Vatican II, 40 Years Later: "Gravissimum Educationis"

Kenneth Whitehead on the Declaration on Christian Education

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ROME, APRIL 17, 2003 ( As part of its 40th anniversary series on the Second Vatican Council, ZENIT turns to the declaration on Christian education, «Gravissimum Educationis.»

ZENIT spoke with Kenneth D. Whitehead, a former U.S. assistant secretary of education who writes on public and Catholic Church affairs. His most recent book is «One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic: The Early Church Was the Catholic Church.»

Q: What are the most important points of «Gravissimum Educationis«?

Whitehead: The most important point of the document is its primary focus on «the dignity of the human person,» which establishes a right to education rather than focusing upon institutions such as the family and the school — upon which previous Church documents on education such as Pope Pius XI’s 1929 encyclical on Christian education tended to focus.

This focus on human dignity, in keeping with an important priority of Vatican II generally, as it has been of the pontificate of Pope John Paul II, emphasizes that every human person has a right to education, just as every Christian has a right to a Christian education.

Another important focus of the document is its emphasis on parents as the principal and primary educators of their own children. Only after establishing this primary responsibility of the parents in education does the document go on to speak of the responsibilities of the school, society, the state and even the Church for education.

The document is very traditional, however, in its insistence that true education is «directed toward the formation of the human person in view of his final end and of the good of … society.»

Q: What were the greatest successes of «Gravissimum Educationis»?

Whitehead: The greatest success of the document is probably that it really has helped to establish in people’s minds today the truth that parents are the principal and primary educators of their own children.

With the decline in standards in so many schools in our time, this understanding that the parents, after all, are really the responsible teachers, did not come along any too soon.

Q: What still needs to be implemented in the document?

Whitehead: Probably much or most of the document’s truths and basic principles are far from being implemented in practice, but one could mention in particular «Gravissimum Educationis'» call to public authorities to guarantee «distributive justice to ensure that public subsidies to schools are so allocated that parents are truly free to select schools for their children in accordance with their conscience.»

This, of course, is not possible in America today, where Catholic parents must pay separately for Catholic schools for their children even while they continue to support the public schools with their taxes.

Q: In North America, many of the so-called Catholic universities and colleges have lost much of their religious identity. What is the prospect for Catholic higher education?

Whitehead: The problem of loss of Catholic identity in Catholic higher education is really not a problem of education at all, but rather of a practical abandonment of the principles of the Catholic faith.

Wholly in keeping with Vatican II’s «Gravissimum Educationis,» Pope John Paul II issued in 1990 another document on the Catholic university, «Ex Corde Ecclesiae,» which spells out in detail what needs to be done to restore Catholicity to Catholic higher education.

The prospects for Catholic higher education could be very bright if Catholic educators would only respond to and follow the Pope’s vision.

Q: The home schooling movement in North America has grown a lot. How do you see its future? Is it a healthy movement?

Whitehead: At a time when by pretty general agreement many schools have become so bad, the home schooling movement has arisen out of the concerns of knowledgeable and responsible parents, who rightly wish more for their children than many schools today are providing.

The movement represents a clear and dramatic case of parents acting directly on Vatican II’s teaching that they are the principal and primary educators of their children. I don’t know what the future of the movement will be, but I hope it will be bright.

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