What Makes a Catholic School, Catholic?

Vatican II’s “Declaration on Christian Education” was clear that parents “must be recognized as the primary and principal educators” of their children. Your school’s attitude toward this foundational principal of Catholic education is the single best measure of the faithfulness of your local Catholic school.

Indeed, the school should not only welcome your involvement as parent, grandparent, or guardian, but should actively pursue it. But collaboration requires two willing partners, and if you’re going to take responsibility for your child’s education by helping to plan and achieve the goals of your Catholic school, you must step forward with something to offer.

This article should help you do that, by giving you a basic overview of Church teaching on the most important elements of a school’s educational program.

The Curriculum

The truly Catholic school is more than just a “safe place” where students can be free from the discipline problems and lower standards of public schools; the entire curriculum must communicate the Christian worldview. Whether it be history, science, music, math, or literature, the teaching of these subjects should be noticeably different at a Catholic school than at a public school.

A misguided notion of academic freedom has led some to erect a wall of separation between faith and reason. Furthermore, the Church explicitly rejects the notion that the faith is taught only in religion class:

The world of human culture and the world of religion are not like two parallel lines that never meet; points of contact are established within the human person. . . . Anyone who searches for these contact points will be able to find them. Helping in the search is not solely the task of religion teachers (Religious Dimension of Education in a Catholic School, 51) .

The next time you go to a parent-teacher conference, you might ask the science, math, and English teachers how they help their students make the connection between their Catholic Faith and the subject matter they teach.

Regarding the Catholic school curriculum itself, the Church requires a systematic presentation of knowledge (which calls for very careful planning by administrators) that’s faithful to the idea of core knowledge and the hierarchy of truths. This is increasingly difficult to do in a climate where politically correct trends and educational fads result in a constantly changing and disjointed syllabus of abbreviated core classes and fluffy electives.

The Staff

In a Catholic school, the teacher actually plays a more important role in transmitting the Faith to students than even subject matter or methodology. The teachers are the ones who fill a school with the Christian spirit and make it truly a Catholic school. In order to set this tone, Catholic school teachers are called to a sanctity of the highest order. The nobility of the task to which they’re called demands that — in imitation of Christ, the only Teacher — they carry the Christian message not only by word but also by action.
Of course, teachers and administrators must also be trained in both the Catholic Faith and their respective subject matter. And although Church documents cite professionalism as one of the most important characteristics of a Catholic educator, qualities such as expertise and mastery of subject matter are not sufficient to recommend a teacher for the Catholic school. Candidates must also possess and manifest a strong Catholic identity, for “if there is no trace of Catholic identity in the education, the educator can hardly be called a Catholic educator” (Lay Catholics in Schools: Witnesses to Faith, 25).
That’s a tall order. And it appears taller still when you consider the disappearance of religious orders that once provided low-cost, theologically trained, highly devoted staff to Catholic education.
Indeed, the longest of all documents on Catholic education is itself devoted entirely to the role that religious have played and should continue to play in Catholic schools. Although all teachers are called to model Christ for their students, male and female religious live a commitment to poverty, chastity, and obedience that makes them a powerful countercultural witness for contemporary youth.

The Parents

By demanding the very best in Catholic formation and education, Catholic parents can create a climate of competition and excellence as they search for the best Catholic school available to them (rather than merely defaulting to proximity or parish affiliation).
In addition to a robust collaboration with their chosen Catholic schools, families must remember that the education of their children is primarily their own responsibility. That is why Catholic schools are considered an extension of the home, because real Catholic education begins in the home. It is merely continued in the school.
Parents trying to teach their children gospel values should not have to worry about those values being undermined by the school. The reverse is also true: If your children are learning the Catholic Faith at school, they should return to a home where it is lived and modeled.

The Religious Instruction

Although the Catholic Faith will permeate every aspect of a truly Catholic school, religious education holds pride of place:
The special character of the Catholic school and the underlying reason for its existence, the reason why Catholic parents should prefer it, is precisely the quality of the religious instruction integrated into the overall education of the students (Catechesi Tredendae, 69).
The religion classes at Catholic schools should be faithful to the teachings of the Church as presented in the Catechism of the Catholic Church and should present the Faith “systematically and in a way that is suited to young people today” (Religious Dimension of Education in a Catholic School, 73).
Obviously, there are many specific topics and themes that should be covered in religious education — the centrality of the Bible in understanding salvation history, the importance of Christian anthropology in understanding the human person, the place of sacraments and devotions in the life of the Church, ecclesiology, eschatology, the creed, etc.
Those are all essential. But the primary theme of religious education in Catholic schools is the student’s personal encounter with Christ. While almost any other topic can be boiled down to the facts — dates and battles in history, formulae and equations in mathematics — religious education must never become an intellectual exercise of the mind only, but must also involve the student’s heart and will.
Many schools find their niche in having a great sports team, or an award-winning theater program, or a beautiful campus. But none of that means anything if Christ is absent. Jesus is the true center of gravity for any Catholic school, the ultimate Role Model, the primary Teacher, and the focal point of all the school’s activity.
These few topics cover only a fraction of all that the Church has to say on the topic of Catholic schools and Catholic education.

Of course, before you let loose on the administration with this handy little score card, a few ground rules are in order:
  1. To the boy with a hammer, everything looks like a nail. And to the zealous Catholic, every statement of Church teaching that supports his position looks like a hammer. Keep in mind the breadth and subtlety of Church teaching and offer these statements as conversation starters. Organize reading groups of parents, faculty, staff, and administration to read these documents in their entirety.
  2. Most people will accept help, but only a few will accept correction. Bludgeoning your local Catholic school board or parent association with the Catechism and canon law will only put them on the defensive. Present the Church’s teaching on Catholic education as a helpful solution to difficult questions, not as the pronouncement of an angry God.
  3. Get involved in the life of the school to the greatest degree you can before you begin suggesting changes: Talk to teachers, visit classes, sit in on board meetings. Firsthand experience with the school is the only starting point from which to gauge the current “Catholicity” of your local Catholic school. And remember Augustine’s advice, nihil nisi per amicum — nothing happens but through friendship.

The Last Resort

Sometimes even the best attempts fail. If you get shut out or simply exhausted trying to improve the state of your child’s school, don’t be afraid to look for another. The solemn duty laid upon you to educate your child trumps any emotional ties to your alma mater, loyalty to your local parish, or the social life you’ve created with the other parents in your child’s current school. You must do what is right for your child now, for a child’s school days pass by swiftly.
And if you can’t find a Catholic school that measures up to the teachings of the Church, don’t be afraid to start your own — your own school, that is. Many have done it.
Whatever you decide, it will not be easy. Providing our children with an authentic Catholic education is one of the most difficult tasks that Catholic parents face. But it is precisely because of the difficulty of the undertaking that we turn to the Church for help. Her teachings and guidance provide us with a rich and valuable aid in the educational endeavor — as in every other area of our lives.


Peter A. Giersch is a founder and principal of Cathedral Consulting Group and is the author of Day by Day with the Catechism (Catholic Book Publishing Co., 2006).

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