If we believe in God, and in a God that has given us the great reality of the Incarnation, thus ennobling the human enterprise, then we must automatically proceed to the importance of education. This learning about God (theology) and about Human Beings (philosophy) and Existence (Science and the Arts) flows directly from this positive initiative in God’s revelation. It is the reason behind the aforementioned fullness (in a previous essay on Catholicism) in our faith.
We take for granted the worldwide reputation that Catholic Education has. In country after country, some of the best schools are Catholic in origin and in administration. I remember an article in the New York Times about 20 years ago that traced the education of all the major political leaders in the Middle East (most of them Muslim). A very high percentage of these went to Catholic Schools! Of course, the majority of students in these schools practiced Islam, but the reputation of Catholic education was such in many of the countries of the Middle East that children from the wealthiest homes sought out a Catholic education. That is not to say that they became Catholics. There are many ‘bad boys’ in even Catholic countries that turned out decidedly anti-religious (a famous example is Castro in Cuba who was educated by the Jesuits). However, there is a worldwide recognition of the importance of Catholic Schools. Historically, the Catholic Church established Universities in the West. For instance, in Protestant England, Oxford and Cambridge were originally religious institutions of the Catholic Church.
This concern and respect for education was passed onto the Protestant Churches. Harvard and Yale were first founded as Divinity Schools to train clergy and then gradually became full-fledged Universities.
The drive to educate which is so universal and basic in Western Society was a civilizing gift of the Christian Faith. This includes a respect not just for Theologies (other Faiths have developed their own Rabbinical and madrasas) but places of learning that see everything in the world (religious and non-religious) as worthy of study and development. I cannot recall the equivalent to the University occurring in any other religious context.
Quite practically in our own day, we see the importance of faith based schools. In New York City, immense financial means are poured into our public school system and yet our Catholic Schools, running on a shoestring budget, have a much higher success rate in regards to graduation and educational advancement.
Clearly, our confidence in God and a vividly sacramental, incarnational celebration of all of reality (essential in the Catholic view of things) has given strength and legitimacy to a broad-minded emphasis on education that is truly universal (hence the name of the collection of colleges that grew up in the Middle Ages: University). This understanding is so pervasive and so accepted that it is seldom adverted to. But it nonetheless is true. To be a Catholic Christian, you must be open to Science, Education, and the Arts in a truly religious way; not by subjecting these disciplines to the principles of theology, but by according them the intellectual freedom which they must have if they are to progress, while reserving for the Church the right to evaluate and even criticize them if they conflict with some basic principle of the faith.
Even in the parish, we have sought to encourage the religious and spiritual education of the Laity. Film Festivals, Lecture Series, and Bible Classes are continually offered up for the ongoing education of our adults. As has often been said: Jesus blessed children and taught adults. We tend to think we should teach children and bless adults! However, we truly believe that education is for everyone, whatever their age or background. And that is based on the foundations of the Catholic edifice: our faith that God is always the true ‘Rabbi’ of our life and that we are all learners.