Principles of Catholic Identity Overview

Catholic Identity in Education: Principles articulates elements the Church expects to find in all Catholic schools and which distinguish them from other schools. The principles are derived from Church documents related to education, including the documents of Vatican II, documents from the Vatican Congregation for Catholic Education, and the writings of various Popes. The five principles are: Inspired by Divine Mission; Models Christian Communion; Encounters Christ in Prayer, Scripture, and Sacraments; Integrally Forms the Human Person and Imparts a Christian Understanding of the World. Each principle includes a summary which is comprehensive, yet concise, and reflects the language found in the Church documents.

Intention for Use

The Cardinal Newman Society is dedicated to promoting and defending faithful Catholic education. These principles act as a framework to guide Cardinal Newman’s K-12 efforts and to ensure they are aligned with the Church’s guidance.

Suggestions for Use

Because these principles are directly formulated from Church teaching, anyone involved in Catholic education may find them of use in providing direction, inspiration, guidance, or evaluation of their educational efforts.[1] 

Principle I: Inspired by Divine Mission

Catholic education is an expression of the Church’s mission of salvation and an instrument of evangelization:1 to make disciples of Christ and to teach them to observe all that He has commanded.2 Through Catholic education, students encounter God, “who in Jesus Christ reveals His transforming love and truth.”3  Christ is the foundation of Catholic education;4 He journeys with students through school and life as “genuine Teacher” and “perfect Man.”5 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.6  With this Christian vision, Catholic education fulfills its purpose of “critical, systematic transmission of culture in the light of faith”7 and 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, and preparing students to fulfill God’s calling in this world and to attain the eternal kingdom for which they were created.8 Catholic education is sustained by the frequent experience of prayer, Sacred Scripture, and the Church’s liturgical and sacramental tradition.9

Principle II: Models Christian Communion and Identity

Catholic education teaches communion with Christ, by living communion with Christ and imitating the love and freedom of the Trinity.10 This communion begins in the home—with the divinely ordered right and responsibility of parents to educate their children—and extends to the school community in support and service to the needs of the family.11 It unites families and educators with a shared educational philosophy to form students for a relationship with God and with others.12 The educational community is united to the universal Church in fidelity to the Magisterium, to the local Church, and to other schools and community organizations.13

The school community 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.14 In an environment “humanly and spiritually rich,” everyone is aware of the living presence of Jesus evidenced by a Christian way of thought and life, expressed in “Word and Sacrament, in individual behaviour, [and] in friendly and harmonious interpersonal relationships.”15 The school climate reproduces, as far as possible, the “warm and intimate atmosphere of family life.”16 As members of the Church community, students experience what it means to live a life of prayer, personal responsibility, and freedom reflective of Gospel values. This, in turn, leads them to grow in their commitment to serve God, one another, the Church, and society.17

All teachers and leaders possess adequate skills, preparation, and religious formation and possess special qualities of mind and heart as well as the sensitivity necessary for authentic witness to the gospel and the task of human formation.18 Teachers and leaders of the educational community should be “practicing Catholics, who can understand and accept the teachings of the Catholic Church and the moral demands of the Gospel, and who can contribute to the achievement of the school’s Catholic identity and apostolic goals.”19

Principle III: Encounters Christ in Prayer, Scripture & Sacrament

Rooted in Christ, Catholic education is continually fed and stimulated by Him in the frequent experience of prayer, Sacred Scripture, and the Church’s liturgical and sacramental tradition.20 The transmission of faith, catechesis, is intrinsically linked to these living encounters with Christ, by which He nurtures and educates souls in the divine life of grace and the gifts of the Holy Spirit.21 By their witness and sharing in these encounters, educators help students grow in understanding of what it means to be a member of the Church.22 Students discover the real value of the Sacraments, especially the Eucharist and Reconciliation, in accompanying the Christian in the journey through life. They learn “to open their hearts in confidence to Father, Son, and Holy Spirit through personal and liturgical prayer”, which makes the mystery of Christ present to students.23

Principle IV: Integrally Forms the Human Person

A complex task of Catholic education is the integral formation of students as physical, intellectual, and spiritual beings called to perfect humanity in the fullness of Christ.24 The human person is “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.”25 Catholic education assists students to become aware of the gift of Faith, worship God the Father, develop into mature adults who bear witness to the Mystical Body of Christ, respect the dignity of the human person, provide service, lead apostolic lives, and build the Kingdom of God.26

Catholic education forms the conscience through commitment to authentic Catholic doctrine.  It develops the virtues and characteristics associated with what it means to be Christian so as to resist relativism, overcome individualism, and discover vocations to serve God and others.27 “Intellectual development and growth as a Christian go forward hand in hand” where faith, culture, and life are integrated throughout the school’s program to provide students a personal closeness to Christ enriched by virtues, values, and supernatural gifts.28 As a child of God, made in his image, human formation includes the development of personal Christian ethics and respect for the body by promoting healthy development, physical activity, and chastity.29

In Catholic education, “There is no separation between time for learning and time for formation, between acquiring notions and growing in wisdom”; education and pedagogy, inspired by Gospel values and distinguished by the “illumination of all knowledge with the light of faith” allows formation to become living, conscious and active.30 The atmosphere is characterized by discovery and awareness that enkindles a love for truth and a desire to know the universe as God’s creation. The Christian educational program facilitates critical thinking that is ordered, precise, and responsible as it builds strength and perseverance in pursuit of the truth. 31

Principle V: Imparts a Christian Understanding of the World

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 and contributes to the integral formation of students.32 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.”33 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.”34 This hallmark of Catholic education, to “bring human wisdom into an encounter with divine wisdom,”35 cultivates “in students the intellectual, creative, and aesthetic faculties of the human person,” introduces a cultural heritage, and prepares them for professional life and to take on the responsibilities and duties of society and the Church.36 Students are prepared to work for the evangelization of culture and for the common good of society.37


[1]  The Cardinal Newman Society has developed various resources in its Catholic Identity Series to expand upon the principles or to use them in specific evaluative exercises. Among them are: Catholic Identity in Education: Principles and Sources in Church Teaching; Catholic Identity in Education: Church Documents for Reflection; Catholic Identity in Education: Questions for Reflection and Assessment; Catholic Identity in Education: Faculty and Staff In-Service; Catholic Identity in Education: Board Reflection and The Catholic Education Honor Roll.




  1. Sacred Congregation for Catholic Education, The Catholic School (Vatican City, 1977) 5-7; Pope Paul VI, Gravissimum Educationis (Vatican City, 1965) 2; United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, To Teach as Jesus Did (Washington, National Conference of Catholic Bishops, 1972) 7.
  2. Matthew 28:19-20.
  3. Pope Benedict XVI, Meeting with Catholic Educators: Address of His Holiness Benedict XVI (Washington, April 2008) 2; Pope Benedict XVI, Spe Salvi (Vatican City, 2007) 4.
  4. The Catholic School (1977) 34; Congregation for Catholic Education, Educating Today and Tomorrow: A Renewing Passion (Vatican, 2014) III.
  5. Congregation for Catholic Education, The Religious Dimension of Education in a Catholic School (Vatican City, 1988) 25.
  6. Congregation for Catholic Education, Educating Together in Catholic Schools: A Shared Mission Between Consecrated Persons and the Lay Faithful (Vatican City, 2007) 5, 10; The Religious Dimension of Education 44.
  7. The Catholic School (1977) 49.
  8. Canon Law Society of America, Code of Canon Law (Washington, D.C., 1983) 795; Gravissimum Educationis, Introduction; Congregation for Catholic Education, Circular Letter to the Presidents of Bishops’ Conferences on Religious Education in Schools (Vatican City, 2009) 1.
  9. The Catholic School (1977) 54.
  10. Educating Together 10, 12-14.
  11. Code of Canon Law 793 §1; Congregation for Catholic Education, Lay Catholics in Schools: Witnesses to Faith (Vatican City, 1982) 12.
  12. Lay Catholics in Schools 22The Catholic School (1977) 53; The Religious Dimension of Education 34.
  13. Educating Together 50The Religious Dimension of Education 44.
  14. Educating Together 5; Congregation for Catholic Education, Educating in Intercultural Dialogue in the Catholic School: Living in Harmony for a Civilization of Love (Vatican, 2103) 86; Lay Catholics in Schools 18; United States Conference Catholic Bishops, Renewing Our Commitment to Catholic Elementary & Secondary Schools in the Third Millennium (Washington, DC, 2005) excerpt.
  15. The Religious Dimension of Education 26, 28.
  16. The Religious Dimension of Education 25-26, 28-29, 40; Educating Together 48.
  17. Code of Canon Law 795; To Teach As Jesus Did 107; The Religious Dimension of Education 39Educating Today and Tomorrow, conclusion.
  18. Gravissimum Educationis 5, 8Code of Canon Law 803 §2; To Teach as Jesus Did 104.
  19. United States Catholic Conference Bishops, National Directory for Catechesis (Washington DC, 2005) 231-233; Congregation for Catholic Education, The Catholic School on the Threshold of the Third Millennium (Vatican, 1997) 19.
  20. The Catholic School (1977) 54-55; Pope Pius XI, Divini Illius Magistri (Vatican City, 1929) 15-17, 76; Catechism of the Catholic Church (Vatican City, 1993) 2675Educating Today and Tomorrow I, 1b.
  21. Pope John Paul II, Catechesi Tradendae (Vatican City, 1979) 23Educating Together 17, 26.
  22. The Religious Dimension of Education 78Educating Together 26.
  23. The Religious Dimension of Education 79, 83.
  24. Circular Letter 1; The Catholic School on the Threshold 4; The Religious Dimension of Education 98.
  25. The Catholic School on the Threshold 9; The Religious Dimension of Education 55, 84.
  26. The Religious Dimension of Education 95The Catholic School (1977) 7Educating Today and Tomorrow III.
  27. The Catholic School on the Threshold 10The Catholic School (1977) 12, 45Educating Together 46.
  28. The Religious Dimension of Education 51, 63; Educating in Intercultural Dialogue 64-67The Catholic School (1977) 37Lay Catholics in Schools 56Educating Together 24.
  29. The Religious Dimension of Education 84, 112.
  30. The Religious Dimension of Education 1; Educating in Intercultural Dialogue 56; The Catholic School on the Threshold 14; To Teach as Jesus Did 102.
  31. The Religious Dimension of Education 49.
  32. Lay Catholics in Schools 12; The Catholic School (1977) 26, 36; The Religious Dimension of Education 108.
  33. The Catholic School (1977) 15, 49The Religious Dimension of Education 34, 51, 52.
  34. The Catholic School on the Threshold 14The Religious Dimension of Education 53, 100Gravissimum Educationis 8.
  35. The Religious Dimension of Education 57.
  36. Gravissimum Educationis 5Lay Catholics in Schools 12.
  37. Saint Pope John Paul II, Ad limina visit of bishops from Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin (May 30,1998); Renewing Our Commitment, excerptEducating Today and Tomorrow II-1.
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