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Opinion: Mixed Messages on Catholic Schools

Why do priests and bishops praise our own schools and then go on to pledge allegiance to the government schools?

(Image: Tim Gouw/

Way back in 1987, Father Stephen O’Brien penned a slim but important volume entitled: Mixed Messages: What Bishops and Priests Say about Catholic Schools (National Catholic Education Association). A major point was that, while clergy generally speak in glowing terms of our schools, “the talk” all too often is not matched by “the walk.” In other words, their actions belie their stated beliefs.

That fascicle came back to mind recently as I read the weekly column of a diocesan bishop who is one of the most vocal and strongest supporters of Catholic schools in the country. In this instance, it was not his actions that caused befuddlement but his words which, whether he knows it or not, contradicted the entire premise of his column the previous week. At the outset of the academic year, he praised our schools to the highest heaven, as well as the administrators and teachers that make it all possible; he encouraged parents to use our schools. However, the next week, he declared his support for the “government” schools; indeed, he went so far as to say that anyone who says that we Catholics oppose those schools is fostering a “false and malicious canard.”

Well, I for one, do oppose those schools, and I believe that every thinking and believing Catholic must do so as well.

First, nomenclature is important. The bishop in question regularly refers to the so-called “public” schools as “government” schools, and rightly so. The adjective “public” connotes control by the people; that is certainly not the case – and hasn’t been so for a very long time – except that the situation has worsened exponentially in short order. Witness: Parents being arrested for daring to challenge school board policies and finding themselves denominated “domestic terrorists.”

In truth, it is our Catholic schools that are truly “public,” in the sense that they are “controlled” by the faithful in two important ways: they pay the bills, and they use (or don’t use) the schools, if they find them defective or inadequate.1 So, firstly, we need to change the overall conversation by changing the terminology.

Second, why do priests and bishops praise our own schools and then go on to pledge allegiance to the government schools? For three reasons, I believe: first, for fear of serious push-back from the powerful CCD/religious education lobby;2 second, for fear of Catholic teachers who work in the government schools; third, for fear of parents who send their children to the government schools and who resent being challenged in that regard. Fear is the operative motive.

Yet fear did not constrain the majority of the early bishops of our nation – men like John J. Hughes or John Lancaster Spaulding. They did not hesitate to threaten excommunication of parents who failed in their duty by submitting their children to institutions that undermined their faith, in those days through the pervasive anti-Catholicism spawned by the Nativists and Know-Nothings.

Third, priests and bishops have to summon up the courage to say loud and often: Parents who entrust their children to the government schools are endangering the souls of their children. Pope Pius XI saw this already in 1929 and so declared, without fear of contradiction, in his encyclical Divini Illius Magistri that “the so-called ‘neutral’ or ‘lay’ school, from which religion is excluded, is contrary to the fundamental principles of education. Such a school moreover cannot exist in practice; it is bound to become irreligious” (n. 79). That has happened in spades in this country over the past half-century, with galloping force: critical race theory; promotion of fornication, contraception and abortion; gender theory;3 sex education which makes future choices for chastity well-nigh impossible; science education,4 which negates any supernatural explanation. And we haven’t even touched on the inferior academics in most of the government schools.5

Fourth, even with the very best out-of-school religious education program, it is naive to imagine that one hour a week can undo the damage of thirty hours of secularist indoctrination.6 The best thing would be to shut down CCD completely (which I did in the three parishes I pastored) and instruct parents to use Catholic schools. If they say they can’t afford the tuition, and prove it by submitting financial records, the parish picks up the tab.7

Another aspect of the issue is the need for clergy to challenge the priorities of their people: The Catholic education of one’s children or a winter vacation? Catholic schooling or 750 cable channels? Once more, priests are loathe to do this, for fear (there’s that word again) that the more well-to-do will not take kindly to such talk and register their disapproval in the collection basket. The priest-sociologist Andrew Greeley found that “there are virtually no statistically significant correlations between attendance at CCD and later religious beliefs or behaviors,” while the exact opposite is the case for attendance at Catholic schools.8 In case anyone doubted what he was trying to say, he made it quite clear: CCD “as a substitute for Catholic schools is simply a waste of time.”9 So, what to do with children not in Catholic school?

Fifth, give the parents a copy of the Catechism of the Catholic Church and tell them to prepare their children for the various sacraments (after all, they are the primary educators of their children!). When they believe their children are ready for First Confession, First Communion, or Confirmation, they should contact the priest, who will make a determination. Actually, that was the rather common practice prior to the invention of CCD.

Sixth, the present is what the Bible terms a chairos, that is, a particularly favored moment. Parents and tax-payers are seeing, some for the first time, how utterly bankrupt the whole government educational system really is. How else to explain the “Public School Exodus” movement?10 The “pandemic” opened many eyes. While most government schools were closed, the vast majority of Catholic schools were open for business. With virtual education, many parents discovered for the first time (shame on them) just how bad the material is that is being fed to their children. Heading for the exit sign is not enough; now, political pressure needs to be exerted that when the children leave, so does the funding. The motto is simple: Let the dollar follow the scholar.

Parental freedom of choice in education is a relatively new concept on the American scene; it is the perennial teaching of the Church. Thus, the importance of forming intelligent coalitions with like-minded individuals and groups to press for genuine freedom of choice, not limited to parents who can afford it but for all parents, precisely because it is their God-given right to direct the formation of their sons and daughters.

So, to put a finer point on all this for the bishop who occasioned this reflection: If the government schools and CCD are so good, why should any parent follow your advice from the previous week and entrust their children to Catholic schools? Why should anyone in his right mind pay for something that can be had for nothing?

No, we thinking and believing Catholics do not support the government schools. Indeed, we condemn them as the godless and pernicious institutions they are.


1Unlike Terry McAuliffe, former Governor of Virginia, we don’t believe that parents should shut up and leave education to the bureaucrats.

2If anyone doubts the influence of this group, one need only realize that, in not a few dioceses, the absurdity has surfaced, such that a DRE is paid the same salary as a school principal! That lunacy caused a wag of a pastor to say that he was resigning as pastor and becoming the DRE!

3Visiting a suburban government kindergarten class to evaluate a student teacher, I espied a pile of books for the children’s consumption; on the very top was the infamous Heather Has Two Mommies.

4Consider the report, Why Catholics are leaving the faith by age 10 and what parents can do about it. Dr. Mark Gray, senior research associate at the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA), guided the study which revealed the epidemic of apostasy among the youngest Catholics. According to Dr. Gray, most of these young apostates (and the word is not an exaggeration because they truly eschew all religious faith) find it impossible to reconcile what they are learning in science classes with Christianity.

Dr. Gray reports that nearly two-thirds of those surveyed (63%) said they stopped being Catholic between the ages of 10 and 17. Another 23 percent say they left the Faith before the age of 10. Nor should this be viewed as some kind of adolescent rebellion, for only 13 percent said they were ever likely to return to the Catholic Church.

While I consider the survey results truly distressing, I must say that I am not surprised at them except perhaps for the youthfulness of the apostasy. However, there is also a bit of very good news in the report: Only 19% of the fallen-aways every attended a Catholic elementary school, and fewer than 8% attended a Catholic high school. Putting it more starkly, 81% of the young apostates are the products of public elementary schools, while 92% of them come from public high schools.

5For a real eye-opener on that front, “must” viewing is “Waiting for Superman.” Also worth reading is “Are you sure your kid can read? All too many US public schools won’t tell you the truth” (Oct 2, 2021) by Michael Benjamin.

6I saw this first-hand as a professor at a major Catholic university: Whenever the conversation moved into the realm of abortion, the girls who had gone to government schools raged against me and the Church’s teaching. Of course, this should come as no surprise, precisely because they have imbibed, both consciously and unconsciously, the party line which has turned abortion into a sacrament.

7For decades, I have argued that our elementary and secondary schools should be tuition-free, paid for by the entire Catholic community, not the parents. The Code of Canon Law holds that “the Christian faithful are to foster Catholic schools, assisting in their establishment and maintenance according to their means” (canon 800 §2). The Diocese of Wichita has followed this plan for decades now, to great success.

8American Catholics Since the Council: An Unauthorized Report, p. 134.

9Ibid., p. 137.

10For a distinctly Catholic approach to this topic, see “Time for an Exodus from Public Schools?” by Mary Rice Hasson, JD and Theresa Farnan, PhD.

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About Peter M.J. Stravinskas 258 Articles
Reverend Peter M.J. Stravinskas founded The Catholic Answer in 1987 and The Catholic Response in 2004, as well as the Priestly Society of Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman, a clerical association of the faithful, committed to Catholic education, liturgical renewal and the new evangelization. Father Stravinskas is also the President of the Catholic Education Foundation, an organization, which serves as a resource for heightening the Catholic identity of Catholic schools.


  1. Good suggestions indeed , esp. in consideration of the upcoming World Mission Sunday . Along with the above goodsuggestions in the article , feasible to look into something like a World Wide Net of a system with the blessings of the local Bishops , in efforts to discern and counter effectively with faith based weapons the various errors and lies in every thing that is taught , including in Catholic schools .
    The classics and mytholgies and all could offer fertile ground for such practical and needed meausures in these times of the battle against family and marriage .
    For example , a classic such as ? Hamlet taught as an example of the evil effect of talking to ghosts who are said to be demonic spirits – using same as an occasion to teach on the topic and the effective counter measures as given in The Holy Will of God in our faith could bring good long standing fruit , including in the whole family being engaged in such projects in an ongoing manner to bridge the generation gap in a marvelous way .

    The Holy Father in planning and promoyting The Synod , with its logo of the Sun and the Tree of Light is likely aiming for that kind of good fruit . The wholesome trust and support for such initiatives could help to bring forth The Light of the richness in our faith into many realms including in the whole educational system , to help curb the cynicism, scorn and fear about our faith in far away lands too eqating the decadence of the west as a failure of Christianity .

    Simple and easy to read writings of the richness and glory of the role of our Mother as given such as in the above can be a powerful aid for families as well , to help bring glorious counter to the effects of the verses in Scriptures in O.T . that depict women in a negative stance based upon Eve’s role alone . The far reach of same likely also has gone into many of the mythologies as part of faiths such as Hinduism too and likely with origins in later centuries , meant to serve as a counter to the Gospel and ? instigated by Islam as a means to keep the conquered cultures fed on such lies as an easier means than forced conversions .

    The desire of the Holy Father , to invite The Spirit with more zeal and ardor for the ‘children ‘ world over , to learn and relearn The Truth – may the Catholic Schools too be the Sun in The Divine Will that work with similar minded good hearts in The Church , all in The Mission to help bring forth The Reign !
    FIAT !

  2. Too often in Catholic school systems, the parents are urged to shut up and leave the education of their children to Catholic school bureaucrats. Moreover, many teachers in Catholic schools are formed in secular colleges and universities and certified under state licensure regimes rooted in atheistic secularism. One final problem: there is little evidence that large numbers of the graduates of our vaunted Catholic schools are active Catholics five or ten years later. Catholic schools make NONES too.

  3. Catholic schools aren’t the solution; families are the answer.
    Fr Stravinskas seems unaware that many Catholic school parents are submitting their children to institutions that undermine their faith. If my bishop threatened to excommunicate my husband and me for refusing to send our children to the Catholic high school from which I graduated, we’d need to move to another diocese.
    All parents need to take ownership of their children’s formation, whether they attend Catholic school or not, and we need the support of the parish. A pastor who hands me a catechism and tells me to come back in a few years is irresponsible. It’s true that CCD alone is inadequate; anything that attempts to replace parents (including a Catholic school) is. There is an alternative: family-based catechesis that supports parents in their role as the primary formators of their children. Nurturing children in the faith isn’t easy; we need the pastor’s and the parish’s help to make it a joy.

  4. It has always been the will of God – the commandment of God – for children to be instructed in the ways of the Lord, with the fathers responsible for seeing to it. The government, which has made itself god, will not instruct children in the ways of the Lord, as is evident today.

    Wake up fathers! It is your responsibility to see to it that your children are instructed in the commandments of God. Stop allowing those who hate God to instruct them.

    Deuteronomy 4:10 “Gather the people to me, that I may let them hear my words, so that they may learn to fear me all the days that they live on the earth, and that they may teach their children so.” (cf. Deut. 6:6-7, 11:18-19; Psa. 78:4-6)

  5. A perfect example of why we must not surrender the minds of our children to the public schools:

    From an article:

    “The Nebraska Department of Education (NDE) shut out religious groups from a controversial curriculum development process, according to internal documents obtained by the Washington Free Beacon.

    The original draft of the agency’s sex education standards included plans to teach elementary school students about gender identity and transgender hormone therapy. Internal emails obtained by a concerned parent show the NDE added a Planned Parenthood ally to the 28-member advisory team for the standards, while it excluded input from religious education groups. The documents show NDE employees were privately aggravated that Jeremy Ekeler, the associate director of education policy at the Nebraska Catholic Conference, wanted to be included in the curriculum process because they suspected he would be critical of their approach.”

  6. It’s interesting how in some cases non-Catholics are stronger supporters of Catholic schools than Catholics.

    Father Edward McGlynn, associate of the agrarian socialist Henry George, had two obsessions. One, promotion of socialism and “Americanism” as authentic Catholic doctrine, and, two, rejection of a separate Catholic school system on the grounds that it inculcated children with anti-American beliefs. Following his excommunication for disobedience in 1887 for repeatedly refusing to go to Rome when summoned by Leo XIII to explain his actions in the New York City mayoral campaign of 1886, Father McGlynn published articles attacking the Church and Catholic schools in “The North American Review” and publicly denounced the pope as an imbecile (“Look On This Picture And On This,” Waterbury Evening Democrat, January 13, 1888, 2).

    Dr. Norman Kurland, now president of the interfaith Center for Economic and Social Justice, had as his first task as a new government lawyer fresh out of law school in the early 1960s building a case to support Kennedy’s position on denying government aid to religious schools, of which he was told the Catholic schools were the primary target. Dr. Kurland, who happens to be Jewish, agreed with Kennedy’s position, but — as a good lawyer should — examined the opposition’s case to be sure he understood it. After examining the arguments, Kurland reversed himself and agreed with the Catholic position: that parents have the right to determine their children’s education, and that the tax monies collected for children’s education should be spent as directed by the parents, not the government, as long as minimal standards are met. He filed his report to that effect . . . and never heard a word about it afterwards.

  7. We often have public school teachers and their children more faithfully attend weekend mass than do the families of those being subsidized at our parish school.

    It’s mostly about money, few free, religious teachers as in the past. Someday, hopefully soon with some of the legal challenges out there, there will be public funds (which came out of our pockets in the first place, there’s no religion noted on your property or income tax statements) that can be allocated to private schools. Not just the Gavin Newsoms of the world will be able to send their kids to privately run schools (it’s interesting his money comes from the public, and he sends his kids to private schools :))

  8. Has anyone stopped to consider the large number of government school teachers who send their own children to private schools? What do they know about government schools that the rest of us don’t?

  9. Excellent article. Outstanding. I totally agree with footnote #7. Many retirees are more financially capable of funding Catholic education than young parents. While I agree with the article, I have to say that what is being taught in Catholic schools must be looked at also. I have read any number of articles where students and parents have protested when a teacher at a Catholic school has not had his/her contract renewed because of a public homosexual “marriage”.

    If I may present a brief personnel anecdote. After taking an early retirement package from the business world, I went back to school for a year and then began teaching Freshman religion in a local Catholic high school. Behavior at the opening mass was terrible, so the principal asked the religion teachers to address it. I played a tape of the mass, and periodically stopped it and commented on it. At the consecration I stopped it and emphasized that this was not a symbol, but really, truly and substantially the body and blood of Christ. The response was – laughter. These students had all been to Catholic elementary schools. I said to one of the girls that I thought was pretty sharp, “Surely this isn’t news to you?” Her response, “Well, now that you mention it, I did hear it in the second grade, but I have not heard it since.”
    This is a reflection on the teachers, but also on parents, and maybe the homilies of pastors.
    I taled to a relative recently who had done home schooling for her two sons. That is also an option for some.

  10. Excellent recommendations by Fr Stravinskas requiring central authority for implementation pres USCCB of education comm chair Bishop Michael Barber SJ. Centralization, however, is a two edged sword. Public education was under jurisdiction of the states until Reconstruction, when the Fed Govt instituted the Office of Education to standardize education. Andrew Johnson elevated the office to the cabinet 1967. Rescinded by congress 1868 over concern of excessive government control. That, as it turned out, impending disaster control etched in stone when the Office was elevated to a cabinet position 1979, Congress passing the Department of Education Organization Act. The stated primary functions of the Department of Education are to establish policy for, administer and coordinate most federal assistance to education, collect data on US schools, and to enforce federal educational laws regarding privacy and civil rights [it doesn’t establish schools, that’s left to the states]. Secretary Miguel Cardona, “Achievement disparities have worsened in the last year and a half. As educational leaders, we have to muster whatever political will we can to hit the reset button on those things we know didn’t work”. Cardona’s concerns are fundamentally for “black and brown” students, a standard for enforcement of Critical Race Theory and ideological cleansing. “So, yes, I do believe it is the great equalizer” (Cardona). Ideology here Marxist socialist is the goal rather than a truly liberal agenda that creates equal opportunity. Ideology Marxist in nature discriminates. Therefore, parents attending school board meetings are now scrutinized by the FBI. Complaints are reactionary, terrorist in nature. That’s the rationale for arresting the father who complained to the administrator that his daughter was raped and sodomized by a skirted boy in the schools transgender toilet. Wherever the order originated it certainly met Cardona’s approval. A Catholic parent [any parent] puts his child at risk in today’s public system. Physically and morally. Southern states had a very legitimate cause regarding states’ rights. Florida acting independent of the Feds horrendous immoral sexualization critical race theory impositions is under constant attack by the Gov as well as by a media it has in its pocket. We’re facing the ultimate crisis of faith threatened by an antiChrist government. “We thinking and believing Catholics do not support the government schools. We condemn them as the godless and pernicious institutions they are”(Stravinskas). Leo XIII Rerum Novarum had excessive gov in focus recommending subsidiarity. Today the enemy of justice has expanded. An example is the courts both state and federal. “The clear meaning of the subsidiarity principle is to limit the powers and responsibilities assumed by the higher orders of society. In nearly every occasion in which the principle has been invoked in the last one hundred years of official Catholic social teaching, it is in the context of limiting the uses of power” (Fr Robert Sirico).

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