Thursday, 11 April 2024 14:05

What does Vatican II say about education?

Gravissimum Educationis Vatican website imageBy Paul Barber, Director, Catholic Education Service

Many parishes have been marking the 60th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council by offering introductory courses on its content and impact on Catholic faith.

While liturgical changes are among the most conspicuous of the Council’s legacies, the Declaration on Christian Education, known as Gravissimum Educationis (roughly ‘the importance of education’), provides a glimpse back to an era haunted by war and ideological division. The document subsequently informed much of current canon law on education.

The Second Vatican Council produced three levels of teaching document, the four Constitutions being the most significant, overarching and developed; nine Decrees dealt with specific areas; while the three Declarations were shorter and for topics where less had been previously published.

What emerged is a Catholic exposition of education, a field in which the Church had expertise since its beginnings, but before the twentieth century had yet to articulate in quite such a formal way. The contemporary context for Gravissimum Educationis, though, was shaped by a generation in the shadow of two world wars, and with the European and Asian continents still militarily and ideologically divided.

State control

Throughout much of European history, the principal providers of education, beyond parents, were not governments but churches.

The French Revolution, however, saw the seizure of assets such as Church colleges and the dismissal of priests and religious as teachers. Some of these crossed the Channel to found schools and colleges in England. In the new Republic, the government acted to fill the gap it had created with a secular monopoly on education. These new ideas about the role of the State started to spread across continental Europe, and were consolidated in the nineteenth century.

The 1920s and 1930s saw the rise of totalitarianism in other parts of Europe, and the further spread of secular State monopolisation in schools. In 1929 Pope Pius XI reacted by setting out the respective roles of Church and State in the encyclical letter On Christian Education, known as Divini Illius Magistri (‘the divine teacher’), and again in On the Church and the German Reich, known as Mit Brennender Sorge (‘with burning concern’), in 1937.

After the Second World War the Soviet Union expanded its atheist State monopoly in education across two continents. This was the context in which the Second Vatican Council’s discussions took place.

Rights and responsibilities

In 1959, shortly after his election, Pope John XXIII announced an ecumenical council to ‘discern the signs of the time’. Gravissimum Educationis was approved by his successor Pope Paul VI in October 1965.

Although mainly concerned with schools, the Declaration also refers to colleges and universities. Several themes run through the document, namely the nature of education and the universal right to it, along with the duties and rights of parents, the Church, Catholic schools and civil society.

The Declaration begins by outlining the significance of education and welcoming its growth in modern society, while acknowledging that there were still many in the world without even rudimentary training.

True education is defined as the complete formation of the whole person, ordered towards the pupil’s eternal destiny, as well as the common good of society. The harmonious development of physical, moral and

intellectual talents, nurturing a sense of responsibility and the right use of freedom and formation to take an active part in social life are key components.

Christ at the Centre

Within a universal right to education for all, Christians have a right to a Christian education, to assist them to become mature Christian adults and thereby to help shape the world.

Parents have a serious obligation to educate their children, and the right to be recognised and assisted by the State as their ‘primary and principal educators’. Parents must be ‘truly free to choose according to their conscience the schools they want for their children’ and governments should ‘always keep in mind the principle of subsidiarity so that there is no kind of school monopoly.’

The Church has, in a special way, the duty of educating in the light of its divine mission to help all to arrive at the fullness of Christian life. This is especially so regarding ‘the needs of those who are poor in the goods of this world or who are deprived of the assistance and affection of a family or who are strangers to the gift of Faith.’

The ministry of teachers is a true apostolate and a service to society. They have the greatest possible influence in enabling a Catholic school to achieve its purposes.

Adult education

The Declaration briefly covers further and higher education. Catholic colleges and universities are to ensure that proper freedom of enquiry lead to a deeper understanding of how faith and reason accord in one truth.

Such institutions should be opened around the world, particularly enabling those of slender means in emerging nations to attend.

There should also be Catholic spiritual assistance offered in non-Catholic higher education, that today has taken the form of university chaplaincies. Similarly, on non-Catholic and Catholic campuses alike, students of ability who seem suited for it ‘should be specially helped and encouraged to undertake a teaching career,’ in anticipation of the ongoing need for teacher recruitment.


We are fortunate to have built a Catholic education system in this country which reflects the principles of Gravissimum Educationis — 2,169 Catholic schools alongside others offer parents a real choice of schools. Catholic schools’ GCSE RE results are also the best in the country. There are four Catholic universities, all of which started as teacher training colleges, as well as ecclesiastical faculties and institutes of higher studies.

Mission runs clear throughout Gravissimum Educationis. The message of parental freedom of choice outlasted the Soviet Union, finding itself echoed in the European Convention on Human Rights and the Human Rights Act 1998. But continual vigilance is necessary, as is seen by the emergence of the so-called ‘Abidjan Principles’ on the international stage. They demonstrate that, six decades on, the idea of a State monopoly in education which this this insightful document of the Second Vatican Council warns against have not gone away.


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