Skip to main content

“Parents, who have the primary and inalienable right and duty to educate their children, must enjoy true liberty in their choice of schools.” This lucid and unambiguous statement comes from the Second Vatican Council's Declaration on Christian Education. For Catholics, it has been the authoritative document concerning education for more than 40 years.

Many of the principles outlined in the Declaration should appeal to both non-Catholic Christians and others. Upholding the rights, duties, and freedom of parents with respect to their children's upbringing and education is a responsibility shared by all who want to promote a society that is free and good.

As parents, political activists,and others continue to fight for educational choice, it might be appropriate to ask a related question: What kind of educational choices should we make?

Since the founding of this country, Catholic schools have provided an attractive option for parents concerned with the sound moral and intellectual formation of their children.The first parochial school in the United States was St. Mary's, established in Philadelphia in 1782. At the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore in 1884, the bishops gave new impetus to Catholic education by mandating the formation of Catholic elementary schools in every parish. In the Council's aftermath, American Catholics embarked on one of the most ambitious campaigns of educational institution building in history.

These efforts were motivated by ananthropological vision inspired by theology. “A true education,” the Declaration reminds us, “aims at the formation of the human person in the pursuit of his ultimate end and of the good of the societies of which, as man, he is a member,and in whose obligations, as an adult, he will share.”

Guided by this vision, Catholic schools have always recognized the multiple ends of the person: the good of earthly society in the short-term, the good of eternal life with God in the long term. The combination of moral formation and preparation for life in this world has made Catholic schools appealing both to those who share the theological vision specifically and to many who do not.

To honor this heritage of Catholic schooling and to strengthen its future, the Acton Institute has initiated a Catholic High School Honor Roll. Through its work with seminarians, academics, and religious and business leaders, the Institute is keenly aware of the importance of secondary schools in the promotion of a free and virtuous society.

The Catholic High School Honor Roll draws attention to those schools that have striven for the goals of the Declaration with particular zeal. “No less than other schools does the Catholic school pursue cultural goals and the human formation of youth,” the Declaration asserts. The Honor Roll takes into account schools' commitment to civic and economic education that will prepare students to engage the worlds of politics, civil society, and business.

These commitments do not exhaust the responsibilities of the Catholic school, however. It is specially tasked, the Declaration continues, with creating an “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 so that the knowledge the students gradually acquire of the world, life and man is illumined by faith.”

The Honor Roll thus also takes into account schools' embrace of their identity as Catholic, informed by a particular theological outlook. This outlook is a Catholic school's reason for being and when it flags, the school's ability to elicit academic excellence and to instill virtue tends to weaken, as well.

Examples of schools' fulfilling the Declaration's mandates abound. At Bishop McGuinness High School in Oklahoma City, a senior-level required course integrates Catholic social teaching with economics. At All Hallows High School in the Bronx, students gain an “integrated understanding of the forces guiding the entrepreneurial spirit that motivates private business in the United States today.” And at St. Cecilia Academy in Nashville, the faculty's aim mirrors that articulated in the Declaration: “to develop [students'] spiritual and physical potential in view of their final end and the good of society.”

Please visit www.chshonor.org and take a look at more oft he schools that deserve recognition for continuing a tradition of excellence. Without the capacity to choose the good, freedom itself lacks meaning. As long as schools such as those on the Honor Roll exist, freedom in education will remain a meaningful goal.


Kevin Schmiesing, Ph.D., is a research fellow for  the research department at the Acton Institute. He is a frequent writer on Catholic social thought and economics, is the author of American Catholic Intellectuals, 1895-1955 (Edwin Mellen Press, 2002) and is most recently the author of Within the Market Strife: American Catholic Economic Thought from Rerum Novarum to Vatican II (Lexington Books, 2004).