No Excuses: Catholic Schools Must Evangelize

One of the most important documents for understanding the role of Catholic education in the modern world is Vatican II’s Declaration on Christian Education. This document explains and defends the various ways in which students should be formed in Catholic schools, seminaries, colleges, and universities.

The Declaration affirms that Catholic colleges are an extension of the Church’s mission to evangelize the world. “Evangelization” is not relegated to colleges where a majority of the students are practicing Catholics. The Gospel is meant for everyone.

Consequently, a teacher’s love for his students will prompt him to propose and defend the Gospel in the classroom. Love speaks the truth to the beloved. Schools that wish to highlight a “student centered education” should ensure that every student has the opportunity to understand the rationale for Catholic teaching. As Pope Benedict XVI declared in his 2008 address to educators at Catholic University of America: “The profound responsibility to lead the young to truth is nothing less than an act of love.”

Catholic Education and Religious Pluralism
Now, as a significant percentage of students are not Catholic, there is an ongoing concern about how Church teaching can be presented without excluding, marginalizing or offending anyone’s beliefs. Undoubtedly there are many students at Catholic colleges who are not Catholic or even Christian.

Be that as it may, these circumstances should not become an excuse for educators to merely teach about Catholicism and other religions. Rather, given these pluralistic circumstances, educators need to take the New Evangelization even more seriously.

In these circumstances, professors should at least try to foster a mindset in students that becomes open to the possibility of evangelization. Courses that center on the theme of “pre-evangelization” need to be seriously considered. As the Congregation for Catholic Education observed:

We have already referred to the fact that, in many parts of the world, the student body in a Catholic school includes increasing numbers of young people from different faiths and different ideological backgrounds…. In these situations, however, evangelization is not easy—it may not even be possible. We should look to pre­evangelization: to the development of a religious sense of life…. It is fertile ground which may, at some future time, be able to bear fruit.

Notice that the presence of other religions and secular outlooks on campus is not supposed to brush the school’s evangelical concerns to the side. Although educators should highlight commonalities between Catholicism and other religions, such a concern should not override an evangelical presentation and defense of the faith.

What About Proselytism and Religious Freedom?
Critics may object that evangelization would violate the students’ religious freedom. This objection badly misunderstands the notion of freedom. Freedom is not the ability to do as one wants, but the ability to do as one ought. As one abides in the truth, he or she becomes freer to live in accordance with human nature. Freedom is not a goal in and of itself, but a necessary condition for knowing the truth.

Perhaps a sharp distinction should be made between knowledge and faith. In Catholic schools, students are required to grasp the reasons for faith. Some type of “conversion” is required: going from a state of ignorance to a state of understanding. That’s what education is all about. However, students do not have to personally appropriate the faith as a part of their lives. To force students to believe in Jesus and then grade them on that basis would be a violation of religious freedom. (And could students really be forced to believe anyway?)

To give an example: all students are required to enroll in an English course. Whether the students are interested in or even speak English, they will have to write papers that conform to the proper rules of grammar. A temporary adherence to the rules of grammar for the purpose of passing the course would not mean that students must use English when they leave the classroom. Perhaps English is not the student’s native language. So although students should learn enough English to pass the course, they may choose to abandon what they learned after the course is completed.

A second major criticism is that evangelization is an attempt to proselytize the students. Here critics confuse evangelization with proselytism even though the two terms have very different meanings. Proselytism is an attempt to strip away the cultural identity of Christians and non-Christians in the attempt to further evangelize them. Proselytism should always be avoided.

However, proper attempts to evangelize try to persuade others to absorb Catholic Christianity (what is believed) in a way that retains each individual’s uniqueness (how the faith is believed, or how it is expressed in a certain culture). There are different ways of being faithfully Catholic. Catholic educators should recognize a legitimate plurality within the parameters set by orthodoxy.

Unfortunately, many teachers and administrators―both seemingly unaware of the Declaration and the post-conciliar documents that have nuanced its teaching in different contexts―seem to be confused about how to implement a Catholic vision of education, especially as it pertains to the broader concern of the New Evangelization in the face of different religions. Instead of respecting the different religions, too many educators seem to celebrate them. These educators present the faith as just one among many “options in the marketplace of ideas.” While this approach may be appropriate for courses in religious studies at public institutions, the Congregation affirmed in 2013 that it “creates confusion or generates religious relativism and indifferentism.”

Teaching evangelistically is not an easy task in the current cultural milieu. What is required, I submit, is courageous and innovative fidelity to the Church’s vision of education.

Glenn B. Siniscalchi


Glenn B. Siniscalchi currently serves as Assistant Professor of Theology at Notre Dame College in Sough Euclid, Ohio. He earned his PhD in systematic theology from Duquesne University in 2013. His articles have appeared in a number of academic journals including the Heythrop Journal, Journal of Ecumenical Studies, New Blackfriars, Theology and Science, Pacifica: Australasian Theological Studies, Journal of Interreligious Dialogue, Faith and Reason, Josephinum Journal of Theology, and Irish Theological Quarterly.

  • “Freedom is not the ability to do as one wants, but the ability to do as one ought. As one abides in the truth, he or she becomes freer to live in accordance with human nature. Freedom is not a goal in and of itself, but a necessary condition for knowing the truth.”

    Well said. Can we apply this universally? Say, maybe in the world of government and business as well as academics?

    You are very right though, if we do not teach this truth in academics, we have no hope of ever using this primary evangelical tool anywhere else.

    • Paddy

      Those with dog collars largely threw in the towel on teaching the gospels some 50 years ago. Marquette, Georgetown, Fordham and Notre Dame pave the way to a Catholic’s Hell. keep the scotch flowing boys.

      • Paddy

        (Sorry. I meant the Notre Dame with an Imam’s Chair in South Bend.)

  • Lou Iacobelli

    This is a thoughtful article. George Weigel’s Evangelical Catholicism: Deep Reform in the 21st-Century Church would make for the perfect lesson plan in all schools and parishes. In the West, we can longer take the faith for granted. If we want to protect and spread the Gospel message, we need to live it and be prepared to make sacrifices to keep it alive in today’s hostile environment against Judeo-Christian beliefs. It’s having the discipline to freely choose and humbly announce the truth.

  • Kim58

    I would say it is important not only for teachers to “know” the Catholic faith but also to “live” the Catholic faith. If they simply “know” the faith, then they can teach to the “head” but never reach the “heart” of their students. But Catholics who have the “head” knowledge but also “live” the faith intuitively understand the difference between proselytizing and evangelizing…the teachers who “know” the faith will avoid both (and never introduce to their students the idea that there is Truth), but the teachers who “live” the faith naturally know how to evangelize because they know that the first step is to help student become truly “persuadable” (which is different than being “open-minded”)…and once students are persuadable, then the door is open for the Holy Spirit to someday point that student towards the Truth.

  • Ltibi

    What is wrong with “Catholic” education began in 1967 when Father Hesburgh, as president of the International Federation of Catholic Universities, convened the top educators in the western hemisphere at Land O’Lakes to set down in writing what it meant to be a Catholic university in the modern world, producing a document that redefined Catholic higher education. The statement defined the relationship between the modern American university and the Church. Characterized by historian Philip Gleason as a “declaration of independence from the hierarchy,” the manifesto divorced the Catholic university from the life of faith and set in motion a deplorable decline in the Catholic identity of American institutions of higher education. This has seeped into Catholic education at every level.

    • ForChristAlone

      And it’s the reason why Catholic colleges like Manhattan are losing the legal battle when trying to pass themselves off as a “Catholic” college. The chickens are coming home to roost and i am sure Hesburgh is getting an earfull from Jesus Christ right about now.

    • How ironic that the reduction of Catholic education to something with the structural integrity of butter, and laden with fat and grease occurred at “Land O’Lakes”.

    • ArtND76

      The deplorable fiasco with the honoring of Obama was just one of a string of events occurring at Notre Dame that got accelerated by the Land O’Lakes accord and that continue to this day. Google search “sycamore trust notre dame” and look through their archives to see more evidence. Yes, Hesburgh was a “great” leader – but the path he chose appears to me to be prestige rather than truth when truth did not lead to the prestige he desired.

  • ForChristAlone

    All Catholic schools (and this would include colleges and universities) that wish to use the reference to “Catholic” in their name should have included in their mission statement something to the effect that:

    “Students wishing to enroll in this school should understand that the primary purpose of this academic institution is to evangelize. All that takes place here is guided by this purpose. Our mission is to prepare student to carry out Christ’s mandate to proclaim the Gospel. We full intend to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ in all that we are and all that we do. To do otherwise would be to deny Christ. If you find this purpose alien to your sensibilities, we ask that you not enroll here.”

    In other words, don’t ask for your money back when you find out that this Catholic school takes the Catholic faith seriously.

    • Watching the reaction of the folks in SF reminds me of people over the last few decades that bought property next to railroad tracks when the railroads were on their knees and struggling to stay alive. After the Staggers Act and the end of the ICC’s reign of error was over, and traffic went up, the NIMBYs (not in my backyard) were shocked to find out that just because tracks are unused or rarely used, doesn’t mean they are abandoned.

      One particular case I am aware of involved the acquisition and revitalization of a Conrail spinoff to an enterprising regional line.

      People who bought houses in the 1960’s and 1970’s suddenly discovered that tracks that occupied a road bed built in the 1850’s now carried (more) trains.

      Chief among their complaints was the use of horns at grade crossings (of course if they were hit by a train, the question would be did the event recorder show use of the horn). They also complained about idling engines (until recent innovations, engines ran constantly to prevent freeze damage to engines) and noise and fumes.

      It was hilarious to read people complaining in the local press that they knew there were tracks when they bought their homes, but they never thought there’d actually be (more) trains on them again. They thought the railroad was something whose time had come and gone.

      Maybe Archbishop C should be made an honorarbe member of the BLET and a given a hickory stripe hat, for having the audacity to start running the Catholic Express.

      • ForChristAlone

        tooooo funneee!

        • Paddy


        • In spite of all accusations to the contrary, I’m a laugh riot when I want to be.

  • Veritas

    I appreciate what the author is trying to say in this piece and his understandable concern for teaching the faith and evangelizing the Gospel. To me, one must teach or pontificate the faith; one evangelizes the Gospel. One is done dialectically, the other is through action.

    The formula in happier times for the Church was just this. In the recent article on atheism, one atheist accused me of pontificating and not discussing. The good fathers and sisters of the past would never discuss ideas that belong to the devil. They were forceful, they were male and female versions of Mother Angelica. I saw in that challenge to discuss, the face of evil. “You mean you really want me to set myself up for your lies. You are not interested in knowing objectivity, but you wish to trap me.” The old and almost forgotten generation of religious would never fall for it.

    We won’t get back to where we need to be without them, without another teacher like Fulton J. Sheen.

    Relativists, atheists, and secular types want me to pussy foot. I won’t do it.

    • I’m willing to think that there’s a lot of Fulton Sheens out there, but they aren’t well received, and drowned out by those who peddle pablum.

      • My wife thinks Archbishop Alexander K. Sample is one. Of course, I’ve noticed she has a tendency to judge a book by its cover.

        • Taking on the sacred cow of South Bend seems like a chapter in a good book.

          As a trained metallurgical engineer, he might bring some analytical and quantitative prowess to his office and an appreciation for how things have limited ductility and malleability. Maybe he’ll help distinguish gold from pyrite.

          • For once, I’m not sure what you are talking about with “the sacred cow of South Bend”. Got a link?

            • Notre Dame.

              • Oh, yes, he’s extremely pro Sacramental Marriage and pro life, and thus would be against the honors given to the most anti-family president ever.

                • From Wikipedia:

                  “In April 2009, Sample expressed his “disappointment and dismay” over the University of Notre Dame’s decision to have President Barack Obama deliver its commencement speech and receive an honorary degree, given Obama’s pro-choice views.[7] He added, “It saddens me beyond words that the great university named after Our Lady would bestow distinction and honor on a politician who would seek to expand threats to such innocent human life.””

                • Paddy

                  Dolan, Wuerl and O’Malley seem to love Obama. If they simply fear him, it’s even worse to have such craven clerics running the Church down.

  • I think that for Catholic schools to evangelize and remain in business, we will first have to evangelize our parishes. Especially for the high schools, but also for middle schools, parents want a strong secular education to prepare their children for good colleges and good professions. Not to mention strong athletics programs, arts, music, maybe a big swimming pool, labs with the latest bells and whistles, computers, etc. etc.

    We have not, for some time now, formed adult members of the parish to have a strong Catholic identity and life for themselves! How could we expect them to become or to be true to their right Catholic responsibilities for themselves, or for their children? We would have to first form right ambitions in parents, for themselves and for their children. We would have to form them with confident right priorities, to overcome fears for the futures of their children. Otherwise, we might see a “great exodus” from the schools that too quickly got really serious about their Catholic identities.

  • jacobum

    “What About Proselytism and Religious Freedom?”

    “Critics may object that evangelization would violate the
    students’ religious freedom. This objection badly misunderstands the
    notion of freedom. Freedom is not the ability to do as one wants, but
    the ability to do as one ought. As one abides in the truth, he or she
    becomes freer to live in accordance with human nature. Freedom is not a
    goal in and of itself, but a necessary condition for knowing the truth”

    Well said. Spot on. Unfortunately, PF seems to have a different opinion on “Proselytizing”. He seems to prefer “dialogue” instead. As for “knowing the truth”?…We can “dialogue” about that. Don’t want to upset anyone which the authentic truth does by its very nature.

  • JP

    It used to be that no respectable Protestant would ever enroll their children in a parochial school; now, it is the norm. When a Protestant can feel comfortable sending their children to a Catholic school, you know that the school isn’t evangelizing.

    • Paddy

      Augean Stables used to mock the Catholic Church. It’s Satanic!

    • Thomas Sharpe

      When a middle class Catholic family with four children following Humanae Vitae, (can’t afford school tuition and) don’t feel comfortable sending their children to a school that does not actually teach or follow what the Church actually Teaches, you can be sure the school is really just a hypocrite-

  • An Orthodox Christian

    Perhaps many people send their children to Roman Catholic schools because while they may not like the particulars of Roman Catholicism, they appreciate the atmosphere of a Roman Catholic School, fostered in a belief in Christ.
    How exactly would you “evangelize?”

    • ForChristAlone

      …and make sure you never speak to anyone about the most important person in your life – Jesus Christ. NONSENSE!

      • An Orthodox Christian

        Isn’t it your Francis of Assisi who is reported to have said “Preach the gospel always, and when necessary use words.” ?

  • Thomas Sharpe

    It seems that for a catholic school to evangelize they must first be Catholic. “Remove the plank from your eye…”
    Most catholic high schools today are populated by upper middle class who may or may not be catholic, with one or two children, with a contraceptive mentality. The have become for the most part -private academies for the contraceptive rich.(Couples who follow what the Church Teaches and do not use contraceptives and abortifacients generally have, because of an openness to life, 3-4 children instead the world’s 1 or 2, more children with wives not working outside of the home when the children are young means they’re not going to catholic school.)

    Who will evangelize the contraceptive rich? It will have to be the non-contraceptive. Not much chance of the non-contraceptive attending a “catholic” high school they way things are now. What is needed is a radical change in catholic secondary schools. The nuns and brothers who taught at these schools have been contracepted out of existence, therefore if there are to be Catholic schools, the schools must financed by the entire Community, AND open to the entire Community, otherwise the schools are bound to, as they are now, fail in their mission to evangelize.

    • ArtND76

      Regarding Catholic school finance so that the less well off can send their children: Hear, Hear!! The best Catholic school we sent our children to had higher percentages of disadvantaged and minority students than did the public schools in the area – and with way better outcomes than the public schools both morally and academically. Interestingly enough, in that parish the pastor made a point of having all of the priests in the rectory file into the church 30 minutes before 7:30 AM mass to say and lead the laity in Morning Prayer – as recommended by Vatican II. Evening prayer was similar … Hmm, that pastor had more than a few things right in that parish. Masses were packed out, if I recall correctly. They were Novus Ordo done right.

      After moving away from that area, the only choice we had was “Catholic Home Schooling” – due to finances in one area and due to improper school discipline of bullies (as in no discipline at all for either verbal or physical abuse) in another area. Yes, in the Catholic schools you can find smarter students – including the evil ones who are diabolically clever when it comes to hiding their misdeeds so the teachers never catch them! Our reports from our own children of the abuse they suffered fell on deaf ears – especially since those accused happened to be children of major church donors! But I digress, I really like the idea of a solid Catholic school. Too bad none either existed or were affordable for our children after that first one.

      • Thomas Sharpe

        Thanks Art. I really like the idea of a solid Catholic school too, but-

        The recent tale of Catholic schools is a tale four frogs happily boiling to death (in case you have not heard if you raise the temperature of water with a frog in it -it will happily boil to death and not jump out.)
        Frog #1: “widespread contraception” has brought about, to name a few: abortion, widespread divorce, acceptance of homosexual acts, same sex marriage.
        Frog #2: “loss of faith” -once you say “that’s just the official teaching” everything slowly unravels… and parents do not pass on the faith.
        Frog #3: “secular expectations and cost” in order to survive without low cost nuns and brothers, schools placed the sole burden of the cost on the parents, and those costs have been rising and rising, along with the expectations of contraceptive parents with – only 1 or 2 children.
        Frog #4: “victims of success” -because of Catholic schools have been successful in educating, they’ve become the darlings of contracepting upper middle class with 1 or 2 children, not even necessarily Catholic -these are not interested in the teaching of the Faith, they’re interested in worldly success…

        I really hope we’re seeing a change for the better here.
        God Bless Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone.

        • ArtND76

          I am happy to see what Archbishop Cordileone is doing, but he and his brother bishops need help.

          That first, good school I mentioned was part of a good parish – one that the pastor certainly fit in with, but the pastor – as good as he was – was not the main reason the parish was good. There was a core of some 2 dozen or more parishioners who:

          1. Were devout in their faith.
          2. Believed in a minimum of 30 minutes of daily personal prayer time.

          3. Believed strongly in giving 10% before taxes.
          4. Believed strongly in giving 4 hours of service work per week in activities such as parish council, school board, parish activities and fund-raisers, music ministry for Masses, lectors, etc.
          5. Met with each other weekly or bi-weekly in the manner of Cursillo follow-up groups.
          6. Pursued on-going study of their faith.

          Most of us came out of the Charismatic renewal. Some of us then watched with horror as many in the charismatic circles became fixated on spiritual signs, wonders and experiences – rather than on pleasing and serving the God who gives all of these.

          My point is: the change begins with us.

  • M.J.A.

    Good article and in fact worth while for all parents as well as those entrusted with guiding the young , to read , often enough , in case they forget these fundamentals .
    Good news of evangelization can be as simple as recognizing that our First Parents , in spite of being filled with the light and love of The Father , in spite of having been witnesses to His goodness , from having seen for themselves the goodness of creation all around , still fell for the subtle contempt of the enemy – contempt towards God and towards our First Parents themselves , which came masqueraded as false concern , whereas , it was subtle scorn –
    ‘ you are not gods and are being fooled ‘.
    Is it not that contempt towards God and each other , at massive or in hidden and subtle ways , as lack of concern for the truths that The Father wants us to live by, for our own good and dignity , that plays out – In all forms of sinful choices !
    The Lord comes , to reveal to us again , who The Father is ,His mercy , by taking upon Himself that contempt and hatred , so that , when similar traits lift up its head , in ourselves or those around, we can trustingly call on Him, that His Spirit expose and purify such inroads of the enemy … instead , forming in us , the heart of The Lord, that loves and trusts and is in concord with The Father , with the help of the Holy Spirit and Bl.Mother .
    Having come across non Catholics or even non Christians who have attended Catholic schools , many of them seem to have fondness and seemingly a deep seated conviction even ,about the truths upheld and celebrated by The Church .
    If the contempt towards the truth has afflicted Catholic families in one form or other and now manifesting in open rebellion and related choices and all the heartache that comes from such darkness , may the Good Lord give the grace of repentance with its joy of being restored to the Household of Our Good Father , whose Face is revealed in the Lord ; calling on Him on behalf of those that are part of one’s life at school or work – even young kids can be good evangelisers whereas negligence in this area – ? an index of our own subtle contempt towards truth !

  • I suppose this is obvious, but if the individual teachers cannot evangelize, the ‘schools’ cannot evangelize either.