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Question 160: Must teachers try to tell their students the whole truth?

I teach a Sunday school class for teenagers at our parish and also teach history in a public high school five days a week. Due to different sorts of constraints, I have encountered problems in both situations about answering students’ questions. Of course, I try to tell them the truth. But even though I would like to tell them the whole truth, I must often settle for a good deal less, then wonder whether I’ve done the right thing.

Recently, for example, my Sunday school class asked about euthanasia. I gave a fairly detailed presentation of the Church’s teaching. Then, toward the end of the class, somebody asked about the Church’s position on abortion when the life of the mother is at risk. I was about to respond by explaining the principle of double effect, but the kids’ eyes already were glazed from trying to understand what I had said about euthanasia. Their attention span was used up, and I knew I would lose them completely if I tried to explain double effect. I said the Church in general does not oppose abortion if the mother’s life is genuinely in danger and there is no other way to save it.

I am often in this situation when teaching. I want to give a detailed and thorough answer, but the class dynamic or the students’ capacity restricts me. I hate giving an answer I know is simplistic or too broad, but sometimes it seems one must choose between keeping students’ attention while giving a flawed answer and giving a thorough answer but not reaching them at all.

Teaching history in a public school, I face additional constraints. Students naturally are curious about what teachers personally believe and about their motivations. Moreover, some of my students are very bright, and their probing questions often press beyond the carefully drawn, antiseptically neutral boundaries of the textbooks, and bring to light the ultimate religious and philosophical issues at the heart of so many historical developments. Naturally, I would like to tell them the whole truth as I see it, but I am sure I could never get away with that.

Most of the teachers at my school are either liberal Protestants or complete nonbelievers. Their outlook corresponds pretty well to the world views prevailing among parents in this wealthy suburban district. From what students tell me and from what these teachers themselves say, it is clear that they don’t hesitate to tell students what they believe, advocate their own values (often amounting to what I regard as vices of self-indulgence, status seeking, greed, and so forth), and belittle traditional religious faith and its values. But if I—or any traditional Catholic, evangelical Protestant, conservative Jew, or devout Muslim—were to express and promote his or her beliefs and values just as freely, I am sure some parents, other teachers, and the administration would condemn it as religious proselytizing, a violation of the separation of church and state, and so forth.

But even if I could get away it, I wonder whether it would be right. My history students do not come to me to be catechized, as my Sunday school students do. The public school is supposed to be religiously neutral, and in undertaking to teach there, it seems I have implicitly agreed to accept some constraints.

How far may I go in expressing my beliefs and promoting my values in the classroom, and just where should I draw the line?


This question calls for the derivation of norms for the questioner’s teaching activities. When children ask teachers questions they cannot adequately answer under the circumstances, they must take care to avoid saying not only what is false but what would be likely to mislead, that is, generate an erroneous opinion. Public school teachers should answer questions about their personal beliefs and state briefly their reasons for holding them. However, the questioner should behave better than colleagues in several ways: refrain from evangelizing students, present others’ beliefs accurately and fairly, respect students’ rights, and help students develop their intellectual capacities so that they can fulfill their own responsibility to pursue the truth about ultimate questions.

The reply could be along the following lines:

Your first question is one all teachers, including parents, constantly confront. Students, especially curious children, ask many questions that one cannot answer by presenting all the information one has and giving the fullest explanation available. There is a limit, set by the capacity of the questioner, circumstances such as lack of time, or both.

In such cases, try not to mislead the questioner or other members of the class. One misleads not only by saying something one considers false but by saying something one foresees is likely to lead students to accept an unsound argument or an erroneous position. Teachers, who know a great deal more than their students, seldom can tell them the whole truth. But one always can try to communicate as much as possible without misleading. Simplified and broad answers are sometimes necessary, but they can be labeled clearly as such, so that they will not be likely to mislead.

I realize you did not mean to mislead your Sunday school students, but I am afraid you did just that in saying “the Church in general does not oppose abortion if the mother’s life is genuinely in danger and there is no other way to save it.” That formulation is bound to be understood as meaning that the choice to destroy an unborn child is morally acceptable if it is made for the good end of saving the mother’s life—a position incompatible with the Church’s clear teaching that no choice to destroy an unborn child ever can be justified, regardless of the good end sought.359

Asked by eighth graders about the Church’s position on abortion when the mother’s life is at risk, I would have answered along the following lines:

Since time is running out, I cannot answer your question as fully as I would like, but I will say this. The Church holds that nobody may ever kill an unborn baby for any reason whatsoever. So, the Church teaches that everything possible should be done to save both the mother and the child, and that killing either of them on purpose always is wrong. Sometimes, of course, it is impossible to save both, and, in trying to do the best they can, doctors do something with a chance of saving one that also leads to the death of the other. That is not killing on purpose, and, even if it leads to the baby’s death, the Church’s teaching against abortion does not apply to it.
While such an answer does not fully explain what the Church teaches and avoids technical language about double effect, it calls attention to its own incompleteness and, so far as it goes, is not misleading. Often, in giving such an answer, it also is appropriate to offer to explain the matter more thoroughly to interested students after class, to recommend a good reading on the topic, or to promise a fuller answer in a later class. (In that case, of course, you must make good on the promise!)

I also think teachers sometimes do well to respond to questions with abbreviated, technical answers they do not expect most students to understand. Of course, one must be careful to avoid insulting and frustrating them. But such an answer, presented with respect and as a challenge, can arouse students’ curiosity and stimulate at least some to learn far more than they otherwise would.

The other problem, about the constraints under which you operate as a history teacher in a public high school, seems to me more difficult.

When the subject matter leads students to ask probing questions, teachers should be free not only to express their beliefs and acknowledge their values but explain them, and in this way, at least, promote them. In doing this, teachers committed to some form of traditional religious faith should not compromise it by suggesting that other beliefs are equally valid for those who hold them or that all beliefs are a mere matter of personal opinion or feelings; those are expressions of relativism and subjectivism incompatible with every form of monotheistic, religious faith. Moreover, when students assert or take for granted some form of relativism or subjectivism, teachers with faith should not let their views go unchallenged. Rather, it is a teacher’s duty to point out that, though many questions have no single right answer, still, of any two conflicting positions at least one surely is false, and its falsity must be discovered and established so as to work toward truth (see q. 159, above).

Still, as you seem to realize, you should not take the propagandizing of your liberal Protestant and nonbelieving colleagues as a model. The professional role you have accepted as a public school teacher does limit how you can express your personal beliefs and profess your Catholic faith. This limitation applies not only to teachers, but to many other professionals, such as lawyers and judges, physicians and nurses, and so on. In many instances, a devout and thoughtful Catholic can bear witness to his or her faith only by relating to others in a virtuous way and fulfilling professional responsibilities that leave no room for any explicit statement of faith.

Even if you were teaching in a Catholic school, your professional role as a history teacher would set certain limits. You would owe it to your students to inform them about various historical accounts and interpretations, and the evidence and arguments that support them. While you would say what you think true and why, you could not forbid your students to express other views. In no case would it be right to penalize a student, by a grade or otherwise, for disagreeing with you or rejecting Catholic teaching. Your primary responsibility would be to help students acquire the commonly accepted information and major views on important disputed issues, and assist them in developing their intellectual capacities so that they could assimilate and organize the material, think clearly and critically, and resist fallacies. Even when students held beliefs you regarded as false, you would have to help them articulate their beliefs, consistently draw out their implications, and explain them as well as possible.

Teaching in a public school where traditional religious faith and values are the exception rather than the rule, you are of course under additional constraints—for example, from the set syllabus and assigned textbooks. For several years I taught philosophy in a public university in Canada and experienced somewhat similar constraints. I found that organizing a legitimate course plan and sticking to it won the confidence of students and colleagues who did not share my faith. Acknowledging elements of truth in views with which one disagrees and frankly admitting difficulties in one’s own views also help to allay suspicions of bias. When questions not strictly relevant (including those regarding my own beliefs and thinking) came up in class, I regularly pointed out their irrelevance and answered very briefly, adding an invitation to anyone interested to discuss the matter after class. This strategy often led to lively discussions outside class; I do not think any student open to the witness I had to offer was deprived of it.

However, in describing the freedom with which your fellow teachers express their liberal Protestant or secular humanist beliefs and values, you point to a fundamental fallacy underlying the public school system in the United States, namely, the myth of neutrality. Thus, I think you are mistaken in saying that the textbooks you use remain within “antiseptically neutral” boundaries.360 In fact, there is no way to be neutral between a world view that regards human (and, perhaps, also subhuman animal) feelings and interests as ultimate principles of all truth and value, and one that regards God’s wisdom and love as ultimate. All schools and school systems implicitly favor some sort of religious faith or some alternative world view by their methods of discipline, ways of motivating students, selection of textbooks, choices of subjects to be included in (and excluded from) their curricula, and so on. But disingenuously ignoring reality, majorities of the U.S. Supreme Court have decided repeatedly since 1945 against traditional theism and in favor of secularism.361

In sum, you work within a radically unjust social structure that you are powerless to change. You cannot expect to do everything you want to do for your students or everything you would be obliged to do if you had the freedom you ought to enjoy. Do not blame yourself. Do the best you can under the circumstances, pray for your students, and hope to be satisfied along with others who hunger and thirst for justice from a tribunal superior to any this world calls “Supreme.”

359. See John Paul II, Evangelium vitae, 58–63, AAS 87 (1995) 466–74, OR, 5 Apr. 1995, xi–xii; LCL, 488–505.

360. For evidence and arguments showing that to a considerable extent public school textbooks and curricula are not religiously neutral but are shaped by secularist assumptions, see Warren A. Nord, Religion and American Education: Rethinking a National Dilemma (Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 1995), 138–91.

361. See Germain Grisez and Joseph M. Boyle, Jr., Life and Death with Liberty and Justice: A Contribution to the Euthanasia Debate (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1979), 313–31.