The Second Vatican Council's Declaration on Christian Education should be seen as a provisional document. In fact, then-Father Joseph Ratzinger called it a weak document. "One unfortunately has to say that the text wasn't treated by the council fathers with any specific affection," the future pope wrote in 1966.
Ratzinger attributed the weakness of the document to the fact that the bishops were getting worn out as the four-year council drew to its conclusion.
Whatever the cause, the declaration is a midway point between Pope Pius XI's 1929 encyclical on Catholic education, Divini Illius Magistri, and three major Vatican statements that came out between 1977 and 1988.
The 1929 encyclical was focused on preserving the rights of the Church over education from state intervention. The encyclical asserted, boldly but defensively, that the Church has "the inalienable right as well as the indispensable duty" to oversee "the entire education of her children" (DIM 23).
It was simple common sense, Pope Pius wrote, to oppose those "who dared maintain that children belong to the state before they belong to the family, and that the state has an absolute right over their education" (DIM 35).
Curiously, those words have regained their relevance today in certain parts of the world where secularism, albeit dressed in more democratic clothes than it was 80 years ago, again poses a threat to Catholic education.
In any event, the three documents issued in the 1970s and '80s were more confident about the position of the Church in relation to the state, although they expressed concern about changes in society that undermined the role of Catholic educators.
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Students in an Edmonton Catholic school watch a French-language TV program in 1962.
The 1982 statement, Lay Catholics in Schools, said that among the numerous challenges facing Catholic teachers were "identity crisis, loss of trust in social structures, the resulting insecurity and loss of any personal convictions, the contagion of a progressive secularization of society, loss of the proper concept of authority and lack of a proper use of freedom" (26).
Vatican II's Declaration on Christian Education (Gravissimum Educationis) exhibited a greater openness to the state than did the 1929 encyclical and expressed none of the worries about the erosion of both societal values and personal identity that one sees in the later documents. The 1960s were an optimistic era and, even in this brief declaration, it shows.
In the 1964 discussions on the declaration, many bishops asked that it be expanded into a fuller treatment of educational concerns. Instead, it was simply sent for revisions.
Yet, on several occasions the secretary of the commission overseeing the rewriting had to remind the committee revising this document that it was only supposed to revise the declaration, not produce a more comprehensive treatment. Apparently, the theologians doing the revising found it hard to resist the itch to write a better treatise.
The final document broke little new ground. It did, however, make an implicit link to the Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity by saying that Catholic schools should prepare students to be "a saving leaven" in society (GE 8). That image of the leaven was central to the decree's description of how the laity are called to transform society.
Gravissimum Educationis also praised the vocation of the Catholic teacher, calling it "splendid . . . and of the highest importance" (GE 5). Later, it added, "Teachers must remember that it depends chiefly on them whether the Catholic school achieves its purpose" (8).
The declaration also called for public subsidies to schools so "that parents are truly free to select schools for their children in accordance with their conscience" (6). The wording of that statement, combined with the council's endorsement of religious liberty, would lead one to believe that the council fathers wanted schools of all churches and faiths – not only Catholic schools – to receive public funding.
The document also endorsed "a positive and prudent sex education" in schools (1). It urged parents to send their children to Catholic schools "wherever this is possible," to support those schools and to cooperate with them for the good of their children (8).
In a brief commentary on the declaration, Bishop Emmett Carter, then bishop of London, Ont., said while the document was technical and juridical, it kept with the spirit of Vatican II in that it opposed isolating Christian education from the wider world. The document said in effect that such education should be "in the world and, in a sense, for the world."
"Man must always work out his salvation in the concrete situation in which God has placed him and must achieve this not by protection but by contributing to the whole human community of which he is an integral and inseparable part," wrote the future cardinal-archbishop of Toronto.
If today that sounds obvious and safe, it did represent a change from a Church which, for a long time, had seen itself as separated from and against a hostile world.
Gravissimum Educationis was basically a stand-pat document. The main way in which it shifted from pre-conciliar thinking lay in that greater openness to the secular world.