Don Bosco, one of the Church’s greatest educator saints, welcomed Turin’s poor and delinquent boys to his Oratorio—but only if they committed to receiving Catholic formation and refraining from behavior that would scandalize other students.
Although he was eager to bring the Catholic faith to boys on the peripheries, Bosco nevertheless turned away or dismissed those who would not repent of immoral behavior and presented an ongoing bad influence on others. He was renowned both for his kindness and for his discipline, always with primary concern for the ultimate good of the boys under his care—and even for those who were excluded, with hope for eventual repentance and reconciliation with God.
The oratory’s admissions policy, then, was at once welcoming to all and uncompromising in its expectations. This served the oratory’s primary purpose of evangelization, including care for those who were not yet able to participate constructively in the oratory’s community of faith.
Prioritizing both mission and community is central to The Cardinal Newman Society’s new Policy Standards for Catholic School Admissions, which is being circulated among Church leaders, Catholic educators and admissions experts for comment and further development before final publication early in the year.
Developing such guidance is no easy task. Today’s Catholic schools face much different challenges than those addressed by Saint John Bosco. While he had to contend with sometimes unruly and even criminal youth, today the Church is confronted by widely accepted social norms and ideologies that conflict directly with Catholic moral teachings and even the nature of the human person.
Even so, the broad strokes of Bosco’s approach are relevant as ever. Catholic education is the Church’s most important means of evangelization, forming young people deeply in truth and fidelity to Christ. While not every family is ready to embrace that mission and participate in it—especially in an age of widespread confusion and denial of basic truths about man and God—the admissions process can be a work of charity and mercy for both those who are admitted and those who are not received into the school.
Writing in his memoirs, Don Bosco sketched the outlines of a welcoming and compassionate policy for his oratory. Both a home and a school for needy children, the oratory preserved the core mission of Catholic education:
The purpose of this oratory is to keep boys busy and away from bad companions, especially on Sundays and holy days. Therefore, any boy may be admitted regardless of social condition.
Poor, abandoned and uneducated boys are particularly welcome, because they need more help to achieve their eternal salvation.
Boys entering this oratory must realize that it is a religious organization whose purpose is to train boys to become good Christians and upright citizens. Therefore, blasphemy, obscene conversation or language offensive to our Faith are strictly forbidden. Any boy guilty of such offenses will be admonished in a fatherly way the first time; if he does not mend his ways, he will be reported to the director for expulsion from the oratory.
Troublesome boys may also be admitted provided they do not cause scandal and are earnest in improving their conduct.
Especially to be avoided, according to the saint, was anything that might lead students away from God and the truths of the Catholic faith. “Only in matters of scandal let the superior be inexorable,” he wrote. “Better run the risk of sending away an innocent boy than to keep one who is a cause of scandal.”
This concern is echoed in the Newman Society’s admissions standards, principally authored by Dr. Denise Donohue, vice president for educator resources, and Dr. Dan Guernsey, education policy editor and senior fellow.
“Unfortunately, there are situations where unrepentant students or parents provide counter-witness to the Gospel or through their lived example present and model sinful behavior as a good to be supported and pursued,” they write. “In such cases, the school must ask them to make other arrangements for their academic education due to the negative impact on the school and encourage them to work with other Church ministries as they strive to bring their lives in accord with God’s plan.”
These hard cases are carefully considered in the Newman Society’s two issue bulletins, “Not All Families Are a Good Fit for Catholic Schools” and “Working with Nontraditional Families in Catholic Schools.” Both are summarized by Dr. Guernsey in this linked article.
Beyond moral concerns, there are financial and other practical reasons why Catholic schools cannot accommodate every student, despite sincere efforts. “The Church needs to ensure robust evangelization programs for parish children not able to attend Catholic schools,” write Donohue and Guernsey, recognizing that every child deserves formation in the faith, and many need help filling the gaps and correcting the falsehoods in public education.
Community teaching communion
Our admissions standards conform to several broad principles that should govern admissions policies in Catholic schools, beginning with a concern for the school community. While other Catholic education programs may have similar goals and principles, the formal Catholic school is distinct in the amount of time students spend together and the impact of parent and peer behavior on students.
“Because its aim is to make man more man, education can be carried out authentically only in a relational and community context,” the Vatican teaches in the 2007 document, Educating Together in Catholic Schools. “It is not by chance that the first and original educational environment is that of the natural community of the family. Schools, in their turn, take their place beside the family as an educational space that is communitarian, organic and intentional, and they sustain their educational commitment, according to a logic of assistance.”
Catholic education’s mission is, in part, to form young people for community life—for communion with each other and with God. Learning Christian communion requires the good example of others, and bad behavior can directly impact the education of all students in the community. The Vatican therefore describes Catholic education as “educating in communion and for communion.”
“The Catholic school, characterized mainly as an educating community, is a school for the person and of persons,” explains Educating Together. “In fact, it aims at forming the person in the integral unity of his being, using the tools of teaching and learning where ‘criteria of judgment, determining values, points of interest, lines of thought, sources of inspiration and models of life’ are formed.”
Thus, it is important that the Catholic school community be a genuine Christian community. This does not mean that every member must be Christian or entirely free of sin, but all members of the school community are “harmonized by truth” and the “Christian vision of reality,” according to the Newman Society standards. “When Catholic values animate the environment, vision and moral purpose flourish.”
The Vatican’s 1988 document, The Religious Dimension of Education in a Catholic School, cites conditions necessary to foster and sustain this culture of communion: “that everyone agree with the educational goals and cooperate in achieving them; that interpersonal relationships be based on love and Christian freedom; that each individual, in daily life, be a witness to Gospel values; that every student be challenged to strive for the highest possible level of formation, both human and Christian.”
Other Church documents on catechesis and education also articulate the importance of a strong faith-based community, where reference to Catholic traditions and beliefs and frequent reception of the sacraments are the norm. These practices help form young students and reinforce for older ones the perpetual need to ground their spiritual journey in the deep well of abiding wisdom, grace and mercy found in the Catholic Church.
The Directory for Catechesis teaches that “The Christian community is the primary agent of catechesis,” and “paying attention to group relationships has a pedagogical significance: it develops the sense of belonging to the Church and assists growth in the faith.” Children learn from those peers and adults who surround them.
Ultimately, a healthy admissions process benefits all concerned, by ensuring a nurturing community, preserving the Catholic school’s mission of evangelization and helping families connect with schools that best serve their needs and interests. With these goals, a Catholic school can proceed confidently with clarity and consistency.