Catholic School Class Photo. Wikimedia Commons

What is the Catholic School?

Paige Sanchez defines the heart and mission of the Catholic school.
Paige S. Sanchez

Words can be poor in their attempt to communicate meaning. The term “Catholic identity” in the context of a Catholic school is often used too easily, starting from the presumption that what these words mean has already been agreed upon. Behind the term “Catholic identity” there is always an unspoken assumption of what it is we are really trying to convey. This imprecise awareness often begets a confused mission that engenders a forgetfulness of Christ and ends up severing the educational attempt from His person, whom the Catholic school, in all of its noble intentions, first believed it was after. Thus it behooves us to ask, “What is the Catholic school?”[1]

Its History in America
Like the core of the Catholic faith, the origins of the American Catholic school system can be attributed to sacrifice, most notably, the sacrifice of vowed women religious who faced the challenges of serving in parish schools throughout the 19th and first half of the 20th century.[2] Hostility toward Catholics began to issue forth from Protestant pulpits beginning in the 1830s; however, concurrently the Holy Spirit was preparing new vessels to imbue with its grace: the Catholic school.[3]

Between 1820 and 1870 the wave of European immigrants to the United States numbered over 5 million. The children of these immigrants were being schooled in anti-Catholic environments; Catholic schools began to combat the dangers of public schools that Americanized children through Protestant ideals. This gave rise to Catholic communities that banded together in ethnic neighborhoods to preserve their Catholic identity and protect their children’s faith development, a dynamic that supported the building of Catholic parochial schools.[4] These communities were strengthened by their common adversary—publicly funded Protestant schools which aggressively formed children contrary to the culture of their heritage.

At the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore in 1884, the bishops, responding to the ardent desire for Catholic schools, commanded that a Catholic school be founded at every parish in the United States.[5] A new challenge naturally followed this well-intended mandate: who would serve to staff Catholic schools with qualified Catholic educators?

Women religious had been teaching in Catholic schools throughout the 19th century often having left their home countries to serve in the missions of the United States.[6] Their preparation for teaching largely took place in the context of their religious communities where they were mentored by older, experienced sisters. This allowed their teaching apostolate to be fully integrated with their vocation. Their prayer life and community living centered around service to their students, the school, and ultimately their response to God. During postulancy and novitiate, sisters were formed to respond to their vocation to the religious life rather than merely to prepare professionally for classroom experience. Pedagogical preparation came as a result of the authentic living and formation in the religious community, which was manifested through prayer and daily interaction with a sister-mentor who assisted with the challenges of lesson planning and managing classrooms of up to 100 students.[7] Formal teacher training was of little importance in the face of profound “confidence in the vocation itself and in God’s divine assistance.”[8]

A Distinctly Catholic Educator
While the American Church would seem to be in a drastically different place than it was 50 years ago, challenges in teacher staffing persist. Although perspective has shifted, the question remains: What is a Catholic teacher?

In an address to the Congregation for Catholic Education, Pope Francis recently said that “[T]he educator in Catholic schools must be, first of all, very competent, qualified and, at the same time, rich in humanity, capable of being in the midst of young people with a pedagogical style, to promote their human and spiritual growth.”[9] Therefore, the Catholic teacher is not simply one who grades papers, pins up bulletin boards, and keeps meticulous records of absences and behavior. Neither does a Catholic teacher attain his or her end in developing creative and intricate units of instruction curricularly aligned to meet diocesan benchmarks and state standards. Being a Catholic school teacher is more than a list of functional tasks: it is to be a witness to a life lived in relationship with Christ that holds Him dearer than anything else. Being a Catholic educator is to be someone who accompanies students to their destiny. The Catholic educator’s viewpoint begins from a certainty in the positivity of reality through which Jesus of Nazareth comes personally, making life beautiful and full in the lived, dramatic fury of freedom.[10]

One of the many consequences of the educator’s entreaty to know Christ through every circumstance of the work of teaching is the Catholic teacher’s gaze on the student, which participates in the gaze of Christ. In every difficulty, the Catholic educator lives the certainty that Christ makes all things new.[11] What determines a student (and also the teacher) is that he/she is loved—that he/she has been loved into existence. What defines a student is not his/her grades or any other measure of success, or if he/she gets in trouble or not;what defines the student is that he/she is loved by Christ. There is an awareness of the dignity of the human person that is deeply present in a Catholic school, lived in the milieu of the awareness that it is mercy that governs existence.

By Way of the Family
As the Second Vatican Councils declared, “Beautiful indeed and of great importance is the vocation of all those who aid parents in fulfilling their duties and who, as representatives of the human community, undertake the task of education in schools.”[12] The Catholic school should always be understood in relation to the family. “The family is the first core for relationships: the relationship with one’s father and mother and with one’s brothers and sisters is the basis, and it always accompanies us in life. But at school we ‘socialize’: we meet people who are different from us, different in age, culture, roots, abilities. School is the first society that integrates the family. Family and school should never be opposed!”[13]

In The Catholic Character of Catholic Schools, Walch cites the changing structure of the American family as a major factor in the landscape of Catholic education.[14] As indicated by the research of Portier among others, families no longer live in neighborhoods of an ethnic subculture; children often experience a single parent household or one in which both parents work.[15] The Catholic school and parish are no longer central to the family’s culture and activity. As a result, in some cases, the presence of parents in schools is sometimes limited to back-to-school night and parent-teacher conferences, if at all. Despite these, the role of parents must be approached with reverence. The education of the young “belongs in the first place to those who began the work of nature by giving them birth…forbidden to leave unfinished this work and so expose it to certain ruin.”[16] Parents are entrusted to care for a child for a lifetime while a teacher’s care is often limited to the span of a school year. Teachers should cultivate a disposition of respect and knowledge of “the preeminent value of the family, the primary unit of every human culture.”[17] As the primary educating agency in society, the family has a divine mission and responsibility in the education of children.[18] The Code of Canon Law states

"parents are bound by the obligation and possess the right of educating their offspring. Catholic parents also have the duty and right of choosing those means and institutions through which they can provide more suitably for the Catholic education of their children.[19]"

Schools receive the task to educate children from parents who send them there.[20] At the same time, an education by parents is “irreplaceable and inalienable, and therefore incapable of being entirely delegated” to the Catholic school.[21]

Collaboration of teachers with parents is demanded by Canon Law: “Parents must cooperate closely with the teachers of the schools to which they entrust their children to be educated; moreover, teachers in fulfilling their duty are to collaborate very closely with parents, who are to be heard willingly.”[22] Parents have the primary role in a child’s social, moral, and cognitive development.[23] Relationships experienced in the home are the first lessons for relating to communities found at school, the workplace, and the Church itself. Within the domestic church, “parents should, by their word and example, be the first preachers of the faith to their children; they should encourage them in the vocation which is proper to each of them.”[24] Parents and the schools should work together for the whole human society; “whosoever shall receive one such child as this in my name, receiveth me.”[25] It is from parents that educators can understand the norm for teaching to enrich their work “with the values of kindness, constancy, goodness, service, disinterestedness and self-sacrifice that are the most precious fruits of love.”[26] Viewed in collaboration with the family, Catholic education essentially promotes the Gospel of Life as fundamental to its self-understanding. Catholic schools and families are called to mutual service of one another. If “the future of the world and of the Church passes through the family” so too does the future of Catholic education.[27]

Catholic Identity of a School
The starting point of any Catholic culture is the certainty that there has been a unique intervention in history. There was a moment in time in which, as Fact, God entered into reality: the Word became Flesh. From that moment on, as a result of this inconceivable claim of Christianity, all of reality has to do with God because it communicates and puts man into relationship with him. This is the unifying viewpoint of the Catholic Christian that describes the origin and destiny of everything that is.

Everything a school does teaches something. Therefore, everything a school does is an education of some sort. But before the question, “What should we do?,” the question, “Who are we?” should be asked first. Education is a matter of being before it is a matter of doing. It begins with the ontological questions, “Who am I?” and “What is man?,” which can only adequately be answered by the human person in relation to all of reality. Catholic identity then has to do with a vision of reality rather than a moral question. When Catholic identity is reduced to a moral problem (i.e. What should I do to make a Catholic school more Catholic?), the locus is on me and my effort rather than on a freedom that responds to the action and mystery of God. To deal with effort or a kind of activism rather than mystery feels safer because it is a measurable program that can be controlled. It enables the illusion of the egocentric lie that man is the Creator, forgetting that man does not make himself. In truth, human existence unfolds as a response to God in service to the world.

A good school is not developed to then be made Catholic. Nor is a Catholic school Catholic because it feels that way when one walks in the front door. It is Catholic because every aspect of the school is ordered toward the totality of a unifying viewpoint that is at the root and very cause of every action because it relates “all human culture . . . to the news of salvation so that the life of faith will illumine . . . the world.”[28] Part of what this means is that there are crucifixes in classrooms, that the day begins with prayer, that students wear uniforms, and that there is religion class. But more deeply, this means that the life of the school communicates, implicitly and explicitly, that Jesus of Nazareth became man and is the keystone of all reality. This does not mean that we teach math or any other subject using a “Catholic pedagogy.” It means we study things because God has already thought them, and because of their relationship to Him, they are interesting and beautiful and good to study for their own sake.

Pope Francis recently said in his Address to the Congregation of Catholic Education that “to educate is an act of love.”[29] Education is integral to love because love itself educates, bringing one out of and into the truth of love and therefore the truth of being itself. The education that takes place in a Catholic school is an act of love because it is an expression of a love for truth, the Truth that became a Person. It is the certainty of this Presence that makes all the demands of love lived in the experience of the Catholic school capable of being embraced with gladness and offered for the life of the world.

[1]Portions of this essay appeared in: Smith, P.A. (March 2007). The University Consortium for Catholic Education (UCCE): A Response to Sustain and Strengthen Catholic Education. In Catholic Education: A Journal of Inquiry and Practice, 10 (pp. 321-342).
[2] Jacobs, R. M. (2000). Contributions of religious to U.S. Catholic schooling. In J. Youniss, J. J. Convey, & J. A. McLellan (Eds.), Catholic character of Catholic schools (pp. 82-102). Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press; Walch, T. (1996). Parish school: American Catholic parochial education from colonial times to the present. New York: Crossroad.
[3]Ibid. Walch.
[5] Gibbons, J. (1954). Pastoral letter of 1884. In P. Guilday (Ed.), The national pastorals of the American hierarchy (pp. 226-264). Westminster, MD: Newman Press. (Original work published1884)
[6] Ibid. Walch.
[7]Ibid., Jacobs; Riley, P. J. (2004). Mentoring (in teaching). In T. C. Hunt, E. A. Joseph, & R. J. Nuzzi (Eds.), Catholic schools in the United States (Vol. 2, pp. 433-434). Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.
[8] Ibid. Walch, p. 136.
[9] Francis. (February 13, 2014). Address to Congregation of Catholic Education.
[10]Francis. (May 10, 2014). Address to Students and Teachers from Schools Across Italy.
[11]Rev. 21:5.
[12]Vatican Council II. (1964). Lumen gentium [On the Church]. §5.
[13] Ibid, Francis. Address to Students and Teachers.
[14] Ibid. Walch.
[15] Portier, W. L. (2004). Here come the evangelical Catholics. Communio, 31(1), 35-66.
[16] Pius XI. (1929). Divini illius magistri [On Christian education]. §16.
[17] John Paul II. (1982). Familiaris consortio [On Christian families].§45.
[18] Ibid. Gibbons; Nevins, J. F. (1963). Parents’ guide to the Catholic school. New York: Benziger Brothers
[19] Beal, J. P., Coriden, J. A., & Green, T. J. (Eds.). (2000). New commentary on the code of canon law. New York: Paulist Press. Canon 793, §1.
[20] Ibid. Nevins.
[21]Ibid. John Paul II, §36.
[22]Ibid., Beal et al., Canon 796, §2.
[23] Frabutt, J. M. (2001). Parenting and child development: Exploring the links with children’s social, moral, and cognitive competence. In T. C. Hunt, E. A. Joseph, & R. J. Nuzzi (Eds.), Handbook of research on Catholic education (pp. 183-204). Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.
[24] Ibid., Vatican II, §11
[25] Mk 9:37; Ibid., Pius XI, §9.
[26] Ibid., John Paul II, §6.
[27]Ibid., §86.
[28] Vatican Council II. (1965). Gravissimum educationis [On Christian Education]. §8.
[29]Francis. (February 13, 2014). Address to Congregation of Catholic Education.