We all know of the upcoming Synod on Synodality. Beyond the sophistry of the name, some of us dutifully undertook our responsibilities of leading “listening sessions” to compile reports for our diocese. What I found in doing so wasn’t surprising, though it may be for the zeitgeist leadership of the Church that does its best to hide Catholicity and flocks to a politics sprinkled with holy water. Students, especially, hunger for what the Catholic Church can offer. They felt let down when reminiscing about their education.
What is Catholic about Catholic education?
In the midst of the ongoing educational battles that have reemerged following the 2021 Virginia gubernatorial election when Bolshevik Democrat Terry McAuliffe let slip a truth he and so many believe—it wasn’t a gaffe—that parents should have no involvement in their children’s education, Catholics need to take stock and ask themselves whether or not their Catholic education is Catholic.
Catholic education has a certain allure in a world gone mad, especially an educational world gone even crazier. Catholic schools routinely score higher on all measurable metrics than their public-school counterparts. Some even outrank elite private schools. But is a Catholic school really just an excellent public school? Is that all Catholic education now amounts to—secular success?
Put it this way. What is Catholic about a school with a Catholic name when all it is concerned with is excellent test scores and graduation rates? Catholic schools do not exist for mere excellence in reading and arithmetic. They do not exist for producing the most scholarship students for university.
Yes, Catholic schools should pride themselves in their excellence. But their excellence isn’t rooted in secular education. Their excellence is rooted in Christ, the moral formation therein, and the intellectual life that accompanies the life of the soul.
In listening and conversing with Catholic students for the synod, and in getting to know a student who desires to join the RCIA, a common thread emerged: they all had much to say about the Catholic intellectual tradition. The Catholic students, in particular, having been shaped through Catholic education, openly opined their regret over the lack of substance in it. And these were scholarship students too!
The Church has so much to offer in its holistic vision of life: body and soul, heart and mind, excellence in STEM, but also—and more importantly—excellence in the humanities, especially theology.
Here, Catholic students talking about the problem of Catholic education stressed a point to me: they wanted more out of their theological education than what they had received. The deep dive into Catholic theology denied to them in primary school has manifested through their own personal studies and, in many cases, in their private spiritual conversations and lunches with me and other Catholics, whether in life or online. They desire depth in their education, not, as they expressed, superficiality.
It is a shame that this is what they experienced in their Catholic education. Church leaders and educators seem to think that the more Catholic a school is, the more turnoff there will be. Let Catholic schools excel in the non-Catholic subjects: math, reading, writing, science, etc. When it’s time to teach Catholicism, though, keep it minimal. One student said his theological education in four years of high school was “a joke.” In the words of another, “There wasn’t anything really Catholic about my Catholic education.”
Students who moved through the Catholic education system who expressed some regret over the limits of their education—namely in theology but also in the sacred Scriptures—let me know that they’re aware of the rich garden that they could have been dwelling in. That seemed to be their biggest complaint. With everything they could have learned, why did they learn so little?
We now see the exodus from the parish school system to independent and classical curricula Catholic schools, schools focused on holding Catholicity at the center of their identity: theology; beauty; the Great Books; math and science, yes, to be sure. But there is no mistaking that the burgeoning classical and humanities Catholic schools that have been slowly emerging outside diocesan structures are blossoming because parish schools are failing to promote deep Catholicism.
Catholic education should not, and cannot, sacrifice Catholicity in pursuit of secular excellence. Many Catholic students are ill-prepared, despite all those years and all that tuition spent on a supposed Catholic education, to enter the non-Catholic world. Those who find themselves treading difficult water take up the task of deepening their faith on their own; or they altogether succumb to the failures of four, or even 12, years of “Catholic” education.
The student who wants to join the Church, God bless him, also knows this, despite not having ever been through Catholic schooling. In getting to know him, he expressed interest in the Deuterocanonical books. He spoke about knowing Catholics to have many ways of interpreting the Bible. He expressed gratitude in my explaining to him concepts of God that he hadn’t received in his Baptist background.
Catholic education has so much more to offer than just excellence in STEM or reading and writing. If that is all Catholic schools offer, then we are just excellent buildings and classrooms for the city of man. But we exist for the city of God. It is my hope that the Church remembers this and that Catholic education, especially, returns to that calling. After all, the students I got to know and talk to over the synod listening process expressed precisely that. Isn’t this synod about serving the people and faithful? Or will their desires be ignored for the convenient image of woke and zeitgeist adoration?
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