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Today the Church in the United States begins its annual celebration of Catholic Schools Week, and I would like to take this opportunity to review with you the Church’s understanding of the critical importance of our schools and to challenge you to respond appropriately. In the interests of full disclosure, let me note at the outset that not only have I spent my entire adult life working in and for Catholic schools (at the elementary, secondary, university and seminary levels) but that everything I am, I owe to my Catholic education. Not just my priestly vocation but the Catholic Faith itself came to me from the parish school because my parents were not practicing Catholics when they committed me and my education to St. Rose of Lima School in Newark in 1955. Through God’s grace and what I like to call “reverse evangelization,” I brought them back to the Church by the time I was in second grade!
“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 nearly 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.
From the last third of the nineteenth century until the same period of the twentieth century, the Catholic school system in the United States was the marvel and envy of the Church Universal.
The First Provincial Council of Baltimore in 1829 asserted that “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.”
Some American bishops, like John Ireland, opted for an “assimilationist” form of Catholicism. This Americanist point of view maintained that Catholic doctrine should be presented in a way that would cause as little difference to surface with Protestants as possible. Educationally, the Americanists were opposed to parochial schools, however, by the time the Code of Canon Law was enacted in 1917, they had to face this strong statement: “Catholic children are not to attend non-Catholic, neutral or mixed schools.” Where no other alternative was available, the bishop himself had to determine what dangers to the Faith existed and then judge if a dispensation from the law would be tolerable.
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.” While this kind of thinking has been characterized as a “fortress” or “siege mentality,” few observers can doubt that the American so-called public school is a potent example of a “neutral” school system becoming “irreligious” de facto and, some would add, de jure.
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 ...”
One should observe that these statements are rather absolute, not surrounded by various qualifiers.
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.” Many would point to the great irony that at the very moment of this letter's promulgation, pastors were closing schools at an unprecedented rate, usually with the blessing of the local bishop.
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 observance of our bicentennial, Bishop John Neumann of Philadelphia and Mother Seton of New York, were prime movers in the parochial school effort.
The 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. Its 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 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.
At times, some “traditional” critics of our schools will agree that Catholic schools were certainly superb “in the old days,” but are not so any more. While some horror stories about bad catechesis and poor attitudinal formation are regrettably accurate, it is crucial to underscore two other points: (1) The local government school will not be any more “Catholic,” for sure. (2) In spite of deficiencies which surfaced in the seventies, Catholic elementary and secondary schools today are on the rebound in terms of reclaiming a truly Catholic identity, to which I can personally attest since I spend the vast majority of my time working with schools on this matter.
A third issue to consider is that socialization and identification with the “institutional” Church are key for an “incarnational” religion like Catholicism, in which structures are critically important; “home-schooling” has not achieved that goal and cannot do so, in spite of good will and intentions – all documented both statistically and anecdotally. Furthermore, sociological surveys consistently show that graduates of post-conciliar Catholic schools continue to be markedly different from their public school counterparts, especially in regard to Sunday Mass attendance, thoughts on abortion, willingness to consider a priestly or religious vocation, and generosity to the local parish (both in service and donations).
At yet another level, the success story of Catholic schools in this country occurs with phenomenal regularity in the academic realm. Professor John Coleman of the University of Chicago documents an impressive performance record for Catholic high school students, which indicates that they outstrip not only public school students but also – and amazingly so – students from private schools! The reason for the success? According to Coleman, this happens because of religious and moral values in our schools and because of the coordination between home and school. These two aspects take on the greatest significance when we reflect on the incredible achievements of youngsters in inner-city Catholic schools.
The National Catholic Education Association recently released the latest statistics on Catholic schools in the United States. Almost totally unnoticed in nearly all the reporting was a small but critically important detail: Over 26% of our schools have waiting lists!
The first lesson to be taken from this is the necessity of passing along good news when it happens, rather than purveying an incessant stream of bad news. Now, we cannot ignore the sad fact that Catholic schools, especially in inner-city environments, continue to close. Which leads to a second lesson. Why are Catholic schools still closing? In the inner cities, it is largely due to a population shift. In other words, the traditional Catholic demographic reality is no longer there. In many instances, whole sections of cities have become veritable ghost-towns, particularly in terms of children – which is why government schools are closing in those places as well. So, let's make sure that when a story is told about the shuttering of a Catholic school that it is put in the context of what is occurring in the overall sociological reality.
Now, back to suburbia – where the vast majority of Catholics have lived for the past three decades and will continue to live into the foreseeable future. A fundamental error in strategic planning was made on the part of ecclesiastical leaders in the 1970s as the demographic shift from urban to suburban began. Whereas up through the 1950s, new parishes always began with schools, that was generally not the case in the 1970s, either because Church authorities were too enamored of the burgeoning CCD cottage industry as a viable alternative to Catholic schools (now proven to be an abject failure) or because bishops and priests failed to see the basic fatal flaw in so-called public education – pointed out so clearly by Pope Pius XI in Divini Illius Magistri. That point must be stressed to our people, if we expect them to make the sacrifices needed to maintain our schools, even in suburbia. In other words, if public schools are not flawed at their root and if Catholic schools are just a bit “nicer,” why bother?
Much more could be said about the moral responsibility of every Catholic – whether or not having children in our schools – to support the total effort of Catholic education, especially as an act of gratitude for the Catholic schooling one personally received (probably for a pittance) and which now presents an almost insupportable burden for so many parents. Needless to say, Catholics and all citizens of intelligence and good will need to unite to reverse the public-school monopoly which keeps parental choice at bay by holding poor and middle-class families economic hostages of a godless and failed system of education.
The Church in the United States responded to an anti-Catholic threat in the nineteenth century by fashioning her own school system and that school system has served both the Church and the broader society very well. A new form of anti-Catholicism exists today, not of Protestants against Catholics but of virulent secularists against all people of faith. That fact forces me to conclude that Catholic schools are more necessary today than ever before in our history. Such aggressive secularization can only be held off and even reversed if the Church is able to offer her members an alternative vision of life and what sociologists call a viable “sub-culture” (actually, the Catholic “sub-culture” is the real culture, while what society is offering is not a culture at all). In essence, that is what St. Benedict did as the decadent Roman culture was breathing its last, and that alternate vision saved not only the Church but western culture. The principal agent of that renewal was a monasticism which founded schools everywhere. What emerged in relatively short order was the glorious Middle Ages – the Age of Faith – with the good, the true and the beautiful producing a superabundance of magnificent works of literature, art, music and architecture – and thousands of saints.
Believers must be convinced – and then must convince everyone else – that the Fathers of Vatican II got it right when they declared in Gaudium et Spes: “Without the Creator, the creature vanishes” (n. 36). History supports that assertion. Just look at the bloodshed of every godless movement of modernity from the French Revolution to the Mexican Revolution and the Spanish Civil War to the murderous campaigns of the Nazis and Communists. Clearly, “without the Creator, the creature vanishes.” And an education devoid of God is an anti-education.
Let me conclude with some very insightful observations of the convert-monk and poet of the twentieth century, Thomas Merton. Reflecting on some years of his boyhood spent in France between the two world wars, he contrasted a state school in the village with a 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. (Thomas Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain. New York: Harcourt, Inc., 1998, 56.)
My dear friends, 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.” I pray that you will join in that noble effort.
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Father Stravinskas is the Executive Director of the Catholic Education Foundation. The above is reproduced here with his kind permission.