What Makes Catholic School Libraries Different?

Adapted from Literature, Library, and Media Guide for Catholic Educators
By Denise Donohue Ed.D. and Dan Guernsey Ed.D.


As Catholic education’s mission is different, a Catholic school library is also different since all elements within an institution—including its library—should adhere to its mission. Catholic school libraries don’t have to abide by secular association’s book lists. As a matter of mission, and religious freedom, they should look nothing like public school libraries. 

The mission of Catholic education is to form students in sanctity in this life for salvation in the next. Providing students with wholesome literature that satisfies the moral imagination and assists in the formation of virtue and full human flourishing are the prescription for this, not writings that denigrate the human person or leave students with sinful thoughts or feelings of shame or despair. This follows a catechetical best practice of not leaving students without the hope of the resurrection and God’s eternal love when talking about Jesus’ death on the cross. When we allow young people to read literature that is sorrowful or confusing, especially about the unique nature of the human person, without countering these messages with the Good News of Jesus Christ, we do both them and us a disservice.


A Catholic school library does not seek to provide access to “all kinds of books,” but rather the best and most meaningful books aligned with the school’s mission. Even books that appear to have nothing harmful in them may not make sense to include in the library’s collection if it is unduly attracting students away from the best readings. For example, the cartoon-enhanced book, Ellie McDougal, may be more attractive and less work than Little Women, and the book Captain Underpants may be more enticing than Captains Courageous. But there is no doubt which books are better for our children. When the “harmless” gets in the way of the excellent, it’s not as harmless as first thought.

Efforts should be made to steer youth to lasting and meaningful works that have high quality writing and artistry and ideals of enduring value. There are plenty of other options outside of the school and the school library for trite and frivolous reading.

For the youngest readers, it’s important to be aware of impure archetypes that might mislead or confuse them about real hostile forces, both human and demonic, and young adult selections should avoid novels that center on suicide, death, extreme alienation, sexuality, or modern broken families or which present parents as enemies and obstacles to “freedom.” These should be replaced by books promoting exploration, courage, loyalty, and nobility when students are working through sometimes difficult developmental changes.

Individuals working in the library should accept their responsibility as curators of formative material, taking seriously their task of acting in loco parentis (in the place of parents), and support Catholic parents in their desire for faithful Catholic education. The Catholic school does not intend to censor books out of the public domain, but, within its own private domain and targeted audience, the school must be faithful to its mission of human formation for this life and the next.


Classic Literature Rises Above Agendas, Ideology


If education is the soul of a society as it passes from one generation to another as G.K. Chesterton once said, then literature is the substance nourishing or corrupting that soul. With this sublime view, it’s no wonder literature now sits in the crosshairs of today’s culture wars as certain groups fight to remove classic works from school curricula and libraries in favor of new works that press false ideologies and political agendas. These often push secular materialist worldviews on even the youngest of children, effectively destroying and replacing the Catholic worldview.

For instance, Scholastic Book Club—which is often promoted to students in Catholic schools—sells books promoting both gender theory and critical race theory. The Moon Within concerns a young girl and notions of “gender fluidity.” Several books by Alex Gino introduce children to homosexuality and gender dysphoria. In Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You, activist Ibram Kendi accuses Booker T. Washington, President Barack Obama, and other Black American leaders of being “assimilationists” guilty of implicit racism.

These themes have made even deeper inroads onto Catholic college campuses—and then back into Catholic schools. Loyola University Maryland’s Karson Institute, for instance, recently teamed up with Ms. Magazine to issue lesson plans and an annotated bibliography promoting critical race theory literature in K-12 schools.

An eternal response

Catholic school administrators should approach this challenge of literature selection as they do all challenges—through the light of their unique mission.

In the Declaration on Christian Education (Gravissimum educationis), Pope Paul VI highlights how Catholic schools are to “order the whole of human culture to the news of salvation so that the knowledge the students gradually acquire of the world, life and man is illumined by faith.”

As Catholic educators strive to expand the knowledge, understanding, and humanity of their students, they should not make literature selections simply based on the fleeting fancies of what students want to read, what is politically correct or what is culturally in fashion. Instead, they should seek works of excellence that encompass aesthetic beauty and artistic merit; have stood the test of time and address perennial challenges of humanity. Literature that is outstanding and describes instances of human excellence and Christian virtue are solid, lasting choices.


It is crucial to note, Catholic education does not simply mirror the common culture; nor does it uncritically pass it on. Catholic education doesn’t cancel culture; it supports it wherever possible, critiques it when needed, and improves it with Christian insight.

Antidote for pop culture

One powerful reason Catholic educators should select enduring works of literature is because literature has the potential to break students free from the culture and circumstances that may bind and/or blind them.

Make no mistake, the culture that has most students in its thrall is the current pop culture: it’s TikTok social media, academia, big tech, professional athletics, fashion, and popular music.

It is not yet Homer, Augustine, Mozart, Dante, Dostoyevsky, and Twain that have their hearts and attention. It’s Cardi B, the Kardashians, Lebron James, and whatever is trending on Instagram that grabs their attention and shapes their culture and worldview. That worldview is dominated by materialism, the sexual revolution, relativism, cynicism, and despair. It is saturated with quick fixes of drugs, divorce, and bodily reconstruction. It is not a worldview completely without virtue, but one where, as GK Chesterton noted, the virtues have come untethered from the truth and from each other and are capable of working against ultimate goods.

Therefore, a critical task of Catholic education is to unbind students from the chains of the present and reveal to them the depth and breadth of broad human experiences across all sorts of divisions. The key cultural divisions they need to breach are not just the highly touted and culturally celebrated racial groupings and other sympathetic marginalized groupings of 2022. Modern students are quite knowledgeable and constantly exposed to this culture. The cultures more likely to challenge them and expand their horizons are the cultures of 1822 AD, 1522 AD, 1022 AD, and 222 AD. Introducing students to the thoughts, values, and beliefs of humanity across the ages through literature and history is more likely to lead them into the great conversations of mankind and introduce them to ideas beyond the shallow limits of the “woke world” which surrounds and suffocates them.

Judging a book by its cover

You can’t judge a book by its cover is an idiomatic expression meaning you shouldn’t judge the content of something, or someone, based on appearances. This expression is true in both the negative and the positive, meaning one should not dismiss a work (negative) nor ascribe artistic or intellectual worthiness to it (positive) based on the author’s skin color, gender, personal habits, virtues, or vices. A work’s merit takes precedent over the faults of its author, just as a logical argument should not be dismissed as untrue simply because the truth was


argued by someone distasteful to the hearer. Also, in a related point, literature should not be selected because it makes one feel righteous in fighting for a victim class; nor should victim status work like a golf handicap to elevate mediocre works of literature above truly great work. Despite pressure from activist groups, Catholic educators should refrain from tossing out literature because of guilt by association simply because it comes from a person or culture which has acted unjustly or advocated for a flawed worldview. This would leave slim pickings indeed, as all human beings are sinners and act unjustly and all cultures seek to perpetuate their values. All cultures are comprised of fallen people with fallen ideals or who have failed to live up to those ideals over time.

A compelling Catholic witness

Finally, Catholic educators should not determine literary merit only through the lens of one literary theory (and especially not critical race theory or LGBTQ+ theory). There are more than a dozen literary theories to draw from. Educators should introduce students to various modes of interpretation or theory as appropriate based upon age, emotional, and psychological development, but never neglect to provide a corrective Catholic worldview when issues of aesthetics, faith, and morals are present. Catholic educators need to show older students multiple examples of worldviews in conflict, and then make the case for the Christian worldview through reason, revelation, and through the cohesive and unwavering personal witness of the teacher. The teacher can provide living proof that a Christian worldview can resonate with the student’s personal and existential needs. Young people must remain free to test and accept the value of what is placed before them; there can be no compulsion of will, only compelling presentations of truth to be freely received.

Literature selections made by Catholic educators must, as with all else, serve the mission. If the booklists look the same as at non-Catholic schools, or the works are approached simply using the same secular common culture and lenses of interpretation and meaning, Catholic education will have lost its flavor and competitive advantage. Faithful Catholic education teaches more, offers more, and brings the light of Christ to the world.


Three Guiding Principles in Choosing Literature


It is clear, the cancel culture is bent on canceling the good, the true, and the beautiful. The latest area they seek to override is literature. Classic literature, which has been used in education for generations, is now deemed racist or sexist and needing to be replaced by more modern works. 

Amidst this tumult, parents and Catholic educators might find it difficult to discern exactly which literature is or is not good for their students to read. Therefore, the Cardinal Newman Society has assembled Policy Standards on Literature and the Arts in Catholic Education, recognizing that literature is an essential tool in the formation of a student’s mind, body, and spirit. 

The standards are rooted in three guiding principles:

1. Remember the mission

The first and foundational principle in choosing literature is to recall the mission of Catholic education, which brings students closer to Christ and helps them fulfill God’s calling in this world and to attain the eternal kingdom for which they were created. 

Literature can assist by providing a critical, systematic transmission of culture always guided by a Christian vision of reality. Works should be carefully chosen and analyzed from a Catholic perspective. Even if the work is not Catholic, educators and students should approach the text with a Catholic lens, which always increases rather than limits understanding.


For example, students have long been reading ancient pagan Greek texts, such as The Odyssey. Catholics can (and should) still read this book, asking questions about virtue, how much Odysseus is influenced by good ends, and the role of free will. 

According to The Cardinal Newman Society’s Standards, “it is then the role of a Catholic educator to suggest and model a response to the critical questions being provoked in order to provide a coherent and consistent Catholic understanding.” 

Bringing everything back to the mission of Catholic education helps clarify choices and is a sure guide as new challenges arise.

2. Dare to be different

The literature chosen by Catholic educators may be very different from secular schools and colleges, because Catholic education teaches truths that are unknown or rejected elsewhere, and it forms young people for sainthood—much more than college or career. 

In Catholic education, the searching for truth begins with already knowing the fount of truth and seeing the unity between faith and reason. It orients students toward holiness and eternal salvation, while promoting the common good. 

Literature in Catholic education should never lead students into sin or despair, nor cause scandal. As the standards say, Catholic educators aim not to present uncritically all possible human thought and viewpoints, but to present the best literature and arts critically and in the context of a Catholic worldview.” Unlike secular education, which often has little to no orientation towards the truth, Catholic education exposes students to good, challenging literature within the context of truth. 

Some might think this approach opposes great secular literature, so let’s look at one example you might not think of—Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. This book is recommended by The Cardinal Newman Society for grades 9-12, even though it peers into the mind of a murderer. The classic book provides opportunities for students to investigate the effects of sin and the power of forgiveness and redemption—all of which can be taught from a Catholic perspective. Still, the choice of literature should not acquiesce to the latest fad or impulse. Rather it should serve as an opportunity to show forth the distinguishing characteristics of a distinctively Catholic education, which is increasingly different from secular woke schools—Dare to be different!

3. Understanding human nature

Finally, literature as well as the arts should be oriented toward understanding human nature, and human experiences. Good literature teaches students about how people interact in the world, and how they improve. 

Reading literature is more than a utilitarian act where the reader is simply acquiring job skills. It is also about learning and evaluating “the knowledge, wisdom, creativity and insights of others,” explain The Cardinal Newman Society standards. 

The truth that students acquire can be oriented toward their own personal growth in holiness, as well as assisting the common good. A shining example of this is Aesop’s Fables recommended for K-4 students. Each of the short stories offers a moral or virtue to be acquired in the child-friendly format of stories about animals.






Literature should prompt students to ask the “essential” questions, which revolve around the meaning of life, and their relationship to God, others, and the world. 

The “Great Books” which are now being assailed by activists are often ideal choices to prompt readers to ask these kinds of questions. They are considered the best that has been thought and said in Western civilization. The Cardinal Newman Society’s recommended reading list contains many of these works—Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville, The Aeneid by Virgil, Beowulf, and Don Quixote by Cervantes, just to name a few.

Helping Catholic educators

Determining what books should be in the curriculum or library can be a daunting task. Appendix C of the Society’s literature standards is a “Holistic Rubric for Selecting Literature in a Catholic School.” This rubric offers a 1-4 rating scale (from poor choice to excellent choice) to help determine whether a book would be fitting for a Catholic curriculum or library. 

For example, a book that is considered a “poor choice” would be focused primarily on the current culture and politics, promotes a worldview that is anti-Christian, and confuses virtue and vice. A book that would be an excellent choice would be timeless, transcending the current culture and politics. It would allow for discussion of authentic truth within a Catholic worldview. It would be a well-crafted book, prompting strong intellectual engagement among the students. 

Our standards are designed to help Catholic educators select books that assist them in teaching a Catholic worldview. As the culture becomes increasingly anti-Christian, educators will face novel challenges designed to derail the authentic transmission of the Catholic faith. The choice of good literature can help offset this assault because it exposes students to good and evil, vice and virtue, escorted by great Catholic educators who incorporate enduring literature into their curriculums and libraries.


Reviving the Lost Art of Reading in Catholic Homes

My family has always had an assortment of books around the house for our children, and now for our grandchildren as well. Fond memories recur when I hear the grandchildren squeal with delight, as they explore the vast new worlds opening before them.

Inspired by his fourth-grade cousin, the rising first-grader reads anything within reach, especially “chapter books” and stories of saints. His parents patiently clarify the words that are not yet within his vocabulary.

His younger sister is exuberant when she realizes she can form letters into words, and words into sentences. Curious George is one of her bedtime favorites.

The vast new world, contained between the covers of a book, stimulates the imagination of these young readers as they are drawn more deeply to seek the truth, beauty, and goodness of the world in which they live.

Unfortunately, this joy of reading is absent from many homes today. Jean Twenge, an academic psychologist who studies the iPhone generation (iGens), recently told the Wall Street Journal that, “The percentage of high-school students who read books or other long-form content every day has dropped from 60 percent to 15 percent since the 1980s.” This is attributed to “short attention spans,” given today’s emphasis on social media and general internet surfing.

Continue reading at The Catholic World Report…