What makes a school Catholic? Part 3 of 3

If this recent “Instruction” from the Congregation for Catholic Education is taken seriously by bishops, priests, educators, and parents, we can anticipate a genuine renaissance in our Catholic schools, thus increasing in both quality and number.

Students at St. John Vianney Parochial School in Nashville, Tenn., sing at the end of the all-schools Mass Feb. 1, 2017, in celebration of Catholic Schools Week. (CNS photo/Rick Musacchio, Tennessee Register)

We now examine the third and final part of the “Instruction” of the Congregation for Catholic Education, released on 23 March 23, 2022 (see “Part 1” and “Part 2”).


67. The Congregation for Catholic Education notes that in the appeals lodged, very often there is a conflicting perception of the Catholic identity of educational institutions. This often stems from the interpretation, which is not always correct, of the term “Catholic” and from the lack of clarity regarding competences and legislation.

The honesty undergirding the genesis of this document is quite refreshing – and quite atypical of “Vati-speak”: This document had to be produced because of numerous crisis situations, calling for resolution at the highest level of ecclesial life – which is not the “Catholic” way – for the principle of subsidiarity demands resolution at the lowest level of the food chain.

Divergent interpretations of the term “Catholic”

Reductive view

69. The specific charism with which Catholic identity is lived out does not justify a reductive interpretation of catholicity that explicitly or de facto excludes essential principles, dimensions and requirements of the Catholic faith. Moreover, catholicity cannot be attributed only to certain spheres or to certain persons, such as liturgical, spiritual or social occasions, or to the function of the school chaplain, religion teachers or the school headmaster. . . .

The Catholic approach to education is holistic, which is to say, that it takes in the entirety of the human person, leaving out no dimension. And, if that is true, that also demands that everyone in the school community must be on the same page.

Formal or charismatic view

71. In addition to the definitions of exclusively juridical nature, there are others according to which what counts above all is the “Catholic spirit,” the “Christian inspiration” or the “charismatic” fulfilment, terms which are poorly defined, hardly concrete and seldom verifiable in reality. . . . Sometimes, in the case of educational institutions established and/or directed by Religious Orders, Institutes of Consecrated Life, Societies of Apostolic Life or charismatic groups, there is an imbalance between the charism and ecclesial belonging. In some situations, any reference to the term “Catholic” is avoided, choosing alternative juridical terminology.

Elusive terminology is evasive terminology. At the college/university level, we have seen this technique operative for decades, for example, “Ours is a college in the ‘Jesuit’ tradition.” Of course, the fundamental problem, rather boldly stated here, is that the individual religious community itself may not be in the Catholic tradition!

Narrow” view

72. Another reason for conflicting interpretations is represented by the “narrow” Catholic school model. In such schools there is no room for those who are not “totally” Catholic. This approach contradicts the vision of an “open” Catholic school that intends to apply to the educational sphere the model of a “Church which goes forth,” in dialogue with everyone. We must not lose our missionary impetus to confine ourselves on an island, and at the same time we need the courage to bear witness to a Catholic “culture,” that is, universal, cultivating a healthy awareness of our own Christian identity.

While never watering down our Catholic identity, we must likewise be careful never to set the bar so high that only the Holy Family of Nazareth would gain admission.

In this instance, I must confess to having a “pony in the race.” When it came time for my parents to register me in the parish school for kindergarten, Sister Matthew Joseph asked for four documents: my birth, baptismal, and inoculation certificates – and, my parents’ marriage certificate. My mother declared, “I didn’t bother bringing it; you wouldn’t accept it.” You see, my parents weren’t married in the Church. Sister simply said, “Well, we’ll have to work on that, won’t we?” By second grade, my parents’ situation was rectified. Had Sister merely tossed us out, I think we could guess that not only would I never have become a priest, but I probably would never have grown up Catholic. So, yes, a strong, uncompromising identity, but a willingness to work with those who are open to growth in the Christian life.

Clarity of competences and legislation

73. Sometimes critical situations around Catholic identity arise out of a lack of clarity about competences and legislation. In these cases, it is necessary first of all to maintain a fair balance of competences, in accordance with the principle of subsidiarity. This principle is based on the responsibility of each individual before God and distinguishes between the diversity and complementarity of competences. Everyone’s responsibility is also assisted by suitable tools which – through the exercise of self-assessment and subsequent exchanges with “external experts” – help each person to be a protagonist in the educational project. . . .

Clarity of vision and clarity of roles obviate crises. Further, having objective, third-party observers is always helpful.

74. Statutes play an important role in ensuring the necessary clarity. Sometimes they are not up to date; they do not clearly illustrate competences or new procedures; they are designed too rigidly to the point of regulating general situations without leaving room for discernment or possible solutions that can only be found at local level.

Here the legal dimension of the previous paragraph is spelled out.

75. The legal and competence issue affecting Catholic educational institutions also arise as a result of the double regulatory framework: canonical and state-civil. Because of the different aims of the relevant legislation, it may happen that the State imposes on Catholic institutions, operating in the public sphere, unbefitting behaviours that cast doubt on the doctrinal and disciplinary credibility of the Church. Sometimes public opinion also makes solutions in line with the principles of Catholic morality almost impossible.

In this instance, we are confronted with two distinct but related issues.

First, it is essential that Catholic schools have absolutely clear mission statements and staff contracts (with totally clear expectations set forth).

Second, when civil legislation conflicts with the Catholic vision, we must be prepared to fight with all our might to ward off any and all incursions, even the slightest, since tackling difficulties early wards off bigger problems later.

76. . . . Canon Law, based on the fundamental principle of the salvation of souls (can.1752 CIC), provides various solutions to guarantee communion between the parties involved in the educational mission, and acts as a barrier to the scandal of the breakup of the Church’s internal unity, the inability to promote dialogue among her members, and the exposure of conflicts in state courts and the mass media.

If we ground ourselves in a supernatural perspective, we shall not find ourselves creating the scandals condemned by St. Paul as Christians fight each in the courts of the pagans (see 1 Cor 6:1-6)! Truth be told, if we were more intentional in our hiring procedures, we would be less likely to find ourselves hailed into civil courts.

77. In addition, for the sake of clarity, Catholic schools must have either a mission statement or a code of conduct. These are instruments for institutional and professional quality assurance. They must therefore be legally reinforced by means of employment contracts or other contractual declarations by those involved having clear legal value. It is acknowledged that in many countries civil law bars “discrimination” on the basis of religion, sexual orientation and other aspects of private life. At the same time, educational institutions are granted the possibility to draw up a profile of values and a code of conduct. When these values and behaviours are not respected by those concerned, the latter can be sanctioned for lack of professional honesty in failing to comply with the terms set out in the related contracts and institutional guidelines.

This could not be any clearer, highlighting so many of the currently neuralgic issues.

78. In addition, beyond purely legal norms, other instruments more suited in promoting individual responsibility to the benefit of the identity of the institution often appear to be more effective. By way of example: individual and collective self-assessment procedures within the institution, guidelines on desired quality standards, permanent formation courses and the promotion and strengthening of professional skills, incentives and rewards, and the collection, documentation and study of good practices. . . .

What is called for here is “preventive” medicine.

Some sensitive issues and areas

79. There are situations in educational life that require great attention and sensitivity to resolve any tensions and conflicts that may arise. First of all, the choice of teaching, non-teaching and direction personnel. Taking into account the different contexts and possibilities, it is necessary to formulate clear criteria for discernment regarding the professional qualities, adherence to the Church’s doctrine, and consistency in the Christian life of the candidates.

Personnel is policy!

81. There are also cases in which State laws impose choices that conflict with religious freedom and the very Catholic identity of a school. While respecting the different spheres, there is a need for reasonable defence of the rights of Catholics and their schools both through dialogue with State authorities and through recourse to the courts having jurisdiction in these matters.

Catholic school leaders have to be prepared to stave off any and all assaults on our religious freedom, lest we find ourselves in this country in the sad situation of the majority of Catholic schools in Canada.

82. Problems can arise within the local Church as a result of differences of opinions among the members of the community (Bishop, parish priest, consecrated persons, parents, school leaders, associations, etc.) concerning the viability of the school, its financial sustainability and its position in the face of new educational challenges. Once again, dialogue and walking together are the main way to resolve these problems, while also keeping in mind the hierarchical nature of the Church and respecting the different competences.

Differences of opinion should never devolve into hostile camps. That said, there are often “irreconcilable” positions. If everyone has been honestly heard (and not in a perfunctory manner or, worse, only “heard” although a decision has already been made), the final word is always that of the Ordinary, precisely because of “the hierarchical nature of the Church.”

83. A problem that always causes conflicting reactions is the closure or change of the legal structure of a Catholic school due to management difficulties. This problem should not be solved in the first instance by considering the financial value of buildings and property with a view to selling them, or by transferring management to bodies that are distant from the principles of Catholic education in order to create a source of financial profit. In fact, the temporal goods of the Church have among their proper purposes works of the apostolate and charity, especially at the service of the poor (cf. can. 1254 § 2 CIC and can. 1007 CCEO). Therefore, in the case of a diocesan/eparchial or parochial school, it is the responsibility of the Bishop to consult with all those concerned in order to evaluate every possible solution to safeguard the continuity of the educational service. In the case of educational institutions run by religious or lay people, before closure or alienation, it is highly desirable to consult the Bishop and to find, together with the educating community, viable ways of continuing to offer their precious mission.

This is a follow-up to the previous paragraph, dealing with the always-fraught decision to close a Catholic school. A warning is leveled: The Church is not in the banking or real estate business. All too often, pastors have agitated to close their schools because they worship at the altar of Mammon, seeing in the closure a financial windfall either through sale of the property or its rental. Bishops need to “disincentifize” such machinations with preemptive diocesan policies.

Encounter and convergence to consolidate Catholic identity

This section, paragraphs 84-93, is the least valuable part of the entire document. The good material is highly repetitive, while the rest is little more than “weak tea,” replete with gibberish, leading me to suspect that it was produced by a different hand.


95. Pope Francis, in addressing the theme of the encounter among faith, reason and the sciences, emphasises that “Catholic schools, which always strive to join their work of education with the explicit proclamation of the Gospel, are a most valuable resource for the evangelization of culture, even in those countries and cities where hostile situations challenge us to greater creativity in our search for suitable methods.”

The paragraph attributes this citation to Pope Francis, which is true to the extent that Francis did write this, however, Francis was quoting Pope John Paul II. How silly!

96. In light of these exhortations, this Instruction, starting from the essential criteria which mark the Catholic identity of schools, wishes to accompany their renewal in order to respond to the new challenges that, in the epochal change we are living, the world proposes to the Church, mother and teacher. The response will be effective with the acquisition of full identity in obedience to a transcendent truth, as Pope Francis recalled, citing a memorable text by Pope John Paul II: “If there is no transcendent truth, in obedience to which man achieves his full identity, then there is no sure principle for guaranteeing just relations between people. Their self-interest as a class, group or nation would inevitably set them in opposition to one another. If one does not acknowledge transcendent truth, then the force of power takes over, and each person tends to make full use of the means at his disposal in order to impose his own interests or his own opinion, with no regard for the rights of others… The root of modern totalitarianism is to be found in the denial of the transcendent dignity of the human person who, as the visible image of the invisible God, is therefore by his very nature the subject of rights that no one may violate – no individual, group, class, nation or state. Not even the majority of the social body may violate these rights, by going against the minority.”

Here ends the Instruction, with its salutary citation of Pope John Paul’s appeal in “Centesimus Annus” for an appreciation for and devotion to “transcendent truth.” That needs to be the foundational principle guiding Catholic education.

At the outset of this reflection, I noted that two critiques of it surfaced upon its publication.

First, that it is too long. I submit that, of necessity, it had to be; I hope the analysis provided in these three installments has demonstrated that it is not overly verbose.

The second complaint lodged was that the document will never be enforced. If that happens, it will not be the fault of the document or its authors. If this Instruction is taken seriously by bishops, priests, educators, and parents, we can anticipate a genuine renaissance in our Catholic schools, thus increasing in both quality and number.

St. John Henry Cardinal Newman, the modern apostle of Catholic education, responding to the Archbishop of Sydney (Australia) in 1879, asked what he thought was a rhetorical question:

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?

If not, “when young,” then “when will they acquire it?” This document was intended to ensure that Catholic youngsters “acquire it. . . when young.”

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 260 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. It’s just too bad that I can’t use any of this in my education courses. There are just too many “Stravinskas” idiosyncrasies that spoil an otherwise good topic. You really need to purify yourself of that sarcasm. It’s arrogant. I might as well stick to the original documents. They don’t contain those tiny pellets of rat poison that can make a person somewhat sick to their stomach.

    • Are you on the right forum? Whatever on earth are you talking about??? Specifics and arguments are at least of use and deserve a bit of time and consideration. Blanket ad hom attacks uselessly confuse and end with the accuser’s having given himself a black eye.

    • I hope you don’t teach grammar: “make A person sick to THEIR stomach”! That’s not sarcasm; that’s just “fraternal” correction.

      • Just continue to avoid having to take a good hard look at yourself. Too proud to accept correction, but always ready to provide it.

  2. I think Fr. Stravinskas did an excellent job in the 3-part essay, delineating sound practical or working expression of the document in question. Then he is able to add his personal insight for everyone else’s advantage.

    I have them bookmarked.

    If the document was floated by the higher-ups to be more than that, what he has done in advance is ….

    …. P R U D E N T .

    And sharing it for free is generous. And most welcomed!

    But I don’t mean to undersell his output either: he put this effort into it because he means not to be arbitrary or after-the-fact, in going about his work; and he means to accommodate what is new and worthy to his experience and do it in good faith.

  3. [If not, “when young,” then “when will they acquire it?” This document was intended to ensure that Catholic youngsters “acquire it. . . when young.”]

    The big problem is that the Catholic schools are serving primarily the upper classes while the poor are left in the public schools.

  4. Say what you mean, and mean what you say–old expression that appears to be absent in “The identity of the Catholic school for a culture of dialogue” though Reverend Peter Stravinskas admirably analyzes the gist of it. The title itself is problematic…”for a culture of dialogue.” What does that mean? Overall, though I have only read the excerpts, the document seemed to have been constructed to “appease” the foundational Catholics while doing a “wink wink” at those who seek to bend the Church more to the world and its values. The former is buried by the overall attempt to “dialogue” for the culture (world).

    Some examples: …freedom, which is not freedom to do “what I want,” but a freedom to do “what I ought…” Would this not have been an ideal juncture to elaborate on the “ought” which is itself subjective? Father Stavinskas hits the nail on the head when he parenthetically comments: I would have preferred having recourse to the word “virtues” rather than “values.” It is within understanding and pursuit of a virtuous life that one learns what he or she ought to be doing.

    Another: “This is possible through a search for truth….” Is the Pope and his associates not aware of the rampant relativism today? Objective Truth, in the Person of Jesus Christ…say His name! Another: A Catholic school that is not “centered on Jesus Christ” is not a Catholic school. Again…”centered” meaning? Thousands of self identified Christian schools claim the same while they imbue their students with a uni-focus on numerous global issues. Better: “…centered on Jesus Christ in all His fullness and Sacramentally, by public revelation and sacred Tradition…(or language to that effect. (Yes, we are existing to make saints. Moreover, we should be perceiving ourselves as foremost “citizens of Heaven” in an exiled land snf behavior accordingly.

    Also, I know that I should read on when word like “dialogue” and “diversity” are brandied about, but this is gnarly in the best of circumstances. Clarity is required in vocational discernment, professional development, and mission (statement) and follow through. There is still too prevalent a tendency to lean towards Eastern religions as beacons of this dialogue, as is noted in Education as “movement.” One can almost close eyes and sway to the scent of incense and soft Enya music in the background, while embracing an education that unleashes “an ecological movement.”

    There is also concern that “family” and parents–while receiving primacy of authority in the education of children, does not address how to protect and defend parents. Father Stravinskas’s recommendations for “serious programs of parent workshops” might well be done even while children (of any given Parish) are still literally preschool.

    It was uplifting to note that “The Mission of Catholic Schools: A Century of Reflection (2021) was endorsed by the National Catholic Educational Association, a group that would greatly benefit by being more confident in its Catholic mission. (Just my observations and thoughts).

    Finally, yes, the laity must step up, but the clergy should lead, support, and guide them in genuine collaboration, not contention. Numerous situations arise that do indicate a genuine ignorance among parents, not at all intentional, let alone malicious. (I include myself in that for many decades, I was amiss in my faith life.) Yet, with support of well informed and catechized families, the overall school will be (more) Catholic. Faith savvy parents are more likely to embrace an authentic Catholic identity and be intolerant — hmmm maybe I should not use that word–of those who would undermine it. I look forward to sharing the Catholic identity assessment of the Catholic Education Foundation.

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.