Education according to the millennial experience of the Catholic Church that has attended to how to transmit its patrimony

This article was published in Oasis 11. Read the table of contents

Last update: 2022-04-22 09:42:45

For a long time governments oscillated between the denominations ‘national education’ and ‘public instruction’ until the French Minister opted for the first and the Italian minister chose the second. In this hesitation there is something emblematic as regards the uncertainties of the moment and this encourages us to find acceptable definitions by analysing the etymologies involved more closely. Instruction aims to transmit knowledge and to make the person who acquires it competent. The aim of education, instead, is much greater and also much more ambitious: it involves helping young people to develop their talents and potentialities so as to make what is most human in them flower. To pass, that is to say, from the virtual to virtuosity. The Latin word ‘educare’ thus expresses an intent to make grow and to form whereas its close relative ‘educere’ can be translated by ‘to extract’ or ‘to raise.’ Education tries to push a young person upwards in order to allow him or her to construct his or her own personality in the most harmonious way possible.

This is not done on one’s own; one cannot build beginning with nothing. Contrarily to what the title of a famous French play suggests, nobody is ‘nobody’s child.’[1] I am born preceded by someone else. The question that then poses itself is that of transmission: how can I benefit from the experience of those who came into the world before me? How can I receive the rich inheritance that has been accumulated down the centuries? How can I use it to build my own being and give a meaning to life? What role should be given to memory in education?

It seems to me that in the Catholic Church there is present an approach that is useful as regards other realities as well. I belong, indeed, to an institution that has loved to define itself as a Tradition. Since its origins, convinced that it has received a treasure that could enrich the existence of everyone, the Church has demonstrated a concern for transmission of which there are no other examples in history. This duty was perceived as particularly impelling; to transmit from one generation to another without anything essential being lost; to transmit something that in reality did not belong to it because it saw this as something entrusted to its custody; to transmit a faith and a way of living, a vision of the world and of man, a culture, certainly, perhaps a civilisation. The Christian tradere thus  has original characteristics which are imprinted into a history that goes back  two millennia. 

A Task for Everyone

Transmission has been patiently engaged in within the Christian tradition in the sense that it is entrusted to the people of God as a whole. If baptism makes the person who receives it a priest and a prophet, then it also makes that person able to teach; it assigns to him or her the task of transmitting, as a result of which each person must hand on to those who are younger the witness that has been received from those who are older. One thus explains the special solicitude with which the Church has always surrounded families. It was not only a concern with moralisation that led it to act in this way, contrarily to what is affirmed by some, but the belief that the family constituted the most natural, immediate and most evident setting for transmission. One transmits only what one loves; it was thus envisaged that out of love for their children parents would have given what they thought was best. One can thus ask whether the crisis of transmission that we are now undergoing, does not conceal, side by side with other factors, a lack of love and confidence. Indeed, starting from the moment when I am no longer convinced of the excellence of what I have received from those who preceded me, I do not in the least find myself inclined to hand it on to those who will follow me: what use could it be to them? In this sense, the crisis of transmission marks a form of extenuation, a sign that the pathway has ended. The general idea that transmission should be entrusted to families was shared by everyone. Today this is called into question in two ways. In a ‘large family,’ in which various generations lived together, each member played his or her own role in the upbringing of children: the transmission most concerned with feelings was done by mothers; the transmission most ‘cerebral’ in character was done by fathers (or by uncles in some African ethnic groups), the bearers of the figure of the law; and the transmission most ‘cultural’ in character was done by grandparents whose memory was clearly greater and more available. The veneration due to elderly people, for that matter, gave to the transmission engaged in by these last an absolute value. 

In modern societies the family has experienced a constant reduction. Between the two world wars, but above all after the Second World War, the family was already reduced to what sociologists call the ‘nuclear’ family, made up of parents and their children. Nowadays, in a number of cases which are increasing in line with a development connected with the emancipation of women, to the evanescence of the figure of the father[2] and to resort to methods of artificial procreation, it has narrowed to a single parent – the mother. One thus talks about ‘single-parent’ families. This sociological reduction brings with it a cultural reduction in as much, given that the child no longer has access to the diversity of members of his or her family, he or she also loses access to the collective memory. How can one restore value to the role of grandparents or cousins, who complain about their marginalisation?[3] Albeit assuming that this concern is shared by many people, this wish nonetheless clashes with a depreciation of the past, as we will see below. Why refer to epochs which are varyingly distant if history does not contain any lesson for the present and the future?

The second objection has been studied less. As Bishop of Angers, when I visited the schools of the diocese, I was amazed by the unanimous complaint that came from the teachers of the elementary schools: “the children have become violent,” they said again and again. Why? Because – and this was the explanation – these children had never come up against a ‘no’ in their families. They encounter it here for the first time and they can only rebel. The combination of two phenomena, on the one hand the veneration for the ‘tyrant child’ – which is even greater if the child is an only child – and, on the other, the loss of concern about an art of living, for example the rules of courtesy and civilisation, meant that the encounter with the ‘law of the other’ in the form of a prohibition was postponed until later, until school. Parents limited themselves to the role of being ‘good,’ of pleasing their children; it was useless to contradict them, they thought, they will have time enough to do that later. School thus becomes a surrogate for the family – is this its mission? The family is increasingly less engaged in teaching perception of the other, turning its back on the observations of Emmanuel Lévinas who argued that everyone is born with a debt to, is subject to, the other. It remains to demonstrate whether (and how) this violence of early childhood and ignorance about the rules of knowing how to live together, nourished by the ideology of upbringing without restraints, plays a role in the growing violence that characterises urban societies. 

Troubled Transmissions

In vertical transmission from one generation to another, as is the case with horizontal transmission from one contemporary to another, the risk of a loss always works its way in. Each generation follows its fashions; its preferences lead it to assess the legacy that it has received and to neglect what it adjudges to be less -interesting. The danger is then a progressive impoverishment, even a doctrinal deviation. In order to counter this risk, the Church has been endowed with a Magisterium that is specifically entrusted with assessing the orthodoxy of transmission and its integrity. Has the essential been communicated? And has the communication been carried out in a way that is faithful to the message of the origins? It has often been stated that this notion of a Magisterium was original to Christianity. One may observe, however, that societies have always produced, almost spontaneously, multiple magisteriums. The political authority has always tried to embellish itself with a moral authority. It wanted to make people believe that what it had decided was necessarily right and, as a result, that the individual conscience was obliged to adhere to that decision. It deliberately confused the legal with the legitimate, constantly fearing that an Antigone could invoke laws ‘murmured in the heart’ (Sophocles) that were higher than those of the City. Modern and liberal societies have been defined as being allergic to any idea of a magisterium. I believe, rather, that they foster its inflation. The ‘procedural ethics’ that increasingly impose themselves in democratic regimes declare that they have no competence in matters of truth and moral good but, instead, they exercise a magisterium when they make of a decision of the majority a rule to be imposed on everyone. The media behave like a kind of ‘off-field voice:’ beneath the apparent objectivity of information and reportage, this voices dictates to consciences, unknown to the author, what must be thought and believed. Public opinion has always shaped fashions and trends. In the form of what is ‘politically correct,’ which came from the United States of America over to Europe, it makes reign over people’s minds an implacable law transmitting a priori ideological moral prejudices or simple linguistic coquetries as though they were ethical rules: those who not talk like other people can take the hindmost! Human freedom in the shadow of a dictatorship does not exist, whatever form it takes. 

Either a magisterium is unique or it is not a magisterium. It is not surprising, therefore, that the magisteriums that have just been mentioned give battle without pulling any punches. I have come to the conclusion that if the Western media manifest an almost constant opposition to the Magisterium of the Church, this takes place primarily not because it emanates ethical rules and norms that irritates them: their criticism aims at the very principle of a religious magisterium in a secularised society

The plurality of magisteriums has a parasite effect on transmission. Under the pressure of their diktat, lecturers and teachers see themselves forced to make choices that are necessarily arbitrary. The traditional dispute between Ancients and Moderns is thus resolved through the (final?) elimination of the former. It is in this way that we have come to privilege the most recent memory to the detriment of a heritage that goes back a thousand years; to allow it to be believed that modernity has to see itself as an absolute beginning and that everyone should be able provide themselves on their own with the norms and the rules that they need to construct their own lives. The models are said to be outmoded and the teachers overtaken. What, therefore, becomes of schools? 

The Pathologies of Schools

For a long time, perhaps since its origins, the Church has devoted special care to the formation of young people, consecrating to this task its best men and raising an impressive number of them to the honour of the altars. One need only mention here the most known names: Giovanni Eudes, Don Bosco, Angela Merici, Pietro Canisio and Jean-Baptiste de La Salle. It was the Church that created the modern school. Modern pedagogy was the invention of the Church. One may think, for example, of the genius of the first generation of Jesuits who in their colleges conjoined the intellectual transmission of knowledge to a baroque context where students, at an epoch when people were rather ill at ease with their own bodies, were invited to go onto the stage and perform – before experiencing them personally – the great feelings that guide the world. Acting in this way, the Church did not meet the simple need for survival. It was not concerned about its future or the future of mankind but bore witness to the essential truth on which it based all education: young people are our teachers. We must transmit to them what we believe to be best but at the same time they enable us to come out of ourselves, they tear us away from the refuges in which we pile up our certainties and even our difficulties in living. They remind our often exhausted consciences of the reasons for hope.

The Church, and after it secularised societies, saw in schools the privileged setting for education and devoted themselves to it with passion. One need only remember the prestige enjoyed by teachers in the remotest of our villages during the course of the last two centuries. But, at least in European societies, schools are now suffering from being profoundly discredited. Two great disturbances perturb them at a deep level and to the point of constituting for them authentic pathologies: the disappearance of general culture and the technological revolution.

Until recently, classical culture presented itself as the flagship of teaching. Texts that were held to be the founders of our civilisation were to be made familiar to pupils. What the ancients said did not apply only to their epoch: their message and their personal example expressed a wisdom and an art of living that was to inspire generations of all epochs.[4] There was in them a spring of living water to which those who learnt the craft of being man had to tirelessly return. Now that thread has been broken. The approach of the Ancients has been lost in the night of passing time.[5] The modern believes that it can receive no lesson from the examples of a past epoch.[6] The humanistic disciplines have been steadily eliminated by the programmes that have been established, since by now a new man is being imagined.[7] Memory has seen itself descend to the abyss of an ancillary status. Now neither the ancient tales or poems are learnt by heart. History has become an optional subject: with the recent misadventures alone of mankind narrated, the ‘anciens régimes’ are made to sink into the darkness of  indifference. Literature and philosophy no longer establish a direct contact with the masters because by now comments,[8] structural analyses and meta-criticism occupy the whole scene.

Words never disappear completely; they are content to emigrate. After the advent of the electronic era those of memory and transmission acquire a completely different reality. ‘With the computer and Internet, memory is counted in octets, transmission assesses its band speed. What matters is the capacity of the disk, the number of bars, the size of the cable and the tube. From acting we have passed to capacity. One clicks, one saves. One clicks, one sends. In the four corners of the universe…databases are created that are as diverse as they are variegated. A formidable accumulation of computerised memory which endlessly continues the densification of the network of communication’ (Jean-François Bouthors). What memory is one dealing with? What transmission is effected? What will preside over this gigantic movement? The old dream of Prometheus can reacquire shape: memory and transmission are said to allow us to believe in the advent of a man who has access to all knowledge and all the bases of information. But to do what? How can we engage in discernment amidst this inert mass of available data? This last question opens up a new field for the humanistic disciplines. The imperative of discernment, indeed, refers to what is specifically human – to distinguish what makes the human grow in each one of us and to forgo useless or even injurious knowledge. Schools could then remind us of the illusions of an endless progress for which mankind laid a heavy price during the last century. If it managed to free itself once again (I do not dare to write once and for all) of this old pernicious dream, it would find new reasons to hope. For this motive, and for others as well, the age of the ‘profs,’ in opposition to pessimistic forecasts, still has a future before it. Ever since I started working in universities, and then as a bishop, I often encountered teachers. I used to say to them:

“Do not allow yourselves to be overwhelmed by this widespread pessimism! I know that your work has become difficult. However it remains the finest trade in the world. Indeed, it is thanks to you that mankind is born to itself.”

[1] Henri de Montherlant,  Fils de personne  ou Plus que le sang,  a play performed  for the first time  in Paris in 1943.

[2] Cf. Hans Zollner,  ‘Osservazioni psicologiche  sulla condizione maschile,’  La Civiltà Cattolica,  3821, 5 September 2009. 

[3] During the course  of my various ministries  I have often met  grandparents who are displeased at not being able to hand down anything  at all to their grandchildren:  “They keep them distant  from us. We almost never  see them!” Here, I found  especially appropriate  the speech made by  Benedict XVI on the occasion  of the Angelus of 26 July 2009.  After observing that  Joachim and Anna were  the grandparents of Jesus,  he added: “This occasion makes us think of the subject of education which  has an important place  in the pastoral work  of the Church. In particular,  it invites us to pray  for grandparents,  who, in the family,  are the depositories  and often witnesses  of the fundamental values  of life. The educational task  of grandparents is always  very important, and it becomes even more  so when, for various reasons,  the parents are unable  to provide their children  with an adequate presence  while they are growing up.”

[4] Cf. Cosimo Laneve,  ‘Educare fra tradizione  e multiculturalità,’  Pedagogia e Vita, 5-6,  2008, in particular  1.1 ‘L’imprescindibilità  dell’imitare.’

[5] Ibidem: ‘For half a century  in our world a general  decline has however  marginalised (and disdained)  education through  knowledge of the classics,  that is to say  education of the spirit,  of the imagination,  of sensibility, relegating  its study to seminaries  for specialists alone.’ 

[6] ‘The modern age  specifically breaks  this unlimited trust  in tradition and its sources.  For multiple reasons  of a historical, political, moral-religious  and technical-scientific  kind, tradition loses  its obvious trustworthiness’ (Zelindo Trenti, ‘Tradizione  e linguaggio nel processo  di apprendimento,’  Insegnare Religione,  3, 2005, 4-12).  

[7]  The decline of general  culture in school  and university institutions  is magisterially interpreted  by Allan Bloom  in The Closing  of the American Mind  (Simon & Schuster,  New York, 1987).  For a renewed approach  see Marta C. Nussbaum,  I classici, il multiculturalismo,  l’educazione contemporanea  (Carocci, Roma, 2006). 

[8] George Steiner ridicules  the domination  of comment and parasitism  in his fine book  Réelles présences.  Les arts du sens (Gallimard,  Paris, 1991), p. 25ss.