The Church in pursuit of knowledge

A look at the Church declaration on Christian education

The Second Vatican Council gave careful consideration to the importance of education in people’s lives and its ever-growing influence on the social progress of the age.

The Declaration on Christian Education, Gravissimum Educationis, states that all people “of every race, condition and age, since they enjoy the dignity of a human being, have an inalienable right to education”.

This education, the document explains, should be in keeping with their ultimate goal, adapted to their ability, sex and the cultural and tradition of their country, and also in harmony with their fraternal association with other peoples in the fostering of true unity and peace in the world.

Bear witness

All Christians, the document states, have a right to a Christian education which not only develops the maturity of the human person but has as its principal purpose a further goal.

The Church teaches that throughout the course of their education, Christians should be gradually introduced to the mystery of salvation, become more aware of the gift of faith they have received.

Through a Christian education, they should learn to worship God in spirit and in truth, especially through participation in the liturgy.

A Christian education must also ensure they learn not only how to bear witness to the hope that is in them, but also how to help in the Christian formation of the world.

Therefore, according to the document, they should grow into adulthood as members of the body of Christ who are willing and able to contribute to the good of the society to which they belong.

Since parents have given life to their children, Gravissimum Educationis places great emphasis on the responsibility of parents and because of this, “they are bound by the most serious obligation to educate their offspring and therefore must be recognised as the primary and principal educators”.

The family

The document calls for parents to create a family atmosphere inspired by love and respect for God and man, in which “the well-rounded personal and social education of children is fostered”.

Gravissimum Educationis names the family as the primary school of the social virtues which are necessary to every society. It proposes the Christian family, enriched by the grace of marriage, as the most appropriate context for children to experience a wholesome human society and Church.

Ultimately, the document explains that it is through the family that children are “gradually led to a companionship with their fellowmen and with the people of God”.

According to council, while the task of imparting education belongs primarily to the family, it also requires the help of society as a whole. Therefore, as outlined in this document, it is the duty of the State to ensure that all its citizens have access to an adequate education and are prepared for the proper exercise of their civic rights and duties.

Catholic schools are highlighted in Gravissimum Educationis as playing an essential role in the life of the Church. No less than other schools, the document claims Catholic schools pursue cultural goals and the human formation of youth.

However, the primary function of Catholic schools, according to the document, is to create a “special atmosphere animated by the Gospel spirit of freedom and charity, to help youth grow according to the new creatures they were made through baptism as they develop their own personalities, and finally to order the whole of human culture to the news of salvation”.


Gravissimum Educationis states that such an atmosphere enables young people, while developing their own personality, to grow at the same time in that new life which has been given to them in baptism, thus orienting students to live in a social context influenced by their Faith.

The document additionally states that Catholic schools are almost entirely dependent upon teachers “for the accomplishment of its goals and programs”. Teachers in Catholic schools should be prepared for their work with special care, the document says, and they should have appropriate qualifications and adequate learning, both religious and secular.

Catholic school teachers are also called in this document to be charitable both towards each other and towards their students, and endowed with an apostolic spirit; they are encouraged to bear witness by their lives and by their instruction to Jesus Christ.

Catholic parents, the document states, have a particular duty to send their children to Catholic schools whenever this is possible, as well as to give Catholic schools all the support in their power, cooperating with them in their work for the good of their children.

Pastors are directed in Gravissimum Educationis to provide much needed catechesis to all, especially in areas of the new churches, which are attended also by students who are not Catholics.


The Church likewise is called to devote considerable care to higher-level education, especially colleges and universities. The document recommends and encourages the establishment of Catholic universities and faculties in strategic locations throughout the world, calling for them to be noteworthy “not for their numbers but for their pursuit of knowledge”.

The sacred synod concluded by affirming its deep gratitude to those priests, religious men and women, and laity who by their evangelical self-dedication are devoted to the noble work of education and schools of every type and level.

Commenting on the document, Dr Gareth Byrne, Coordinator of the Irish Centre for Religious Education told The Irish Catholic that Gravissimum Educationis “sets out the foundation upon which Catholic education contributes to the upbuilding of young Catholics”.

Dr Byrne noted that Gravissimum Educationis emphasises the role of Christian education in contributing to the human formation of young people which it achieves “by creating a special atmosphere animated by the Gospel spirit of freedom and charity”.

The document highlights “the profound importance of education and encourages the dialogue necessary between all peoples in developing open, just and robust principles for the education of young people generally in society,” he said.