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Moral and Spiritual Values in Public Education

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

(Text of Speech Delivered at Communion Breakfast of Catholic Teachers Association of Diocese of Brooklyn, May 5, 1962)

Nowadays every one is talking about moral and spiritual values in public schools. The first sentence of the massive statement of the Educational Policies Commission of the National Education Association in 1951 stated that "A great and continuing purpose of education has been the development of moral and spiritual values. To fulfill this purpose, society calls upon all its institutions. Special claims are made on the home and the school because of the central role of these two institutions in the nurture of the young." 1 In 1955 the National Council of Churches held a conference on "Religion and Public Education." Its main resolution was "Since religious truth is a part of our heritage of truth, it should be included in the child's education wherever relevant to the subject matter of education." 2

The American Council on Education has published several volumes and in 1957 sponsored a national symposium at Arden House of Columbia University on the question. In the opinion of the American Council, "the intensive cultivation of religion is, and always has been, the function of religious institutions. To create an awareness of its importance is a responsibility of public education. In creating such an awareness the school is but rounding out its educational task, which culminates in the building of durable convictions about the meaning of life and personal commitments based upon them." 3

The following year, the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education finished a five year study of how to raise the religious literacy of teachers in public schools. "The chief purpose of this study," it was stated, "will be to discover and develop ways and means to teach the reciprocal relation between religion and other elements in human culture in order that the prospective teacher, whether he teaches literature, history, the arts, science or other subjects, be prepared to understand, to appreciate, and to convey to his students the significance of religion in human affairs." 4

And most recently the National Council of Churches has completed its own five year analysis of religious values in public education to publish a second report to the forty million Protestant and Orthodox membership of the Council. It concluded that "the public school should recognize the function of religion in American life, and maintain a climate friendly to religion, doing its share to assure to every individual the right to choose his own beliefs." 5

This sudden outburst of interest in religious values for public schools would seem strange unless we saw it as the spontaneous reaction of a believing people to the growing challenge of secularism in the United States, which threatens to deprive teachers of the right to communicate and pupils to receive a solid grounding in those fundamental spiritual principles on which our nation is built.

It is one of the paradoxes of history that the United States, where human liberty is specially prized and religious institutions have flourished as nowhere else in modern times, should yet be the only great country in the West where teachers have to defend their claim to transmit the religious heritage on which the existence of America depends. Paradox is a weak word to describe the perversion of American principles when the Supreme Court seriously undertakes to pass judgment on the sectarian character of the following prayer recited in the public schools of New Hyde Park, New York: "Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence upon Thee, and we beg Thy blessings upon us, our parents, our teachers, and our country." 6

A Catholic Attitude

What should be the attitude of Catholic teachers towards this crucial problem? As teachers you have a professional desire to give the students all the benefits of a well-rounded education, as Catholics you are interested in the spiritual welfare of those under your academic care, and as Americans you wish to promote those values which are more important than nuclear weapons to preserve our country from the dangers of a rampant Communism.

As I see it, there are five areas of basic concern that need study and concerted exploration in order to work out that integration of religious values and the standard curriculum which so many agencies are seeking to promote but that, I confess, is scarcely getting off the ground for lack of clear thinking and strong motivation, such as Catholic teachers in public schools may be expected to provide.

The areas of concern are a correct concept of religion, the meaning of "intrinsic to learning experiences" as applied to religion in the classroom, an understanding of the value of religion on the part of the teacher along with his appreciation of those religious values which he is expected to cultivate, and the methodology or technique by which teachers are to convey these values to students in the public school classroom.

Correct Concept of Religion. The first issue that needs clarification is the meaning of religion. Agencies like the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education are sincerely urging the integration of religion and public education, but they labor under the handicap of not knowing exactly what religion means. After years of research and consultation, they came up with such admissions as, "we have not flattered ourselves into assuming we could define `religion' in a way that would be acceptable to all." Or again, "it would be unwise for us to be stopped at dead center by our failure to agree on a definition."

Yet absolute clarity on the meaning of the very object of concern is indispensable. No doubt the main reason why research experts in the National Education Association and elsewhere have been stopped at dead center on defining terms is the radical tension that now exists between two contradictory notions of religion in the educational world, only one of which is valid and the other has so intruded itself as to obfuscate the genuine concept. When John Dewey wrote that "any activity pursued in behalf of an ideal and against obstacles and in spite of threats of personal loss because of conviction of its general and enduring value is religious in quality," 7 he arbitrarily removed belief in a personal God from the notion of religion and appropriated the traditional name to include his own brand of naturalistic humanism.

Let us not say that Dewey is passé or that his ideas are no longer in vogue. Dewey was only symbolic of the naturalism that has become deeply entrenched in the philosophy of American education.

Properly defined, religion is the sum-total of all the principles and laws which determine our responsibilities to God. Many of these can be recognized by the light of pure reason, and then the religion to which they give rise is natural; when additional ideas or precepts are supplied by a special, miraculous communication from the Deity, the consequent religion is revealed or supernatural. As applied to its integration with public education, the term "religion" is generic and covers both the natural and supernatural forms; but indispensable in either case is the recognition of a personal God.

How do we know that a personal Deity is essential to any authentic concept of religion? From a witness of the religious history of the world. The ancient Babylonians called him Bel, the Hindus Brahman, the Greeks Zeus, the Romans Jupiter, the Scandinavians Thor. Among the Jews it was and is Jahweh, among Moslems Allah, and for the Christians God. But whatever His name and however varied His attributes, He is always a greater than human personality who controls the happiness of men and demands their obedience and respect.

Coming closer to the classroom, what is the nature of those religious factors which the teacher is supposed to find intrinsic to the subjects he is handling? Take the field of literature. What does religion mean in Chaucer, Shakespeare or Milton, if not the acceptance of a personal God; or in history, in the religious institutions of the Greeks and Romans, in the origins of Christianity, the rise of Islam, the Crusades, the Protestant Reformation, the migration to America in search of religious freedom? Their common factor is always belief in a Supreme Being, with intellect and will, who is responsible for man's existence and determines his future destiny.

The immediate benefit of clarity on this point is to give direction to the business of correlating religion with the curriculum. We can hardly talk about methods and means of achieving integration if we do not know what we are integrating.

Religion as Intrinsic to Learning Experiences. Quite as important as a clear notion of what we mean by religion is a definite understanding of how precisely religion may be considered intrinsic to the learning process. It is a tribute to professional groups like the American Council on Education to have recognized the need of such intrinsic correlation.

Religion may be intrinsic to the process of learning in two ways: in terms of the subject matter of a given course, and of the student who is being taught. In the first case the object is to do justice to an apparently secular discipline like English or History, and teach it with all the religious data and explanation demanded for the academic integrity of the subject. In the second case, the aim is to do equal justice to the needs of the pupil as a human being and a member of civil society. Both types deserve to be more fully explained.

Religion is intrinsic to the contents of any subject in so far as the latter deals with human activity, of whatever kind, in relation to the Deity. The forms of this relation are myriad. They can be purely informational, as in a historical study of ancient Greece and Rome; or causal, as in tracing the religious inspiration of the Crusades; or reflective, as in the poetry of John Milton and the essays of John Henry Newman; or interpretative, as in the origins of the Reformation and the Bezboznik movement of Communism; or motivational, as in teaching civics and the social sciences.

It may be asked whether this correlation includes teaching about the doctrinal position of various religious systems, say, Mohammedanism or the different kinds of Protestantism. I would answer, yes, to the extent to which such information is necessary for an intelligent grasp of the subject under consideration. Thus, for example, not to treat of the faith of the English Separatists would deprive the student of a proper understanding of why the Pilgrim Fathers came to America.

Religion is also intrinsic to the learning process because of the subjective needs of the student, as a human being and a member of society. He has a personality that requires development, specific duties to others that have to be learned and rights that should be respected. In a word, his character must be trained in accordance with objective values, at the risk of becoming a burden to himself and a liability to everyone else. As expressed by the Policies Commission of the National Education Association, "The American people have rightly expected the schools of this country to teach moral and spiritual values. The schools have accepted this responsibility. The men and women who teach in these schools, as responsible members of society, share its system of values. As educators, they are engaged in a vocation that gives central place to values as guides to conduct." 8

However, it is one thing to say that schools should teach moral and spiritual values and another to identify these values as religious and based on the recognition of a personal God. Yet in principle and practice the two are inseparable. Man is a creature, and as such is subject to his Creator in all that he does. His moral conduct, therefore, is to be measured by its agreement or discord with the order established by the Creator in the universe. Consequently morality has its source in God and cannot be divorced from Him. Unless man's conscience is enlightened by the knowledge of principles that express the divine law, there can be no firm and lasting morality. So that without religion morality becomes simply a matter of individual taste, or public opinion, or of popular vote.

At this crucial point we must make a sharp distinction between the method of communicating religious values and the necessity of such communication. The method bristles with problems that call for generous cooperation between Catholics and Protestants, Christians and Jews; it demands prudence and infinite tact because of our pluralistic society. But the necessity is beyond dispute.

I have been working for more than ten years in this field of religion and public education, have served on a variety of committees studying the issue and projecting plans for its implementation. If there is one conviction left with me from dealing with educators of every religious persuasion it is the unanimous desire of believing people to see religious values communicated in the public school classroom. The conflict which this desire meets is not among Christians and Jews who profess their belief in God; it is between those who believe and the militant minority who successfully promoted the McCollum case and are now promoting the New Hyde Park removal of prayer from public institutions of learning.

I remember working on a committee in St. Louis with Dr. J. Lester Buford, then President of the N.E.A. Dr. Buford told the group what a pity it was that believing Christians and Jews were always on the defensive in this matter of religion and public education. Every court case of any moment in the past generation, he remarked, involving moral and spiritual values in public schools, was initiated by a small group of those whom we patronizingly call unbelievers. Their efforts to secularize the schools by legal and judicial process have been almost unimpeded. Buford concluded that until parents, administrators and teachers who believe in religious values are at least as zealous to safeguard what we still possess and promote what we commonly judge to be further necessary, we have only ourselves to blame if public education becomes thoroughly secularized.

Understanding the Significance of Religion. Knowledge is the prerequisite for action. Unless teachers understand what religion means, what impact it had on the history and literature of nations, and how it contributes to the shaping of character, they can hardly take it seriously or treat it competently in the classroom. In fact, their ignorance of religious values will be a deterrent from using them to the advantage of their pupils.

Addressing myself to teachers who accept the Judaeo-Christian philosophy of life, I wish to point out what I consider the cardinal significance of religion in the history of the Western world. It is the mainspring of motivation for men and women who sacrifice so much to communicate to others a share in the spirit which they possess.

We believe that man, as he now exists, is not in the condition he would have been if he had not become originally estranged from the Creator. A primordial fall has left his mind and will substantially intact but also gravely wounded in their capacity for right knowledge and right conduct without assistance from God. The help he needs for the mind is revelation, the aid for the will (along with the mind) is grace. The first he obtains through faith in the God who made him, the second through humble prayer.

Let no one object that to bring recognition of faith and the need of recourse to God into public schools is sectarian. It is sectarian only to those who do not believe in God and would deprive others of this faith if they could. To us and to millions who do not profess the Catholic faith, religion includes the admission of man's inability, of himself, to reach the destiny of his existence, and the corresponding necessity of divine aid.

This fact emphasizes the importance of having teachers in the classroom who personally appreciate what they academically understand, in order to give their students the full benefit of a balanced integration of religious values. I admit this runs counter to what some educators hold, that the unbeliever can often by his open-mindedness and freedom from specific religious commitment better deal with religious ideals in the classroom than the believer. To me this is incredible. By the same token Communists should be more competent than Americans to speak on American democracy, and the best interpreter of Shakespeare is the man who despises poetry.

An appreciation of religious values psychologically implies a personal dedication to those values in the teacher's private and social life. What the teaching profession most needs, and without which all the talk about integrating religion and education remains sterile, is a growing number of men and women who instinctively communicate what they cherish because religious principles are the bedrock of their own lives. In the measure that a person has learned to live and deal easily with the invisible Teacher who abides in the depths of his soul, will he treat of spiritual things with a delicacy that does not offend and a prudence that will not obtrude on the autonomy of the youngest child.

Conveying the Significance of Religion. The final stage in this process is the actual communication of moral and spiritual values, which in itself would not be hard were it not for the limitations imposed by a heterogeneous student body, the civil law, and the American concept of separation of Church and State. Limitation, however, is not elimination. There is a definable substratum of principles which underlies the great religious cultures in America, and within whose limits teachers should consider themselves free to deal in the classroom.

It would not be hard to isolate these principles in abstract language, but I prefer to draw them verbatim from the writings of Moses Maimonides, the medieval Jewish sage whose thirteen articles are as close as Judaism ever came to a formal confession of faith, and are commonly accepted by the Jewish people. I offer four of these articles as the basic Judaeo-Christian framework for teaching moral and spiritual values in the public schools.

I believe with perfect faith that the Creator, praised be He, is the Creator and Guide of all creation, and that He alone made, does make, and will make all things.
I believe with perfect faith that the Creator, praised be He, knows every deed of men and their thoughts, as it is written. "He fashions the hearts of them all and observes all their deeds."
I believe with perfect faith that the Creator, praised be He, rewards those who keep His commandments and punishes those who transgress His commandments.
I believe with perfect faith that there will be a revival of the dead at a time when it shall please the Creator, praised be He, and exalted His name forever." 9

To anyone familiar with the current national efforts in the field of religion and public education, the major problem is right here. How, concretely and realistically, can the fundamental religious truths be correlated with the academic disciplines in such a way as to avoid the two extremes of teaching sectarian doctrine or indulging in meaningless platitudes? The platitudes offer no trouble and nobody worries about them. But the danger of sectarian indoctrination is the bete noire, and the one issue that plagues every educator who studies the question. It is also the ostensible motive for opposition in some quarters to any program of religion in public education that would involve a change in the status quo.

One of the great services that Catholic teachers can render to the present cause is to clarify certain concepts for others in the teaching profession whose vision in this matter is less clear. They can show that there are religious values, basic to Judaism and Christianity, which are not sectarian or denominational but represent the common spiritual heritage of our nation. They can distinguish between a legitimate separation of Church and State, and an impossible separation of religion from civil society and its institutions, including public schools. They can prove, from their own experience, how easily and effectively the deepest spiritual convictions may be cultivated in students without encroaching on their particular creed and with recognized benefits to individuals and to society.

I have in mind the plan worked out by a Catholic teacher in the public school system of Detroit. She called it "Training for Moral and Ethical Values," and after more than twenty years of unqualified success has inspired numerous other teachers to follow her example. I quote from her own preamble of objectives.

To present a unified plan of instruction for the individual growth and social development of our children, according to God's moral law, the Ten Commandments, as the foundation of the American Way of Life in a Nation under God.
To train our children to understand better the Changeless pattern of God's moral law as the true guide in the changing events and circumstances of life, and to direct them in the daily practice of God's Way of Love rather than hate, knowing God as the Father of the human family, who desires us to live together in brotherly love, regardless of color, creed, or social, national origin or economic status.
To use the daily events and situations in school life as opportunities to learn by thinking and by doing; to see desirable effects in habitual practices of God's moral law, as we willingly direct our efforts to happy and satisfying living, which is the best possible preparation for all to build a better world; in other words, to encourage every child to build a better person within. 10

Needless to say, a program of this kind will take foresight and a degree of communicability that differs with different people, schools, and concrete situations. It may surprise you to hear this, but studies made some time ago in the State of Iowa showed that of all teachers in public schools, those who were least communicative or, as the report called it, the "most self-arrestive," were Catholic. By actual count, teachers of other persuasions were up to six times as willing to raise religious issues in the classroom and discuss them with pupils as were Catholics. I do not say this is typical, but it is symptomatic and suggests a built-in reluctance, born of fear and, I think, unawareness of the widespread desire in the best educational circles to make teaching a transmission of culture and not only the acquisition of skills.

Looking to the Future

About a century ago, a Princeton theologian, Dr. A. A. Hodges, argued that "if every party in the state has the right of excluding from public schools whatever he does not believe to be true, then he that believes most must give way to him that believes least, and then he that believes least must give way to him that believes absolutely nothing, no matter in how small a minority the atheists or the agnostics may be." It is self-evident, Hodges concluded, that on this scheme, if it is consistently and persistently carried out in all parts of the country, the United States system of national popular education will be the most efficient and wide instrument for the propagation of unbelief which the world has ever seen." 11

Much has happened since Hodges wrote just after the Civil War. His fears about public education becoming "the most appalling enginery for the propagation of anti-Christian and atheistic unbelief" have not been verified. On the contrary, public schools have become the bulwark of American democracy and one of the principal instruments of unity in a melting pot of nations. They have done much to safeguard American traditions, including religion, and have helped to produce some of the greatest of this country's spiritual leaders. We are confident they can do as much in the future, while recognizing that a new element has entered the scene. Certain interests, influential in shaping national opinion, are now opposed to any semblance of religious values in public education.

As expressed in a bulletin of the American Humanist Association, there is a growing pressure to conformity, which those who do not believe in theism must resist by all the means at their disposal. Among the targets of resistance is "a steady encroachment of religion upon public education: through released time for religious instruction, through Bible reading and the recitation of prayers in the schools, and through the efforts to incorporate religious teachings in the curriculum itself." 12

Aroused by such pressure groups, the Protestant Churches of America have awakened to the crisis. They declare themselves unequivocally in favor of integrating religion with the regular curriculum and warn against any shibboleths about mixing church and state. " We believe that religion has a rightful place in the public school program," officially declares the Methodist Church, "and that it is possible for public school teachers, without violating the traditional American principle of separation of church and state, to teach moral principles and spiritual values. Such teaching would afford a background for further and more specific instruction on the part of home and church. The home and church must carry the chief responsibility for nurturing vital faith which motivates life, but the home and church must have the support of our public schools." 13

These are not passing sentiments but the grave judgment of most of our fellow citizens. They need our help in this competition for the soul of America. Currently two forces are struggling for mastery of the public school system: high-minded religionists in every denomination who are deeply concerned for the spiritual welfare of the country, and straddling or confused secularists who place selfish and doctrinaire interests before what they call "ethical theism," which derives from the acceptance of a personal God.

In the years to come it will make a world of difference whether Catholics are alert to this tension and place their influence on the side of believing educators or allow naturalism to win by default. The reward of generous labor on the side of religion is not to be measured in dollars and cents, or even in terms of this-worldly compensation, where human souls are involved. A child, we are told, is a pledge of immortality, for he bears upon him in figure those eternal excellencies in which the joy of heaven consists, and which would not thus be shadowed by the all-gracious Creator, were they not one day to be realized. It is our privilege to cooperate in this realization.


  1. Moral and Spiritual Values in the Public Schools, Educational Policies Commission, N.E.A., 1951, p. 3.

  2. International Journal of Religious Education, March, 1956, p. 24.

  3. "Religion and Public Education," Religious Education, July-August, 1957, p. 248.

  4. Teacher Education and Religion Project (Statement of Principles), American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, 1958.

  5. Relation of Religion to Public Education, National Council of Churches, 1960, p. 22.

  6. Louisville Courier-journal, December 4, 1961.

  7. John Dewey, A Common Faith, New Haven, 1934, p. 27.

  8. Moral and Spiritual Values in the Public Schools, p. 3.

  9. Judaism (Arthur Hertzberg, editor), New York, 1961, pp. 22-23.

  10. Mary C. Sullivan, Training for Moral and Ethical Values, Detroit, n.d., p. 3.

  11. Christianity Today, February 27, 1961, p. 4.

  12. Free Mind: Bulletin of the American Humanist Association, September, 1955, p. 3.

  13. Doctrine and Discipline of the Methodist Church, Nashville, 1952, p. 653.

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