Adapting Curriculum: Making It Catholic

Douglas P. McManaman
May 10, 2021
Reproduced with Permission

Adapting a curriculum to make it more fitting to a Catholic school should really be a very natural process. Over the years, in my experience as a teacher of Religious Education and Philosophy, I have witnessed a number of rather artificial attempts at “Catholicizing” a curriculum, and an artificial approach usually amounts to throwing in a discussion here and there on Euthanasia or some such other moral issue at the forefront of popular culture. There is a much more natural approach to adopt, but this requires that the teacher “live and breathe” the faith. Allow me to explain.

Perhaps a good model for how this can be done naturally is to take a glance back at St. Thomas Aquinas, probably the greatest doctor of the Church. Aquinas was primarily a theologian, not a philosopher--although he philosophized brilliantly--, and of course he was a Dominican friar. He was devoted to the teaching and expounding of the faith. Thanks to the Muslim learning centers in Spain during the High Middle Ages, the western world was given access to the writings of Aristotle, a student of Plato and a genuine polymath. Aquinas studied the writings of Aristotle and wrote very extensive and exhaustive commentaries on his writings, which are still in print today. Aquinas understood that the articles of faith transcend human reason, for they are revealed truths, revealed by God and can only be adhered to by faith, which is a supernatural virtue and as such, cannot be cultivated on one’s own; faith, hope, and charity are graces infused at Baptism. But Aquinas knew that truth is one, and God is the origin of all that is true, for God is Truth Itself (subsistent Truth). And so the articles of faith, although they transcend reason, do not contradict reason. What Aquinas therefore set out to show was that what Catholics choose to believe by faith is not at all contrary to reason, but perfectly in accordance with reason. To help carry out this enterprise, Aquinas saw clearly that Aristotle was a much better instrument to use than was the philosophy of Plato and the Neo-Platonists, which is all that St. Augustine had access to in the 4th and 5th centuries. Aquinas understood Aristotle in light of the Catholic faith. What was incompatible with that faith was very subtly altered, and all that was genuinely good and true in Aristotle was employed at the service of the faith.

The key to adapting curriculum to a Catholic education lies in the faith of the teacher. The fundamental purpose of a Catholic education is to teach the faith, but there are a variety of subjects that are part and parcel of a good education, and there are a rather large number of teachers who have their own unique minds and special areas of interest and expertise. What makes a Catholic school a genuine Catholic institution is that each teacher, from his or her own unique vantage point, sees and interprets the world through a mind illuminated by the theological virtue of faith. The science teacher in a Catholic school loves science, but because she is a person whose mind has been illumined by faith, she can’t help but see and interpret the world that she’s interested in from that particular vantage point. It’s very much like someone who has fallen in love--such a person sees the face of the beloved in almost everything. And, of course, this is true of the English teacher, the history teacher, the business and economics teacher, the math teacher, etc. I am reminded of the poet Joseph Plunkett, whose eyes were such that he saw the Lord everywhere.

I see his blood upon the rose
And in the stars the glory of his eyes,
His body gleams amid eternal snows,
His tears fall from the skies.
I see his face in every flower;
The thunder and the singing of the birds
Are but his voice-and carven by his power
Rocks are his written words.
All pathways by his feet are worn,
His strong heart stirs the ever-beating sea,
His crown of thorns is twined with every thorn,
His cross is every tree.

Or, consider the Poem “Trees” by Joyce Kilmer:

I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.
A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the earth’s sweet flowing breast;
A tree that looks at God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;
A tree that may in Summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair;
Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
Who intimately lives with rain.
Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.

Every good poet is a contemplative. The skill of a gifted poet lies in his or her ability to express that vision, to incarnate it in fitting words and prose. However, not every contemplative is a poet, that is, not every contemplative has such a mastery over words. But every Catholic who has a vocation to teach is or ought to be a contemplative. He may be a contemplative science teacher, a contemplative math, history or business education teacher, and so he sees the world through a very specific conceptual framework, but one formed by the supernatural light of faith. Note the contemplative mind of Nobel Prize winning physicist Isidor Isaac Rabi: "Physics filled me with awe, put me in touch with a sense of original causes. Physics brought me closer to God. That feeling stayed with me throughout my years in science. Whenever one of my students came to me with a scientific project, I asked only one question, 'Will it bring you nearer to God?'" Or, consider the contemplative mind in the following words by Sir Joseph J. Thomson, also a Nobel Prize winning physicist (founder of atomic physics). In his Presidential Address to the British Association, he says: “As we conquer peak after peak we see in front of us regions full of interest and beauty, but we do not see our goal, we do not see the horizon; in the distance tower still higher peaks, which will yield to those who ascend them still wider prospects, and deepen the feeling, the truth of which is emphasized by every advance in science, that ‘Great are the Works of the Lord’.” Consider Joseph H. Taylor, the 1993 Nobel Prize winner in Physics: “A scientific discovery is also a religious discovery. There is no conflict between science and religion. Our knowledge of God is made larger with every discovery we make about the world.”

The scientific revolution arose out of 17th century Christian Europe. The reason is obvious: according to Jewish and Christian teaching, God created the universe out of nothing. The universe has its origin in God. Hence, material creation is worthy of study; for it is intelligible, ordered, good and beautiful, and it manifests the inexhaustibility of its divine origin in its vastness and variety. The sensible world is not an illusion or less than fully real as Plato thought--hence, the reason Plato did not spend a great deal of time studying it. But God the Son joined himself to a human nature; hence, matter is good. The Cathedrals were not only spaces of worship--of course, that’s what they were primarily--, they were the first solar observatories, not to mention “the greatest accomplishments of humanity in the whole theatre of art” (Paul Johnson. Art: A New History . New York: HarperCollins, 2003, 153). Think too of the contemplative delight that the lover of mathematics takes in the order, intelligibility, and beauty of mathematics in its various branches, a testimony to the primordial Intelligence behind the order of reality.

“Lifelong learner” is possibly a tired cliche, but a Catholic teacher whose faith is living cannot be anything other than a lifelong learner, and what he learns is profoundly religious in nature, regardless of the fact that he teaches science, or English, or French, or history, economics, politics, or math.

The Eyes of Faith

But what does it mean to see the world with the eyes of faith? To answer that question--a very important question indeed--we need to look at what Christian faith really is. The reason I say this is that many people are under the impression that the gospel is fundamentally a “morality”; some even suggest it is nothing more than a social justice morality. But this is a serious mistake that has negative repercussions for Catholic education, if left unchallenged. The gospel means “good news”. The original Greek term is evangelion , which in the ancient world meant extraordinarily good news. It was a word limited to the birth of a king, or a military victory--both rare events. The good news of the gospel is both the birth of the Messiah (Christmas) and his victory over sin and death (Easter). In short, the good news is the resurrection of Christ, which is his victory over sin and death. Christianity is about a Person. It is not primarily a set of dogmas or moral teachings or rules and regulations, etc. The gospel is a message of salvation first and foremost. That is why it is fundamentally about a Person, the Second Person of the Trinity, who joined a human nature in order to offer himself as a sacrifice to God the Father on behalf of the entire human race. Christ came precisely to redeem us from sin and eternal death. Francois Xavier Durrwell says it best when he writes:

The essential, basic reality of faith is this: man is borne towards another, towards God, who, revealing himself in Christ, gives salvation. What the believer affirms, the object towards which he makes his “leap of faith”, is not merely a truth of reason, or even a series of truths. The Apostles were not teaching doctrines, propagating religious ideas. They were the heralds, the witnesses of a person. Their preaching was proclamation rather than teaching: “What we preach is Jesus Christ our Lord” (2 Cor. 4-5). They were giving witness of Jesus Christ to a people which did not as yet believe; they were proclaiming the Lord Jesus.

The men who accepted that word were not simply giving their assent to a doctrine. They were attaching themselves to a person. There were believers then who did not know most of our finer points of dogma--which, after all, took centuries to formulate--who could not have answered most of the questions in our catechism. Yet they were true believers, who could shed their blood for what they believed. When it was a question of getting them to deny their faith, what they were asked to renounce was Christ. He was the object of that faith.

It could not be otherwise, since the Word spoken by God in the world, which the Apostles proclaimed, and in which they asked men to believe, was a Person, the Word of God which men must “receive” (Jn 1. 2).

The faith demanded by Christ is almost always his faith in a person: “Have the faith of God” (Mark 11, 22); “Do you believe in the Son of man?” (Jn 9, 35). He told Martha of Bethany, “I am the resurrection and the life: he that believes in me, though he dies, shall live. Do you believe this?” (Jn 11, 25-26). In the text faith has a double object--first a person, the person of Christ, “he that believes in me”: then a statement: “...though he be dead [the believer] he shall live. Do you believe this?” Here faith bears upon a person and upon a truth, but the second is closely dependent on the first: it is faith in Christ, who is the Resurrection and the life. The object to which faith attaches, then, is more sublime than any truth of reason, for it is the Person of Christ, subsistent Truth, revealed to the world.” ( In the Redeeming Christ , New York: Sheed & Ward, 1965, pp. 100-102).

When the gospel is reduced to a morality, i.e., to social justice, then Christ becomes incidental, and when Christ is incidental, the morality to which the gospel is reduced can go in any possible direction. Moreover, to reduce the gospel to a doctrine or an ethics can have the effect of relegating the primary function of the Catholic school to a specific department, namely the religion department. Not every Catholic teacher can teach religion, nor is every Catholic teacher interested in teaching religion. But every Catholic teacher with a living faith is called to help students to see certain aspects of this world (his special area of expertise) from the vantage point of a mind and heart illuminated by the supernatural virtue of faith. A curriculum designed by such a teacher will be a genuinely Catholic curriculum, if the teacher is given permission to allow himself to be an instrument of the Holy Spirit, to develop such a curriculum on an ongoing basis.

Fidelity to the Magisterium

Of course, there are many pitfalls that a Catholic teacher has to avoid. To be a Christian is to have become a “new creation”. Jesus Christ is not our role model, and much less is he our inspiration. There are so many great people in history who inspire, such as Confucius, Lao Tzu, Socrates, Rumi, or any one of the myriads of saints in the Church’s canon of saints. Role models and inspirational sources are outside of us; but Christ is not outside of us. Rather, we live in him and he in us. As St. Paul says: “I have been crucified with Christ, and the life I live now is not my own; Christ is living in me. I still live my human life, but it is a life of faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2, 20). We’ve all heard the expression “You are what you eat”. Our food and drink is the flesh and blood of Christ himself. Christ says in the gospel of John: “Let me solemnly assure you, if you do not eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. He who feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has life eternal, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is real food and my blood real drink. The man who feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him” (Jn 6, 53-54).

However, our life in Christ is a process. Although we are given the light of faith, not to mention the seven personal gifts of the Holy Spirit (at baptism), we are still prone to error. Our understanding of that faith and our ability to draw out the implications of faith in the Person of Christ is profoundly limited. Most importantly, our faith is fundamentally ecclesial. What this means is that when we were baptized, we were baptized into Christ’s Mystical Body, the Church. Baptism is a regeneration--we are born again, but only a mother gives birth; and so in baptism we have a new mother, namely the Church. Christ established a Church, and he founded this Church upon the foundation stones of the twelve Apostles, who are the official teachers of the Church:

When Jesus came to the neighborhood of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples this question: “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” They replied, “Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” “And you,” he said to them, “who do you say that I am?” “You are the Christ (Christos/Messiah),” Simon Peter answered, “the Son of the living God!” Jesus replied, “Blest are you, Simon son of John! No mere man has revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father. I for my part declare to you, you are ‘Peter’ (Petros/rock), and on this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; whatever you declare loosed on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Mt 16, 13-19).

Peter, of course, went to Rome and was therefore the bishop of Rome. He is the head of the college of Apostles, a father (papa) to the inhabitants of the New Israel, the Church (Cf. Is 22, 21-24). The Church as a whole enjoys a special charism, a charism that preserves the deposit of faith from error. Note that Jesus said: “On this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it”. To explain this, consider that Jesus referred to the devil as the father of lies, the principal source of falsehood. What Matthew sees here in this promise is that the Church will be preserved from doctrinal error (falsehood). We see this also in the gospel of John: “I will ask the Father and he will give you another Paraclete--to be with you always: the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot accept, since it neither sees him nor recognizes him; but you can recognize him because he remains with you and will be within you” (Jn 14, 16-17). In chapter 16 of that same gospel, Jesus says the following: “Yet I tell you the sober truth: It is much better for you that I go. If I fail to go, the Paraclete will never come to you, whereas if I go, I will send him to you. When he comes, he will prove the world wrong about sin, about justice, about condemnation... I have much more to tell you, but you cannot bear it now. When he comes, however, being the Spirit of truth he will guide you to all truth” (Jn 16, 7-13).

And so, the Catholic teacher who develops and adapts curriculum conducive to the ends of a Catholic education must be careful to think and teach in a way consistent with the teachings of the magisterium (Pope, cardinals and bishops). It is utterly important that Catholic teachers begin and continue to study the formulated teachings of the Church. No individual has this charism of infallibility, but the Church as a whole possesses this charism, and the magisterium is its organ. Moreover, to teach Catholic students dissenting opinions, that is, opinions that openly contravene Church teaching, is to violate the rights of Catholic parents, for it is parents who are the primary educators of their children, and the Catholic school is only an assistant to parents, whose rights are primary. To openly dissent and teach that dissent is to engage in a kind of false advertising; we advertise as a Catholic institution, ready and able to assist parents in what is their duty to raise their children in the faith, and then we belie that claim by role modeling dissent.

Another snare to look out for is the adoption of ideologies that appear to be consistent with Catholicism, but which are incompatible and inconsistent with the fundamentals of the faith. I remember studying Marxism at the University of Waterloo; a good Catholic professor made the point that yes, Marxism is certainly inconsistent with Catholicism, even though any decent Catholic should be concerned about much of what Marx was concerned about, namely poverty, injustice, the reduction of the worker to a cog in the machine of production, etc. Today, we often see the introduction of postmodern ideologies into the classroom, because they appear to be consistent with Catholic teaching, i.e., concern for oppressed minorities, racism, etc. A closer look into the roots of postmodernism, however, reveals that such ideologies are fundamentally inconsistent with the faith of the Church and do much to undermine it. Although it is true that all chickens are born from eggs, and all turkeys are born from eggs, it does not follow that all chickens are turkeys. Put into conditional terms, the following reasoning is invalid:

If a teaching is Catholic, then it will possess the properties of q, r, s, t.
This idea or ideology possesses the properties of q, r, s, t.
Therefore, this idea or ideology is Catholic (or consistent with it).

That would like drawing the conclusion that Canadians are Americans on the basis of the premises that 1) “If one is an American, one believes in democracy, a Constitution, and the importance of leisure; and 2) Canadians believe in democracy, a Constitution, and the importance of leisure.” Part of the reason that some educators have been hoodwinked in this regard is that they are unfamiliar with the philosophical roots of postmodernism, or they are unfamiliar with the fundamentals of Catholic teaching--or both.

Concluding Thoughts

We refer to Catholic education as a system, and a system is a unified artifact consisting of a multiplicity of parts ordered to a single end. That end, of course, is the teaching of the faith. But like all final causes, the end is the primary cause, that is, the cause of all the other causes (i.e., agents, material, and form). It has been said that the Catholic school “educates the soul”, and of course that is true. A potential problem with this expression, however, is that if a person thinks dualistically, as most people do, and view the soul as separate from the body, then there is a tendency to relegate the teaching of the faith to a separate department, namely the religion department--they “educate the soul”, while the rest of us educate matters of the world (the body), i.e., science, math, history, etc. However, if “soul” is understood psychosomatically, then the teaching of the faith is seen as the very form of the system, found whole and entire in every part, which is the vision we’ve outlined above. A Catholic curriculum is never a finished product, and the process of adapting curriculum is thus ongoing, but the key to success always goes back to the faith of the teacher. If that faith is living and fervent, grounded in Christ, prayerful and nourished by the reading of Scripture and the study of Church teaching, the curriculum will be authentically Catholic and incalculably beneficial to students.