Our Catholic Schools: A Crisis of Faith

I have told the glad news of deliverance in the great congregation; lo, I have not restrained my lips, as thou knowest, O LORD.  (Psalms 40:9)

Let the children come to me; for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. (Mark 10:14)

Some years back I joined a committee formed to save our local Catholic elementary school. Our school suffered from declining enrollment, poor morale, and, most critically, from insufficient funds to finish the school year. The reasons justifying this abject state of affairs were many.  They ranged from the vague assertion that times have changed, to the broad justification that our Catholic communities simply could no longer afford Catholic schools, and, more narrowly,  to specific charges implying simple mismanagement.  I suspect this scenario is not unique but repeats itself with minor variations throughout many of our Catholic school systems.

The committee formed to save our school acknowledged these reasons, but looked deeper. Why did Catholic schools once thrive when people were actually poorer than they are today, when people didn’t have wide screen televisions, when entertainment piped into our homes through cable networks was not considered an essential utility, when our children did not each have personal phones they carried everywhere, and when even our cars, like our lives were much simpler?  Our community is a small city in a rural area with a population that is largely Catholic. At the time of my initial involvement there were four parishes within an easy driving distance of no more than three miles from our one regional school.  If even one quarter of the Catholic population put their children in our school it would have thrived.

What the committee saw was that the Catholic community, neither pastor nor parishioner, no longer took ownership of its schools. The churches reluctantly contributed what the diocese demanded. The pastors begged off further support, financial or moral, claiming that the school was just a private academy benefiting few. They pointed to many problems, problems that ranged from financial need, to administrative incompetence, and even to students who did not know how to behave in Mass. Parishioners shared these views and saw the school as something solely for the parents of the students enrolled.  Parishioners believed that the schools had nothing to do with them.  Both parishioners and pastors were correct in their assessments. When we no longer see our schools as integral to our faith, they become orphans lost in the wilderness of the secular world, taking direction from wherever they can find it.  Our school had a financial crisis compounded by poor business practices, but the real problem, and one I believe is endemic to many of our Catholic schools, was and is a crisis of faith.

In our attempts to find the best business model for our Catholic schools we have forgotten that our schools are a faith based business.  Our capital is the faith we put into them. When that capital dries up, our schools wither and become something other than what they should be.  Our student population declines, our funds dry up, and parishioners and pastors see little reason to support the schools.  Even more tragically, our schools lose their way in the morass of academic excellence at the expense of their evangelical mission. We should know we have reached a crisis of faith when we seek guidance from marketing experts singing a siren’s song assuring us that our faith belongs in them. We should know we have reached a crisis of faith when we see the salvation of our schools in the wealthy donor rather than in the body of faithful who comprise our church. We should know we have a crisis of faith when our eyes no longer focus on Jesus as the sole purpose for our schools.  But we don’t, because to do so will require us to change.

I believe that the beginning to the end of our problems with our Catholic schools begins when we see the problem as a crisis of faith and we respond to it as a community of faith.  Our response will not only change our schools.  It will change us.  It will change both parishioner and pastor. It will require our pastors to see that God responds to their faith through their parishioners. It will require parishioners to see that their faith reveals resources previously unseen.  It will require all to see that our schools are an expression of our faith and a gift, both to our children and to ourselves as a community. And it requires all to see that it is the faith of the community that is the anchor that keeps our schools truly Catholic, where we see Jesus as “the truth, the way and the life.”

The call to faith in our communities must be mirrored with a call to faith in our schools. We must be able to answer the following questions; Why should we have Catholic schools? Why should Catholics support our Catholic schools? Why should our pastors justify our Catholic schools to their parishioners? Why should Catholic parents, or parents of any faith, send their children to Catholic schools? The answer to all of these questions is that our schools are integral to our Catholic faith. They are one of the tools the Church uses to bring Christ’s message of salvation to all.  Our schools are a simple reflection of the Church’s very reason to be. But we can only answer in this way if they are truly Christ centered and truly evangelical.

In a school so centered, academic excellence is necessarily correlative to the evangelical goal of the school, but it cannot be its guiding principle. The goal of the school is to lead students to Christ. To see their talents as given by God is to see that they must be returned to God fully developed.

This requires the highest academic standards.  To accept less than excellence would not be Catholic. But leading with academic excellence as our primary appeal pushes Christ aside. We will find ourselves conveying an ambivalent message to prospective parent and student, “Yes, we are Catholic.  But you don’t need to worry about that.”  Or as one marketing expert assured us, “You don’t need to mention Catholic in your marketing. People already know that.” The clear implication was that we don’t want to scare anybody away.  The pursuit of academic excellence, rather than the formation of saints, as the product we need in order to sell our schools in today’s marketplace will compel compromise. To think that we can bait with academics and then switch in Christ diminishes both the school and Christ.  Such an appeal is a reflection not on the faith of our potential clients but on our own faith. When we think our schools can be Christ-centered on the inside and worldly-wise on the outside, we will be serving two masters.  Jesus, himself, made it clear this was not possible. When we don’t lead with our faith we will find ourselves hiding Christ behind one door after another.  We will be serving the wrong master. Despite our best intentions, like the ever well-intended St. Peter, we will deny Christ.

When we fear an open proclamation of the message of Jesus Christ, we truly have entered a crisis of faith.  If the apostles had shown such reticence the church would have died with Jesus on the cross. Our faith is evident when we lead with Jesus Christ, not furtively, not stealthily, not even quietly but with the compelling confidence of a people who have been given the truth and understand that to spread that truth is to truly love your neighbor, whoever he or she may be and from whatever background they come. This is the mission of the church, to bring the message of salvation to all, not just those who won’t take offense. This should be the mission of our schools. When we try to hide this we become like Jonah, we run, we hide, or we board a ship going anywhere but where we have been called to go. We think that God couldn’t really have chosen us to spread his message.

We look on our neighbors as either undeserving of the truth or simply unready to receive the truth we hold. I believe we have become like Jonah with our Catholic schools. We won’t trumpet our faith because we believe it will turn people off. We think we need something slicker, something more comfortable, something that doesn’t call for real change. Like Jonah, we think others either don’t deserve the Word passed on to us or are simply not ready for it. When we hide our message, we hide our faith.  Faith hidden is no faith at all. We cannot rally our communities in faith to a message they cannot see.  Like pastor and parishioner, our schools must change in faith. They must become what we should be.

To see the problem is to realize that the solution is not an easy one. Where we are comfortable we must become uncomfortable. To see the problem as a crisis of faith is to see that the solution is a changed life. This is not an easy sell for either pastor, parishioner or our schools.  I believe the solution begins with an honest discussion within our Catholic communities of who we are as Catholics and how our schools must reflect that vision. We might begin those discussions with a book by Archbishop Miller, CSB, entitled The Holy See’s Teaching on Catholic Schools.  If our local schools are failing and we simply continue to point our fingers at them as responsible for their own fate, rather than at ourselves, then we have missed something important. If we don’t claim personal and communal responsibility our schools will continue to fail or they will become something no longer truly Catholic.

The mission statement guiding the schools of the Diocese of Wichita is unequivocal and provides an example that clearly leads the way:

“Together with the family, the parish and each other, we will FORM EACH STUDENT INTO A DISCIPLE OF JESUS CHRIST Who seeks the Truth, grows to love It, And learns to live It.” [Their caps, not mine.]


Paul and his family live in the Empire State.

  • Deacon Ed Peitler

    “Our schools are a simple reflection of the Church’s very reason to be. But we can only answer in this way if they are truly Christ centered and truly evangelical.”

    I couldn’t agree more.  There is a fundamental problem in my opinion of Catholics in general, and parishes in particular NOT understanding that the basic mission of the Church is TO EVANGELIZE.  If parishioners wre provided leadership around their primary calling as Christians to evangelize and Catholics schools to educate Catholics in the same, there would be no lack of support for the latter. 

    The problem for most Catholics is that they do not understand the call to evangelize.  This is reflected quite clearly in the mission statement referred to in the last paragraph: “Together with the family, the parish and each other, we will FORM EACH STUDENT INTO A DISCIPLE OF JESUS CHRIST Who seeks the Truth, grows to love It, And learns to live It.”  The problem with this statement is that it is incomplete.  The ultimate goal is to form the child in order that the child might be able to evangelize the world i.e. to proclaim Jesus Christ as Saviour just as it was proclaimed to him or her in Catholic school.

    Once this happen – once Catholics understand toward what end the Church exists – there will be no lack of support.  Our Church is never stronger than when it is missionary i.e. evangelizing.

    • Mark

      You can’t Evangelize if you don’t know and adhere to the truths of the Church. Knowledge of the faith is nearly absent in todays Catholic pew-sitter. The social/peace & justice mindset of todays Catholic priests, nuns and pew-sitters is sickening. Social Justice without truth is not compassion it is pseudo theology. A nun teaching in my 5th graders sex ed class this spring told the boys and girls that being gay and being lesbian is okay and also said she does not agreee with the Chruches teaching on gay marriage. The crisis of faith is a crisis in adherance to truth. For to long false compassion and “tolerance” towards principles has trumped truth. A crisis in truth is what is at stake.

      • Deacon Ed Peitler

        Absolutely!  Proper catechesis is the sine qua non of good evangelization.  But parish schools need also to instruct in eangelization since the mision of the Church is to bring all to Christ.

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  • givelifeachance2

    The schools went off the rails after the religious orders did.  What would you expect when the driving force (and the dedicated mass of free labor) is gone?  By the way, this may be the same future for our Catholic hospitals.  It seems as though the USCCB pushed Obamacare onto us because they realized it was no longer profitable to be in the health care business (now that there is no longer an army of (unpaid) sister-angels to minister to patients).

    Once the delivery mode strayed from true charity to some sort of business model, the point of Church sponsored schools or hospitals evaporates.   When bean-counters and government grant grovelers take the place of sacrificial service,  watch your back. 

    In addition to homeschooling, we might all think about homenursing as a worthy option, for those who can.

  • Jlizm

    A couple of years back I went back to give a workshop to a comittee at a school I once went to in the midwest. This school was struggling and I offered to give a workshop and come up at my expense.  I was surprised at what they didn’t know and I was able to provide them with suggestions some of which, I understand, they used.  This school now has a waiting list thanks to their hard working committee. 

    • Jsanderson

       What did you do that turned things around?  I know several schools that might be interested in hiring you to conduct a workshop.

      • JDean

        Jsanderson.  It takes more than a workshop.   As a consultant, I often find it takes a year or so of hand-holding to get the parents, staff, administration and community on board.   But they learn to crawl, then walk and then run, and then they soar on their own.

  • Christopher Check

    To my knowledge, there is not a Chancery in this country that does not require the teachers in its schools to have education certifications.  In other words, every parochial school is staffed by faculty who have had to endure the same warmed-over theories of John Dewey and his heirs that the public-school teachers do.  Until this practice is abandoned, parochial schools will never be the great institutions they once were.  Archbishop Miller’s book gets a solid “C-.”  Look in the footnotes and the bibliography for any reference to Divini Illius Magistri.  You will search in vain.  I once asked the good Archbishop at a public conference if Divini’s reference to the “grave harm” that could come from coeducational schools was still the mind of the Holy See.  And if not, why not?  Alas, he responded saying he would have to go back and read the encyclical.  Really?  The single greatest document from the Holy See in the 20th century on the education of youth?  Catholics serious about restoring Catholic education should pick up Father Edward Leen’s WHAT IS EDUCATION?  When I here a bishop or a principle citing this work our Divini Illius Magistri, I’ll know the restoration is underway.   

  • Christopher Check

    My remarks below do not in any way suggest I disagree with the content or argument of Paul Santos’s excellent piece.

  • Deacon Jim Stagg

    Excellent article and right to the point.  Catholic schools need to retain their specific identity as CATHOLIC schools.  Then they will survive and prosper.  I have personally seen this is varied locations from Indiana and Illinois (where our great-grandsons attend school) to Southern Alabama and Mississippi.  In each of the four cases I have seen, the schools, although small by urban standards, are professionally administered, with well-trained and qualified teachers and supported well by their (surrounding) parishes.  All four of these schools are alive and well.

    There is “Hope for the Flowers”.

  • Kamg22

    This is quite simple: middle-class families cannot afford Catholic schooling. My father was one of six children. All of them attended Catholic grammar & high school. I asked my grandmother how they could possibly have afforded this on their blue-collar income. “Well, after the first three, the rest were free,” she said. I couldn’t believe my ears! “But of course,” she continued, ” it was all nuns back then and they didn’t need as much money, you know.”

    • That’s nothing. Where I come from, 12 years of Catholic schooling is completely, 100% free, as long as your familiy is a tithing member of the Church. We have two high schools and 19 elementary schools. All completely free.

  • I can’t find a difference in what catholics believe and what most mainline protestants believe. And it’s not so much that they believe in the church’s teachings as the truth and haven’t the faith to abide by them, they out right oppose the church’s teachings. Big difference. Artificial birth control is one subject where Catholics refute the teaching’s of the church. They don’t admit they’re not humble enough to adhere to the truth, they  oppose it. I’m not condemning anyone, it takes a gerat amount of trust in God to not use artificial birth control but it doesn’t make it right. Same goes for homosexuality, compassion is one thing, enabling people to cotinue in sin in order not to offend them isn’t love. Liberalism relies on emotion not truth. When you admonish a child for doing wrong you don’t like it, but it must be done if you love them and teach them the truth. I returned to the Church after a thirty yr. absence. I read and listened to many many many ministers and priests and founf that, even though I attended Catholic school for 12 yrs. and my family was “catholic”, I never knew a Catholic nor did I ever know what the Church actually taught. That’s why you have 89% of Catholics supporting the use of artificial birth control,  many others supporting homosexuality as an alternative lifestyle, abortion, embryoic stem cell research, and  the list goes on and on. I’m not an educated person, but it seems to me the techings of the church are fairly simple. It’s when we refuse to listen and try to uinderstand them as a whole, we become defensive and rebel. In reality christianity is sanity. By christianity I mean real christianity.

  • John

    Of course Santos gets to the heart of the philosophical and theological crisis in Catholic education, so I can only say “here here.”  But one practical suggestion:  Consider eliminating “tuition,” and allow parents to donate to the parish instead.  The benefit:  this “tithe” becomes tax deductible.  When you’ve got 2 or 3 (or more) in schools,  this may be the little boost that struggling families need.  [you’d need some financial counsel to pull this off legally and ethically, but it strikes me as an extremely sensible approach–and one that my own parish school takes]. 

    • on the shore

      do not tell the IRS you are doing this

      the gift is buying services

    • Actually, he hasn’t touched the very heart of it.
      The very heart of it is that the Catholic school system instituted after the Third Baltimore Plenary Council was essentially contraceptive in its philosophy.

      There’s a lot more evidence provided in “Designed to Fail: Catholic Education in America” from Bridegroom Press

  • Mother in the Vale

    This is excellent and to the point.  But what has your Bishop said.  Hmm.  Let’s see, I wrote about it here, on my own blog.  
    http://motherinthevale.blogspot.com/2012/04/in-regione-caecorum-rex-est-luscus.html   The real problem is that the whole Catholic Church no longer believes nor declares that She alone is the One True Church and that ALL people are obligated to belong to Her.  When that happened at Vatican II, the whole faith was shattered.  No need for Catholic schools anymore to teach the faith!  No need to heed the words of our great saintly Popes on the education of our children!  All Catholics would do themselves a great service and actually READ the encyclicals of the Popes.  Pope Pius XI wrote this in Divini Illius Magistri, On  Christian Education: ” We renew and confirm their declarations (Pope Pius IX and Pope Leo XIII) as well as the Sacred Canons in which the frequenting of non-Catholic schools, whether neutral or mixed, those namely which are opened to Catholics and non-Catholics alike, IS FORBIDDEN FOR CATHOLIC CHILDREN, and can be at most tolerated…with special precautions.  Neither can Catholics admit that other type of mixed school in which students are provided with separate religious instruction, but receive other lessons in common with non-Catholic  pupils from non-Catholic teachers.”    Does that sound like the “Catholic” schools you know?  Catholic schools NEED to become Catholic schools again, then they will be filled to the brim and forming Catholics.

  • JP

    I don’t understand this fetish with Catholic Education. For most dioceses, education is thier biggest budget expense. And most Catholic families struggle just to send thier children to K-8 Catholic schools (most Catholic high schools are beyond the financial reach of most Catholic families). And for what?

    I think we should just scrap the entire ediface. Parochial schools are anything but parochial. One could get better cathecheisis at home, and it won’t break the bank. Heck, I’m not even so sure that Catholic students are even required to attend Mass at school anymore. So, why do we play this silly but expensive game?

    • BM

      I’m inclined to agree. Almost every acquaintance of mine with a Catholic school background is no longer a practicing Catholic. It seems to be an expensive private school where you send your children to lose faith they were never really taught to begin with.

  • Tout

    My dad, an unbeliever, send my sister and me to Catholic schools(1920),claiming they were the best. My mother was a fine Catholic, could put crucifixes in every room, had big S.Heart statue in their room.Dad had one rule “Don’t pray in my presence”. I got good Catholic instructions. Fine R.C.scouts. I think, most people see religious instruction as less important than other subjects.Older studends started saying “Why believe, if it is not true ?”I noticed, no one said “Why not believe, if it is true”.I wanted to know the truth.Paying attention to Catholic instructions, I got answers to my questions. Found that all my life, I could learn more about true religion.When young, I did not always live right, but always turned back to the truth. At later age I went to pray often at a Mary-statue downtown. Some pedestrians came to touch the statue; 4 different persons came, prayed,left. Started procession to the church; there Maria-crowning. Other Catholic actions.Please, ALWAYS RECEIVE H.HOST ON  TONGUE, never in hand. Our parish twice added a building outside,but did not yet bring back the communion-rail !! Catholic Women League, Knights of Colombus may not receive in hand, but You, real Catholic, receive on tongue ! 

  • Susana Aguilar Rice

    I agreed with your commentary. Two of my grandchildren are attending Catholic School and the school is facing the same problems you speak of. Low enrollment, nearby Parishies not taken ownership of the school, etc…etc… A sad situation. I discovered through our CCD classes that some of our Catholic families send their students to other Christian non-Catholic schools. Why is that? We certainly need to put Jesus first.

  • sparrowhawk58

    I taught religion for 5 years at my alma mater, an all girls’ high school that closed after 115 years under the SSND. While I was in high school, the religious demographics changed dramatically, from Irish Catholic to black evangelical. Whites were in full retreat mode from the South Side of Chicago and abandoned the school within a few years, even though the school could have remained open as an integrated institution. By the time I returned to teach, eight years after graduating, the school was more than 90% non-Catholic. My experience was frustrating, to say the least. In the mid-1980’s, religion classes were already theologically diluted and “dumbed down,” and any mention of Catholic-specific doctrine was met with indifference and, sometimes, hostility.  Prior to an all-school mass, we tried to explain to the faculty and students that practicing Catholics would receive the Eucharist but all others would receive a blessing. This provoked a huge outcry against perceived racism, as blacks had “the right” to receive the Eucharist no matter what their religion. The priest solved this problem by NOT saying mass, and instead we had a liturgy without communion, because doing so would have caused too much divisiveness. In a Catholic school! It took less than a decade for the faith identity to be completely eradicated. Religion classes were time-wasters because it was paramount to avoid situations where the teacher might say something deemed offensive by a minister of a students’ church. Enrollment eventually dropped to the point where the school was no longer viable. To this day, I run into alumnae who lament the school’s closing. Most of these women are white. I want to ask them why they didn’t send their daughters to the school, which would have allowed integration without destroying our integrity as a Catholic institution. The black Protestant students who enrolled would have been highly encouraged to learn about, and possibly convert to, Catholicism. At the very least, an explicit statement about the school’s mission would have meant the parents would have had to accept that the school was a CATHOLIC entity. The young women who were black and Catholic, I am sure, felt at a loss when the school threw the Catechism in the garbage and embraced political correctness. I am embarrassed to have been part of the problem. We really thought we were trying to adapt to the situation, when in fact we only accelerated a downward spiral.

  • Kmcnuttmom

    As a retired Catholic school teacher and parent/grandparent, I have experienced this lack of a true Catholic identity in our schools. One example: the Mass was an extra during the week rather than a central focus in the students’ daily lives. One school I taught at replaced the Mass with a prayer service when the priest was too busy to celebrate Mass. 

  • Concerned Catholic

    I can definitely identify with the issue of a lack of school support from the pastor!  It’s become clear that our pastor would like to see our school go away.  (I can only speculate why.  But I suspect the facts that it drains funds that would otherwise go to the parish, that it creates some tensions between parish and public school families (and many of the parish’s big donors use the public schools), and that it sits on some relatively valuable real estate, all play in.)  I know that there are many cases of pastors fighting valiantly to save their schools.  But if there are many other pastors like ours — who, at best, only begrudgingly support even successful schools — is it any wonder that Catholic schools are in trouble? 

    Likewise, our bishop has stated that most Catholic schools in the diocese should be self-supporting, without parish or diocesan support.

    One would think that as the public schools get worse and worse, Catholic schools would be seen more and more as a vital part of the Church’s mission.  Tragically (and, to me, inexplicably), the opposite seems to be true.  I have some hope that this is one of those cases in which the younger generation of priests (our pastor is quite old) will be more committed. 

  • There’s already an entire book that delves into these issues much more deeply than this column. “Designed to Fail: Catholic Education in America”

  • RJH

    Why did Catholic schools thrive before? Because we had nuns–I repeat, because we had nuns. As young religious communities continue to grow, this situation will change and the Catholic school will rise again.