What makes a school Catholic? Part 2 of 3

Continuing analysis of the recent “Instruction” titled, “The identity of the Catholic school for a culture of dialogue,” from the Congregation for Catholic Education (for Educational Institutions).

Catholic school students. (CNA file photo)

We continue our analysis of the “Instruction” of the Congregation for Catholic Education on the Catholic identity of our schools.

Chapter II: The Actors Responsible for Promoting and Verifying Catholic Identity1

37. “The educational mission is carried out in a spirit of cooperation between various parties – students, parents, teachers, non-teaching personnel and the school management – who form the educational community.”. . . inspired by the Church’s teaching on education. . . .

The stress again is on the united body of educators, which is inclusive of all the actors; it is significant that “non-teaching personnel” are included. Why? Because every adult in the school community is to be a witness to a Gospel-inspired life, so, yes, that means cafeteria and maintenance workers, as much as classroom teachers.

The educating school community

Members of the school community

38. “. . . all members of the school community share this Christian vision, makes the school ‘Catholic’; principles of the Gospel in this manner become the educational norms since the school then has them as its internal motivation and final goal.”

This paragraph offers the theological-spiritual-pedagogical rationale for the previous paragraph.

39. Everyone has the obligation to recognise, respect and bear witness to the Catholic identity of the school, officially set out in the educational project. This applies to the teaching staff, the non-teaching personnel and the pupils and their families. At the time of enrolment, both the parents and the student must be made aware of the Catholic school’s educational project.

If it is true that every member of the school community is to be on the same page in terms of living out the institutional commitment to Catholic identity, then everyone must know that in advance of signing on to the project. While “morals” clauses are quite commonplace for administrator and teacher contracts, many schools and dioceses now require a “covenant” signed by parents, acknowledging the ethos of the school and promising to uphold it.

Pupils and parents

41. Pupils are active participants in the educational process. As they grow older, they increasingly become the protagonists of their own education. . . . In fact, every Catholic school helps “pupils to achieve […] an integration of faith and culture.”

Discipline and direction in the Catholic scheme of things are proffered with the view toward making those elements an integral part of the student’s personality, leading to an internalization, becoming something the student eventually owns and embraces freely.

42. The first persons responsible for education are the parents, who have the natural right and obligation to educate their children. They have the right to choose the means and institutions through which they can provide for the Catholic education of their children (cf. can. 793 § 1 CIC and can. 627 § 2 CCEO). Catholic parents are also bound by the obligation to provide for the Catholic education of their children.

Two points are underscored here: First, that parents have the right to choose the most appropriate educational environment for their children, without governmental infringement – direct or indirect (that is, de facto imposition of financial burdens). Second, that parents have an obligation to “provide for the Catholic education of their children.” Most clergy are loathe to remind parents of that obligation.

43. In this regard, schools are of primary help to parents in fulfilling their educational function.

Here we see that while the Church teaches clearly that parents are the primary educators of their children, “primary” implies other agencies which, of necessity, includes the Catholic school.

44. It is necessary for parents to co-operate closely with teachers, getting involved in decision-making processes concerning the school community and their children, and participating in school meetings or associations (cf. can. 796 § 2 CIC and can. 631 § 1 CCEO). In this way, parents not only fulfil their natural educational vocation, but also contribute with their personal faith to the educational plan, especially in the case of a Catholic school.

Once more, home-school cooperation is emphasized.

Teachers and administrative personnel

45. . . . the service of the teacher is an ecclesiastical munus and office (cf. can. 145 CIC and can. 936 §§ 1 and 2 CCEO).

This is a striking declaration which, translated into plain English, means that every teacher in a Catholic school is an extension of the diocesan bishop. This statement will be of critical importance in this country if/when legal conflicts arise about teacher termination. This paragraph will be used by the Church to have courts apply the so-called “ministerial exception” for faculty and administration.

46. Following the doctrine of the Church, it is therefore necessary for the school itself to interpret and establish the necessary criteria for the recruitment of teachers. This principle applies to all recruitments, including that of administrative personnel. The relevant authority, therefore, is required to inform prospective recruits of the Catholic identity of the school and its implications, as well as of their responsibility to promote that identity. If the person being recruited does not comply with the requirements of the Catholic school and its belonging to the Church community, the school is responsible for taking the necessary steps. Dismissal may also be resorted to, taking into account all circumstances on a case-by-case basis.

This is the clearest statement yet in an ecclesiastical document about the seriousness of proper recruitment and its implications for all personnel.

47. . . . teachers must be outstanding in correct doctrine and integrity of life (cf. can. 803 § 2 CIC and can. 639 CCEO). Teachers and administrative personnel who belong to other Churches, ecclesial communities or religions, as well as those who do not profess any religious belief, have the obligation to recognise and respect the Catholic character of the school from the moment of their employment. However, it should be borne in mind that the predominant presence of a group of Catholic teachers can ensure the successful implementation of the educational plan developed in keeping with the Catholic identity of the schools.

The assertions made in this paragraph make eminently good sense, however, they have been the target of those desirous of undoing the Catholic fabric of a school on the basis of a faulty understanding of “academic freedom.” Ironically, no one would promote the idea of a Catholic teacher proselytizing Jewish children in a yeshiva, yet that logic is often not applied in a Catholic setting. It is also logically noted that it is necessary to have a critical mass of serious Catholics on the staff, if the Catholic identity is to be upheld.

School leaders

48. . . . “School leaders are more than just managers of an organization. They are true educational leaders when they are the first to take on this responsibility, which is also an ecclesial and pastoral mission rooted in a relationship with the Church’s pastors.”

Once more, the ecclesial nature of a Catholic educator is stressed, which vocation is to be lived out in communion “with the Church’s pastors.”

49. In accordance with the canonical norms concerning Catholic schools, it is the responsibility of the school leadership to collaborate with the entire school community and in close dialogue with the pastors of the Church. This in order to make explicit, along with the official educational project, the guidelines on the school’s educational mission. Indeed, every official act of the school must be in accordance with its Catholic identity, while fully respecting the freedom of each person’s conscience. This also applies to the school’s curriculum, which “is how the school community makes explicit its goals and objectives, the content of its teaching and the means for communicating it effectively. In the curriculum, the school’s cultural and pedagogical identity are made manifest.”

With this passage, the ecclesial nature of a Catholic school could not be more clear. As administrators search for proper content for a “mission statement,” it can be found right here. Most welcome is the reminder that the identity and mission of the school is “made manifest” in the curriculum, which means what is included and also what is excluded. In other words, the curriculum of a Catholic school will be markedly different from that of a government school. To be sure, the basics of a curriculum will be the same, however, the selection of courses will always be made with the mission in sharp focus.

50. A further responsibility of the school leadership is the promotion and protection of its ties with the Catholic community, which is realised through communion with the Church hierarchy.

The institutional bell is rung again – and loudly.

51. Therefore, the school leadership has the right and the duty to intervene, always with appropriate, necessary and adequate measures, when teachers or pupils do not comply with the criteria required by the universal, particular or proper law of Catholic schools.


Educational charisms in the Church

Institutional expression of the charism

53. More recently, by virtue of their baptismal vocation, also the lay faithful, individually or united in associations of the faithful, whether private (cf. can. 321-329 CIC and can. 573 § 2 CCEO) or public (cf. can. 312-320 CIC and can. 573-583 CCEO), have taken the initiative to establish and direct Catholic schools. There are also school institutions established and directed jointly by the lay faithful, consecrated persons and clerics. The Spirit of God never ceases to bring forth various gifts in the Church and to inspire vocations in the People of God to exercise the apostolate of educating the young.

This paragraph takes cognizance of the fact that in recent decades lay teachers have become a serious element in the landscape. This should not be cause for concern. In the United States, we should remember that Mother Seton was a laywoman when she launched the Church in this country on the adventure of the parochial school system. Truth be told, well formed and faithful laity can do far more to advance the Catholic identity of a school than some of the very problematic clergy and Religious who baled out of the schools in the 1960s and 1970s.

The definition of “Catholic” school

54. . . . It is a service that requires unity and communion with the Church in order to define the school as “Catholic” at all levels, from the school management to the school leadership and teachers.

The “institutional” identity here is given a firm grounding in a theology of “communion.” In other words, what is required is more than an external nod in the direction of the Church; what is necessary is a unity of mind and heart with the Church – what has traditionally been referred to as the ability “sentire cum Ecclesia” (to think/feel with the Church).

56. When a school is directed by an individual faithful or by a private association of the faithful, in order for it to be defined as a “Catholic school,” recognition by ecclesiastical authority is required. . . . Every apostolate of the faithful is always to be exercised in communion with the Church, manifested in the bonds of the profession of faith, the sacraments and ecclesiastical government (cf. can. 205 CIC and can. 8 CCEO). . . . In this way, the faithful are guaranteed that the school of their choice provides a Catholic education. . . .

A practical aspect is brought forth now: A school’s Catholic identity, being certified by Church authorities, presents parents with a guarantee that what they rightly desire will be verified in the daily experience of their children. “Truth in advertising” could sum it up.

57. . . . It will therefore be the duty of the diocesan/eparchial Bishop to accompany such initiatives and, in the case of a de facto Catholic institution, to invite it to apply for recognition as such as an expression of visible communion with the Church.

Bishops are reminded of their serious responsibility to determine whether or not a school can qualify as “Catholic.” It is to be hoped that they will do better with the elementary and secondary schools than they have with the all-too-many “allegedly” Catholic colleges and universities!

58. In cases where the term “Catholic” is used illegitimately or is aimed at giving the impression that the school is in communion with the Church, it is the responsibility of the competent diocesan/eparchial Bishop, having heard the school management and leadership and after examining the individual case, to state in writing and, should he deem it appropriate, also publicly with the aim of alerting the faithful, that this is not a Catholic school recognised and recommended by the Church.

This is simply a necessary follow-up action to the process called for in the previous paragraph.

The service of ecclesiastical authority

The diocesan/eparchial Bishop

59. The diocesan/eparchial Bishop plays a central role in discerning the “Catholic” identity of a school. . . .

The meaning and implications of the episcopal role are spelled out in great detail in the nine sub-sections that follow: ensuring fidelity to Catholic faith and morals; how he should proceed if violations of the Catholicity of the school occur, whether with laity or those in consecrated life. Furthermore, bishops are to visit schools within their dioceses at least once every five years; interestingly, we read that if the Ordinary cannot fulfill that demand, he is to delegate a priest (not a lay person or Religious) to do so (although a visitation team could – and should – include the spectrum of the faithful.). Bishops have the right to appoint (or minimally) to approve all teachers of religion, as well as to insist on the removal of staff members who do not comply with the Catholic ethos of the school.2

Parishes and the parish priest

60. At the level of the particular Church it frequently happens that Catholic schools are under the direct management of the diocese/eparchy or that of the parishes as public juridic persons, represented by their parish priests. In this case the hierarchy of the Church not only exercises its duty of vigilance over Catholic schools, but can also be directly involved in their establishment and direction.

It is well known that the involvement (or non-involvement) of priests, conveyed through their attitude and behavior. makes or breaks any Catholic school. Given that fact of life, the minimal attention given to that dimension here is very disappointing.3

Dialogue among the Bishop, consecrated women and men, and the laity

62. In mutual exchange and trusting conversation many problems can be solved without the Bishop having to formally intervene. This regular exchange, for which the diocesan/eparchial Bishop is responsible, should also take place with all others who are responsible for Catholic schools in a particular Church, such as the Moderators of public juridic persons or the faithful who direct their own Catholic school as an apostolate. Likewise, the Bishop is obliged to maintain an ongoing dialogue with the schools themselves, especially with school leaders, teachers and pupils.

This paragraph evinces no small degree of naiveté. When problems surface, it is usually because of a refusal – often quite adamant – of various players to play by the rules. That said, if an Ordinary is regularly in communication with school leaders, problems will be few and far between.

Chapter II closes out with specific directives given to episcopal conferences and with notice of the scope of authority of the Apostolic See, as that is exercised through this dicastery.


1It should be noted that some material covered in this chapter is a reprise of material handled in the first chapter of the document, presumably because it is supposed that these sections might be read independently.

2The all-encompassing nature of this dimension is probed by the Catholic identity assessment of the Catholic Education Foundation.

3The Catholic Education Foundation has been addressing this issue for eight years now with its annual seminar for priests.

If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!

Click here for more information on donating to CWR. Click here to sign up for our newsletter.

About Peter M.J. Stravinskas 280 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. “Bishops are reminded of their serious responsibility to determine whether or not a school can qualify as “Catholic.” It is to be hoped that they will do better with the elementary and secondary schools than they have with the all-too-many “allegedly” Catholic colleges and universities!”
    Bishop McManus appears to be trying with this Jesuit run school:

1 Trackback / Pingback

  1. What makes a school Catholic? Part 2 of 3 – Catholic World Report - WORLD CATHOLIC NEWS

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

All comments posted at Catholic World Report are moderated. While vigorous debate is welcome and encouraged, please note that in the interest of maintaining a civilized and helpful level of discussion, comments containing obscene language or personal attacks—or those that are deemed by the editors to be needlessly combative or inflammatory—will not be published. Thank you.