We hear a lot about the decline of Catholic schools, but maybe not enough.
The numbers are staggering: Catholic school enrollment has declined more than two-thirds in the last 50 years, from 5.2 million to 1.9 million students.
Even so, Catholic homeschoolers perceive significant growth in their numbers, with the freedom to explore a vast menu of resources that improve upon the stale textbooks used by many schools.
Catholic classical educators likewise see an increase in their ranks, not only among homeschoolers but in schools that have shifted toward the classical model or have been newly founded.
At The Cardinal Newman Society, we hear regularly from parents who are excited by the changes to Catholic schools promoted by their bishops. These include the hard-won teacher standards championed by Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco.
So why the contradiction? In certain quarters, families and educators are embracing faithful Catholic education with great enthusiasm. And yet Catholic schools are still closing; we’ve lost nearly 20 percent of the schools that were in operation just 10 years ago, especially elementary schools.
The answer doesn’t come easily to those who define the crisis simply as a lack of students and money. These are symptoms of deeper problems in our schools. There have been too many misguided attempts to attract students and increase tuition revenues, donations and government subsidies.
These strategies are necessary and yet can harm Catholic schools if they ignore the far more serious problem: the diminishment of Catholic identity in recent decades.
Catholic schools in America once were the envy of the Western world, not because they sought prestige, but because they responded directly to the needs of Catholic families. They embraced goals and methods of forming the mind, body and soul that could only have sprung from the Catholic faith. Catholic education was excellent, precisely because it was Catholic.
Therefore, attracting families by reaching for secular standards and embracing the goals, methods, curricula and even textbooks of public education can be damaging to Catholic schools. Ultimately, it fills schools with students who don’t value what we value.
The same can be said for attracting donors by the same methods.
Worse, in an age when both state and federal government are turning increasingly secularist, the pursuit of government aid can be, at best, a short-term solution to financial needs. The day seems to be coming rapidly when Catholic schools may be permitted to uphold Catholic values only if they are free of government support.
So how do we address the crisis?
As evidenced by the success of many faithful Catholic schools today, I believe that the only path forward for schools that wish to both survive long-term and remain Catholic is to more robustly embrace the Church’s vision for Catholic schools. I believe this for three reasons:
First, a secular society will only permit religious freedom—if it is permitted at all—to the most consistently and fervently religious schools. In this, at least, the intolerance of the present age is having some positive impact, by motivating sincerely Catholic schools to establish clear and firm policies that are directly tied to Catholic teaching.
Second, the character of a school is determined largely by its teachers. If Catholic education is to genuinely form young people to be fully human, it requires teachers who witness to the faith and morals, both inside and outside the classroom. In today’s culture, hiring such teachers takes a special resolve on the part of school leaders who are firmly committed to faithful Catholic education, even in the face of potential lawsuits and pressure from both outside and within the Church.
Third, as more Catholic families turn to public schools and succumb to the zeitgeist of the age, the remaining market for Catholic schools will include higher concentrations of families who appreciate genuine Catholic education. Already we are seeing how seriously Catholic schools are attracting students, donors and even local acclaim for their “old-fashioned” methods. Other schools that strive for students by shedding Catholic identity may find the strategy short-lived, at least if they intend to continue as Catholic schools.
(A scholar recently commented to me that the closing of secularized schools represents the sort of “pruning of the vine” that Pope Benedict XVI predicted in the Church. I suggested that it may be more akin to dead branches withering and falling away of their own accord, since every effort is being made to save them. But the scholar’s point was that the Church ultimately benefits from the fruit of the healthy branches.)
No matter how desperate a school’s effort to gain students or financial support, it is even more important that it remains true to its mission and regains anything that has been lost in past years. Catholic schools should:
Hire only teachers and leaders who embrace that mission and the Catholic faith.
Study and observe the key principles of Catholic education found in the Church’s rich teachings on the nature of the Catholic school.
Subscribe only to school and curriculum standards that explicitly uphold the Catholic school’s emphasis on evangelization and formation.
Establish student and personnel policies that explain and uphold Catholic moral teachings.
Fight vigorously for religious freedom, and permit no government encroachment on Catholic education.
Listen to parents and serve them in their task as the primary educators of their children. Help children know and love their Savior.
Years from now, the surviving Catholic school is unlikely to be satisfied with meeting minimal obligations for retaining the Catholic label. That’s not enough.
It’s the school where leaders and teachers are eager to provide the very best Catholic formation—to lead young people to Christ and to accompany them on the road to Heaven—that exemplifies the truly healthy Catholic school. That’s something that families can rally around.
This article first appeared at The National Catholic Register.