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Ministers return to their classrooms

What makes a teacher a minister of religion, especially a teacher of a secular subject? The difference resides not in the subject matter, but in the manner a subject is taught.

(Image: 14995841/Pixabay)

Across America, Catholic school teachers are returning to their classrooms to begin a new year, when they will again endeavor to fulfill the purpose of Catholic education: to lead their students to Christ by means of academic study. This fact makes Catholic school teachers more than peddlers of knowledge—they are ministers of the Lord, agents of evangelization.

The role of teacher as minister is not a reality that most think of at first glance, but it is one that has grown in prominence in recent years, and not merely because of the intentional emphasis that new, classically modeled Catholic liberal arts schools place on the mission of the teacher. Rather, because of legal pressures brought against Catholic teaching on sexuality by secular forces, many Catholic schools have shifted to calling their teachers “ministers” in their contracts as a form of legal protection against attackers wielding a false notion of discrimination against them.

In 2020, the Supreme Court defended the legal notion of a teacher at a religious school being a minister of that religion in Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru, a first amendment case that concerned the rights of a Catholic school to fire employees who do not live up to its religious mission.

But the dissent’s argument is noteworthy: Justice Sonya Sotomayor, herself a Catholic grammar and high school graduate, argued that “the title ‘teacher’ does not convey ministerial status,” especially for those who teach subjects other than religion. Teaching secular subjects makes religious school teachers “like any public school teacher in California, subject to the same statewide curriculum guidelines.”

What makes a teacher a minister of religion, especially a teacher of a secular subject? The subjects themselves, as Justice Sotomayor points out, do not distinguish religious and government schools. The difference resides not in the subject matter, but in the manner a subject is taught.

Scriptural grounding for this distinction lies in our Lord’s admonition in Matthew 25:40: “Whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.” Our Lord gives supernatural import to secular activity. In itself, there is nothing religious about giving a cup of cold water to someone; the same can be said of feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and so on. It is God’s providence that gives these activities supernatural import; His omnipresence elevates everything we do from the temporal realm into the eternal realm. In faith, we are conscious of the supernatural import and goal of all that we do in the temporal, secular realm. This fact makes us ministers of Christ in all that we do, from helping the poor to, yes, teaching secular subjects.

Though Catholics have long held that the content of secular subjects, so long as they reflect the truth, can lead us to God, the subjects themselves do not have supernatural import. But teaching does. Through the act of teaching whatever subject as an act of charity toward students, Catholic teachers, working in Catholic schools that were founded specifically to pass on the faith, are ministers of Christ. That is, they are evangelists, spreading the Gospel by means of their teaching.

We should add that this is true for Catholic teachers laboring heroically behind enemy lines in government schools. Their teaching, too, can be evangelical in the same manner.

If it is the act of teaching, rather than the subjects taught, that makes teachers ministers and evangelists, then who the teacher is and how he or she teaches is the key to this ministry. If a school is going to succeed in its mission of handing on the faith, it must employ teachers who believe in Christ and believe that they are, in fact, evangelists by their teaching. The more teachers dedicated to this cause, the more successful the school will be in its religious mission.

As an aside, it is quite possible that non-Catholic teachers can share and advance the mission of a Catholic school, despite Justice Sotomayor’s belief that this assertion “stretches the law and logic past their breaking points.” Ministers of Christ know well that we all fall short of the God we profess, and sometimes the belief of the heart outpaces a person’s state of communion with the Church.

Of course, the manner of teaching secular subjects in Catholic schools extends beyond teaching with charity. The Catholic school teacher conveys how these subjects come from and point to God. Simply by contextualizing for students that the math problems they solve, the science experiments they perform, and the books they read all point to a Creator God who is, in His very nature, reasonable, and has fashioned the universe to reflect His goodness and His rationality, advances the mission of the school: the subjects, like the school itself, point toward God, who is our own origin and goal of our lives.

A minister is an agent for another, one who carries out a task on his patron’s behalf. How blessed are Catholic school teachers who, in the act of teaching, are agents of their Lord, Jesus Christ, who Himself is the truth toward which we strive, and the greatest of all teachers.

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About David G. Bonagura, Jr. 35 Articles
David G. Bonagura, Jr. is an adjunct professor at St. Joseph’s Seminary and Catholic Distance University. He is the 2023-2024 Cardinal Newman Society Fellow for Eucharistic Education. He is the author of Steadfast in Faith: Catholicism and the Challenges of Secularism. and Staying with the Catholic Church: Trusting God's Plan of Salvation, and the translator of Jerome’s Tears: Letters to Friends in Mourning.


  1. May Christ THE Teacher bless abundantly Mr Bonagura for his inspiring essay but, even more so, for his committed service to the great cause of Catholic education. It is exhilarating to note that he is but one of tens of thousands of such committed “ministers” laboring in our beloved Catholic schools.

  2. I would argue that both the manner and the matter as well as the Manna(frequent reception of the sacraments) all matter in an authentic Catholic School.

    Teaching horse manure with a charitable smile is child abuse; teaching the divine attributes and holy virtue without zeal and conviction is a disservice; doing any apostolic work like education without the sustenance of sacramental grace is doomed to fall short.

    Additionally teachers in a Catholic School must be Catholic. Smarter dioceses are moving in the direction of hiring knowledgeable orthodox educated professionals, rather than state-certified woke ladder climbers who will corrupt children’s minds before they leave in two years for more greenbacks.

    I would agree that teachers have a mission as ministers of religion in the classroom. Administrators must insure that their ministers of education practice, believe, and spread the one true Faith, the Catholic Faith, not some politically correct phony counterfeit paganism that is peddled in many schools with the word “Catholic” in the name.

    • SUCH an important matter, dear David G. Bonagura, Jr.: opening the minds of the young to the wonders and promises eternal of King Jesus Christ.

      In Australia most of those in Catholic Universities & Colleges who are charged with the education of schoolteachers, own & communicate what would be completely abhorrent to Our LORD Jesus Christ, His Most Blessed Mum, and the Apostles.

      Anti-Apostolic, antinomic, syncretistic, unitarian, universalist, amoral, paganism has now largely become, Australian Catholic MIS-education. It has no power to connect R.E. teachers and the children they teach with The Living Christ & so it is useless to them as a defense against the lying invitations of the devil, the world, & the flesh.

      Consequently, when our school children are shepherded to Holy Mass by their R.E. teachers and sacramental coordinators, they show every sign of being confused & disinterested. They are mainly going through the motions mindlessly simple because that is what is required of them.

      We shouldn’t be surprised that when they leave school, many of those children grow up to despise our Catholic faith. A percentage are eventually evangelized by good scriptural teachers into Christ-honoring & obeying Protestant & Pentecostal churches.

      Worse: a higher percentage of them end up proselytized by powerful teachers into New Age circles, witchcraft covens, freemason lodges, and a plethora of Christ-dishonoring lifestyles.

      Teaching the Truth with greater power is the only antidote for this toxic situation. Yet, today, the exclusiveness of authentic faith in, love of, & obedience to Jesus Christ is as hard to find among Australian ‘catholics’ as hens’ teeth.

      All that can be done is for us lowly Catholic faithful to exhort our clergy & other authorities with the uncompromising words of Saint Paul to Saint Timothy in 2 Timothy 4:1-5.

      Saint Mary MacKillop of the Cross of Jesus Christ, please intercede for us.

      Always praying for Holy Spirit revival; love & blessings from marty

  3. “A minister is an agent for another, one who carries out a task on his patron’s behalf. How blessed are Catholic school teachers who, in the act of teaching, are agents of their Lord, Jesus Christ, who Himself is the truth toward which we strive, and the greatest of all teachers.”
    The scandal of Catholic schools is that they now serve primarily the middle class and rich. Jesus served primarily the poor. The middle class and rich need help too, but the Church should promote “a preferential option for the poor”.

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