A Case Study: Can Catholic Schools Remain Catholic?

Nowadays, people seem to think that schools can achieve inherently contradictory aims. For example, educators in Catholic schools often blithely pass over the friction between their desire to teach students to be tolerant of people who hold different values and the school’s stated purpose of enhancing the students’ appreciation of religion. Nor do such educators feel that making the students competent at a profession works against teaching them to honor piety.

It may be that such combinations of objectives are necessary yet impossible. But if educators do not grapple with these dilemmas, Catholic schools will not be worthy of the name. A recent incident at a Midwestern, urban Catholic college with nearly 10,000 students illustrates my point. We shall call the school Abelard College.

In its statement of purpose, Abelard College describes itself as “. . . a church related institution of higher learning [that] seeks to foster principles and values consonant with Catholicism . . .” It is not surprising that the following regulation appeared in the faculty handbook: “As befitting a Christian institution, classes are to be opened with a recitation of the Lord’s Prayer.” What is not immediately clear is why most of the faculty and the administrators ignore this regulation.

In order to answer this question, I sent a questionnaire to students, teachers, and administrators on the campus. On one sheet of paper, I quoted the requirement that classes should start with the Lord’s Prayer, and I asked two questions. The first was, “Should this regulation be enforced in the Department of Teacher Education?” The second was, “Why do you think this requirement should or should not be maintained?”

In all I received 129 responses. Of these, ninety-nine said the regulation should not be enforced. Twenty-one said that prayer should be required. Although I only gave a choice between a “yes” and a “no” answer, nine people said they were undecided or stated a qualification.

I received responses from ninety-three students, eighteen administrators, and eighteen faculty members. The pattern of answers given by the members of each group was the same; faculty members, students, and administrators seem to think alike on this issue. More important, the reasons they gave for their votes fell into similar patterns.

Most of the respondents who counseled against requiring classroom prayer did so for one of two reasons. Sixty-four percent said that such a practice might offend the non-Catholic students who attend the college. Eighteen percent said that classrooms were an inappropriate place for prayer.

The uniformity of these answers surprised me, because my questionnaire did not restrict their answers; the respondents had to write a brief essay. I talked to the people who filled out my questionnaires in order to find out why they shared these feelings. What I found was that they said everyone has a right to his or her own opinion on all questions of human values. When I asked how the mission of the school could be fulfilled when classes are conducted in a manner identical to that found in state universities, they replied that the Catholic message comes out in other ways, such as a spirit of friendliness or a concern for the wellbeing of others.

When I asked how could one cherish diversity in questions of human values but require of academics a certain performance, they answered that those are two different areas. They contended that the skill of reading or of classroom management is distinct from developing a taste for good literature or deciding how to live with people. They also felt a child’s academic proficiency could be objectively measured, but that his or her value orientation could not or should not be. When I pointed out that philosophers like Jacques Maritain and John Dewey had argued for years against this false dualism, my respondents said that these philosophers’ works were difficult to read, impossible to understand, and out of date.

In order to bring the matter to a head, I asked a faculty member to make a motion in a faculty department meeting to change the regulation in the faculty handbook to a statement saying that teachers are “. . . encouraged to begin their classes with some activity that reminds everyone their mission in a Christian institution is to find the relationship between the divine and secular science. The activities may include a moment of silence, a reading from scripture, a personal account of a spiritual experience, or a prayer.”

The department faculty members approved the proposal. The chairperson forwarding the resolution to the academic senate gave two reasons for the change in policy. First, the old regulation is never followed. Second, this new statement, while tempering the language, should draw people’s attention to the aim of the university: to teach information and skills to students in ways that reinforce the formation of values and attitudes that are consonant with Christianity.

When the motion reached the academic senate, the senators voting there rewrote it to say, ” . . . faculty members are encouraged to begin classes with a moment of silence, a reading from scripture or a prayer.” When the campus newspaper reported the changes, the reporter wrote, “Academic senate eliminates prayer rule.”

In sum, the effort of a few faculty members to ask people to think more deeply about the purposes of Abelard College became a reason to offer everyone more flexibility in the conduct of classes. Questions of tolerance superseded questions of spiritual growth. Consequently, the religious nature of the college was diluted because everyone saw the question in a simple but distorted image: a choice between forced worship or freedom. This simple question led the faculty, administrators, and students to adopt an answer that was inadequate to deal with the complex problem of reinforcing religious faith in a democracy.

If Catholic schools are to remain Catholic, educators will have to confront honestly the contradictions in their jobs. Glib answers will not do. A school has to be open to a variety of value orientations but a spiritual community does not arise out of people being friendly to all types of other people. Students must become competent at some occupation in order to earn a living, but vocational pursuits can weaken the quest for religious appreciation.

My illustration implies that at least some Catholic educators have not yet asked themselves the searching questions they must.


Joseph Watras is a Professor at the University of Dayton. He is affiliated with the Foundations of Education Program. His areas of expertise include history, philosophy and social foundations of education.

Join the conversation in our Telegram Chat! You can also find us on Facebook, MeWe, Twitter, and Gab.