The nature and role of religious education in schools
has become the object of debate. In some cases, it
is now the object of new civil regulations, which tend
to replace religious education with teaching about the religious phenomenon
in a multi-denominational sense, or about religious ethics and culture
– even in a way that contrasts with the choices
and educational aims that parents and the Church intend for
the formation of young people.
Therefore, by means of this Circular
Letter addressed to the Presidents of Bishops’ Conferences, this Congregation
for Catholic Education deems it necessary to recall some principles
that are rooted in Church teaching, as clarification and instruction
about the role of schools in the Catholic formation of
young people, about the nature and identity of the Catholic
school, about religious education in schools, and about the freedom
of choice of school and confessional religious education.
I. The role
of schools in the Catholic formation of new generations
today is a complex task, which is made more difficult
by rapid social, economic, and cultural changes. Its specific mission
remains the integral formation of the human person. Children and
young people must be guaranteed the possibility of developing harmoniously
their own physical, moral, intellectual and spiritual gifts, and they
must also be helped to develop their sense of responsibility,
learn the correct use of freedom, and participate actively in
social life (cf. c. 795 Code of Canon Law [CIC];
c. 629 Code of Canons for the Eastern Churches [CCEO]).
A form of education that ignores or marginalises the moral
and religious dimension of the person is a hindrance to
full education, because “children and young people have a right
to be motivated to appraise moral values with a right
conscience, to embrace them with a personal adherence, together with
a deeper knowledge and love of God.” That is why
the Second Vatican Council asked and recommended “all those who
hold a position of public authority or who are in
charge of education to see to it that youth is
never deprived of this sacred right” (Declaration Gravissimum educationis [GE
2. Such education requires the contribution of many agents of
education. Parents, having given life to their children, are their
primary and principal educators (cf. GE 3; John Paul II,
Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris consortio [FC], 22 November 1981, 36; c.
793 CIC; c. 627 CCEO). For that reason, it is
the responsibility of Catholic parents to look after the Christian
education of their children (c. 226 CIC; c. 627 CCEO).
In this primary task, parents need the subsidiary help of
civil society and other institutions. Indeed, “the family is the
primary, but not the only and exclusive educating community” (FC
40; cfr GE 3).
3. “Among all educational instruments the school
has a special importance” (GE 5), as it is “the
principal assistance to parents in fulfilling the function of education”
(c. 796 §1 CIC), particularly in order to favour the
transmission of culture and education for co-existence. In this educational
setting – and in conformity with international legislation and human
rights – “the right of parents to choose an education
in conformity with their religious faith must be absolutely guaranteed”
(FC 40). Catholic parents “are to entrust their children to
those schools which provide a Catholic education” (c. 798 CIC)
and, when this is not possible, they must provide for
their Catholic education in other ways (cf. ibidem).
4. The Second
Vatican Council “reminds parents of the duty that is theirs
to arrange and even demand” for their children to be
able to receive a moral and religious education “and advance
in their Christian formation to a degree that is abreast
of their development in secular subjects. Therefore the Church esteems
highly those civil authorities and societies which, bearing in mind
the pluralism of contemporary society and respecting religious freedom, assist
families so that the education of their children can be
imparted in all schools according to the individual moral and
religious principles of the families” (GE 7).
To sum up:
today is a complex, vast, and urgent task. This complexity
today risks making us lose what is essential, that is,
the formation of the human person in its totality, particularly
as regards the religious and spiritual dimension.
- Although the work
of educating is accomplished by different agents, it is parents
who are primarily responsible for education.
- This responsibility is exercised
also in the right to choose the school that guarantees
an education in accordance with one’s own religious and moral
II. Nature and identity of the Catholic school: the right
to a Catholic education for families and pupils.
5. The Catholic school plays a particular role in
education and formation. Many communities and religious congregations have distinguished
themselves, and commendably continue to devote themselves to the service
of primary and secondary education. Yet the whole Christian community,
and particularly the diocesan Ordinary, bear the responsibility “of arranging
everything so that all the faithful have a Catholic education”
(c. 794 §2 CIC) and, more precisely, of having “schools
which offer an education imbued with a Christian spirit” (c.
802 CIC; cfr c. 635 CCEO).
6. Catholic schools are characterised
by the institutional link they keep with the Church hierarchy,
which guarantees that the instruction and education be grounded in
the principles of the Catholic faith and imparted by teachers
of right doctrine and probity of life (cf. c. 803
CIC; cc. 632 e 639 CCEO). In these educational centres
– which are open to all who share and respect
their educational goals – the atmosphere must be permeated by
the evangelical spirit of freedom and charity, which fosters the
harmonious development of each one’s personality. In this setting, human
culture as a whole is harmonised with the message of
salvation, so that the pupils gradually acquire a knowledge of
the world, life and humanity that is be enlightened by
the Gospel (cf. GE 8; c. 634 §1 CCEO).
this way, the right of families and pupils to an
authentic Catholic education is ensured and, at the same time,
the cultural aims – as well as those of human
and academic formation of young people – that are characteristic
of any school, are fulfilled (cf. c. 634 §3 CCEO;
c. 806 §2 CIC).
8. Aware of how difficult this is
today, it is to be hoped that the school and
the family will be in harmony as regards the process
of education and as regards the individual’s formation. This will
avoid tensions or rifts in the goals of education. Hence,
close and active collaboration among parents, teachers and school authorities
is needed. In this regards, it is appropriate to encourage
means of parents’ participation in school life: associations, meetings, etc.
(cf. c. 796 §2 CIC; c. 639 CCEO).
9. The freedom
of parents, associations, and intermediate institutions – as well as
the Church hierarchy itself – to promote schools of Catholic
identity, constitutes an exercise of the principle of subsidiarity. This
principle excludes any “kind of school monopoly, for this is
opposed to the native rights of the human person, to
the development and spread of culture, to the peaceful association
of citizens and to the pluralism that exists today in
ever so many societies” (GE 6).
To sum up:
- The Catholic
school is truly an ecclesial subject because of its teaching
activity, in which faith, culture, and life unite in harmony.
It is open to all who want to share its
educational goal inspired by Christian principles.
- The Catholic school is
an expression of the ecclesial community, and its Catholicity is
guaranteed by the competent authorities (Ordinary of the place).
ensures Catholic parents’ freedom of choice and it is an
expression of school pluralism.
- The principle of subsidiarity regulates collaboration
between the family and the various institutions deputised to educate.
Religious education in schools
a) Nature and aims
10. A concept of
the human person being open to the transcendent necessarily includes
the element of religious education in schools: it is an
aspect of the right to education (cf. c. 799 CIC).
Without religious education, pupils would be deprived of an essential
element of their formation and personal development, which helps them
attain a vital harmony between faith and culture. Moral formation
and religious education also foster the development of personal and
social responsibility and the other civic virtues; they represent, therefore,
am important contribution to the common good of society.
a pluralistic society, the right to religious freedom requires both
the assurance of the presence of religious education in schools
and the guarantee that such education be in accordance with
parents’ convictions. The Second Vatican Council reminds us: “Parents have
the right to determine, in accordance with their own religious
beliefs, the kind of religious education that their children are
to receive […].The right of parents are violated, if their
children are forced to attend lessons or instructions which are
not in agreement with their religious beliefs, or if a
single system of education, from which all religious formation is
excluded, is imposed upon all” (Declaration Dignitatis humanae [DH] 5;
cf. c. 799 CIC; Holy See, Charter of the rights
of the family, 24 November 1983, art. 5, c-d). This
statement finds confirmation in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights
(art. 26) and in many other declarations and conventions of
the international community.
12. The marginalization of religious education in schools
is equivalent to assuming – at least in practice –
an ideological position that can lead pupils into error or
do them a disservice. Moreover, if religious education is limited
to a presentation of the different religions, in a comparative
and “neutral” way, it creates confusion or generates religious relativism
or indifferentism. In this respect, Pope John Paul II explained:
“The question of Catholic education includes […] religious education in
the more general milieu of school, whether it be Catholic
or State-run. The families of believers have the right to
such education; they must have the guarantee that the State
school – precisely because it is open to all –
not only will not put their children’s faith in peril,
but will rather complete their integral formation with appropriate religious
education. This principle must be included within the concept of
religious freedom and of the truly democratic State, which as
such – that is, in obedience to its deepest and
truest nature – puts itself at the service of the
citizens, of all citizens, in respect for their rights and
their religious convictions” (Speech to the Cardinals and collaborators of
the Roman Curia, 28 June 1984, unofficial translation).
13. Based on
what has been said, it is clear that teaching the
Catholic religion has its own specific nature vis-à-vis other school
subjects. In fact, as the Second Vatican Council explains, “Government
therefore ought indeed to take account of the religious life
of the citizenry and show it favor, since the function
of government is to make provision for the common welfare.
However, it would clearly transgress the limits set to its
power, were it to presume to command or inhibit acts
that are religious” (DH 3). For these reasons, it is
for the Church to establish the authentic contents of Catholic
religious education in schools. This guarantees, for both parents and
the pupils themselves, that the education presented as Catholic is
14. The Church identifies this task as its own,
ratione materiae, and claims it for its own competence, regardless
of the nature of the school (State-run or non-State-run, Catholic
or non-Catholic) in which such teaching is given. Therefore, “The
Catholic religious instruction and education which are imparted in any
schools whatsoever are subject to the authority of the Church
[…]. It is for the conference of bishops to issue
general norms about this field of action and for the
diocesan bishop to regulate and watch over it” (c. 804
§1 CIC; cf. also, c. 636 CCEO).
b) Religious education in
15. Religious education in Catholic schools identifies the educational
goals of such schools. In fact, “the special character of
the Catholic school, the underlying reason for it, the reason
why Catholic parents should prefer it, is precisely the quality
of the religious instruction integrated into the education of the
pupils” (John Paul II, Apostolic Exhortation Catechesi tradendae, 16 October
16. In Catholic schools, as everywhere else, the religious
freedom of non-Catholic pupils must be respected. This clearly does
not affect the right/duty of the Church “in [its] public
teaching and witness to [its] faith, whether by the spoken
or by the written word”, taking into account that “in
spreading religious faith and in introducing religious practices everyone ought
at all times to refrain from any manner of action
which might seem to carry a hint of coercion or
of a kind of persuasion that would be dishonorable or
unworthy” (DH 4).
c) Catholic religious education from the point of
view of culture, and its relationship with catechesis
17. Religious education
in schools fits into the evangelizing mission of the Church.
It is different from, and complementary to, parish catechesis and
other activities such as family Christian education or initiatives of
ongoing formation of the faithful. Apart from the different settings
in which these are imparted, the aims that they pursue
are also different: catechesis aims at fostering personal adherence to
Christ and the development of Christian life in its different
aspects (cf. Congregation for the Clergy, General Directory for Catechesis
[DGC], 15 August 1997, nn. 80-87), whereas religious education in
schools gives the pupils knowledge about Christianity’s identity and Christian
life. Moreover, Pope Benedict XVI, speaking to religion teachers, pointed
out the need “to enlarge the area of our rationality,
to reopen it to the larger questions of the truth
and the good, to link theology, philosophy and science between
them in full respect for the methods proper to them
and for their reciprocal autonomy, but also in the awareness
of the intrinsic unity that holds them together. The religious
dimension is in fact intrinsic to culture. It contributes to
the overall formation of the person and makes it possible
to transform knowledge into wisdom of life.” Catholic religious education
contributes to that goal, in which “school and society are
enriched with true laboratories of culture and humanity in which,
by deciphering the significant contribution of Christianity, the person is
equipped to discover goodness and to grow in responsibility, to
seek comparisons and to refine his or her critical sense,
to draw from the gifts of the past to understand
the present better and to be able to plan wisely
for the future” (Address to the Catholic religion teachers, 25
18. The specific nature of this education does not
cause it to fall short of its proper nature as
a school discipline. On the contrary, maintaining this status is
a condition of its effectiveness: “It is necessary, therefore, that
religious instruction in schools appear as a scholastic discipline with
the same systematic demands and the same rigour as other
disciplines. It must present the Christian message and the Christian
event with the same seriousness and the same depth with
which other disciplines present their knowledge. It should not be
an accessory alongside of these disciplines, but rather it should
engage in a necessary inter-disciplinary dialogue” (DGC 73).
To sum up:
Religious nature is the foundation and guarantee of the presence
of religious education in the scholastic public sphere.
- Its cultural
condition is a vision of the human person being open
to the transcendent.
- Religious education in Catholic schools is an
inalienable characteristic of their educational goal.
- Religious education is different
from, and complementary to, catechesis, as it is school education
that does not require the assent of faith, but conveys
knowledge on the identity of Christianity and Christian life. Moreover,
it enriches the Church and humanity with areas for growth,
of both culture and humanity.
IV. Educational freedom, religious freedom, and
19. In short, the right of parents and pupils
to education and religious freedom are concretely exercised through:
of choice of school. “Parents who have the primary and
inalienable right and duty to educate their children must enjoy
true liberty in their choice of schools. Consequently, the public
power, which has the obligation to protect and defend the
rights of citizens, must see to it, in its concern
for distributive justice, that public subsidies are paid out in
such a way that parents are truly free to choose
according to their conscience the schools they want for their
children” (GE 6; cf. DH 5; c. 797 CIC; c.
627 §3 CCEO).
b) The freedom to receive confessional religious education
in schools, integrating one’s own religious tradition into the school’s
cultural and academic formation. “The Christian faithful are to strive
so that in civil society the laws which regulate the
formation of youth also provide for their religious and moral
education in the schools themselves, according to the conscience of
the parents” (c. 799 CIC; cf. GE 7, DH 5).
In fact, the Catholic religious instruction and education which are
imparted in any school are subject to the authority of
the Church (cf. c. 804 §1 CIC; c. 636 CCEO).
The Church is aware that in many places, now as
in earlier periods, religious freedom is not fully in force,
both in law and in practice (cf. DH 13). In
these circumstances, the Church does her best to offer the
faithful the formation they need (cf. GE 7; c. 798
CIC; c. 637 CCEO). At the same time, in keeping
with her mission (cf. Vatican Council II, Pastoral Constitution Gaudium
et spes, 76), she never stops denouncing the injustice that
takes place when Catholic pupils and their families are deprived
of their educational rights and their educational freedom is affected.
She urges all the faithful to commit themselves so that
those rights may become effective (cf. c. 799 CIC).
for Catholic Education is certain that the above-mentioned principles can
contribute to finding ever greater consonance between the educational task
, which is an essential part of the mission of
the Church and the aspiration of Nations to develop a
society that is fair and respectful of each person’s dignity.
her part, the Church, exercising the diakonia of truth in
the midst of humanity, offers to each generation the revelation
of God from which it can learn the ultimate truth
about life and the end of history. This is not
an easy task in a secularized world, characterised by the
fragmentation of knowledge and moral confusion. It involves the whole
Christian community and constitutes a challenge for educators. We are
sustained, in any case, by the certainty that – as
Pope Benedict XVI affirms – “the noble goals of [...]
education, founded on the unity of truth and in service
of the person and the community, become an especially powerful
instrument of hope” (Address to Catholic educators, 17 April 2008).
request Your Eminence/Excellency to make the content of this Circular
Letter known to all those concerned with the educational service
and mission of the Church. We now thank you for
your kind attention and, in communion of prayer with Mary,
Mother and Teacher of educators, we take the opportunity to
express our sentiments of highest esteem, consideration and respect, remaining
in the Lord,
Zenon Card. GROCHOLEWSKI, Prefect
+Jean-Louis BRUGUÈS, O.P.,