The Core of a Catholic Curriculum

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

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

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

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

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

Rooted in mission

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

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

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

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

Human education

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

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

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

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

Thinking with faith

St. John Paul II taught that:

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

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

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

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

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

Integrated curriculum

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

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

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

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

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