Pope Pius XI and the “golden treatise” on the Christian education of youth

This is the ninth in a series of articles, rooted in the teaching of Divini Illius Magistri, which seeks to assist parents in preparing their children to live as mature Christians in dangerous times. This series began on 18 January 2023 with The goal of education: a timeless message for parents from the Lion of Münster.

Throughout Divini Illius Magistri, Pope Pius XI emphasises the rights of parents to direct the education of their children without interference from the State, citing the teaching of Pope Leo XIII, as well as St Thomas Aquinas and the Code of Canon Law.1

Another rich source of guidance to which Pope Pius XI repeatedly draws the attention of the Catholic faithful is the “golden treatise” of Cardinal Silvio Antoniano (1540–1603), whom he describes as “a disciple of that wonderful educator of youth, St Philip Neri and teacher and Latin secretary to St Charles Borromeo”.2 

“It is not our intention to treat formally the question of domestic education, nor even to touch upon its principal points. The subject is too vast. Besides there are not lacking special treatises on this topic by authors, both ancient and modern, well known for their solid Catholic doctrine. One which seems deserving of special mention is the ‘golden treatise’ already referred to, of Antoniano, On the Christian Education of Youth, which St. Charles Borromeo ordered to be read in public to parents assembled in their churches.”3

In plain down-to-earth language, Pius XI draws particular attention to Cardinal Antoniano’s insistence on the great delicacy which is necessary when parents teach their children about the intimate aspects of human sexuality. He contrasts the errors of modern sex education with the approach, recommended by Cardinal Antoniano, of a father cautiously talking privately to his son (and, hence, by logical extension, a mother talking to her daughter).

“Another very grave danger is that naturalism which nowadays invades the field of education in that most delicate matter of purity of morals. Far too common is the error of those who with dangerous assurance and under an ugly term propagate a so-called sex-education, falsely imagining they can forearm youths against the dangers of sensuality by means purely natural, such as a foolhardy initiation and precautionary instruction for all indiscriminately, even in public; and, worse still, by exposing them at an early age to the occasions, in order to accustom them, so it is argued, and as it were, to harden them against such dangers.

“Such persons grievously err in refusing to recognise the inborn weakness of human nature, and the law of which the Apostle speaks, fighting against the law of the mind; and also in ignoring the experience of facts, from which it is clear that, particularly in young people, evil practices are the effect not so much of ignorance of intellect as of weakness of a will exposed to dangerous occasions, and unsupported by the means of grace.

“In this extremely delicate matter, if, all things considered, some private instruction is found necessary and opportune, from those who hold from God the commission to teach and who have the grace of state, every precaution must be taken. Such precautions are well known in traditional Christian education, and are adequately described by Antoniano, cited above, when he says:

‘Such is our misery and inclination to sin, that often in the very things considered to be remedies against sin, we find occasions for and inducements to sin itself. Hence it is of the highest importance that a good father, while discussing with his son a matter so delicate, should be well on his guard and not descend to details, nor refer to the various ways in which this infernal hydra destroys with its poison so large a portion of the world; otherwise it may happen that instead of extinguishing this fire, he unwittingly stirs or kindles it in the simple and tender heart of the child. Speaking generally, during the period of childhood it suffices to employ those remedies which produce the double effect of opening the door to the virtue of purity and closing the door upon vice.”4

The teaching of Pope Leo XIII and Pope Pius XI was also upheld by Pope Pius XII in an address to French fathers on 18 September 1951. The words of these Popes are steeped in Divine Law, in apostolic teaching and the tradition of the Church, and in a realistic and holy knowledge of the constant battle between good and evil in the soul of every human being.

The next article in this series will begin to explore more deeply the “golden treatise” of Cardinal Silvio Antoniano, On the Christian Education of Youth.


  1. Divini illius magistri, 33–35.
  2. Ibid,54.
  3. Ibid, 72.
  4. Ibid, 65–67.