10 Solutions for What’s Ailing Catholic Education

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In one of G.K. Chesterton’s “Father Brown” mysteries, authorities are struggling to determine the motive for a horrible crime.  But our hero sees the big picture.

Father Brown laid down his cigar and said carefully, “It isn’t that they can’t see the solution.  It is that they can’t see the problem.”

This certainly applies to the fate of Catholic schools.  Solutions to what ails Catholic education are possible only if we clearly see the problem.

Our schools are bleeding students: since the 1950s, enrollment in America’s Catholic schools has declined from 5.2 million to 1.9 million students— despite a nearly two-thirds increase in our Catholic population.

Meanwhile, Catholic schools have become more expensive, and too many families can’t afford tuition.

The Church has struggled to confront both problems: declining enrollment and affordability.  Unfortunately, many Catholic schools decided that the solution is to embrace secular state standards and “innovate” according to the latest secular education fashions.  They’ve become more like public schools.

Healing the Wound

In the Newman Society’s view, this well-intended approach to fixing what ails Catholic schools is off the mark.  The lack of students and money are symptoms of a serious wound to Catholic education: the slow and steady decline of Catholic identity and mission.

If Catholic schools today were achieving all that the Church envisions for Catholic education, and if the Church made real, authentic and steadfastly faithful education a priority, parents, pastors and parishes would embrace Catholic schools.

But it’s not so.  The Church’s expectations for Catholic education are not being met fully in too many Catholic schools.

There are pockets of hope, however, that show the way forward.  Faithful is in demand as witnessed by the success of so many parent-run independent schools, the tremendous growth of homeschooling, and the success of parochial schools that fully embrace the Church’s time-tested vision for education.

This vision for Catholic education is very attractive: a genuine and profound encounter with Christ… learning about culture in the light of divine revelation… learning to think clearly and critically, ready for any challenge… forming students in mind, body and soul… preparing students to serve God and man and to unite with God in eternity.

How many Catholic schools are fulfilling that vision today?

The Cardinal Newman Society believes that the Church can save Catholic education by restoring and celebrating steadfast fidelity, strong Catholic identity and commitment to the principles of faithful Catholic education.

No Time to Waste

Few would argue that overall, Catholic identity in our schools has declined substantially since Vatican II.  This can’t be blamed solely on the loss of the religious sisters from the schools.  It reflects a general secularization throughout the Church and the very real damage inflicted by the sexual and cultural revolution of the 1960s and 70s.

For the last generation, Catholic schools have still been able to rely on a type of secular prestige, but this is coming to an end.  Our society is increasingly hostile to the Catholic faith.  There will be tremendous pressure on schools to conform to the latest secular demands, such as transgender locker rooms.

And already many Catholic schools conform to secular school standards like the misguided and inadequate Common Core.

There is no time to waste!  If we don’t act fast, there won’t be much besides a small remnant to save.

Catholic education must be more than a school uniform, “traditional values” and an occasional Mass.

Every Catholic school should be able to proudly state: “Catholic Is Our Core!”

Below are 10 areas in which the Newman Society is focusing our work, and some suggestions for how you can help fuel the renewal in Catholic education that is so desperately needed.

1. Hiring for mission

The teacher has the most important role in Catholic education.

Not only does a good teacher provide excellent instruction, but in a Catholic school, the teacher is a highly influential witness to the Catholic faith.

The Vatican has repeatedly said that teachers should be faithfully Catholic—but sadly, many are not.  Schools hire non-Catholics and “non-practicing” Catholics on a regular basis.  Many are poorly prepared for Catholic education and even morally unsuitable.

The Newman Society believes that Catholic schools must set clear moral standards for teachers and hire Catholics who are truly prepared to be a living witness for the faith in all that they do and teach every day and in every way.

That’s why we sprung immediately to the defense of Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco, who last year was beset by protests from dissenting teachers and activists.

Now, with the help of our special report, Faith and Morals Language in Catholic School Teacher Employment Documents, dioceses across the country are updating their contracts and handbooks to demand the faithful witness of teachers.

2. Teacher formation

To help make the case for the necessity of faithful teachers in Catholic schools, we researched, collected and published a new resource for teachers, principals, superintendents, parents, and bishops called The Call to Teach: Expectations for the Catholic Educator in Magisterial Teaching.

The Call to Teach compiles the best of a century of Church documents on the Catholic teacher’s responsibility to be a moral example and devoted to bringing young people to Christ.  That may sound simple, but today the concept of the teacher-witness has been lost to history and set aside in favor of “professional” qualifications.

The Newman Society has also produced a teacher formation in-service program to introduce teachers to the Church’s declaration on Catholic education, Gravissimum Educationis.  And we are working this year on programs to help teachers and school leaders contemplate the Catholic identity of their schools.

But the most important training occurs before teachers are hired.  We’ve been promoting the best undergraduate and graduate programs for Catholic school teachers, primarily at Newman Guide colleges.  They form teachers spiritually as well as professionally, and they prepare students for the special calling of Catholic education.

3. Principles of Catholic education

Even in Catholic schools, few educators are able to clearly identify the essential characteristics of Catholic education.  Your Newman Society has taken up the challenge.

For months, we have pored through the Church’s documents on Catholic education to locate and define key principles of Catholic identity.  Our researchers asked the question: What makes a Catholic education unique and true to the Church’s vision?

We will soon release a resource guide to help Catholic schools ground all of their work in the Church’s expectations for Catholic education and evaluate their Catholic identity.  It will be published after a review is completed by several Catholic education leaders and experts.

The guide will center on five key principles of Catholic identity and provide a wealth of citations directly from Church documents, together with questions to help teachers and school administrators reflect on how to improve the Catholic identity of all of their school activities.  We are aware of no other such work that is so thoroughly grounded in the Church’s stated vision for authentic Catholic education.

At its heart, Catholic education must be truly Catholic, in full service to the Church.  By rediscovering and reinforcing the very foundations of Catholic education, we stand in stark contrast to those who would simply reinvent it.

4. Curriculum standards

Since 2013, the Newman Society has raised concerns about the Common Core and other secular standards for Catholic schools.  Many school leaders approached us and earnestly asked the question, what’s the alternative?

Our K-12 team is working on a most exciting project to develop recommended curriculum standards for Catholic education.  The standards integrate Catholic teaching with academic excellence in English, history, math and science.

How should a Catholic school teach science with confidence in our Catholic faith?  What sort of literature teaches values and helps students wrestle with the great questions of life?  These are some of the intriguing questions that Catholic curriculum standards try to answer.

Several of America’s leading Catholic experts are advising this project, many of them scholars at faithful Newman Guide colleges.  Several faithful diocesan superintendents will also help us make sure the final product is not just in fidelity to the Church’s vision, but also practical for schools to implement.

5. Sexuality policies

Transgender identity, promoting LGBT lifestyles and same-sex marriage are just three of the latest fronts in the culture war—and Catholic schools are in the crosshairs of both activists and government.

To help schools protect their Catholic identity while heading off lawsuits with clear student and employee policies, the Newman Society has published an urgently needed guide, Human Sexuality Policies for Catholic Schools.  It provides model language that schools and dioceses can use to explain the Catholic understanding of sexuality and establish clear expectations for behavior.   We’re distributing the guide widely to Catholic education leaders, and already many have enthusiastically embraced it.

The pressure to conform to the new sexual revolution will not end quickly, and it could destroy Catholic schools.  So we’re not afraid to speak forthrightly about the truths of our faith and to urge Catholic educators to do the same.

6. Promoting excellence

Our Catholic Education Honor Roll recognizes high schools that exhibit a strong Catholic identity.  It helps families identify faithful Catholic high schools.  It helps excellent schools recruit students and donors.

And it helps improve Catholic education.  One school headmaster told us:

“Your standards represent the highest ideals of Catholic education, consistent with the principles established by your namesake [Blessed John Henry Newman].  Being named to your Honor Roll confirms us in our classical, Catholic approach and inspires us to continue to improve in all areas.”

That’s what we want!  By identifying role models for other schools to emulate, we encourage them to do even better.

It’s why we’re eager to expand the Honor Roll to include Catholic elementary schools.  But first we’re revising the Honor Roll standards according to the principles of Catholic identity mentioned above.  This conforms our program more closely to the Church’s documents on Catholic education.

7. Defending the right of schools to be and act Catholic

Catholic education is under attack.

The most recent assaults on religious freedom—from mandatory abortion coverage in employee health plans to laws protecting “gender identity” and “gender expression”—could severely damage Catholic schools.

Worse, they tempt Catholic educators to compromise the faith.

That’s why the Newman Society devotes substantial efforts to help schools stand strong against the tide.

We’re not lawyers or lobbyists, but we do work closely with Alliance Defending Freedom, a dedicated team of legal experts.  We help schools develop consistent and faithful policies for students, faculty, staff and volunteers.

We believe that defending Catholic education and strengthening Catholic identity are the same project.  A school that anticipates problems and has a clear religious basis for its policies is best able to stay out of court.

8. Exposing dangers

There are many dangers facing Catholic education today.

Excessive entanglement with government funding makes schools vulnerable to harassment.  Secular state standards dilute Catholic identity.  Many Catholics, including some teachers, dissent from Catholic teaching.  Students are faced with pornography and declining social mores.

The Newman Society is never shy about exposing such dangers and confronting them.  Our reporting, analysis and policy work tackle the most difficult problems.

When Catholic schools seemed to be embracing the Common Core, we didn’t just lament the rush to follow public schools.  We launched “Catholic Is Our Core” to critically examine the standards and help bishops, educators and families understand the potential impact on Catholic education.

The media and the Obama administration want to shut down dissent from “gender ideology.”  But the Newman Society is helping Catholic educators stand strong in the light of truth.

And amid the terrible confusion in the Church about the sacred bond of marriage, the Newman Society is encouraging Catholic parents and schools to teach renewed respect for the Sacrament and for the family.

9. Reaching out to leaders

Change often comes from effective leaders.

While the Newman Society provides leadership in the promotion and defense of faithful Catholic education, it is the teachers, school leaders, diocesan superintendents and bishops who have direct oversight of Catholic schools.

In just over two years of intensive work in K-12 education, the Newman Society has enjoyed the support and partnership of many superintendents and bishops who are eager to strengthen Catholic identity.  They express enthusiasm and appreciation for our help.

Through the Catholic Education Honor Roll, we have developed strong working friendships with faithful Catholic school leaders and teachers.  They gather with us annually at the National Catholic Educational Association conferences and share feedback and advice for our projects.

The Newman Society was a substantial participant in the Vatican’s World Congress on Education last December.  Officials from the Vatican and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops were clearly aware of and grateful for our work.

10. Serving parents

Serving Catholic families is at the heart of everything the Newman Society does.  Our primary concern is that young people are formed—mind, body and soul—in the light of the Catholic faith.  As the primary educators of their children, parents are essential to this task.

Catholic families must have the means of ensuring a faithful Catholic education for their children.  It’s necessary for their formation, and it’s key to the New Evangelization.

We are constantly looking for ways to keep families informed and help them become effective advocates for faithful education.

How you can help

It is here where we really need your help.  You are our eyes and ears on the ground in your community and diocese.  You can share our work with your pastor, principal or teacher.

You can also invite them to join our e-mail list of Catholic education leaders, so they can connect with the Newman Society and other like-minded leaders.

Most of all, please pray, pray, pray for the renewal of faithful education.

We truly believe that faithful education is the key to fixing what is wrong in the Church and our society.  Our nation desperately needs strong Catholic schools to turn out the next generation of faithful leaders.

But we can’t accomplish this alone.  We need people like you as full partners in this work.

Together we can help rebuild Catholic education.  Families are counting on us to succeed.  The only thing standing between our society and chaos is fidelity to the one, holy Catholic faith.

Let’s get to work!  Thank you in advance for your help!


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