Tuesday, September 15, 2020

The Divine Teacher - Divini Illius Magistri

Pope Pius XI wrote Divini Illius Magistri (translated as The Divine Teacher), an encyclical on Christian education, in 1929. Written between the two world wars and at the beginnings of modernity, the document tackles various topics about Catholic education. Pius XI states that the document aims to: "to summarize its main principles, throw full light on its important conclusions, and point out its practical applications" (#3).

To use a popular 21st Century approach to organizations, Sinek's Golden Circle, the document focuses on WHY Catholic education is needed and important, HOW to go about carrying out this mission, and WHAT Catholic schools produce in their students as they accomplish this mission.


Anchored in Scripture, Pope Pius XI begins with the words of Jesus from Mark's Gospel (10:14), "Suffer the little children to come unto me" (#1). 

An encounter with Christ, who is the "way, the truth, and the life" (John 14:6) is an essential component of an education that is meant to "(prepare humans) for what (we) must be and for what (we) must do here below, in order to attain the sublime end for which (we were) created" (#7). 

Pius XI continues in paragraph 16 with more commands from our Divine Teacher, "All power is given to me in heaven and in earth. Going therefore teach ye all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you, and behold I am with you all days, even to the consummation of the world" (Mt. 28:18-20). So as to fight against an elitist or insular mentality, Pius XI uses this same mandate from Jesus to remind us that Catholic education isn't just for Catholics or the wealthy or certain people. We are called to embrace "every nation" (#25) extending the Church's mission to educate "equally to those outside the Fold, seeing that all men (and women) are called to enter the kingdom of God and reach eternal salvation" (#26). 

Catholic schools form one of the many ministerial arms of the Church, helping to bring people to fullness of life through an encounter with Jesus Christ. Simply, the mission- Christ's mission - has a Church and schools...and hospitals and universities and shelters and countless other ministries all aimed at establishing the Kingdom of God here on earth while also advancing it in heaven. Pius XI positions Catholic education in step with Christ's mission for the salvation of all souls. 

In this way, Pius XI argues that our means - our HOW - must be as pure as this noble end.  


It is appropriate then, that Pius XI spends most of the document describing how Catholic schools are to execute Christ's commission to us all. Expertly explaining the interplay between the family, the state and the Church, Pius XI leans on natural law often in this text, clearly making the case that the child belongs first to the family, declaring, "existence does not come from the State, but from the parents" (#35). Parents and families, therefore, "are under a grave obligation to see to the religious and moral education of their children, as well as to their physical and civic training, as far as they can, and moreover to provide for their temporal well-being" (Codex of Canon Law, 1917, #1113).  

Pius XI cites the 1925 Supreme Court ruling in favor of the Sisters of the Society of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary when they fought the state of Oregon against compulsory public school education. In a sense, this made possible many of the school choice options enjoyed across our country. 

Yet another reason to celebrate the heroic efforts of women, especially religious women. 

Parents and families turn to both the Church and the state for help with this education. The state, granted its authority from divine law, supports the common good (#42). The state then creates schools and other civic services to help members of society in all matters, including education. The Church, because of the authority She has rooted in divine law, is compelled to ensure that the family's rights are protected and that there are suitable means for the full education of its child(ren). 

And, everything is under the Church's maternal supervision: 

Therefore with full right the Church promotes letters, science, art in so far as necessary or helpful to Christian education, in addition to her work for the salvation of souls: founding and maintaining schools and institutions adapted to every branch of learning and degree of culture.[13] Nor may even physical culture, as it is called, be considered outside the range of her maternal supervision, for the reason that it also is a means which may help or harm Christian education. (#21)

Moreover, this synthesis of faith and reason leads to a synthesis of faith, culture, and life. This important approach to Catholic education will be carried throughout many subsequent documents. 

Combatting the rising tide of nationalism at the time, Pius XI demonstrates that good Christians make good citizens, posing that the Church has contributed to the world in myriad ways: arts, literature, science, education, government. Quoting St. Augustine, the Pope writes:

Let those who declare the teaching of Christ to be opposed to the welfare of the State, furnish us with an army of soldiers such as Christ says soldiers ought to be; let them give us subjects, husbands, wives, parents, children, masters, servants, kings, judges, taxpayers and tax gatherers who live up to the teachings of Christ; and then let them dare assert that Christian doctrine is harmful to the State. (#53)

At multiple points in this encyclical, Pius XI reminds us that grace elevates nature. 

In what might be considered an outdated fashion, Pius XI tackles sex education (#65 - 67) and co-education (#68). 

He also addresses the media - theaters, cinema, books, periodicals and radio! - and how we must safeguard children from being exposed to "the dangers to morals and religion that are often cunningly disguised" therein (#91). While we might once again consider this protection archaic, there is something to be said for keeping our kids sheltered from the rampant violence, sex, and overall disrespect found in the media until they are mature enough to navigate these waters successfully. Even Pius XI advocates for being in the world "forewarned and forearmed as Christians against the seductions and the errors of this world" (#92).  

Pius XI celebrates the important work of the teacher. In the teacher we should find the synthesis of faith, culture, and life. We should find the "bee, which takes the choicest part of the flower and leaves the rest" (#87) as the teacher brings students to fullness of life in Jesus Christ. Teachers will allow the school to accomplish its mission, "Perfect schools are the result not so much of good methods as of good teachers" (#88). 


In closing, Pope Pius XI gives us a poetic description of the product of Catholic education: 

Hence the true Christian, product of Christian education, is the supernatural (person) who thinks, judges and acts constantly and consistently in accordance with right reason illumined by the supernatural light of the example and teaching of Christ; in other words, to use the current term, the true and finished (person) of character. (#96)

He continues, that this true Christian, this person of character, the product of Catholic education: 

(D)oes not renounce the activities of this life, (he/she) does not stunt (his/her) natural faculties; but (he/she) develops and perfects them, by coordinating them with the supernatural. (He/She) thus ennobles what is merely natural in life and secures for it new strength in the material and temporal order, no less then in the spiritual and eternal. (#98)

In other words, as we go about trying to accomplish our mission for the salvation of all souls, we will create outstanding Christians who use their intellect and their will to honor God by building up earthly society to make it more just, more humane, more loving, more patient, more beautiful, more of a reflection of the world our Divine Teacher intended it to be.