Free Education brought to you by The Catholic Church

blackboardIf you can read this, thank the Catholic Church.  What?  You’re thinking:  “I didn’t go to a Catholic school.  I went to public school.  What’s that got to do with the Catholic Church?”  In a word:  everything.  We Americans tend to have a pretty short view of history.  For us, anything over a few hundred years old is ancient.  The truth about education, especially in Europe, is that it was always for the powerful, the wealthy and the titled.  Average people, and by “average” I mean peasants and slaves (i.e. you and me) had no access to education at all.  In Jesus’ world, only temple priests and rabbis had access to learning how to read and write and do mathematics and geometry.  Roman families of wealth and power often used tutors (usually slaves from the Middle East and north Africa) to teach their sons.  Oh yes, it was only for their sons.  But your average shepherd or farmer would have been on his own.  Illiterate.  Occasionally a favorite slave might be given enough education to help out with his master’s business, but that was the rare exception.  For the most part, all the “regular Joes” (and every woman, even the titled or wealthy, were unschooled.  It was the world of the oral tradition, where everything you needed or wanted to know was passed on by word of mouth.  That’s how you learned history and poetry and religion–from listening to your elders and then passing on what you heard to your kids, etc.  Education as we know it simply didn’t exist.
Enter the Catholic Church.  From about the year 180 AD, free elementary, high school and college-level instructional schools were flourishing under the guidance of local Bishops.  Despite the persecutions by various Roman emperors, the Church knew that education the key to teaching and preserving the Christian message.  Heresies were constantly popping up and reading and writing were critical skills in combating them.  These earliest schools taught and trained future priests and clerics.  But if you were a farmer’s son or a shepherd’s son, a priestly vocation came with an education.  For the first time, you didn’t have to be royalty to be educated.  Over the next centuries, the educated priests would open parish schools to teach Holy Scripture and the laws of God (Council of Vaison in 529 AD). 
The Church began to welcome laymen (not just priests) scholars into their established schools.  In the Middle Ages, monastery schools were the center of all public education in Europe.  The Irish monasteries welcomed the children of the poor as well as the rich and they had such a fine reputation as centers of scholarship that laymen from England and all over the Continent went there to study.  Convents opened their schools to teach girls and young women, too.  The children of Europe learned reading, writing, grammar, rhetoric, debating, arithmetic, geometry and music.  The so-called “Dark Ages” were bright with the light of education.  By the time of the Third Council of Lateran, in 1179, the Catholic Church made free public education a part of Church law.  “Every Cathedral Church shall have a teacher who is to teach poor scholars and others, and that no one receive a fee for permission to teach.” 
So thank all your teachers, including your parents, who taught you your ABC’s and 123’s.  And remember that free public education goes back a lot further than our United States. It goes all the way back to the very beginning of Christianity.  The Church knew how important it was to educate the people of God.  Today, the Catholic Church continues to operate the largest non-governmental school system in the world.  The rich history of public education has its roots in the Catholic Church and we’re all the better for it.
“Go, therefore, and teach all nations…”        —Matthew 28-19


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