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Montessori and Catholicism

Author Kathy O´Brien considers the philosophy behind Maria Montessori´s approach to education with a particular look at how it relates to the Catholic faith.
by By Kathy O´Brien | Source:
Let us consider the philosophy behind Maria Montessori´s approach to education with a particular look at how it relates to the Catholic faith.

Dr. Montessori discovered and based her approach on truths about human nature. Inasmuch as truths about created things have their origin in God, these truths are compatible. Montessori´s approach does not contradict Catholic teaching and philosophy. In fact, there is actually a similarity between the psychological principles underlying the Montessori approach and those put into practice by the Church in her liturgy and taught by her great philosopher, St. Thomas.

I shall consider the following topics: the importance of understanding the true nature of the child; Montessori in light of scholastic philosophy; and Montessori´s understanding and application of the Catholic doctrine of grace. And as a conclusion, how this applies to us adults.

My primary source for this talk is "Child in the Church." I shall quote from Dr. Montessori´s writings as well as many quotes by E.M. Standing. Standing was a Quaker who met Dr. Montessori in India while he was considering becoming a Hindu and thought Catholicism was rooted in paganism. Through his friendship with Dr. Montessori however, he became a Catholic. A scholar and teacher, he said he only really began to learn when he began working with children in the Montessori way.


Our Lord exhorted us to become like a child. What does this mean? Consider behavior often associated with childhood, naughtiness, strong tempered, untidy, etc. These are not qualities I would expect our Lord to want us to imitate. Yet throughout the New Testament, the child is placed before adults as the model. Indeed the New Testament begins with a Child, Jesus Christ became one. We recall other references to the dignity of the child: "If anyone hurts the conscience of one of these little ones that believe in Me he had better have been drowned in the depths of the sea with a millstone about his neck." (Mt 18:6) "See to it that you do not treat one of these little ones with contempt." "He who welcomes this little child in my name, welcomes me."

Based on the emphasis placed by God on us becoming like a child, I think it is fitting that we ask "What is the child? What are the qualities we are to imitate?" I suggest a fresh, objective search for the answer. As a medical doctor, Montessori took an objective, scientific approach not dictated by the commonly accepted ideas about how children learn and behave. In the words of E. M. Standing:
It has now become clear, to those who are deeply acquainted with her work, that the essence of it is not that she has invented a new method of education, but that she has been under Providence, the means of making an important discovery, no less than the discovery of the true nature of the child. (The Child in the Church, 73)

The traits commonly associated with childhood are actually deviations from their true nature. She discovered that as small children are treated according to certain principles, they manifest certain characteristics; such as:

love of work in preference to play; a real intellectual concentration and persistence in work; an emotional harmony and a stability which reveals itself in their calm and orderly behavior;...an attachment to reality rather than play acting;...and a spontaneous self-discipline. (74)

These characteristics which seem to have been hidden and now revealed are what Our Lord must want us to imitate when He says so strongly: Unless you be converted and become as little children you shall not enter the kingdom of Heaven.

St. Thomas says we cannot know God as he truly is if we have a false understanding of His creatures. Standing says:

Children are creatures of God; and, if Montessori has discovered certain basic truths about their nature and laws of their development, it our DUTY as parents and educators to become acquainted with them. (75)

Montessori had a profound idea of these natural laws. Just as humans have natural laws to guide their physical development, she saw that there are also laws to guide the psychological development. She also saw that seeing and responding to those laws in the child is a way for adults to do God´s will for that child, since the laws are of God. She says:

To discover the laws of the child´s development would be the same thing as to discover the Spirit and Wisdom of God operating in the child. We must respect the child´s objective needs as something which God Himself has commanded us to satisfy. This is the true mentality for the educator, that is, the recognition of the Divine Wisdom as a necessary element in his work as educator. (14)

Since her approach is based on the natural laws which she discovered by observing children, it is not surprising that her education is in keeping with Thomistic and Aristotelian philosophy. Standing holds that the Montessori approach is a practical application of the scholastic teachings about human nature. St. Thomas´ teachings should not simply be studied in the abstract; they should be applied to how man lives and to how children are educated.

Study of her method reveals many Thomistic principles underlying her approach. As a basic principle, scholastics hold that man is a compound of two elements spirit and matter. Likewise, Dr. Montessori´s fundamental point on which her approach is based is that: man´s nature consists in the perfect union of body and soul. She considered it:

The duty of the parent and teacher not only to foster the physical growth of the child, and help him to acquire ordered physical experience, but also to enable the child to perfect the relation between soul and body, so that the [body] becomes the apt instrument and means of expression of the [soul]. (68)

She considered the child often at a disadvantage because adults fail to realize that children possess knowing and willing faculties which are greater than their ability to express themselves; therefore, she emphasized the importance of trying to understand the child. Children were attracted to her because they knew that she would help ´translate´ their means of expression.

In her classroom for the child under age 6, she developed exercises which would allow for the development of the faculties of the soul but also for the development of the body, so that the body would become a better instrument of the soul. Thus, from the beginning her approach is directed to the whole person, body and soul. For the child before age 6, she developed precise practical life exercises and logical analysis of movements whereby the child becomes better able to use his body as he directs. (e.g. pouring pitchers)

Another Thomistic idea implemented is the idea that the human mind knows ´by composition and division´. To know, the mind must put things together and take them apart. Man begins by knowing things in general, then considers the particulars and later returns to the general with a clear understanding. Montessori speaks of bringing the universe to the child. She begins with the large picture, then focuses on details. The universe cannot be brought to the child which allow him to return to the larger picture with what she calls the ´keys to the universe´. In doing these exercises the child´s hands and mind are active in the formation of clear images for the child which are the keys to seeing the world. The scholastics called these images ´phantasms´. St. Thomas says: "Our intellect knows material things by abstractions from phantasms; and that by knowing material things it becomes in some manner able to understand immaterial things." The materials provide the means of creating the phantasms and therefore are points of contact between the concepts outside the child and his mind. Once these keys are given, a world of colors or of rocks, flowers, etc. are opened for the child. This allows the child to better understand the universe but more important, according to Montessori, it evokes wonder and gratitude at the order of creation and his role within it. It allows an otherwise wandering mind to focus on parts which fit together into a whole not miscellaneous unrelated facts which add confusion rather than clarity.

St. Thomas also said the truth must be broken up into simpler elements until a point is reached where the mind understands and then this knowledge can be built upon. The materials provide an amazing sequence of learning in which the concepts are broken up into smaller elements; each small new step depends on the previous understanding (e.g. in elementary, algebraic formulas are taught using materials which were used in a more simple way in the primary).

Montessori´s use of materials implements another scholastic principle: "Nothing is in the intellect which was not first in the senses." "From hands to mind" is an expression often repeated in Montessori training. Again, the union of body and soul is her goal. The materials used by the senses are the doorway to the mind. The Montessori directress does not approach the intellect directly with words and formulas. She presents the materials in an attractive way and the child works with them, and thereby comes to know the concepts rather than simply being told them. The conventional method of memorization and abstraction is not used. The child learns division of fractions, for example, by working with divided materials.

It is a joy for the child to come to understand and possess an idea for himself. In scholastic terminology, Standing says: There are indeed moments of sudden intellectual expansion in the lives of these tiny scholars when one can almost see the ´agent intellect´ abstracting the ´intelligible species´ from those ´phantasms´ which the children have gained through contact with the material. (69)

From a very young age children want to do things for themselves. In Montessori, the rule is given only after the materials have been used. In this way the child works using body and soul to discover truths. Her method emphasizes the process of knowing not just getting the right answer or memorizing a fact. This is in keeping with the nature of man´s knowing faculty; man can understand, can contemplate, which differentiates us from animals and indeed from computers which can spit out facts.

St. Thomas says we learn better what we learn with pleasure than without it. Our own experiences testifies to this. The Montessori child is allowed to follow his interest in choosing work. Lessons are presented to him and he can then choose what to do. The directress takes her guidance from the child to know when to present new work. In her training she learns what to teach and how, from observing the child she learns when. He works not for external ends such as grades or because he is told what work to do by the adult. This helps develop his will and helps him be present to the work for its own sake.

St. Thomas taught that "the natural inclination of man is toward knowing" and that a "faculty of itself does not err concerning its own proper object under normal conditions." If man indeed has a natural inclination to know, then not only the adult but also the child has this inclination as part of their nature. Yet why do some children not exhibit this? Notice that St. Thomas says a faculty does not err ´under normal conditions´. This suggests that if a child does not exhibit this inclination to know, the normal conditions must be lacking not the inclination. For example, if a child never hears spoken language, he will not speak. He still possesses the inclination but normal conditions for learning to speak were lacking. If the normal conditions had been present, he would have learned to speak. The surprising characteristics seen in the Montessori classroom may be explained simply as the result of the child being in the normal conditions. Dr. Montessori discovered the proper conditions and we can benefit by learning and applying them.

Montessori´s use of material things to convey concepts to the mind is not unlike the approach the Church has used in the liturgy. The Church has used signs and symbols to convey spiritual realities: the use of water in baptism helps us understand what is happening spiritually, genuflections, bells and incense help us be attentive to Christ´s presence. Statues, candles, ashes, processions, the Rosary (which Standing once called a ´Montessori material´) appeal to our souls indirectly by first appealing to our bodies.

Christ´s miracles and indeed His very incarnation utilize the material thing to convey spiritual realities which would otherwise remain too abstract. The Church, understanding that we are body and soul, knows that we need more than words and more then ´visual aids´, we need these ´sensory-motor aids´. Standing calls these external actions "´point of contact´ between us and the great world of spiritual realities outside of us." (104) Let us appreciate, maintain and joyfully do these practices which the Church utilizes. In ´Osservatore Romano´ an author writes:

I believe that one can truly say that the great value in the Montessori Method lies precisely in this - that it has rediscovered and put into practice in a wide field that pedagogical method which the Church in her millennial wisdom has always used. (107)


In her approach Dr. Montessori applied the Catholic understanding of grace. She believed grace builds on nature and just as a seed needs to land of fertile soil to grow, grace needs to land on a cultivated nature to grow. Montessori saw that the exercises in the classroom, although separate from religious education, were a preparation for it. St. Thomas tells us that the fullest development of the natural faculties is the best preparation for the supernatural life since "grace builds on nature, not destroying but perfecting it." (74) Even a non-Catholic Montessori approach will develop the natural preparing it to receive the supernatural. But, for the Catholic Montessorian, Standing says, the final aim is not attaining the natural virtues but the goal is reached when the "natural virtues have been raised to the supernatural plane, through the influence of sanctifying grace." (78)

Montessori held and applied the Catholic teaching that man was not completely corrupt with the Fall. She said that "in spite of the moral disorder brought about by original sin, there still remains in human nature a great potentiality for goodness." Montessori used the analogy of wheat in the field to make a point about the natural goodness latent in all children. (51) Inferior wheat plant can grow in the fields without cultivation. Destroying them does not guarantee a good harvest. If the good wheat is to grow it must be cultivated and if it is, the inferior wheat seed will not be able to grow. Montessori says: "The key to the problem is, therefore, not to destroy evil but to cultivate good." (53) Thus allowing the roots of good to sprout in the child´s soul.

She saw the child´s life of grace in the Church as the culmination of her method. She had a profound understanding of Baptism. With Baptism the child is created anew and must be approached with awe. The parent who has this approach will see that the child belongs to God and that "they have received from God´s own hand this dependent and helpless infant in order that they, as God´s helpers, may rear this new child of God according to divine plan." (13) Montessori states:

True respect for the child is only possible when we have respect for God in the child. The individual who does not believe in God, ...who considers man as the supreme being, inexorably falls into a tyrannical attitude toward the child. (14)


Dr. Montessori says it is essential that the adult working with children be prepared inwardly. The adult must, "consider his own character methodically with a view to discovering any defects within himself which might prove obstacles in his treatment of the child." (456) The greatest hindrances to this are anger and pride. She saw that anger was more often directed to a child than to another adult because the child is defenseless and because we become impatient with their vivacity and spontaneity. Pride causes us to demand respect simply because we are adults without gaining it or giving it. The adult must cast off pride and anger, seeing children as Christ saw them. This vision enlightened by charity does not make us see everything as good and suggest that we should approve of everything that the child does. She considered such vague optimism a great degradation and disrespect of the child. Rather, this vision prevents us from focusing on the evil, which with fallen nature we have a tendency to do. Montessori says this vision is: a sensibility capable of seeing good wherever it may be found, even if it is something quite small and hidden away, is allied to the perfect love which does what Christ asks: "Permit the little children to come to me."

Dr. Montessori believes that the child has lost much of his natural grace and charm because often his only value is seen in that some day he will be an adult. Montessori says the child has its own value, "the child and the adult are in fact two different and separate parts of humanity which should interpenetrate and work together in the harmony of mutual aid...having reciprocal influence." (7) It is easy for us to accept that we adults aid the child, but the child is also an aid to the adult and should be a formative influence on the adult world. A child can change the hearts of adults. In the presence of a child hardness disappears. Dr. Montessori says: "The child can annihilate selfishness and awaken the spirit of sacrifice," tenderness and affectionate care. "The love which then begins is like a revelation of the moral greatness of which man is capable when his child obliges him to feel as a parent. In this way does God move and form the adult through the child." (12)

She thinks this influence of the child on the adult will be even greater when the adult is aware not only of the physical but also the spiritual needs of the child. Without this influence of child on adult, she fears the loss of the dignity of the adult.

Although unaware of his influence, Montessori regards the child as "a great external grace which enters the family, in which he fulfills the apostolate of the child." (8)

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