Site Loader
Catholic Education for Character Formation

The Mission and Purpose of Catholic Education

When someone tells you that I attended a Catholic school, or I am a product of St. Theresa’s Catholic School, what do you think the person is in effect saying? He or she is saying that I am what I am because I attended a Catholic school or I was shaped character-wise by a Catholic school. People send their children to Catholic Schools not just because of academic excellence only but because of the holistic nature of the formation, which entails academic, moral, and spiritual formation. As Aquinas noted, the true aim of education is not merely the cultivation of the intellect but also the formation of moral character. The purpose of Catholic education is to form children into little Christ and help the children to continue in the process of transformation into Christ, which involves forming the whole person. Here, we talk of the character of the person because the character is the very core of our being (Cronin, 1999). This agrees with the assertion of Abraham Lincoln “Character is like a tree, and reputation, its shadow. The shadow is what we think it is, and the tree is the real thing.” It is the hallmark and the sole formation of Catholic education. Catholic school, as an educational mainstay of the Church, is called to be an agent of that formation and transformation.

The Catholic education stresses character formation and wants the children to be found worthy in learning and in character. I love this saying during graduation ceremonies; “the school authority has found this person worthy in learning and in character.” This agrees with the assertion of Theodore Roosevelt, “To educate a person in the mind but not in morals is to educate a nuisance to society.” It suggests that education without character formation is deadly and dangerous. Hence, Mahatma Gandhi calls it a deadly sin when he said that there are seven deadly sins: “Wealth without work; Pleasure without conscience; Science without humanity; Knowledge without character; Politics without principle; Commerce without morality.” Therefore, we must place a premium on character formation because it is an essential thing, and it is our identity. As Joseph Conte notes, “The essential thing is not knowledge, but the character.” Supporting this view, John Wooden maintains, “Be more concerned with your character than your reputation, because your character is what you are, while your reputation is merely what others think you are.” The question is, what do we know about character?

Concept of Character

“Character” is the constellation of virtues possessed by a person. Character education can be defined as the deliberate effort to cultivate virtue (Laura Berquist, 2013). The particular virtues or natural moral virtues that Catholic schools should seek to cultivate or foster in the lives of their students are the four “cardinal virtues” advanced by the ancient Greeks. They are prudence (which enables us to judge what we ought to do), justice (which enables us to give other persons their due), fortitude (which enables us to do what is right in the face of difficulties), and temperance (which enables us to control our desires and avoid abuse of even legitimate pleasures).

In Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle calls the character, or habitual formation of man, his ‘second nature.’ He made this assertion because the formation becomes so closely united to the soul that it is as though it were the nature with which one began life. This formation cannot be separated from the person; it is not a disguise intended to deceive or to impress others. It shapes a person in such a way that he either strives to do good or lives a life dominated by vice.

When I first read Plato’s Gorgias, I was struck by the argument that when one is a vicious man, that is, a man of bad character, one is led by his or her passion. Such a person is not in control of his life; he does not determine his actions in the light of the goals he wishes to achieve. “I do whatever I feel like doing” is the cry of someone who does not rule or direct his life but rather follows his passing fancy. He is subject to the inclinations of his passions and is thus a slave.

Process of Character Development

Character formation is an on-going process, and it takes time. Character matures somewhere between the ages of 24 and 30. So children complete the process of character formation on their own (that is, without us, though never without God). In his book Character Building: A Guide for Parents and Teachers, the British psychologist David Isaacs (1976) offers a more elaborate scheme of 24 moral virtues, grouped according to developmental periods during which the different virtues should be given special emphasis:

(1) Up to 3- 7 years: obedience – obedience is not the only virtue, but it is central (respecting legitimate authority and rules), sincerity (truth-telling with charity and prudence), and orderliness (being organized and using time well).

(2) From 8 to 12 years: fortitude, perseverance, industriousness, patience, responsibility, justice, and generosity.

(3) From 13 to 15 years: modesty (respect for one’s own privacy and dignity and that of others), moderation (self-control), simplicity (genuineness), sociability (ability to communicate with and get along with others), friendship, respect, patriotism (service to one’s country and affirmation of what is noble in all countries).

(4) From 16 to 18 years: prudence, flexibility, understanding, loyalty, audacity (taking risks for good), humility (self-knowledge), and optimism (confidence).

A Comprehensive Approach to Character Development

Thomas Lickona presented ten approaches to character development in Catholic schools thus:

1. Teach them the truth about the Catholic faith: Christian doctrine (CD) must be compulsory in every Catholic school. This is our identity and one of the ways of forming the character of the students in the Catholic spirit. As the scripture tells us, “train up a child in the way he will go, and when he is old he will not depart from it” (Prov. 22:6). We must see the overwhelming importance of our role as educators of our children, both in terms of their intellectual and their moral formation, and give ourselves wholeheartedly to this task. In this light, character development in Catholic schools must be Gospel-centered, environmental, and non-negotiable. All teachers involved in the school must articulate Gospel values in words and deeds and fully commit themselves to use every teachable occasion to instruct, model, and encourage the students.

2. The teacher as a mentor. The relationship between the teacher and the student is the foundation of everything else in character education. In their relationships with their students, teachers can exert a positive influence on character development in three ways: respecting and loving their students, setting a good example, and serving as moral and spiritual mentors. As educators, we must be careful about our dressing code, what we say before the children and the ideas and values we sell to them.

3. Parents’ collaboration:  The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches, “The role of parents in education is of such importance that it is almost impossible to provide an adequate substitute. The right and the duty of parents to educate their children [is] primordial and inalienable… Showing themselves obedient to the will of the Father in Heaven, [parents] educate their children to fulfill God’s law.” Our duty as parents, as laid out in Pius XI’s encyclical On the Christian Education of Youth, consists essentially in preparing the children for what they must be and for what they must do here below, in order to attain the sublime end for which they were created. Parents must collaborate with teachers in educating the students and P.T.A meetings can be used to educate the parents about their roles. Many of our parents do not know their duties, and we must educate them with a view to educating their children. 

4. Building their prayer life.  In The Spiritual Hunger of the Modern Child, Addison (1985) reports an inter-faith conference that addressed a difficult question: Why are our young people abandoning the faith? School leaders must not make the school less a family. Students should be helped to develop their prayer life and community prayer life. If you build their prayer lives and inculcate the fear of God in them, you will have less trouble. Monitor the prayer life of your students. Check, how many have time for personal prayer? How many are communicants? How many book masses? What is the level of the petition box? How often do they have a retreat? All these questions will help to scale up the spiritual level of the school. 

5. Build a school culture: Culture is simply defined as ‘the way we do things around here’ (MacGilrist et al., 1995, p.36). Culture is seen as the routines, values, norms, procedures, and expectations of the institution (Brundrett, 1999). Culture defines reality for those within a social organization; it gives them support and identity and norms, as well as a framework for occupational learning (Hargreaves, 1994). The culture of an organization is expressed through the ways in which those who belong to the organization feel, think, and act. School culture is shaped by its history, context, and the people in it. It is influenced by the school’s external context and the students in the school, and their socio-economic background (Stoll, 2003). Bolman and Deal (1991) see culture as both product and process:

As a product, it embodies the accumulated wisdom of those who were members before we came. As a process, it is continually renewed and re-created as new members are taught the old ways and eventually become teachers themselves (p.250).

Culture varies from school to school. We must develop our culture, influenced by Catholic teaching and African tradition. It requires that we teach the children how to greet elders and relate with others in the community. If you enter Lumen Christi, you will see our honour code – The Ten Commandments for living in a community. I make the students recite it every day and live by it. It has shaped their behaviour and character.

6. Frequenting the sacrament of Reconciliation. For Catholic schools, the sacraments — in which we encounter Jesus and receive transforming graces — must be at the center of any effort to develop the character of Christ in our children or ourselves. With young children, Confession helps them to form a conscience. In The Splendor of Truth (1993) (Veritatis Splendor), Pope John Paul II writes: “Christian morality consists, in the simplicity of the Gospel, in following Jesus Christ, in abandoning oneself to him, in letting oneself be transformed by his grace and renewed by his mercy.” We, as educators, must help children to develop their sense of sin and have an active conscience. If they lose the sense of sin and have dead consciences, they can do anything undisturbed.

7. A caring classroom community. Children need adults who love them, set a good example, and teach them about good character and spiritual life, but they also need positive relationships with each other. The peer group can provide an experience of belonging and mutual support, or it can provide an experience of exclusion and cruelty. Cooperative learning is a way to ensure that no child is left out of the classroom community. Catholic schools, like most schools today, struggle with growing brutality among students, therefore, we must help to eradicate bullying and intimidation, and create a community of love. This builds positive character in the children. If this is not done, the children may be influenced negatively. This agrees with Friedrich Nietzsche that “Association with other people corrupts our character; especially when we have none.”

8. Moral discipline. Discipline is the key to success. Research indicates that 92% of intelligent and successful students have self-discipline. As an educator, you must key into this finding and inculcate discipline in the students. Discipline, if it is to serve character development, we must help students develop moral reasoning, self-discipline, and respect for others. Rules should be established, in a way, which enables students to see the moral values, such as courtesy and caring, behind the rules. The emphasis should not be on extrinsic rewards and punishment but the intrinsic reward, on following the rules because it’s the right thing to do — because it respects the rights and needs of others.

9. Participation in the decision-making. We can also build character by involving students in shared decision-making that gives them responsibility for making the classroom a good place to be and learn. The chief means of creating this kind of shared responsibility is the class meeting, a face-to-face circle meeting emphasizing interactive discussion. Most importantly, class meetings help students go beyond “saying the right words” to doing the right thing. As school leaders, have conferences with the students, seek their opinions, interact and dialogue with them to come up with decisions. Because they are involved, they obey easily. They learn to act on their words.

10. Caring beyond the classroom. Catholic schools have a long tradition of fostering character through service. Service begins in the school — older students serving as reading buddies to younger ones, for example — and then extends outward to the Church and to the whole human family. Give them the opportunity to serve others – like the Teen Star going to an orphanage to give a helping hand. They must learn to take responsibility and act and serve in love.


If we must maintain our identity as Catholic schools, known for discipline and character formation, I will recommend:

1. There is a dichotomy between the values formally presented at school and those practiced at home and among peers. Therefore, all heads of schools should incorporate into the P.T.A. an ongoing formation program for both parents and teachers that can contribute to a well-formed, active conscience and the practice of virtuous living in the adolescent.

2. Prayer life of the school should be a concern.

3. Give the right orientation to students that they do not need help or cheat in order to pass an examination.

3. Time for angelus must be obeyed by all in the school.

4. Let school leaders be careful about the quality of teachers employed in Catholic schools- focus on the ones that can impact the students’ character positively.

5. Watch what you do, as Margaret Thatcher would say: Watch your thoughts, for they become words.
Watch your words, for they become actions.
Watch your actions, for they become habits.
Watch your habits, for they become your character.
And watch your character, for it becomes your destiny.
What we think, we become.

Fada Ti Publisher

One Reply to “Catholic Education for Character Formation”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *