One-in Five Catholic School Students are Non-Catholic

A recent Heartland Institute report detailed the increasing portion of non-Catholic students attending U.S. Catholic schools, but a Cardinal Newman Society expert says that’s just fine—as long as the schools never compromise their Catholic identity and keep their focus on evangelization.

The report offered as an example the Archdiocese of St. Louis, Mo. Over the past decade, the percentage of Catholics in the archdiocese’s Catholic schools has declined steadily, while the portion of non-Catholic students increased 23 percent.

Nationally “between 18 and 19 percent [of students in Catholic schools] are non-Catholic,” said Heather Gossart, senior consultant and director of executive mentoring and coaching at the National Catholic Educational Association, to the Heartland Institute. She said the percentages of non-Catholics are as high as “70-80 percent” in inner-city schools, a dramatic increase from less than 3 percent in 1970.

Dr. Dan Guernsey, Director of K–12 Programs for The Cardinal Newman Society, told the Heartland Institute that this trend is not necessarily a bad thing. What Catholic schools offer can benefit everyone.

“It’s good for the students, and it’s good for the world; and if it’s good for the students and good for the world, it’s good for the Church,” Guernsey explained.

He praised the methods of one school, Most Holy Trinity Catholic School and Academy in St. Louis’ Hyde Park neighborhood. By focusing its efforts on what the St. Louis Post-Dispatch described as the “largely low-income, African-American and non-Catholic population in the surrounding, impoverished neighborhood,” the school has done important work with just one Catholic student.

“Anywhere we see at-risk students thriving, it’s good,” Guernsey told the Heartland Institute. “That is a very rewarding and important activity, and that needs to be encouraged and expanded.”

However, it is vital for Catholic schools to maintain the primary mission of their Catholic identity when they reach out to non-Catholic students.

“[We need] to keep the focus on why we [open] Catholic schools in the first place,” Guernsey said. “There are two reasons: for the particular good of the student and for the common good. The primary reason we operate the school is the primary good of that student; that is, his or her salvation.”

“We don’t open up schools because public schools are bad or there are no other good schools in the area; it’s for the evangelical purpose,” he continued. “Any time we have a human being flourish, that’s a good thing. We are so good at doing both that some people just focus on the second aspect of preparing students for college or the job market or helping at-risk students.”

That can lead to mission failure, said Guernsey.

“Often, Catholic schools will down-sell their Catholic identity so as not to have customers go away,” he said. “I want to make sure that we’re big enough and bold enough in our service to at-risk students, particularly when we focus on job prep, so we don’t lose sight of the scope of our vision.”

Even as the population of Catholic schools changes, one thing must stay constant: Catholic schools must be rooted faithfully in the teachings of the Catholic Church and the person of Jesus Christ.

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