Monday, November 26, 2012

Montessori and Original Sin

This blog gets an astonishing number of Google search hits for "Montessori original sin", so as I typed something up for another blog, I thought I would also post it here. It won't post there until Friday, so I find it amusing that the re-print will show here first ;)

One day, I gathered all my notes to write something about Montessori and Catholicism - specifically Original Sin, since this seems to be a huge sticking point - if Montessori sees only the good in a child, what about Original Sin? And what about "breaking the will"? And how could we dare just "follow the child" because their errant ways will only lead to more errant ways if they have complete freedom!

Well, besides issues of the balance of freedom and responsibility which is inherent in all properly Montessori environments, and the fact that we follow the child only within a prepared environment full of only good choices, I might mention that Montessori emphasizes time and again that when once a negative action or behavior shows itself we nip in the bud - no warnings, no 1-2-3-Magic, no "reasoning" with the 3 year old. But no strict harsh punishments either - we simply stop the behavior and move on. Don't LET those bad habits develop! As the child ages, more reasoning can occur, but by then, the child has been formed in many good habits and the negative things that come up can be dealt with as they happen. Anyone who says that a young child cannot then possibly reveal anything beautiful and holy to us adults, is not obeying the Lord's words, "Let the little children come to me, for heaven belongs to such as them." Hm. Original Sin. Yet heaven belongs to the children, not to adults.

But someone else has said all of this so much better than I could! In googling to find more information and supportive documentation, I found the following site (please visit to read the full article) and I LOVE this paragraph in particular:

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.

And there are all of her own writings - if you read them in full context, they explain themselves! Be sure to look for older publications as somewhere in the 60s, many of her books were re-printed with huge religious sections removed. So newer printings have been heavily secularized. 


And then I found these: 

To ignore the child’s spiritual nature is to ignore the very essence and purpose of education.
It is important, in this light, to make Dr. Montessori’s understanding of the nature of the child clear.  She considered the child to be good, but broken.  The child is good in that he is created to be good, and broken in that he is subject to the effects of Original Sin – as St. Paul lamented in his own behavior - not doing the things he wants to do and doing the things he does not want to do.  Her method, she believed, removed many of the obstacles that result in frustration which causes children to lose focus on learning and therefore display ‘broken’ behavior.  By freeing the child from these frustrating obstacles, the child becomes able to develop naturally and normally as God had planned.  This process she called ‘normalization’.
 “Experience has shown that normalization causes the disappearance of many childish traits, not only those which are considered to be defects but also others which are generally thought to be virtues...  The disappearance of these childish characteristics shows that the true nature of a child has hitherto not been understood.  The universality of this fact is striking, but not entirely new since from the earliest times a twofold nature has been recognized in man.  The first was given him at the time of his creation.  The second came as a consequence of his first sin, a violation of God’s law.  Because of the fall, man was deprived of the blessings of his earlier state and left to the mercy of his surroundings and the illusions of his own mind.  This doctrine of original sin can help us understand what happens to a child.”(3)

(an article about the development of her spirituality)
Montessori in 1948 is reported to have lectured in London where she stated:
I see it-this Original Sin-who would not see a thing so evident? In the depths of the human soul is the possibility of continuous decadence…In fact, there are innate tendencies in man's soul which lead to maladies of the spirit sometimes even unknown to ourselves, just as the germs of disease may work silently, and unknown. This is the death of the spirit which brings insensibility with it. These tendencies come from the soul itself and not from the environment


  1. So, can I ask you a question. Can one in good conscience become a CGS catechist if they don't accept everything Maria Montessori and Sophia Cavalleti taught? I appreciate much of what CGS offers. I like the hands on materials, the approach of giving the child actual scripture rather than watered down stories, etc. the encouragement of reverence. However, I don't find Montessori's theories as a whole to really resonate with me or my experience with children. I think she had some good ideas and some valid observations, but in a totally artificial setting. Her own experience of motherhood was truncated at best (her child was put out with a wet nurse and she didn't mother him until he was nearly grown). I don't totally dismiss her ideas (or CGS would make no sense to be involved with at all), but I find some of the training to be nigh on to cultic with the reverence the presenter has for Sofia. Should I forget about being involved with this if I have reservations about some of what I'm learning? I'm staying anonymous here because heaven forbid my presenter would see my name and kick me out of the program summarily.

    1. Neither Sofia nor Maria were gods or goddesses - therefore they are not perfect and did make mistakes. Even the canonized saints made mistakes (many of them!).

      I entirely understand what you are saying about the cultic nature - this is something that I have brought up to members of the National Association in the US a few times. I have a close friend who has experience with cults and cult-like behavior --- and there are definitely some issues with some people within CGS (their tendencies).

      My personal experience has shown that these tendencies are within individuals, are not intentional and are slowly being worked through. I wouldn't be involved otherwise - because the cultishness is just wrong.

      Sofia herself called this work a "Great Experiment" and changed the materials/work/presentations over the years, in response to the needs of the children - so I find it very disconcerting when someone says, "Sofia says...." in a tone of voice that implies that Sofia found the one and only right way before her death. I LIKE her - but that is entirely balanced with the reality of all of us being human... and fallible.

      I have mixed reactions to Maria Montessori's "parenting". Mario wasn't with a wet nurse necessarily - her mother forced her to give him up completely, but she insisted on seeing her son on a routine basis. I think this caused her to read her observations on children more intensely - because of the loss she felt during that time. I can't imagine being forced to give my son away (I considered giving him up for adoption and spent most of my pregnancy praying (pleading) for the Lord to reveal His will - He did!), but it would cause me to see "my child" in every child.

      But it also means she was never "mothered" a young child. Hence she does keep most of her writings on school settings, with all family-based writings based on family-oriented observations.

  2. Thank you, so much for your kind reply. I just came away from the session feeling like my "spidey sense" had been triggered. Don't get me wrong, I liked the people, they seem really sincere (but the same could be said frequently of the people involved with multi-level marketing and I felt much like I have felt when I've been subjected to those types of meetings in the past) and much that was said made sense. There was just this overall sense of rigidity that didn't resonate well with me. I homeschooled my own kids and drew from a lot of sources, including Montessori for ideas. It just feels like the album pages in particular are going to be critiqued for fidelity to the program and whether or not you're using the right kinds of wondering questions.

    I knew that Maria gave Mario over to the care of another, but I didn't realize it was at her mother's insistence.

    I know that one of the things I reacted against in Sofia's book was the insistence on avoiding the Old Testament stories until age 8. We've seen such positive fruits from using the Jesse Tree during Advent with children of the 3-6 age group that it's really hard to take that particular injunction seriously. I also found with my own children that fantasy stories (like Narnia for example) were very valuable. I resonate really strongly with Chesterton's defense of fairy tales here, I guess.

    I can see how this sort of catechesis would have some really good results (particularly because it offers a program for the 3-6 year olds that most parishes don't. However, I find it difficult to buy into it as the only program worth considering. There seems to be this "true believer" mentality that feels like a parish that doesn't have CGS simply hasn't gotten with it. It seems to me that there's been a lot of fruitful religious ed in the past and that to basically throw that aside as though it were worthless does fall into a really questionable area.

    I know that part of what bothers me is this sense from some of the reading I've done that Sofia and Maria both drew from or at least resonated with the work of Teillard de Chardin whom I see as problematic at best and that some of their ideas seem to come from a theosophical approach as much as a Catholic one.

    The presenter told the story of a child's interpretation of the Pearl of Great Price parable, with the child identifying the pearl as themselves. This is contrary to magesterial teaching on the subject (the pearl is the kingdom of God/ie the Church), yet there is no attempt made to correct this thought on the part of the child, in fact the presenter relished the idea, and basically treated it as superior to other interpretations. I don't know that contradicting a little one on something like that would be very helpful, but I do think that at some point there is going to have to be a clarification of what the passage is talking about (not at that moment, but sometime later in the child's life). What doesn't seem helpful is to somehow treat the child as though they were a new guru who had discovered what centuries of Catholic teachers had not. This is where it almost seems like there's a gnostic quality to the whole thing, not on the part of the children, but on the part of the adults involved.

    I can also see how the emphasis on the "goodness of the child" could easily descend into Pelagianism. I think that there needs to be a real awareness on the part of the adults that the reason these children are so open to God in most cases is because of the graces of their baptism. Certainly God can and does speak to people who have not yet received baptism, but it's not because of their innate goodness, it is in that case also a work of grace.

    Thank you so much for taking my questions seriously.

  3. One further question: does the catechist have to use a soft treacly voice in doing the presentations? I know that the attempt is being made to foster reverence and wonder, but that sort of "holy voice" really grates on me (it's like fingernails on a chalkboard) since my experience of it has largely been with people who were of the "holier than thou" type personality. I can tolerate it for the presentations, but I really don't think I'm ever going to be comfortable replicating it.

    1. Use the voice/style that is natural for YOU. What helped me in this regard is that my level 1 formation leader did NOT get into that sort of voice (I have heard it in SO many other places though) - she was a slightly older nun, but was just "real" to the children. That is what we need to be: real.
      The other thing that helped me personally is that none of the catechists I work with routinely use that voice - and then I worked with a male formation leader and the "voice" that he uses. He can't get all "treacly" even if he tried! I worked with him both at level 1 and 2 formation courses; then I have been in the level 3 atriums he leads - and most recently, he visited the primary classroom I've been subbing in and observing his interactions on an academic level (he is principal of a Montessori school as well as a CGS formation leader).
      We just need to be real to the children - which means being real to ourselves as well.

  4. There can certainly be a passion for something when one has been burned by so many other "methods" or options - and I think that comes through in CGS a LOT. There are many good programs available, but most of us have been burned time and time again - or have found so many serious holes in our own faith formation upbringing, that finding CGS is like a breath of fresh air - even more than that, for some people, it's like finally coming home and finally "getting" one's own faith. I know many people feel cheated in their childhood faith formation; so I understand their passion - but it is very important for them to remember that saints were made without CGS too!

    Then, too, we can get SO focused on providing something that is so different, it certainly sounds as if (most of us are innocent, some perhaps not so much) we are pushing away other religious ed options. What many people in CGS need to remember is that CGS is ONE aspect of a child's life if they come to an atrium. I know of CGS catechists who will NOT allow their child to hear ANY Old Testament stories or explore timelines of salvation history before they see those things in level 2 CGS --- and if level 2 isn't available to them, they won't even consider using OTHER resources. I personally find this practice VERY contrary to common sense.
    1) what does the child do during the Liturgy of the Word?
    2) the atrium is one session a week during the school year, typically ---- it is NOT meant to be a child's entire faith formation, which should also be happening during participation on the Mass, Divine Liturgy - as well as at home, other gatherings of the Faithful, etc.

    Thus, things like the Jesse Tree are perfect for at-home, within the church, etc.

    Where the focus of CGS is on particular essentials of our Faith that resonate with the children at particular ages.

    To summarize my own little soapbox on this (it's not against you - it's against all the people who think CGS is the be-all-end-all) --- CGS is fantastic, for its particular place in the development of the child. But it does not cover everything a child needs to know to live in his own particular culture within our Faith - which is HUGE and expansive. That doesn't mean we pull things INto CGS that don't fit with the goal of CGS (essential, particular developmental place) - but it does mean we respect life outside the atrium too!

    The Montessori focus on only reality before age 6 is such that when we do give the child fantasy stories, they can delve deeply into them and much more fully appreciate them. The children will also not confuse the stories from the Bible with fantasy, because they heard those stories as "reality" during the time in their lives they were surrounded by real things. Because of my own son's saturation in reality, he entirely delved into Narnia at age 5, reading the entire series to himself (I'd started reading them to him around 4 3/4 - but he re-read the first ones and finished up the series himself - then we read them all over again as a family - and HE was the one coming to me with the typological significance of particular events, explaining to me who Aslan was, etc. All stuff I thought I'd have to "teach" - and he worked it out himself because I'd provided the tools he needed at the right times - of course, we also had many long discussions, looked up Church teaching, etc. and went even deeper into it - and the depth was there because of his initial interest).


    1. Regarding the parables - these can be unsettling for some at first. What is so hard when starting at level 1, is not having the overview of all three levels. By the time the children have left level 3, they have heard the pearl and the mustard seed parables every single year, looking at another aspect of it. The reality of the parables (and the church teaches this too), is that each time we come to them, we see another facet - like a prism. Jesus had SO much to teach us with these few words - proving that the Kingdom of Heaven is a deep mystery, that we can only fully understand when we are in His presence in Heaven, but that we can understand some portions of now, here on earth.

      As the children go through CGS, they will explore that the merchant is Christ seeking for us (related to the Lost/Found Sheep, Lost/Found Coin), is us seeking the Kingdom of God, is us giving up everything when we die to go to Heaven, is us giving up everything here on earth to follow Christ in any variety of vocations, etc.

      The mustard seed evolves over the years as well - and becomes a fascinating look at the fact that something so tiny, has so much power, and gives us life.
      My sacramental preparation children recently explained to me that the mustard seed is like Jesus, who came as a tiny Baby, grew with the Father's power, as the seed turned into a tree it looked like He died forever (on the cross), but really He lives and gives US life (the birds in the tree have a place to live - and Jesus gives us both Heaven and His Body/Blood).

      What I love most about the atrium is that the children have a place set aside with particular materials - to explore these topics. Not that they can't do it at home (they can!) but sometimes just that opportunity to separate a bit from the rest of the world. (like the Maxim we use in level 2 and 3 - Jesus said, "Go to your room, close the door and pray to your Father in private." (I'm paraphrasing) - a place set apart.

      From a theologian stand-point, we can have many interpretations of the Scriptural text, until/unless the Church teaches us that there is only ONE possible interpretation. In the case of the parables, there is generally a primary interpretation, but we are not closed to other interpretations that align with the other teachings of the Church (i.e. we can't interpret any parable to mean that Jesus' Body/Blood are anything but his Precious Body and Blood).

      Indeed, the formation leaders are supposed to be emphasizing the graces received through the sacraments - that our goodness comes from our Creator and the sacraments He has provided us. Based on what you've shared already, I have a narrow list of ideas who your formation leader could be; and now that you share what seems a lack on the Baptism/sacrament emphasis, I am quite concerned - and saddened.

      I am praying for you! and I'll admit I'm praying even MORE for your formation leader!