The Church in this country kicks off the new civil year with a bang as she honors, back-to-back, two of her “greats”: St. Elizabeth Ann Seton (January 4) and St. John Neumann (January 5). Mother Seton was the New York socialite of the eighteenth/nineteenth century who lost family, friends and fortune by entering the Catholic Church; she went on to become the foundress of the first female community of Religious in the United States dedicated to Catholic education (her Sisters taught me from kindergarten through fifth grade). Bishop Neumann was the immigrant Redemptorist from Bohemia in the nineteenth century, who became the fourth Bishop of Philadelphia (which encompassed all of Pennsylvania, Delaware and southern New Jersey!) and founder of several communities of women Religious (one of which taught me from sixth through eighth grades); when he assumed the post, there were two Catholic schools in his diocese – at his death, eight years later, there were 100!
Pope Paul VI’s bicentennial message to the Church in the United States contained praise for the American Catholic school system and an encouragement to continue the tradition: “The strength of the Church in America (is) in the Catholic schools.” Nor was it sheer coincidence that the two Americans Paul VI canonized in connection with our bicentennial, Mother Seton and Bishop Neumann, were prime movers in the parochial school effort. In actuality, almost every American saint was involved in Catholic education.1
Why such an investment of time and energy on schools?
The rationale for Catholic schools
“The days have come. . . in which the school is more necessary than the church.” Does that statement startle you? Who could say that? The answer is that it did indeed startle people the first time it was said – and over 150 years ago – by Archbishop John J. Hughes of New York. In many ways, it was his insight and foresight that launched the Catholic community in America on an endeavor unparalleled in the history of the Church. Archbishop Hughes felt that if he lost the children, there would be little hope for the future of the Church in this country.
The First Provincial Council of Baltimore in 1829 asserted: “We judge it absolutely necessary that schools be established in which the young may be taught the principles of faith and morality, while being instructed in letters.” The bishops of the nation made their judgment a matter of law in 1884 at the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore: “We decide and decree that near each church, where it does not exist, a parish school is to be erected within two years of the promulgation of this Council.”
The rationale behind this stringent injunction was explained clearly by Pope Pius XI in his encyclical, Divini Illius Magistri (On the Christian Education of Youth): “The so-called ‘neutral’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.”2
The Fathers of the Second Vatican Council dealt with Catholic education extensively as they followed the trajectory of Church teaching to that point and contributed to its development as well. Several comments bear notice from their Declaration on Christian Education:
The Church’s involvement in the field of education is demonstrated especially by the Catholic school. . . . Therefore, since it can contribute so substantially to fulfilling the mission of God’s people, and can further the dialogue between the Church and the family of man, to their mutual benefit, the Catholic school retains its immense importance in the circumstances of our times too. . . . As for Catholic parents, the Council calls to mind their duty to entrust their children to Catholic schools. . . . (n. 8)
In 1971 the American bishops issued a pastoral letter on Catholic education, To Teach as Jesus Did. It became the standard by which to judge all Catholic schools, outlining as it did the goals and objectives for all Catholic institutions of learning. Included is the following statement: “(They) are the most effective means available to the Church for the education of children and young people.”
A most thorough analysis of Catholic education in modern times was offered by the Sacred Congregation for Catholic Education in 1977. The Catholic School probed every aspect of the educational process and also recognized the fact that some people had suggested the phasing out of Catholic schools. The document’s conclusion was that “to give in to them would be suicidal.”
Pope John Paul II’s esteem for the American Catholic school system was demonstrated with great regularity. Just months after his installation, he sent a videotaped message to Catholic educators gathered in Philadelphia for the annual convention of the National Catholic Educational Association, in which he said that he hoped to give “a new impulse to Catholic education throughout the vast area of the United States of America.” He went on to say: “Yes, the Catholic school must remain a privileged means of Catholic education in America. . . , worthy of the greatest sacrifices.” Later that year, during his first pastoral visit to the States, with 20,000 Catholic high school students at Madison Square Garden, he seized the opportunity “to tell (them) why the Church considers it so important and expends so much energy in order to provide . . . millions of young people with a Catholic education.” It is for no other purpose, he said, than to “communicate Christ” to them. He likewise referred to the Catholic school as “the heart of the Church.”
Pope Benedict XVI, at the Catholic University of America in 2008, weighed in as well:
Dear friends, the history of this nation includes many examples of the Church’s commitment in this regard. The Catholic community here has in fact made education one of its highest priorities. This undertaking has not come without great sacrifice. Towering figures, like Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton and other founders and foundresses, with great tenacity and foresight, laid the foundations of what is today a remarkable network of parochial schools contributing to the spiritual well-being of the Church and the nation. . . . Countless dedicated Religious Sisters, Brothers, and Priests together with selfless parents have, through Catholic schools, helped generations of immigrants to rise from poverty and take their place in mainstream society.
This sacrifice continues today. It is an outstanding apostolate of hope, seeking to address the material, intellectual and spiritual needs of over three million children and students. It also provides a highly commendable opportunity for the entire Catholic community to contribute generously to the financial needs of our institutions. Their long-term sustainability must be assured. Indeed, everything possible must be done, in cooperation with the wider community, to ensure that they are accessible to people of all social and economic strata. No child should be denied his or her right to an education in faith, which in turn nurtures the soul of a nation.
The twentieth-century poet and convert, Thomas Merton, reflecting on some years of his boyhood spent in France between the two world wars, contrasted the state school in his village with the Catholic one:
When I think of the Catholic parents who sent their children to a school like that, I begin to wonder what was wrong with their heads. Down by the river, in a big clean white building, was a college run by the Marist Fathers. I had never been inside it: indeed, it was so clean that it frightened me. But I knew a couple of boys who went to it. They were sons of the little lady who ran the pastry shop opposite the church at St. Antonin and I remember them as exceptionally nice fellows, very pleasant and good. It never occurred to anyone to despise them for being pious. And how unlike the products of the Lycée they were!
When I reflect on all this, I am overwhelmed at the thought of the tremendous weight of moral responsibility that Catholic parents accumulate upon their shoulders by not sending their children to Catholic schools. Those who are not of the Church have no understanding of this. They cannot be expected to. As far as they can see, all this insistence on Catholic schools is only a money-making device by which the Church is trying to increase its domination over the minds of men, and its own temporal prosperity. And of course most non-Catholics imagine that the Church is immensely rich, and that all Catholic institutions make money hand over fist, and that all that money is stored away somewhere to buy gold and silver dishes for the Pope and cigars for the College of Cardinals.
Is it any wonder that there can be no peace in a world where everything possible is being done to guarantee that the youth of every nation will grow up absolutely without moral and religious discipline, and without the shadow of an interior life, or of that spirituality and charity and faith which alone can safeguard the treaties and agreements made by governments?
And Catholics, thousands of Catholics everywhere, have the consummate audacity to weep and complain because God does not hear their prayers for peace, when they have neglected not only His will, but the ordinary dictates of natural reason and prudence, and let their children grow up according to the standards of a civilization of hyenas.3
We need to revive what I like to call “The Spirit of 1884,” in which the bishops of our nation issued their clarion call to have every Catholic child in a Catholic school. In that way and only in that way, shall we stave off the emergence of another generation growing up “according to the standards of a civilization of hyenas.”
Are our schools “working”? What needs attention?
Not infrequently, one hears: “Yes, the Catholic schools were great in the good old days. But not anymore.” Someone saying that probably got badly burnt in the nutty sixties and seventies. I always invite people like that to visit their local Catholic school today.4 The “market economy” took care of most of the bad Catholic schools; after all, no one in his right mind is going to expend thousands of dollars on a public school with a crucifix. I spend the majority of my waking hours working with our schools; faculty and administration alike are very focused on maintaining and developing further a strong Catholic identity.5 Pastors and principals are also aware of the need for ongoing faculty formation to ensure that goal.
Beyond personal anecdotal information, is there any hard data? Yes, there is.
– Millennial Catholics who attended Catholic schools are seven times more likely to attend weekly Mass than millennial adults who attended public schools.6
– In 2015, some 51% of those ordained to the priesthood attended Catholic grade school and 43% attended a Catholic high school.7
– Men who have attended a Catholic secondary school are more than six times as likely to consider a vocation.8
– Women who have attended a Catholic primary school are three times as likely to consider being a religious sister (also NRVC).
– Catholic school students are more likely to pray daily, attend church more often, retain a Catholic identity as an adult, and are faithful stewards.9
Do all Catholic school graduates emerge as model Catholics and future saints? No.
While that would certainly be our fondest hope, the Catholic school – like the Church herself, as John Paul II often opined – proposes; she does not impose. Furthermore, as Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York is fond of repeating (in one of his many “foody” images), “you can only make gnocchi with the dough you’ve been given.” Not a few of our students today are coming to us from homes where the parents are less than fervent practitioners of the Faith; in fact, those parents often do not know how to “parent” because they themselves were never properly “parented.” Interestingly enough, with happy frequency, we find that the children in our schools are often agents of what I like to refer to as “reverse evangelization,” that is, the children end up evangelizing their parents!10 At a personal level, I can offer my own life-situation as a prime example. When it came time for school, my parents were determined that their little boy would go to a Catholic school – not an unusual desire in 1955. Except for a few facts: My parents had never gone to Catholic school; were not married in the Church; and had probably not been to Mass since their Confirmation. By the time I was in second grade, they were serious Catholics, enthralled with the prospect of their only child becoming a priest!
What needs to be done to make our schools even more what they ought to be?
The first issue that needs to be addressed is that of intentional formation of lay faculty. When our schools were staffed predominantly by clergy and Religious, formation of teachers happened in a connatural way. Even when lay teachers were added, Religious shared with lay teachers what they had learned from within their own religious communities. With the abandonment of the schools by the vast majority of Sisters, lay administrators were left a terrible vacuum. Presently conducting intentional seminars for over a decade, I can attest to the fact that our lay teachers/administrators today are eager for such formation, and respond enthusiastically.11
The second issue is that of the cost of Catholic schools. We cannot become academies for the wealthy; that is not our tradition in this country. The high school I attended cost $150 in my freshman year and $300 in my senior year; today, that is over $10,000! It is a tribute to the commitment of our parents that so many of them sacrifice so much to ensure the Catholic education of their children.
However, I never tire of observing that the institutions built by penniless immigrants seemingly cannot be sustained by the most affluent Catholic population in the history of the Church. Indeed, our problem is not finance but faith! Priorities are way off.
That having been said, we need to move beyond the tuition-based model. The Code of Canon Law is quite clear that the burden of supporting Catholic schools is the responsibility of the entire Catholic community, not simply of parents with their children in our schools or of a parish having a school on its campus.12 Thinking “outside the box” is necessary. The Archdiocese of Denver has moved in that direction.13 The Diocese of Wichita has been a leader in this regard for decades, offering a free Catholic education, from kindergarten through senior year of high school for decades.14
How should we honor our tradition begun by Seton and Neumann?
The glory of the Church in America before the Second Vatican Council in the eyes of the Church Universal was our unique system of Catholic schools. We need to acknowledge that all of the best-intentioned out-of-school programs of religious education have been an abject failure. Our unique contribution to Catholicism was, precisely, our own educational system.
St. John Henry Cardinal Newman, well known for his commitment to university education is less well known was his devotion to Catholic education at the lower levels. Indeed, he saw that Catholic education at the higher level needs Catholic education at the lower levels. His Oratory School, “the apple of his eye,” remains a tribute to him, with its long list of impressive alumni, from one of the sons of J.R.R. Tolkien (who became a priest) and one of Tolkien’s grandsons, to Hilaire Belloc.
So strong was Newman’s advocacy on behalf of Catholic schools, that in 1879 the Archbishop of Sydney, Roger Bede Vaughan, solicited his assistance for the cause in Australia. To which the new Cardinal replied:
. . . I feel it a great honour on the part of Your Grace, that you have made use, in the Pastorals, which you have had the goodness to send me, of what I had occasion to say at Rome last May on the subject of the special religious evil of the day. It pleased me to find that you could make it serviceable in the anxious conflict in which you are at this time engaged in defence of Christian education. It is indeed the gravest of questions whether our people are to commence life with or without adequate instruction in those all-important truths which ought to colour all thought and to direct all action; – whether they are or are not to accept this visible world for their God and their all, its teaching as their only truth, and its prizes as their highest aims; – for, if they do not gain, when young, that sacred knowledge which comes to us from Revelation, when will they acquire it?15
Yes, “if they do not gain, when young, that sacred knowledge which comes to us from Revelation, when will they acquire it?”
St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, pray for us.
St. John Neumann, pray for us.
St. John Henry Newman, pray for us – and for our beloved schools.
1For example: Mother Frances Xavier Cabrini (the first U.S. citizen to be canonized); Mother Théodore Guérin; Mother Rose Philippine Durocher; Mother Katherine Drexel; Mother Marianne Cope.
2The American so-called “public” school system is a text-book case of a religiously “neutral” system becoming hostile to religion. All we need to consider is the immorality of its sex education with condum distribution and abortion appointments, to critical race theory and “gender” theory.
3Thomas Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain. New York: Harcourt, Inc., 1998, 56.
4Why not visit the nearest Catholic school during Catholic Schools Week this year, January 30 to February 5? This year’s theme is “Catholic Schools: Faith. Excellence. Service.”
5 Visit the website of the Catholic Education Foundation, which I serve as president: catholiceducation.foundation. Go to the link for “Catholic identity,” which describes our assessment instrument.
6Mark M. Gray, “Do Catholic Schools Matter?” Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate – Georgetown University (CARA). 13 June 2014. Http://nineteensixty-four.blogspot.com/2014/06/do-catholic-schools-matter.html.
7Fr. Damian Ference, “What the CARA Report Tells Us About Our Newest Priests.” Word on Fire Blog. 13 April 2015. Http://www.wordonfire.org/resources/blog/what-the-cara-report-tells-us-about-our-newest-priests/4724.
8National Religious Vocations Conference (NRVC). “Vocations to Religious Life Fact Sheet.” Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA). February 2013. Http://cara.georgetown.edu/CARAResearch/Vocation_Fact_Sheet.
9William Sander. “The Effects of Catholic Schools on Religiosity, Education, and Competition.” Http://www.ncspe.org/ publications_files/727_OP32.pdf.
10One of the blessings of the “pandemic” has been a surge of parents enrolling their children in our schools. In hundreds of cases, principals and pastors report that the children’s enrollment in a Catholic school has been responsible for those children playing “catch-up ball” in terms of the Sacraments of Initiation, as well as their own parents having their irregular marriages being regularized.
11In an average year, I visit about fifteen to twenty dioceses for such seminars.
12Canon 800 §2: Christ’s faithful are to promote catholic schools, doing everything possible to help in establishing and maintaining them.
…Catholic schools are parochial; they belong to the parish. They are not private schools that are owned and operated by those who use them. Therefore, every school family is encouraged to be an active parish steward.
Because the entire Diocese is committed to Stewardship, parishes make every effort to make a Catholic education, from kindergarten thru high school, available to active parish stewards without charging tuition. As far as we know, the Diocese of Wichita is the only diocese in the United States where every child of active parish stewards can attend Catholic grade and high school without paying tuition.
Not surprisingly, the relatively small Diocese of Wichita (132,000 Catholics) continues to ordain numbers of priests out of all proportion to its size.
15Reply of Cardinal Newman to Archbishop Vaughan, 16 November 1879.
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