One thing is very clearly established in the document: education, for Catholics, is necessarily bound up with Jesus Christ and with the proclamation of His Gospel. It cannot be “religiously neutral.” There is no sharp separation between the sphere of faith and the sphere of life in the world; everything in human life must be permeated with faith and aim at the ultimate end of heaven. The council fathers even obliquely refer to St. Pius X’s famous motto, Instaurare Omnia in Christo:
To fulfill the mandate she has received from her divine founder of proclaiming the mystery of salvation to all men and of restoring all things in Christ, Holy Mother the Church must be concerned with the whole of man's life, even the secular part of it insofar as it has a bearing on his heavenly calling. ... A true education 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.
The document also recognizes that the central subject in Catholic education must be theology, with a strong awareness of its liturgical expression and consummation, as well as its inherently apologetic and missionary character:
A Christian education does not merely strive for the maturing of a human person as just now described, but has as its principal purpose this goal: that the baptized, while they are gradually introduced to the knowledge of the mystery of salvation, become ever more aware of the gift of Faith they have received, and that they learn in addition how to worship God the Father in spirit and truth (cf. John 4:23) especially in liturgical action, and be conformed in their personal lives according to the new man created in justice and holiness of truth (Eph. 4:22-24); also that they develop into perfect manhood, to the mature measure of the fullness of Christ (cf. Eph. 4:13) and strive for the growth of the Mystical Body; moreover, that aware of their calling, they learn not only how to bear witness to the hope that is in them (cf. Peter 3:15) but also how to help in the Christian formation of the world that takes place when natural powers, viewed in the full consideration of man redeemed by Christ, contribute to the good of the whole society.
Again, although to some it might seem surprising, the Council unambiguously reaffirms the traditional teaching that parents are as responsible for educating their children as for procreating them, that they have a right and a duty to be their children’s teachers, and that their marital sacrament gives them the grace to discharge these responsibilities:
Since parents have given children their life, they are bound by the most serious obligation to educate their offspring and therefore must be recognized as the primary and principal educators. This role in education is so important that only with difficulty can it be supplied where it is lacking. … It is particularly in the Christian family, enriched by the grace and office of the sacrament of matrimony, that children should be taught from their early years to have a knowledge of God according to the faith received in Baptism, to worship Him, and to love their neighbor. … Let parents, then, recognize the inestimable importance a truly Christian family has for the life and progress of God's own people.
Of course, the declaration goes on to acknowledge the existence and the good work of a host of schools of different kinds, private and public, secular and religious, and exhorts teachers in particular to be worthy of their vocations and sensitive to their students’ real needs:
Let teachers recognize that the Catholic school depends upon them almost entirely for the accomplishment of its goals and programs. They should therefore be very carefully prepared so that both in secular and religious knowledge they are equipped with suitable qualifications and also with a pedagogical skill that is in keeping with the findings of the contemporary world. Intimately linked in charity to one another and to their students and endowed with an apostolic spirit, may teachers by their life as much as by their instruction bear witness to Christ, the unique Teacher. Let them work as partners with parents and, together with them, in every phase of education give due consideration to the difference of sex and the proper ends Divine Providence assigns to each sex in the family and in society.
No apologies to feminism in that final sentence!
A last interesting snippet concerns how colleges and universities should emulate St. Thomas Aquinas in seeking a harmonious synthesis of faith and reason and in leading the natural mind into captivity, as it were, to supernatural truths, for the elevation of all of human culture. The graduates of such institutions are expected to be witnesses to the Faith—this, one might say, is the measure of whether education has yielded anything like the fruit God intends it to have:
The Church is concerned also with schools of a higher level, especially colleges and universities. In those schools dependent on her, she intends that by their very constitution individual subjects be pursued according to their own principles, method, and liberty of scientific inquiry, in such a way that an ever deeper understanding in these fields may be obtained and that, as questions that are new and current are raised and investigations carefully made according to the example of the doctors of the Church and especially of St. Thomas Aquinas, there may be a deeper realization of the harmony of faith and science. Thus there is accomplished a public, enduring and pervasive influence of the Christian mind in the furtherance of culture, and the students of these institutions are molded into men truly outstanding in their training, ready to undertake weighty responsibilities in society and witness to the faith in the world.
We know that there was a major collapse of Catholic education (and indeed of all education) in the years and decades following the Council. We also know there has been, in God’s Providence, a small but strong countermovement, especially in the United States, where many new grade schools, high schools, and colleges have been successfully founded by staunch Catholic laity determined to resist the dictatorship of relativism. I had the honor of attending one such school and, later, of helping to establish another. My experiences taught me to see that, even when things are generally looking bleak, the power of the risen Christ is still and always at work in the lives of faithful believers.