounded by so many corrupt temptations, be excused from religious obligations. Whosoever, therefore, organizes education so as to neglect any point of contact with religion is destroying beauty and honesty at their very roots, and instead of helping the country, is preparing for the deterioration and destruction of the human race. For, once God is eliminated, who can make young people realize their duties or redeem those who have deviated from the right path of virtue and fallen into the abyss of vice?[8]


  • The Catholic school ought to first consider specifically Catholic character-formation programs and materials before looking to secular school programs that do not openly teach Catholic doctrine and ethics, even when claiming to be consistent with Catholic teaching.

  • The Catholic school that chooses a secular character-formation program or material must ensure that additional Catholic resources are explicitly and intentionally integrated into the course’s standards, lesson plans, and curriculum.

  • The Catholic school must ensure that the concept of human dignity taught in the program is rooted in man’s status of having been made in the image and likeness of God and in the incarnation, passion, and resurrection of Christ.

  • The Catholic school must seek first to emphasize the timeless and piercing insights from Scripture, Church teaching, and great Catholic philosophers and saints and attempt to avoid anecdotal and story-based activities that eventually become dated and lend themselves to meandering opinions of youth.

  • The Catholic school must be aware that, without firm theology and philosophy, such programs may not meet the needs of well-formed Catholic students. Whenever possible, older students should work directly with Scripture and original Church documents and encyclicals.


Denise Donohue, Ed.D., is Director of the Catholic Education Honor Roll at The Cardinal Newman Society.

Dan Guernsey, Ed.D., is Senior Fellow at The Cardinal Newman Society and principal of a diocesan K-12 Catholic school.


[1] There are numerous, widely varied programs. By way of example, but without endorsement, these include such programs as Alive to the World, an international character-building program; Character Counts, used in public schools across the U.S.; the Center for the 4th and 5th Rs, which promotes moral virtue; the Human Dignity Curriculum of World Youth Alliance; and the Heart2Heart program of Illinois Right to Life.

[2] St. Pope John Paul II, Redemptor Hominis (1979) 11 at (accessed on June 12, 2020).

[3] The Cardinal Newman Society, Principles of Catholic Identity in Education Overview (2017) at (accessed on June 12, 2020).

[4] Congregation for Catholic Education, The Catholic School on the Threshold of the Third Millennium (2002) 9.

[5] St. John Paul II, Fides et Ratio (1998) introduction.

[6] Pope Paul VI, Dignitatis Humanae (1965) at (accessed on June 12, 2020).

[7] John Paul II, Redemptor Hominis, supra note 39, at 59.

[8] Pope Leo XIII, Militantis Ecclesiae (1897) at (accessed on June 12, 2020 6/12/20).